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Palestine, Palestinians and the Western Liberal’s Burden

He alone knows everything about everything, including what’s best for Palestine. Palestinians can therefore refuse to heed him only at their own peril.
A man carrying the 4-year-old child whose death was in question. Photo: X/@Timesofgaza

The American comedian Jeremy McLellan’s tone is clipped and cheery as he presents his brief recent video, titled ’10 Ways to Support Israel‘. A couple of minutes into the presentation, the melancholy figure of a little child, alone and listless, floats briefly into view at a corner of the picture frame. Just then McLellan was expatiating on how, if the average American volunteered to pay a little extra by way of income tax, they could give Israel’s cause a big leg up. ‘Look at this child,” he says. “For the cost of a cup of coffee a day,” he goes on, “you can kill him.” The word Palestine is never mentioned, but you are left in no doubt that the poor kid could only have come from Gaza.

Jeremy McLellan is turning his satirist’s licence to brilliant use here to nudge his audience to open their eyes, to not turn their backs on what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank right now. Someone has described what’s happening there as “this brutal, awful, agonising dead end of destruction.” He has also called the Gaza Strip “a graveyard for children.” That someone is no fire-eating Palestinian radical. He is Antonio Guterres, the sedate, middle-of-the-road European social democrat who heads the UN as its Secretary-General. He knows what he is talking about: up until November 6, 89 people working with UNRWA, the UN refugee agency, had been killed in Gaza, the highest toll for UN aid workers anywhere in the world, higher “than in any comparable period in the history of our organisation”.

As of November 9, that toll stands at 101.

Hospitals, schools, ambulances, even refugee camps – not to speak of people’s homes and market places – are fair game for Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, because even though the evil Hamas is holed up everywhere, cancer wards in hospitals and nursery schools and moving ambulances are believed to be their favourite haunt. At last count, the civilian death count in Gaza was 11,000, including 4,300 children. That count, though, has not been updated in two days.

At any rate, how can you keep a meticulous count of the dead when you need more body bags than wholesalers can procure for you? Besides, however hard you try to count accurately, the most powerful man in the world’s most powerful country will likely remain unconvinced. Isn’t he already on record that he doesn’t trust the casualty numbers coming out of Gaza? That the count looks overstated to him? Let’s then freeze the count for his benefit at, say, a thousand or thereabouts. That number, inasmuch as it is lower than the Israeli dead on October 7 when Hamas launched its humongous missile attack on southern Israel, will hopefully look credible to Joseph Biden.

A building in Gaza after Israel launch airstrikes following Hamas’s surprise attack. Photo: X/@UNRWA

Searching for survivors in Rafah

But, to give credit where it is due, Joe Biden is a fair-minded liberal. Recall how, some days back, he confessed to being a Zionist even though he was not born Jewish. Quite admirably, he even claims he has begun counselling Israel to pepper Gaza with somewhat smaller, a little less potent bombs and missiles – how very thoughtful of him – though there’s no question that a ceasefire is off the table. He has proposed $14.3 billion in fresh military aid to Israel, too, presumably to ensure that only his government – and not some other country keen to fish in muddied waters – gets to supply all those less-than-lethal weapons.

Biden is not alone in doing the heroic things he is doing. Olaf Scholtz, the socialist German chancellor, has outlawed public demonstrations in support of Palestine in his country because permitting pro-Palestine marches would be anti-Semitic. Keir Starmer, leader of the British Labour Party, couldn’t agree more. For Starmer, all talk of a ceasefire in Gaza is pure sacrilege. (Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer’s predecessor, had lost his leadership position precisely because he had committed a grievous error: he used to believe one could question the state of Israel and yet be a liberal.)

One can be reasonably certain that had the great (Jewish-born) historian Eric Hobsbawm been around today, he would have been pilloried as a vile anti-Semite: aside from referring to Tony Blair, Keir Starmer’s moral-intellectual progenitor, as ‘’(Margaret) Thatcher in trousers,” he never managed to find flattering things to say about Israel.

But we are concerned here not with heretics like Hobsbawm but true-blue liberals like Biden and Starmer and Scholtz. The liberal dilemma over Palestine inheres in a shocked surprise that Palestinians fail to grasp a truism: that it’s the Western liberal who knows best what’s best for Palestine. This dilemma was brought home to me with startling clarity a few days ago by a video featuring a conversation between the Egyptian-American comedian Bassem Youssef and the British TV talk-show host Piers Morgan around the ongoing Gaza war. This conversation really  followed upon an earlier TV programme where Morgan in London spoke with Youssef in Los Angeles about the crisis in Gaza.

During the course of that interview, Youssef had spoken witheringly about the West’s studied ambivalence on the Palestine question, ambivalence that was often indistinguishable from moral equivocation. The great Western democracies, he implied, were unwilling or unable, or both, to comprehend the horrendous inequities Palestinians were obliged to suffer daily at Israel’s hands.

Morgan, on the other hand, clearly felt frustrated by his inability to draw Youssef into an excoriation of what Hamas stood for. Perplexed by Youssef’s apparent intransigence, Morgan flew all the way to LA a few days later and buttonholed the comedian for a lengthy chat which was broadcast live on TV.

Children in Gaza when their world comes crashing down. Photo: Mohammad Ajjour/UNICEF

Also read: Israel’s War on Gaza Affirms the Collapse of Liberal World Order

This time, Youssef’s tone was much less bitter or grim. He spent time explaining to Morgan how men like him disapproved of anti-Semitism quite as much as they hated aggressive Zionist rhetoric. He presented a neat and uncluttered account of how Israel came into being in 1948, of the many contradictions implicit in trying to create a new nation-state on land inhabited for many centuries by other nationals. He provided a bird’s-eye view of what Israel needed to do to be at peace with the Palestinians and explained how the Israeli state, barring brief interludes of political and intellectual sanity, had always militated against that peace.

