A reply to Avishai Ehrlich's essay: Stop the War, January 2009 *
"There are neither good nor bad colonists: there are colonists. Some of
them reject their objective reality: carried along by the colonial
apparatus, they do each day, in deed, what they condemn in their
dreams, and each of their acts contribute to maintaining oppression."
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction to Albert Memmi's "The Colonizer and the Colonized" (1)
In a collection of essays, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (2), published for the first time in English in 2001, Jean-Paul Sartre deals with colonialism as a system of dominance and domination. He argues that, like Marx's proletariat, colonized people too carry inside of them the secret of the destruction of the system that oppresses them.(3) He argues, "when a people's only remaining option is in choosing how to die, when they have received from their oppressors only one gift - despair - what have they got to lose? Their misery will become their courage; they will turn the eternal rejection that colonization confronts them with into an absolute rejection of colonization." (4)
I'd like to compare Sartre's collection of essays, directed against the French colonialists in Algeria, with a article written in the face of the January 2009 Israeli siege on Gaza by an Israeli colonist in Palestine, Avishai Ehrlich. This article was published by Socialist Project (SP), a publication that I maintain friendly association with in Canada. I understand that this article was published because, even if the editors of SP do not wholeheartedly endorse it, they see some merit in it - perhaps because it was written by an Israeli colonist who has been active in the Peace movement in Israel for some decades. In general I agree with this approach, but I find no redeeming merits in this particular article. In my opinion, it stands in the Zionist camp that seeks to contain the Palestinian resistance and broker a "Peace" on terms of maintenance of the Zionist colonial project. It is important to recognize that SP regularly publishes a range of decidedly anti-Zionist articles about Palestine and about Israel - the article by Ehrlich stands out as an exception.
In the first paragraph Ehrlich establishes his political position: The current siege on Gaza is the fault the "cynicism of both leaderships". He argues "Had the two sides agreed to negotiate (...) the conflagration could have been avoided."
Ehrlich sidesteps the fundamental argument that underlies the Palestinian national liberation movement - that the "two sides" are fundamentally different in character, interests, and leadership. This is forgotten at our peril: Israel is the aggressor, colonizing power, and the Palestinians are the anti-colonial fighters.
Not only is there a profound imbalance in military force between Palestine and Israel, this military inequity is but a manifestation of a political, economic, social, and state inequality. The "leadership" of Israel is a powerful modern, late capitalist - that is, imperialist - nation state apparatus. It protects and seeks to further the interests of, first and foremost, the capitalist class in Israel.
Secondly, the existence and development of the Israeli state is a Zionist project - therefore also an ideological project. Woven through the class divisions in Israeli society is a necessary cross-class commitment to Zionist colonialism. Where the state opposes the interests of Israeli workers in all aspects where they relate to society as workers, it defends their interests as settlers - against the colonized Palestinians. And while Israeli workers share interests with Palestinians against the Israeli capitalist state, the Israeli settler (who shares a body with the worker but for their divided heart), joins in practice with the Israeli settler state against the Palestinian. Ehrlich demonstrates this division well.
In his essay, Colonialism is a System, Sartre points out "the colonialist is fabricated like the native; he is made by his function and his interests." (5) Ehrlich, in this introductory paragraph, is setting out to defend settler interests by erasing the historical and actual lived conditions of Palestinians (and Israelis) - setting up a universe that exists totally in the imagination of the settler.
Like it or not, Hamas is part of this system too but on the other side; the native is also created by their functions and interests in necessary opposition to the settler. For revolutionary activists Hamas should have an important distinction beyond "Islamists". They are the manifestation of the popular will of the Palestinians - indisputably so in Gaza. Theirs is the current organizational form of the Palestinian resistance. And what they lack in strong state administrative forms, they make up for in their grassroots connections to the people; for the Palestinian national movement is not of strict class character like the bourgeois state of Israel.
Ehrlich continues along the same lines by directly blaming Hamas for "sending increasing numbers of rockets into Israeli towns". How could they not expect such a response, he complains, "especially not after Lebanon in 2006"? From the perspective of a colon, the colonized should have learned their lesson from previous showings of the "terrible face of Israel" and given up their struggle.(6) The colons cry in Tel Aviv - Hamas cannot win! Why are they continuing to fight?! In the face of such insolence, Ehrlich believes, "the Israeli claim that no state would have tolerated [the Qasam attacks] is plausible."
Then, after a paragraph that both recognizes the terror being unleashed currently by Israel and conflates Israel with the Jews in the holocaust - another point that anti-Zionist Jews have fought against for decades - Ehrlich continues his complaints: about the "racism that singles out Israelis" amongst imperialist aggressors! His concern, while witnessing a mass worldwide movement against Israeli terror, is that this movement demonstrates, not a rise of anti-imperialist consciousness, but a rise of anti-Semitism... Like the Zionist Youth clubs on University campuses in Canada and around the world, Ehrlich equates criticism of Israel - or in this case mass movements against Israeli colonial violence - with anti-Jewish racism. This is an often effective diversion that aims to silence opposition to the Zionist colonial project through intimidation.
