In response to the destruction of Gaza, it seems to be becoming almost impossible to lament more than one people at a time. When I signed Artists for Palestine’s statement last month, I looked for mention of the atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli Jews on 7 October, and then decided to settle for the unambiguous condemnation of ‘every act of violence against civilians and every infringement of international law whoever perpetrates them’. At Independent Jewish Voices, the network of UK dissident Jews, of which I was one of the founding signatories in 2007, we opened our statement on the disaster being inflicted on Gaza by specifically mentioning the assault by Hamas. But why, I find myself asking, does it seem to be so hard for those who deplore the Israeli invasion of Gaza to mention Hamas by name or show any sympathy for the anguish of its victims? Why should grief for the death of Israeli Jews be seen to undermine the argument that the longstanding and increasingly wretched oppression of the Palestinian people is the key factor behind what unfolded, so brutally and inexcusably, on that day? And why is any attempt to understand the history of Hamas as part of an insurgency and resistance movement against occupation so easily characterised as dispensing with moral judgment? When António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, suggested that the events of 7 October needed to be placed against their historical and political backdrop, he was immediately accused of fuelling antisemitism across the world. A mere whiff of understanding, and he was condemned.
There have been other exceptions (at PalFest in London last month, Ahdaf Soueif opened with a one-minute silence for ‘everyone, especially all the children who get killed in these moments of conflict’ and also referred to 7 October), but this is, I think, part of a pattern. For some time, certain ways of thought have been blocking our ability to think generatively about the situation in the Middle East. They all turn on the use of invidious comparisons to make a political case. The first is the comparison between levels of violence. According to this way of thinking, the violence perpetrated against Israeli Jews on 7 October and Israel’s mass bombardment of Gaza have to be weighed on the scale against each other. On the one hand, if Israel’s acts can be classified as genocide, whether by intention or in effect, then, it is argued, the violence committed by Hamas on Israeli Jews, however ghastly, pales in significance. On the other hand, if Hamas is intent on the destruction of Israel then the bombing of Gaza, in the eyes of the Israeli state, becomes a legitimate form of self-defence. In fact, Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’ has become a mantra for those wishing to justify the devastation of Gaza, which, by means of incarceration and siege, has long been proceeding apace (whether an occupier has any such unqualified right in relation to an occupied people is also a moot legal point). Among other bizarre outcomes, this self-defeating logic has led to endless quarrels about the numbers of the wounded and the dead, including attempts by Israel (and Joe Biden) to discredit the figures produced by the Gaza Health Ministry, which in the past have been deemed reliable by the UN. The Arab enemy cannot be trusted; they are all liars (a racist trope that regularly raises its head in discussions about the Middle East). Needless to say, there has been no such questioning of the casualty figures produced by Israel. In this form of calculation, numbers acquire a sacred authority, conferring the right to determine who can justly wield power over life and death, even though, as Naomi Klein has written, the suffering of a single wounded child on either side should, surely, be enough to make the case against the violence we are witnessing in and of itself.
Who suffers most? At moments over these past weeks, the struggle for a monopoly on suffering has usurped everything else. As many commentators have pointed out, more Jews were killed in a single day on 7 October than on any day since the Holocaust. But making this link risks turning the events of 7 October into a form of repetition. By association, every assault on the Jews becomes a holocaust, and the Jews revert to their condition as a stateless people. This is not entirely without reason: 7 October destroyed the myth that the Jews would only be safe inside the walls of a Jewish state. Nonetheless, we might ask, what is gained for the Jews – many of them citizens of a powerful military nation – in seeing themselves as the eternal victims of history? This is a point that has been repeatedly made, not just by Israel’s critics, or by those who refuse to take the measure of its dark pre-history, but, for decades past, by Israelis themselves. For the Israeli writer Shulamith Hareven in her 1986 article ‘Identity: Victim’, it was disastrous. All the creative moments of Jewish history, including its commitment to human righteousness and justice, were wiped out of Jewish collective memory in favour of a belligerence that allowed the Jews to dispossess the Palestinian people by claiming: ‘I am a victim, and they are not.’ ‘If my only identity is that of the victim,’ she writes, ‘I may (or so it seems) commit any atrocity.’ Instead, I suggest, if we loosen our grip on suffering, discard any claim to own it, then perhaps we can ask a different question: how much pain can anyone hold in their mind at once? Must my pain always be greater than yours for it to count?