He admitted that he found Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israeli civilians positively distasteful, even abhorrent, but reminded Morgan that Hamas’s militancy had grown out of a reaction to Israel’s systematic and brutal repression of the Palestinians. Piers Morgan, however, kept coming back to the same question: did Youssef concede that, after 7 October, Israel was wholly justified in doing what it was now doing, namely, mounting on Gaza an all-out war the human costs of which were perhaps –unfortunately – quite heavy, but yet unavoidable?  Youssef, it seemed to me, was incredulous that Morgan could persist in hoping that he would agree with what Morgan believed was a moral imperative, as though the Hamas offensive had no context to it, no link to the Palestinian past.

So, the conversation eventually ended in an essentially fatuous exchange of pleasantries, with precious little achieved by way of a shared understanding of the contours of a great tragedy.

Let me clarify that Piers Morgan is no faux liberal. He had actively campaigned against his home country’s involvement in George Bush’s Iraq war. At times he has also criticised Israel’s human rights record. And yet it seemed axiomatic to him that, since Israel had the right to defend itself, no escalation of the Gaza crisis post October 7 could be reasonably faulted. If that act of self-defence entailed the bombing of medical ambulances and refugee camps – well, that’s tragic but not wrong. And since Hamas was in the wrong here, it must have been so ab initio.

The Western liberal understanding of the Palestinian imbroglio is shaped by this arrogant, if subliminal, refusal to get down to brass tacks. I suspect that, at least in part, an essentially racist smugness informs such a perspective, even though most self-respecting liberals will obviously cringe at such a suggestion. Only a deep-running sense of racial superiority can perhaps explain the extraordinary moral imperviousness that’s on display in the higher rungs of the political and academic institutions of the great Western democracies today.            

Palestinians inspect the ruins of a building destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis. Photo: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported.

In fairness, there’s another strand in the liberal response: the burden of guilt and shame pressing down on three generations of European liberals thanks to the memory of Europe’s betrayal of its Jews leading to the Holocaust. That sense of shame perhaps found a vicarious egress in the somewhat gratuitous references to the Holocaust in the course of the past month strewn across Western leaders’ statements. “The fiercest attacks on the Jews since the Holocaust” was one common refrain.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that some of the most cogent assessments of the Palestine problem and of the power asymmetries running across and under it come from the pens and the voices of non-Zionist Jewish intellectuals and activists who do not share in this sense of guilt and shame. Let’s listen to Avraham Burg, once a central figure in the Zionist movement and the former president of the Israeli parliament:

The Zionist revolution rested on two pillars: the thirst for justice and the respect for civic morality. Both have disappeared. The Israeli nation today is no longer anything but a shapeless mass of corruption, of oppression, and of injustice. The end of the Zionist adventure is already knocking at our door…… There will remain a jewish State – an unrecognisable, detestable State. After our two thousand years of fighting for survival, our reality is a colonialist State under the yoke of a corrupt clique, a State that makes mockery of legality and of civic morality. [Excerpted from Michel Warschawski’s book Toward an Open Tomb]

The  Israeli journalist-activist Michel Warschawski puts his finger on Israel’s ‘Palestine problem” when he observes:

In the process of Israeli settlement, Palestinians are demoted from the status of community to (an) environmental problem, which has to be moved or cleaned up as the needs of the occupation army or the whirlwind settlement program require…..Since the beginning of 2001, the entire Palestinian population has been shut up in zones and micro-zones, without being able to move normally from one zone to the next. The lockdown instituted at the start of the peace processhas been transformed into the encirclement of about a hundred towns and villages… [Excerpted from Michel Warschawski’s book Toward an Open Tomb, chapter 2, titled ‘A Double Dehumanization’]

Elsewhere, in the same vein, Warschawski is even  more forthright:

Surrender or get out: this is the choice that the Israeli political-military class, for whom violence has become its only political instrument, offers the Palestinians. [Excerpted from Michel Warschawski’s book Toward an Open Tomb, chapter 3, ‘The New Face of Racism’]

Both Burg and Warschawski are witness to Israel’s current 21st century avatar and so are in a position to comment on the contemporary situation there. But as far back as in 1958 – when Israel was celebrating its 10th birthday – the great Jewish-born Marxist intellectual Isaac Deutscher wrote presciently about what was to transpire decades later:

…at its very birth Israel could not help trespassing upon the rights of the Arabs. But in its own interest Israel could and should have done everything in its power to assuage Arab grievance and mitigate the antagonism. Instead, Israel has done nearly everything to exacerbate and perpetuate the antagonism….  In the balance sheet of Israels first decade this is a grave liability which may in time outweigh many impressive assets. In the long run, Israel cannot survive on the borders of Asia and Africa in conflict with Asia and Africa. Israel has become the haven of refuge for the survivors of European Jewry. Let it not become a death-trap for them! [Excerpted from Deutshcher’s book The Non-Jewish Jew and other essays, chapter 6, titled ‘Israel’s Tenth Birthday’]

For the Western liberal, the first lesson he can learn in trying to be true to his liberalism is to acknowledge that calling out the rogue Israeli State in the 21st century is not to be a Holocaust denier. Equally, invoking the Holocaust now and then, because it seems to be good manners, can only trivialise it.

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com

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