Then, suddenly, a more generalized post-class liberalism appears: there is a "disparity between our conceptions of how wars ought to be fought and the way present wards are actually fought." He continues: "We have yet to come to realize that present day war has returned to barbarism, and we have to think of long-term strategies to reverse this horrible tendency." Like his later imagining that Israel has come late to the field of war crimes, Ehrlich asks us to imagine here the possibility of Just and Fair wars of conquest. No colonial or imperialist interests appear in his analysis; such vulgarity would crowd his script. He strains on tip toe to see over the destruction of Gaza a history of a humanely administered colonialism and asks for a "long-term strategy" to return to those imagined days of garden paradise.
It all comes clear when Ehrlich begins his criticism of the methods of the resistance movements; "nor can freedom fighters be exonerated when they (...) break all humanitarian rules." This sentence lies with double meaning: to make clear that against superior state power, and incalculably superior military power, and the unlimited, extra-legal, amoral terrorist methods of the occupier, the freedom fighters must be the ones bound to colour within the lines. Sartre explains Ehrlich's psychology; "The oppression justifies itself: the oppressors produce and maintain by force the evils which, in their eyes, make the oppressed resemble more and more what they would need to be in order to deserve their fate. The colonist can absolve himself only by systematically pursuing the 'dehumanization' of the colonized, that is by identifying a little more each day with the colonial apparatus." (7) In this statement Ehrlich also embeds a literary device of foreshadowing for his frightening conclusion - to come later.
Ehrlich then turns to the "root causes" of the "current conflagration". He explains, in my view correctly, that Israel's reported retreat from Gaza was no such thing. The Israeli "withdrawal" was a tactical maneuver to move the IDF prison guards to stations on the prison walls and out from amongst the colonized prison population. However, buried in this truth, he sneaks in an additional complaint: this maneuver was "not part of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel". And this is the reason he can't understand why Hamas won't negotiate with Israel, for him two states - a state for the colonizers, and a state for the colonized - is a good negotiated compromise. What appears to him a reasonable compromise is, to the Palestinian national movement, a defeat and a continuation of the same intolerable and suffocating situation they currently face.
Ehrlich is like the French citizens Sartre interviewed who had enough of the war in Algeria: "The end of the war (...) Let's put an end to it! Let us not hear about it anymore" but who will not accept defeat. Sartre comments, "Overall these responses enlightened me: the contradiction in France today is not between those who are in favor of the war and those in favor of negotiation, between the sworn enemies of the Arabs and whose who seek to understand them. It is in the hearts of individuals who want everything at once."(8) It is not the oppression of the colonized that sickens them, it's the knowing of it. This is Ehrlich.
Again he shows his divided heart by cheering Israel for stopping the flow of Qasam rockets into the West Bank "which lies closer to Israel's economic and population centers." Then in his next breath, Ehrlich recognizes this as the place where power imbalance shines through bright and unavoidable: "While the Israeli occupation dominates, controls and disrupts every aspect of Palestinian life, the Israeli population demands its government do everything to enable peace-like existence for Israelis." But despite the implications of this evidence he blames the "deterioration" of the "situation" on the Palestinian elections of 2006, implying the Palestinians were not ready for democracy, that Bush pushed ahead with elections "against Israel's advice" and the worst happened: Hamas, which "does not recognize Israel's right to exist" was elected. It is no accident that Ehrlich does not ever raise the problem of Israeli apartheid. This apartheid system - based on the construction of Bantustans, Cantons, Ghettos, Reservations to contain the Indigenous population, imported round about from the "successful" colonial project in Canada - is the heart of the Israeli state project. The question of "Israel's right to exist" is a straw argument. This argument dodges through diversion the logic of a national movement's opposition to the colonial project that oppresses it - because it is very difficult to honestly defend colonial apartheid. Yes I am against the existence of Israeli apartheid. And I have a question: when did it become acceptable for revolutionaries or even "Peace" activists to uphold the "rights" of imperialist states?
The rest of the article reads as a cry for the catastrophe suffered by Israeli international public relations by the state's siege on Gaza and the horrifying (to colonists, who prefer sanitized "Pro-Western" / imperialist regimes) rise of pan-Islamic resistance movements:
"Pro-Western Arab regimes" tried to help Palestinians overcome the split between Fatah and Hamas to no avail. "Radical regimes" stepped in - "Hezbollah supplies arms, Syria hosts leadership (...), Iran foots the bill."
