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In These Times
August 30, 2006

Let's Be Realists, Let's Demand the Impossible!
Why Pragmatic Politics are Doomed to Fail in the Middle East
By Slavoj Zizek

One of the most repulsive moments of the present Middle East conflict occurred after one of Hezbollah's rockets killed two Israeli-Arab children: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pointedly apologized only for these deaths, thus making it clear that there is nothing to regret in the deaths of Israeli civilians. Doesn't this make clear the ethical difference between Hezbollah and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), which always regret civilian casualties among the Lebanese, perceiving them as a necessary evil?

However, upon a closer look, this clear opposition gets blurred. The IDF always emphasize how Hezbollah locates its headquarters and arms in the midst of densely populated areas, well aware that any attack on Hezbollah strongholds will thus lead to large numbers of innocent civilian casualties. While certainly true to some extent, the problem is: Why does Israel, fully aware of these tactics, still bomb the sites? The obvious answer is that it believes the deaths of innocents are worth the price of hurting Hezbollah.

Let's try a mental experiment and imagine that, instead of Lebanese women and children, the human shields used by Hezbollah were Israeli women and children. Would the IDF still consider the price affordable and continue the bombing? If the answer is "no," then the IDF is effectively practicing racism, determining that Jewish life has more value than Arab life. No wonder that, in order to defend the IDF's tactics, Alan Dershowitz recently introduced in the Los Angeles Times a gradation between civilians, distinguishing between the "totally innocent" Israeli civilians threatened by the Hezbollah rockets and the not-so-innocent Lebanese civilians.

A couple of years ago on a private Slovene TV station, there was a mistranslation of Harrison Ford's words in Clear and Present Danger: "I thought it would be a surgical strike!" became, in Slovene subtitles, "I thought surgeons would be on strike!" But as the IDF proudly emphasize that their bombing of Lebanon involves only precise surgical strikes-well, obviously, their surgeons are on strike, as the world is bombarded with images of dead Lebanese women and children. The result is catastrophic for Israel's international image, raising the hatred of Israel to new levels. The problem courted by Israel in its continuous display of power is that this display will be soon perceived as a sign of its opposite, of impotence. This paradox of power is known to anyone who has had to play the role of paternal authority: In order to retain its force, power has to remain virtual, a threat of power.

Many political theorists, from Blaise Pascal to Immanuel Kant to Joseph de Maistre, have elaborated on the ways in which nation-states have manufactured heroic national mythologies to replace and ultimately erase their "foundational crimes," i.e. the illegitimate political violence necessary for their creation. With regard to this notion, it is true what has often been said: The misfortune of Israel is that it was established as a nation-state a century too late, in conditions when such "founding crimes" are no longer acceptable (and-ultimate irony-it was the intellectual influence of Jews that contributed to the rise of this unacceptability!).

Why are we more "sensitive" about this violence today? Precisely because, in our global universe that legitimizes itself with morality, sovereign states are no longer exempted from moral judgments, but treated as moral agents to be punished for their crimes, thus severely restraining their sovereignty. (Of course, as the U.S. resistance to the Hague court exemplifies, the problems of who will exert this justice and how the judge himself will be judged remain.)

The Middle East conflict confronts us with the fragility of the border that separates "illegitimate" non-state power from the "legitimate" state power, since, in the case of Israel, its "illegitimate" origins are not yet obliterated, their effects are fully felt today. When Western observers wonder why Palestinians insist in their stubborn attachment to their land, they demand of Palestinians precisely to ignore the Israeli "illegitimate" state-founding violence. This is why, in a display of poetic justice, Israel is getting back from the Palestinians its own message in its inverted (true) form-and not only in regard to the "pathologically" strong attachment to land. Imagine reading the following statement in today's media:

Our enemies called us terrorists ... People who were neither friends nor enemies ... also used this Latin name. ... And yet, we were not terrorists. ... The historical and linguistic origins of the political term 'terror' prove that it cannot be applied to a revolutionary war of liberation. ... Fighters for freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed overnight. ... What has a struggle for the dignity of man, against oppression and subjugation, to do with 'terrorism?'

