Humanism and Terror


In reaction to an article published in the Harvard Law RECORD that satirically praised Ariel Sharon and the new Israeli government, there were three responses that were at worse hypocritical and at best farcical.

When pointing to Sharon’s “honorable” criminal history and his racist, violent style of dealing with the Palestinian question, one response was that the people had elected him. And, when pointing out the fundamentally racist nature of the State vis-à-vis the Palestinians, another non-responsive response was that Israel is a civilized democracy, contrary to its Arab neighbors, who oppress their peoples.

But does racism against the Palestinians become justifiable because Syria is ruled by a dictatorship? Does it become morally justifiable for Israel to put in place an apartheid-like regime to strangle the Palestinians in the occupied territories because human rights are nowhere respected in the Arab world?

My point is simple: If you are so aware of violence done in the name of Arab nationalism, you should be even more aware of Jewish nationalism’s violence and, indeed, that of all nationalisms. There is no denial that dictatorships in the Arab world have had disastrous consequences on the lives of many. Being a Syrian myself, no one needs to remind me of that. But the nature of the Palestinians’ dispossession and dislocation, their siege and fall towards poverty and underdevelopment because of Israeli policies are not qualitatively different, or ethically better from whatever the “backward,” “uncivilized” dictatorships in Syria, Egypt and Iraq have produced. Even more, the massive scale and persistence of Israel’s policy against the Palestinians for more than half a century are unprecedented anywhere in the Middle East.

However, since the conversation has rhetorically produced this dichotomy between “democratic” Israel and the “uncivilized dictatorships” in the Arab world, I would like to pause for a moment and examine what democracy means in Israel and its relationship to the excluded Palestinians. This problem is not confined to Israel; I am also referring to a major theme in political and democratic theory about the meaning of democracy and its relationship to nationalism. As one democratic theorist once wrote, “the history of the idea of democracy is curious; the history of democracies is puzzling.” Whether in theory or in practice, democracy poses a series of definitional problems that can have serious material implications. Understood simply as the rule by the people, democracy poses at the outset the question, “Who are to be considered the people?” In a way democracy is a constant performance of drawing boundaries between who is in and who is out – between who gets to be the citizen and who is left out. In Israel, this selection was physically violent; it meant literally terrorizing Arab civilian populations out of their villages. Here is but one example: On April 9, 1948, before Arab armies entered the mandatory Palestine, Zionist gangs associated with the Jewish national movement massacred between 110 and 254 civilians, mostly women and children, in the village of Deir Yassin. After the creation of the democratic State of Israel, this drawing of boundaries has produced an impressive apparatus of exclusionary formal legal rules aimed at actualizing a nationalist ideal at the expense of Palestinian populations: The illegitimate taking of Palestinian-owned lands, the management of space and markets to segregate Arabs and Jews and the measures taken to prevent the return of the refugees are just a few examples of this “legal,” apartheid-like apparatus. The violence of this exclusion is experienced today by thousands, if not millions, of Palestinians living in poverty, underdevelopment and destitution in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza and in refugee camps in and outside Israel.

Why is it that we often forget that this so-called democracy exists precisely because Deir Yassin is forgotten? If democracy is the product of and should produce such racism, then democracy is a farce. If civilization legitimates such oppression, then it is a civilization of terror – it is terror masquerading as humanism.

The election of Sharon may be the result of this particular historical moment, but its significance is far reaching. In a way, electing Sharon means the rehabilitation of a particular era, and of a violent and racist style of dealing with the Palestinian question. A peace with the Palestinians requires a historical move on the part of both parties. Such a move does not mean to put the past behind and to rush to a peace agreement, at any cost, regardless of its inherent unfairness and instability. To the contrary, such a move requires constant remembrance of this past so that it does not repeat itself again. It is about time for the Israeli people to officially recognize that their national home was founded on the ruins of other people’s dreams and aspirations, and that their so-called democracy is sustained by continually subjugating the Palestinians. Electing Sharon is a move deeper into denial, an embrace of violence and racism. Ariel Sharon is a war criminal. He represents an era that should be rejected.

I hope that the conscience of peace-loving people in Israel will react to redeem their future from the guilty past that Ariel Sharon has put on their shoulders.

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