At each new war waged by the West, certain leftist or pacifist movements fall back on a “neither-nor” position. “Neither Milosevic nor NATO”, “Neither Bush nor Saddam”, and, now, rejecting both Israel and Hamas in the same breath.
In all these cases, there is a triple problem.
- We ignore the difference in the relationship of forces.
- The aggressor and the aggressed are treated in the same way.
- And, worst of all, we act as though we were outsiders, above it all, whereas our governments are obviously not.
In the case of the Gaza conflict, the main version of neither-nor is to condemn in the same breath the Hamas rockets and Israel’s response, sometimes described as disproportionate. The very word “disproportionate” is in this case absurdly disproportionate compared to the disparity of forces involved. On the one hand, there is an ultra-sophisticated national army, navy and air force. When that force attacks, it does so to destroy infrastructures and terrorize an entire region by demonstrating its military superiority. On the other side, there are a few home-made missiles lobbed toward Israel, not in the hope of winning a battle, but rather to give a desperate sign that a dispossessed, enclosed and forgotten people are still alive. The rocket launchings being nothing but a means of rattling the bars of a prison, the aggressor is basically the power that has unjustly imprisoned an entire people, depriving them for decades of other means to make their existence known. The people who fire rockets at Israel are sometimes the descendants of people who were driven from their homeland in 1948. The rockets are an echo of that sixty-year-old dispossession. So long as this fact is not fully recognized, and it almost never is in the West, it is impossible to have a realistic vision of the depth of the problem.
In reality, the basic problem stems from the principles on which Israel was founded, that is, that it is legitimate for certain persons, by virtue of a property acquired at birth (to be “Jewish”) to occupy the land of other persons on whom the accident of birth failed to confer that property. Invoking the Bible or the holocaust as justification for that occupation changes nothing as to its intrinsically racist character, that is, the fact that it is based on a crucial distinction between individuals solely related to their birth.
This racist aspect is clear to the victims and to all those who identify with them, especially the populations of the Arab-Muslim world and parts of the Third World, to whom the Zionist project recalls previous painful experiences of European colonialism. But it is almost never acknowledged in the debate in the West. It must be stressed that this is not a matter of “ordinary” racism, of the attitudes that are unfortunately held by many individuals – a subjective and largely passive racism, regrettable but with limited consequences. Here it is a matter of an institutionalized racism, enforced by the structures of the State. Now, it is usually such State racism that is considered in our Western democracies to be an attribute of the “extreme right”, and that is denounced as “incompatible with our values”, “contrary to modernity and the Enlightenment”, and so on. This is the racism that led to a general condemnation of Apartheid in the Republic of South Africa and its ruling ideology. The only exception is Zionism, even though it is an ideology that legitimatizes an institutionalized racism. Oddly enough, it is often the Western left that, while being most ready to condemn state racism in general, is most apt to make an exception for the “Jewish state”.
The whole Western discussion of the conflict is indirectly contaminated by this underlying racist vision.
- All parties and all “respectable” intellectuals or commentators, in order to gain access to the debate, must start by affirming “Israel’s right to exist”. But “Palestine’s right to exist” is scarcely ever mentioned. A Palestinian state, if ever it exists, will result not from a “right”, but from a negotiation, and only from a negotiation for which the Palestinians can provide the Israelis with “a responsible partner”, that is, one that recognizes as a precondition its adversary’s right to exist, without reciprocity.
- Any individual of Jewish origin has the right to settle in Israel, receiving immediately full citizen’s right and financial support, but the non-Jews who were chased away in 1948 or afterwards, or their descendants, cannot return. Even within Palestine, their movements from one place to another are severely limited.
- Hamas and Hezbollah must be prevented from rearming, while Israel can receive from the United States, even as a gift, all the arms it wants.
Israel is constantly celebrated as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, but the free elections of the Palestinians are considered invalid.
- The Palestinians must “renounce violence”. Not Israel.
- Iran must not possess nuclear weapons. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is not challenged.
All these double standards rest finally on the idea that the initial colonization enterprise was legitimate, or else that it happened long ago and is not worth talking about. But both those attitudes deny the full humanity of the victims, which brings us back to the issue of racism. Just imagine the European reaction if the State of Israel had been establish in part of the Netherlands or the French Riviera, while driving out the people already living there.
