I don’t talk much about Israel and Palestine anymore. My sympathies are largely with the Palestinians, though I have made an effort to get to know a few Israelis, and I’m not sure the world needs me adding to the hot air on the subject.
But there’s something missing about the current discussion (which really isn’t, as it’s more awn argument in which each side tries to justify itself and demonize the other). The Israelis and their sympathizers speak a great deal about the care and precision with which strikes are made against Gaza, and technically I suppose this is true (just as it likely is when American forces drop bombs somewhere), but I’m more interested in a moral dimension of the discussion: who do the powerful and wealthy become when they war they wage is done against a poor, badly armed and largely captive population?
Who do the strong become when just about all the war they wage is done against people who cannot effectively fight back?
This isn’t a criticism aimed entirely at Israel either — Americans largely wage war against peoples and nations incapable of effectively resisting, much less fighting back. I’m thinking Iraq, which by the 2003 Anglo-American invasion had pretty well been beaten and starved into submission. (That said, the Iraqis later more-or-less defeated the United States in the only war they could effectively fight.) But the Israelis have become masters at this, and the term “mowing the grass” was coined for these brutal and incredibly destructive, but brief and largely pointless, forays into Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon — as if they were simply onerous chores that got one sweaty and dirty, and not the cause of significant death and suffering.
It’s part of a larger language, a set of ideas, in which the powerful no longer have responsibilities and obligations to the weak. In which captors have no obligations to their captives. With Israel and Palestine, the “peace process” has helped foster the illusion — and it is an illusion — that there is no occupation in the West Bank, that Israel has cordoned off Gaza and turned it into a giant, open-air prison camp. But it’s bigger than that. It’s in the revolt of aggrieved billionaires, of Republicans who complain about the “47 percent of takers,” when Secretary of State Madeline Albright disgustingly noted that the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children “was worth it” when it came to containing the post-Kuwait War Iraqi state.
In this world, a kind-of junk Randianism* pervades — the powerful and rich have no obligations to the weak and poor. No responsibilities. In fact, if anything, the powerful and rich are constant victims of the weak and poor, and are entitled to defend themselves using every murderous tool at their disposal. The weak and the poor have all the responsibilities here, to stop being a burden, to stop “taking,” to cease their resistance, stop being an annoyance, possibly even to die, because their very existence is a problem in need of a solution. (And one in which they will have no role nor even be asked.) They are an eyesore, an annoyance, human beings whose well-being is of no concern, whose suffering only has amusement value.
And the rich have plenty of means to avenge their “victimhood,” on account of being rich. If the Palestinians suffer, it is because they resist, because somehow, unguided, home-made rockets fueled by sugar-water are somehow the moral equivalent of fleets of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets armed with precision guided bombs. If the Iraqis suffered, well, it was because of their government. “Double war crimes,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said.
It’s your fault I’m making you suffer. That’s the morality at work here.
Now, it may be there never was a world in which obligations and responsibilities figured highly. But there was a time of noblesse oblige, in which at least the idea that those with much owed something to those with little. The welfare state, such as it is, dates from that time, and the post-WWII world was built by people deeply possessed of a sense of obligation and responsibility. The Israelis began their obligation of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai in 1967 with some sense that theirs would be a “humane occupation,” one informed by several generations of Jewish humanism and the Jews’ own experience as a dispossessed people. It didn’t really work out that way, largely because there can never be a liberal, humane or humanitarian way to govern people against their will.
In this, the powerful and wealthy become brutes, and slowly (but surely) become acclimated to imposing sacrifice and suffering upon others. To becoming mass murderers. To keeping people in cages, taunting them, beating them, starving them, and then wondering why they occasionally lash out. Americans, like Israelis, have become accustomed to seeing themselves as victims, or potential victims, and in the world in which we live, victims are no bound by any morality when they “defend themselves,” when they seek to right a wrong or prevent a further wrong. There is no limit to the violence that can be inflicted, to the suffering that can be imposed, to the guilt that can be presumed. Victims owe their victimizers no mercy. It’s as if the language of Frantz Fanon had been stood on its head and made to serve not revolutionaries seeking to throw off colonial masters but rather the most powerful states – and their armies – in the world
If anything, this is the ultimate identity politics. Race, gender, sexual orientation have nothing on the victimhood claimed by the frightened and aggrieved rulers of wealthy, powerful, and paranoid states.
Nor will this change any time soon. Democrats may talk the language of obligation, but they aren’t actually very good at doing it, and the only obligations and responsibilities in the liberal/progressive lexicon that matter all get channeled through the centralized state. Because it’s the only thing we have in common. (They also want to preserve the very state power that brutalizes and destroys.) There are intellectual conservatives in the Anglo-American world who talk seriously about obligations and responsibilities, but they are few (and not terribly influential right now), and the Republican party (and the conservative movement) are hopeless on the matter, talking an angry language of rights that denies any notion that we owe something to our neighbors merely for being our neighbors.
But this is the world we live in now. There is no way to restore a sense of obligation, not on those who govern, not on those with wealth, not on nations that keep others captive, that patrol the world with weapons ready to annihilate all who disturb their sense of good order. So, we shall see more of this. Not less.
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* Not that Randianism isn’t already junk to begin with.