One would automatically attribute it to an Islamic terrorist group and condemn it. The author, however, is none other than Menachem Begin, in the years when Hagannah was fighting the British forces in Palestine. It is interesting to note how, in the years of the Jewish struggle against the British military in Palestine, the very term "terrorist" had a positive connotation. Today, amid Dershowitz's acrobatic rationalizations, it is almost heartening to look back at the first generation of Israeli leaders, who openly confessed that their claims to the land of Palestine cannot be grounded in universal justice, that we are dealing with a simple war of conquest between two groups where no mediation is possible. Here is what David Ben-Gurion wrote:

Everyone can see the weight of the problems in the relations between Arabs and Jews. But no one sees that there is no solution to these problems. There is no solution! Here is an abyss, and nothing can link its two sides ... We as a people want this land to be ours; the Arabs as a people want this land to be theirs.

The problem with this statement today is clear: Exempting such ethnic conflicts for land from moral considerations is simply no longer acceptable. This is why the way Simon Wiesenthal approached this problem in Justice, not Vengeance appears today deeply problematic:

One should finally take cognizance of the fact that one cannot found a state without curtailing the rights of those who were already settled at this territory. One should be satisfied with the fact that the violations were limited in that a relatively small number of people was hurt. This is how it was when the state of Israel was founded. Eventually the Jewish population lived there for a long time, while the Palestinians were, in comparison with the Jewish one, sparsely settled and had great opportunities to withdraw. That is to say, the continually victorious state of Israel cannot forever rely on the sympathies that the world accords to victims.

What Wiesenthal is advocating here is nothing else than "state-founding violence with a human face," with "limited violations." (As to the comparative sparsity of settlers, the population of the Palestinian territory in 1880 was 24,000 Jews versus 300,000 Palestinians.) However, the truly interesting part of this passage is the last sentence: Its only consistent reading is that now that Israel is "continually victorious," it no longer needs to behave like a victim, but can fully assert its force-true, insofar as one doesn't forget to add that this power also involves new responsibilities. That is to say, the problem is that Israel, while "continually victorious," still relies on the image of Jews as victims to legitimize its power politics (and to denounce its critics as closet anti-Semites).

Arthur Koestler, the great anti-Communist convert proposed a profound insight: "If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways." Cécile Winter recently proposed along these lines a nice mental experiment: Imagine the state of Israel, as it has developed over the last half century, without the history of Jewish suffering as a rationale for its policies. It would be a standard story of colonization. So why should we, as Alain Badiou proposes, abstract the Holocaust from our judgments about Israel's actions toward Palestinians? Not because one can compare the two, but precisely because the Holocaust was an incomparably worse crime. It is those who evoke the Holocaust who effectively manipulate it, making it an instrument for today's political uses. The very need to evoke the Holocaust in defense of Israel's actions implies that its crimes are so horrible that only the absolute trump-card of the Holocaust can redeem them.

Recall the joke evoked by Freud in order to render the strange logic of dreams: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments confirms what it hopes to deny-that I returned to you a broken kettle. Doesn't the same inconsistency characterize the way radical Islamists respond to the Holocaust? (1) The Holocaust did not happen. (2) It did happen, but the Jews deserved it. (3) The Jews did not deserve it, but they themselves lost the right to complain by doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to them. These conflicting positions are reflected in the views of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently questioned the historical reality of the Holocaust while implying that guilt for complicity in the Nazi genocide had led European countries to support Israel:

Some European countries insist on saying that Hitler killed millions of innocent Jews in furnaces, and they insist on it to the extent that if anyone proves something contrary to that, they condemn that person and throw them in jail. ... Although we don't accept this claim, if we suppose it is true, our question for the Europeans is: Is the killing of innocent Jewish people by Hitler the reason for their support to the occupiers of Jerusalem? ... If the Europeans are honest they should give some of their provinces in Europe, like in Germany, Austria or other countries, to the Zionists, and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe, and we will support it.

This statement mixes the most disgusting insinuations with a correct insight. The disgusting part is, of course, Holocaust denial or, even more disgusting, the claim that Jews deserved it ("we don't accept this claim": Which one? That Hitler killed million of Jews or that the Jews were innocent and did not deserve to be killed?). What is correct, though, is the reminder of European hypocrisy: Europe effectively paid for its own guilt with another people's land. So when Ariel Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin said in response, "Just to remind Mr. Ahmadinejad, we've been here long before his ancestors were here. Therefore, we have a birthright to be here in the land of our forefathers and to live here," he evoked a historical right, which, if applied universally, would lead to wholesale slaughter. That is to say, can one imagine a world in which ethnic groups would constantly "remind" their neighbors that "we've been here before you" (even if this means more than a thousand years ago), and use this fact to justify seizing their neighbor's land?

