Israel, Gaza and the politics of victimhood

Are we seeing the rise of ‘humanitarian’ anti-Semitism, with Israelis treated as the new Serbs? One author thinks so.

Philip Cunliffe

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spiked’s extensive analysis of the Western reaction to the war in Gaza has generated much debate. Starting today, we will publish a series of responses to our coverage. Here, Philip Cunliffe argues that the politics of victimhood that can be found on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides must be replaced by a new politics of self-determination.

Recent demonstrations around the world against Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza show that the plight of the Palestinians is gaining more and more sympathy. Increasing liberal support for the Palestinians raises the question of how this will affect the traditional politics of anti-Zionism. Taking stock of the demands made in recent weeks for a UN-brokered ceasefire, for opening aid corridors into Gaza, for filing war crimes charges against Israel and for deploying UN peacekeepers to Gaza, it appears that the basis of the newfound sympathy for the Palestinians is essentially humanitarian in its ethos and scope. But is humanitarian compassion a sound basis for guiding the political response to the conflict?

Looked at through humanitarian lenses, the problem in Gaza is the massive suffering resulting from Israel acting as a rogue state that flouts international law to impose its will on its Arab victims. But this view misses all the key elements of the conflict, while distorting any political response.

For a start, seeing the problem as primarily one of Israeli military brutality overlooks the fact that the deeper problem underlying Palestinian suffering is the inequality of power between Israel and Palestine – the inequality that allows Israel systematically to oppress the Palestinians in the first place. The humanitarian focus on alleviating Palestinian suffering detracts attention from the underlying question of Palestinian national rights. If the focus is on immediately solving a humanitarian emergency under the auspices of the UN, then greater international involvement can be demanded – at the expense of Palestinian self-determination.

With the calls for a UN protection force to be deployed to Gaza, there is now a real possibility that Gaza will be turned into an international protectorate. While this may guarantee humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, living under a UN viceroy will deny their national freedom just as much as the Israelis have done. Unless they provide a critique of liberal humanitarianism, then old left anti-Zionists will find themselves becoming the shock troops for placing Palestine back under colonial UN trusteeship.

The flipside of humanitarian compassion for Palestinians is the demonisation of their victimisers: the Israelis. This has been seen in the increasingly shrill demands for anti-Israeli boycotts and in the circulation of bizarre Jewish conspiracy theories that have been discussed on spiked. Israel’s claim to the loyalty of Jews everywhere means that growing humanitarian condemnation of Israel is in danger of collapsing into a demonisation of Jews everywhere. Although this demonisation may assume some of the historical forms of anti-Semitism, it would be wrong to see it as a simple revival of primordial hatred. The logic of demonisation in this case is not ancient prejudice, but is a result of the black-and-white morality of humanitarianism, which depicts one side as hapless innocents and the other side as thoroughly evil.

The Marxist Abram Leon pointed out that anti-Semitism is not a timeless prejudice, but one that is recreated in different periods, as dictated by the needs of the ruling ideology of the day: each age has its own type of anti-Semitism. If we are now witnessing the emergence of a new anti-Semitism for the age of human rights, then the appropriate historical parallel is not traditional anti-Semitism, but the humanitarian hatred directed against the Serbs in the 1990s. Unlike the Jews, the Serbs have not been the victims of centuries-long prejudice. Yet the humanitarian response to the conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia resulted in the Serbs being reviled as a whole people, along similar lines to anti-Israeli prejudice today.

The problem with seeing Israel as a rogue sovereign state is that this view omits the role of the other player in the conflict – America – while also failing to criticise the ideological justification for Israeli violence. Far from being a self-possessed nation state, Israel is a precarious and increasingly divided outpost of American power, whose fragile national unity is maintained by American arms and money, and the constant invocation of existential threats.

Humanitarian sympathy for the Palestinians as victims of Israeli violence has no answer to the justification for Israeli militarism – which is also based on claims of victimhood. Founded as a haven for Jews fleeing persecution, Israel’s constant recreation of that existential threat necessitates an excessive, disproportionate response against its chosen enemies. The brutality of the Israel Defense Forces expresses the self-righteousness of an army armed with gunship and white phosphorous that behaves as if it is the weaker side. The politics of victimhood allows Israel to disavow its own power, and to deny the fact that it bears fundamental responsibility for its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, the fact that Israel still has a resonant claim to historic grievances provides a check on humanitarian anti-Semitism becoming official policy in the West. This is because the politics of victimhood explains Western support for Israel as well as growing sympathy for the Palestinians. In other words, it is not the old anti-Semitic lie of the all-powerful Jewish lobby that explains Western support for Israel. Rather it is the benefit that Western states, particularly America, derive from their ideological compact with the victim-state since the launch of the war on terror in 2001 (if not before).

Just as anti-Semitism has been recreated in different periods, so too has the basis of Western support for Israel. During the Cold War, Israel played the strategic role of acting as the West’s regional gendarme to suppress Arab nationalism. Today, Western states’ association with Israel allows them to stake an ideological claim to the ultimate political identity – that of victimhood. Despite being the greatest military power in the region, Israel poses as a vulnerable state beset on all sides with the threat of annihilation. So too with the West: despite their massive wealth and power, through their alliance with and protection of Israel, Western states can posture as exposed and weak, beset on all sides by the vague and exaggerated threats of global terror and nuclear weapons proliferation.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is rapidly becoming a clash of competing claims to victimhood: the same politics underlies both support for Israel and support for Palestine. Israelis flatter America by casting themselves in the role of being perpetual victims, but this only recreates Israel’s fragility and dependency on outside support in order to survive. In this sense, Israel’s embrace of victimhood ultimately represents the failure of the Zionist aspiration of national self-determination for the Jews. By their very nature, victims are at the mercy of external forces and cannot control their environment.

The Palestinian cause allows European liberals to indulge their anti-Americanism through outrage with Israel. If Israel is the victim state, the Palestinians are victims without a state. The Palestinian cause has only won liberal support since the Palestinians became victims themselves, when the Palestinian leadership surrendered the cause of national liberation, renouncing the goal of a single bi-national state in favour of the two-state compromise offered through the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.

Now, Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls the West Bank, is calling for UN peacekeepers to be deployed to Gaza. The politics of victimhood and powerlessness leads to the scramble for international backing and the renunciation of self-determination for both Arabs and Jews. What is needed to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict is not an assessment of whose grievances are more compelling and who has the greatest claim to our pity, but a new politics of self-determination undertaken by Arabs and Israelis themselves. That politics can begin through a ruthless critique of the victim-centred politics currently prevalent in the conflict.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A critique of contemporary international relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about the book here and buy the book from here.

After Gaza: what’s behind 21st-century anti-semitism, by Frank Furedi

The politics of anti-Zionism, by Brendan O’Neill

Creating their own private Gazas, by Nathalie Rothschild

Sanctions did not liberate South Africa, by Tim Black

Gaza is not Warsaw, by Nathalie Rothschild

There is no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black

Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?, by Brendan O’Neill

The antithesis of anti-imperialism, by Brendan O’Neill

Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill

War without ends?, by Mick Hume

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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