The dominant discourse employs double standards at every level, for instance when all the French political leaders repeat that we must not “import the Middle East conflict” into France. And yet, what is it when virtually the entire French political class is willing to listen humbly to lectures as to what to think about Israel at the annual dinner of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF)? Isn’t the president of CRIF, who claims that “95 percent of French Jews” support the Israeli assault on Gaza, unilaterally importing the Middle East conflict to France?
There is a double standard in the way the far right is stigmatized. Usually, the target is the traditional French far right, or, more recently, Islamist fundamentalists. But never Zionism. Indeed, a large part of the political and intellectual left adopts an implicitly racist position regarding Palestine which would be considered “far right” if it concerned South Africa under Apartheid.
The left is ever ready to mount on its high horse against a French far right which is, no doubt, unlikeable, but weak and marginal (which makes attacking it easy). But it remains, at best, passive in the face of another far right (Zionism) which enjoys the military and diplomatic support of the world’s most powerful democracy.
One way of trying to silence protests against Israeli policy is to denounce expressions of anti-Semitism in demonstrations, as well as the comparison of Israel with Nazism. Of course that comparison is excessive, but almost everyone commits that sort of excess, all the time. In May ’68, the students called the CRS police “SS”, although no one was killed by them. What about comparisons of Milosevic or Nasser in his day with Hitler? Why can Israel’s supporters constantly identify Hamas or Iran with Hitler, but it is not allowed to turn the tables? One may answer that this is because of what the Jews suffered from the Nazis. But such considerations of sensibility have never prevented the “Nazi” comparison from being hurled at the Soviets or the Serbs, who also suffered from the Nazis during World War II. Less than the Jews no doubt, but at which level of suffering do such excesses become unacceptable? More fundamentally, once the Nazification of the adversary has become the main ideological weapon wielded by the West and Israel, it is inevitable that it will be turned against them when the occasion arises.
As for anti-Semitism, it must not be forgotten that Israeli policy is carried out by a State that calls itself Jewish, and is strongly supported by organizations that claim to represent Jews (correctly or incorrectly). It is unavoidable, in such a context, that some people who have nothing to do with historic anti-Semitism will identify Jews with Israel and express hostility to Jews. This is regrettable but no more surprising than the fact that partisans of Israel speak in derogatory terms of “Arabs”. During World War II, most people in occupied countries were anti-German, and not merely anti-Nazi. Probably only the most politically conscious made the distinction. During the Vietnam war, protesters often were anti-American and not merely opposed to US government policy (and it is the same today regarding US policy in the Middle East). Hatred is a product of war, and affects people who in peacetime can condemn racism and respect human rights. Since the Middle East conflict has already long since been imported in the media and in politics, in France an ideological war is underway. This creates foreseeable effects, which are deplored as though they were somehow unrelated.
It is not reasonable to expect those who are against Israel to constantly make a scrupulous distinction between Jews and Zionists when the dominant discourse maintains the identification (especially when it makes it possible to present Israel as the eternal “victim”).
Besides, what does one expect of a population which is constantly demonized, ridiculed, insulted, because, being Muslim, it supposedly understands nothing about democracy, human right, women’s right, and is guilty of “communitarianism” when it displays its religious convictions? Is it not natural that it reacts with virulence (verbally at least) in the face of the Gaza massacres?
What precedes is not a “justification of anti-Semitism” but a banal observation about an unpleasant but universal aspect of human psychology. One may add that all the denunciations and condemnations of anti-Semitism which do not take into account the context in which it develops are useless or counter-productive, like most moralizing speeches.
The situation here in France and Belgium is almost as inextricable as in Palestine itself. It is unfortunately true that anti-Semitism is growing, as is the ethnic community identification on all sides. We are unable to solve the situation in the Middle East, but we could at least start by recognizing the real nature of the problem (institutional racism) and change radically the way we talk about it. There should also be an end to intimidations and trials (for thought crimes) so that everyone can say what they really think about Israel and its supporters, and put both sides on an equal footing in debates concerning Zionism. It is also high time that French and European policy be decided independently of the influence of pressure groups. Only then can one hope to carry on the debate free of ethnic community passions and reduce anti-Semitism.
February 8, 2009.
Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, is published by Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text translated from the French by Diana Johnstone (February 12, 2009):
A French version of this text is available on (February 8, 2009):