In the case of war, which Ehrlich already explained was inevitable because of Hamas and their non-recognition of Israel's rights plus their rockets, Israel had no choice but to "dissect" Gaza with targeted strikes. The tightly packed population of Gaza would prove too costly an adversary for a ground war, he explains. Too many Israeli soldiers could be killed in such a siege. Of course in the dissection of Gaza there have been "unavoidable numbers of civilian casualties (...), mobilizing the world against Israel." Remember, this is a problem according to Ehrlich because such a mobilization signifies an anti-Semitic outbreak.
As he closes in on conclusion, Ehrlich makes pains to restrict his criticisms of Israel to the January bombing of Gaza alone. In anticipation of Israel's unilateral ceasefire, he makes clear that any demand from Hamas to end what Kathy Kelly calls Israel's "economic siege" would be "cynical". He writes, "Even if one regards the cynical politics of Hamas as equal to the politics of Israel the fact that Hamas behavior is despicable does not justify Israelis becoming war criminals (...)"
In no way is Hamas equal to Israel. On no scale. Israel is a colonizing power that creates the political conditions Hamas and all Palestinians are forced to navigate. Any conditions Palestinians are able to craft are counter-hegemonic and due only to their struggle against colonialism. The "fact" that Palestinians are born into is not the "despicable behavior" of Hamas, but of a powerful state that denies and attempts to erase their existence as a nation and as human beings. Palestinians exist in the barrel of the fact of 61 years of Israeli war crimes in the name of conquering "a land without a people for a people without a land." And an pause in Israel's bombing campaign will not end the human travesty imposed on Gaza through Israel's blockade of medicine, food and all other vital supplies into the Strip.
Between blows Ehrlich lets go an important concession; "Hamas was elected democratically - whether Israelis like it or not." He also admits that their election "reflected the radicalization among Palestinians after us quelling brutally the second Intifada." Okay, so he also (again) conflates the State of Israel with all Israelis, but at least he's clear that it's his setter heart talking.
But then he finishes with a warning - and the conclusion of the literary foreshadowing I mentioned earlier: "the more they are beaten, the greater their despaired [sic.] and the more radical they become. What will happen after this campaign? What horrible new generation will grow out of the debris of Gaza?"
Sartre anticipated this too: When "the traditional social structures have been pulverized, the natives 'atomized' and colonial society cannot assimilate them without destroying itself; they will therefore have to rediscover their unity against it. These people excluded from the system will proclaim their exclusion in the name of national identity: it is colonialism that creates the patriotism of the colonized." (9) The "horrible new generation" will be the awakening of the secret that colonized people carry within them against colonialism - just as the proletariat carries their secret for the negation of capitalism. The Palestinians are not the ones to blame if the polite left does not like the ideology that arms their struggle - they are making do with what is available.
Ehrlich concludes: "they [Hamas] cannot win, and Israel [We] cannot win either. And we gradually loose [sic.] the morality of our existence". But there is another way, the passage that Ehrlich has done all he can to detour: to fight against Israeli apartheid for a single state in Palestine that includes all residents as democratic rights bearing citizens.
To move in this direction, which is the majority direction of the world Palestine solidarity movement, its participants cannot afford to be caught up in Ehrlich's arguments. His is a marriage of workers interests to the interests of Zionist colonialism on a bed of racism, Islamophobia and Eurocentrism. Sunk into this bed it is possible to complain, and it is possible to sleep, but it is impossible to act. I am afraid of what "horrible new generation" this wedding will bring to pass - and not only what it could mean for Palestine, but for colonists and colonized people in Canada and everywhere in the world.
A contributing editor to the online publication "Socialist Voice" (www.socialistvoice.ca), and member of Vancouver Socialist Forum (http://vansocialist.wordpress.com), Ivan Drury lives in Vancouver, Canada - occupied Coast Salish Territory.
* Ehrlich, Avishai, Stop the War, published as the "Socialist Project Bullet #178", January 13, 2009
(1) All quotations and references to Ehrlich are taken from this article. It can be found - along with valuable anti-Zionist, anti-Colonial articles about Israel's siege on Gaza - at http://socialistproject.ca
(2) Sartre, Jean-Paul, Colonialism and Neocolonialism, 2006, Routledge Classics
(3) Sartre, Jean-Paul, from the Introduction to Albert Memmi's "The Colonizer and the Colonized", pg 62
(5) Sartre, Jean-Paul, Colonialism is a System, from "Colonialism and Neocolonialism", pg 51
(6) Sartre, Jean-Paul, We are all Murderers, from "Colonialism and Neocolonialism", pg 74 "It must be repeated every day to the imbeciles who wish to terrify the world by showing it the 'terrible face of France': France terrifies nobody, she does not even have the means to intimidate anymore; she is beginning to disgust, that is all."
(7) Sartre, Jean-Paul, Introduction to Albert Memmi. pg 60
(8) Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Frogs who demanded a King, from "Colonialism and Neocolonialism", pg 122-123
(9) Sartre, Jean-Paul, Introduction to Memmi, pg 61