A partial answer to my question might be found in an unlikely place. My final invidious comparison, which follows from the first two, turns not on the quantity of violence, but its origins in the nursery or playground, in the schoolboy claim that the other side – always and unfailingly – started it (which effectively turns all wars into wars of revenge and/or self-defence). Something truly disturbing is at work here, something that was central to the work of Leslie Sohn, chief psychiatrist at Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital throughout the second half of the 20th century. The key to all antisocial behaviour, he suggested to me in conversation, was perfectly illustrated by a little boy he once saw on the top deck of a bus who hit his baby brother on the head, and when told to stop by his mother, retorted – with no regard for truth – that his baby brother had started it. From playground to killing fields, violence always originates from somebody or somewhere else. ‘When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons,’ Golda Meir said, ‘but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.’ ‘Peace will come,’ she went on, ‘when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.’ The casual racism – love and hatred distributed so callously between the two peoples – is one thing; but it is the shedding of all responsibility for Israeli state violence by lodging it inside the hearts and minds of the enemy (‘You made me do it’) that I find most chilling.
How, then, to make a reckoning between the people whose most traumatic moment is the industrial genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and those for whom the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 in order to create the state of Israel is where the injustice begins? It is, of course, a false choice. ‘There is,’ Edward Said wrote, ‘suffering and injustice enough for everyone.’ He went on: ‘We cannot coexist as two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering.’ He was calling for mutual recognition after Oslo, whose failure he predicted. A new form of nationalism, ‘contrapuntal’ to use Said’s musical term, would avoid the trappings of flag-waving ethnic national identity by making room for the diverse peoples of the land. Speaking about his 2009 film about the Nakba, The Time that Remains, Elia Suleiman said his most fervent political wish was to see Palestinian self-determination and the raising of the Palestinian flag. But, as soon as he achieved that objective, with the freedom and dignity it would bring, his overriding desire would be to take the flag down.
The issues I have raised here bring us up against the psychic dimension of politics, the place in the mind where disavowal, the splitting of good and evil, the projection of unconscious guilt deep inside the enemy, first nurture themselves and then bear their bitter fruit. To put it another way, in order to exit this nightmare, we need, alongside the struggle for justice and as part of it, to bring psychoanalytic understanding to the negotiating table. One thing seems clear. None of this will just disappear if we ignore it. You cannot dream the unconscious away. In fact, there is a link between the birth of this conflict and the lifework of Sigmund Freud, where psychoanalysis begins. It is surely no coincidence that at the moment when nationalism and empire entrenched themselves across the world’s surface, enforcing and permitting forms of expansive, narcissistic confidence that would eventually destroy beyond repair the capacity of earth to survive, psychoanalysis, as a form of counter-speech, was laying bare the radical uncertainty and insecurity that, deep down, characterise every human subject’s relationship to themselves. In order to halt what feels like the unstoppable cruelty in which this conflict is caught, we need to resolve the ongoing injustice against the Palestinian people, while also attending to this inner psychic dimension. A new dispensation will involve loosening the knots of the mind in order to create a world in which everyone is granted a due portion.
Finally, many of us are relieved that the London Armistice Day demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza passed off without incident, despite the worst efforts of the now sacked home secretary, Suella Braverman (the only trouble came from the right). As I walked with the Jewish bloc, banners called for the release of the hostages and the cry ‘We are all Palestinians’ resonated. Perhaps one of the best places to look for an alternative to the deadly binaries I have charted here is on the streets.
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