The big mystery apropos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is: Why does it persist for so long when everybody knows the only viable solution?-the withdrawal of the Israelis from the West Bank and Gaza, the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as some kind of a compromise concerning Jerusalem. There is effectively something of a neurotic symptom in the Middle East conflict-everyone sees the way to get rid of the obstacle, and yet, nonetheless, no one wants to remove it, as if there is some kind of pathological libidinal profit gained by persisting in the deadlock.

This is why the Middle East crisis is such a sensitive point for the pragmatic politics that aims to gradually resolve problems in a realistic mode. In this case, the true utopia is precisely that such a "realistic" approach will never work: The only "realistic" solution is the "big" one, to solve the problem at its roots. Here, then, the old motto from 1968 applies: Soyons réalistes, demandons l'impossible! Only a radical gesture that has to appear "impossible" within the existing coordinates will realistically do the job. So, perhaps, the solution "everybody knows" as the only viable one-the withdrawal of the Israelis, the establishment of a Palestinian state, etc.-nonetheless will not do, and one has to change the entire frame and propose a one-state-solution where everyone has equal rights.

In the last days of July, President Bush himself admitted the need for a more substantial approach, claiming that all the partial truces and agreements didn't work because they ignored the true cause of the troubles-which for him, of course, is the terrorist states and organizations trying to halt the progress of democracy, not the Palestinian problem. Until now, the United States vehemently rejected the leftist mantra that "we should fight not only terrorism, but also its deeper causes," dismissing it as the same "soft" attitude as the liberal reminder that one should fight not only crime but also its deeper social causes. Now, all of a sudden, Bush adopted the language of the "war on causes," rejecting an immediate ceasefire and advocating a solution that would bring a just and lasting peace-to which one should reply: OK, but shouldn't we go to the end here and address the true problem, the Israeli occupation?

The underlying problem is that not only do Arabs refuse to accept the existence of Israel-Israelis themselves also do not accept the Palestinian presence on the West Bank. Recall, again, Bertolt Brecht's pun apropos of the East Berlin workers' uprising in July 1953: "The Party is not satisfied with its people, so it will replace them with a new people more supportive of its politics." Is not something homologous discernible today in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians? The Israeli state is not satisfied with the people on the West Bank and in Gaza, so it considers the option of replacing them with another people. That, precisely, some among the Jews, the exemplary victims, are now considering a radical "ethnic cleansing" (the "transfer"-a perfect Orwellian misnomer-of the Palestinians from the West Bank) is the ultimate paradox demanding closer consideration.

If ever there was a passionate attachment to the lost object, a refusal to come to terms with its loss, it is the Jewish attachment to their land and Jerusalem. And aren't the present troubles the supreme proof of the catastrophic consequences of such a radical fidelity, when it is taken literally? In the last 2,000 years, when Jews were fundamentally a nation without land, living permanently in exile, their reference to Jerusalem was, at root, a prohibition against "painting an image of home," against feeling at home anywhere on earth. However, with the process of returning to Palestine, the metaphysical Other Place was directly identified with a determinate place on earth. When Jews lost their land and elevated it into the mythical lost object, "Jerusalem" became much more than a piece of land: It became a metaphor for the coming of the Messiah, for a metaphysical home, for the end of the wandering which characterizes human existence. The phenomenon is well-known: After an object is lost, it turns into a stand-in for much more, for all that we miss in our terrestrial lives. When a 1,000-year-old dream is finally close to realization, such a realization HAS to turn into a nightmare.

So what would be the truly radical ethico-political act today in the Middle East? For both Israelis and Arabs, it would be to renounce the (political) control of Jerusalem-that is, to endorse the transformation of the Old Town of Jerusalem into an extra-state place of religious worship controlled (temporarily) by some neutral international force. What both sides should accept is that, by renouncing the political control of Jerusalem, they are effectively renouncing nothing-they are gaining the elevation of Jerusalem into a genuinely sacred site. What they would lose is only what already deserves to be lost: the reduction of religion to a stake in political power plays.