by Steven Salaita
January 17th, 2009
Israel’s continued assault on the Gaza Strip, having killed over 1,100 Palestinians, has produced an interesting range of response in the United States, some of it surprising, much of it predictable. Amid this commentary a distinct form of ethical reasoning has emerged, one that has had a presence in Western thought since the Enlightenment and became mainstreamed during Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. This form of ethical reasoning suggests that the pre-modern creature (these days Arabs and Muslims) can be civilized, but only through the use of potent force.
Modernity, which the United States says it is trying to preserve through constant military interventions, is not an epoch or an institution as much as it is an invention of the Western liberal imagination, a self-perception arising from a Western belief in cultural superiority. Modernity is a state of mind that denotes being civilized and enlightened, which have some prerequisites: free-market capitalism, diligent secularism (often in conflict with social values), technological industriousness, nominally democratic governance, adoration of wealth, the burden of exporting civility. These features of modernity supplement the maintenance of elite power, a fact that is too convenient to be a coincidence. Preemptive war, then, is indivisible from modernity.
I make these points to foreground analysis of some peculiar justifications for Israel’s brutality, the ones claiming that Palestinians must learn the hard way, though force, to quit supporting terrorism (i.e., to stop electing parties that do not express adequate fealty to Israel).
Neoconservative partisans like Daniel Pipes have long encouraged Israel to more aggressively pound the Palestinians into submission, not only to generate a better negotiating position but also to teach them a lesson in humanity. Upon Israel’s 2006 Lebanon invasion, such a viewpoint became mainstreamed, as when Richard Cohen of The Washington Post warned, “The only way to ensure that babies don’t die in their cribs and old people in the streets [in Israel] is to make the Lebanese or the Palestinians understand that if they, no matter how reluctantly, host those rockets, they will pay a very, very steep price.”
Now Thomas Friedman has taken up this discourse, albeit with his infamously terrible prose, which nevertheless conveys the meanness of his spirit. In a recent column, he writes, “I have only one question about Israel’s military operation in Gaza: What is the goal? Is it the education of Hamas or the eradication of Hamas? I hope that it’s the education of Hamas.” Of all the things he could have questioned about Israel’s behavior — its massacre of babies, its targeting of schools and ambulances, its use of white phosphorous, its deployment of experimental weapons, its massive violations of international law — Friedman chooses to question whether Israel is being adequately fierce and steadfast.
Endorsing the notion that Arabs are “implacably hostile,” Friedman goes on to observe, “Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.” Friedman applies the same logic to Israel’s current bloodletting, although Hamas isn’t actually a non-state actor; it is a democratically-elected ruling party. The underlying idea here is common, though it hasn’t been articulated cleverly since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: the unpolluted Western soul is corruptible when it is unwittingly coerced into an engagement with dark legions of the pre-modern.
Friedman’s viewpoint is stated more eloquently (and honestly) by an unnamed protestor in Max Blumenthal’s frightening video of a pro-Israel demonstration in New York. “They’re forcing us to kill their children,” the protestor complains.
These narratives are racist because they render Palestinians incapable of the sort of love proffered by more civilized people, but they are also proactive. Situated in an Enlightenment logic that celebrates the violence of modernity as a force of good in the world, the narratives rationalize war because it’s not enough that Palestinians hate indiscriminately — they must be taught through widespread death the value of human life. The justification for Israel’s belligerence never has to move beyond the presence of Palestinians, whose very existence threatens Israel’s colonial ambitions.
The glorification of Israeli modernity in opposition to Palestinian pre-modernity has pervaded corporate media coverage. Two features of this media coverage stand out: 1) the Palestinians, no matter who is dying, whether it’s a bearded gunman or a baby, are always called militants, terrorists, or some other term that suggests they are never civilians; and 2) the Israeli invasion is almost uniformly deemed retaliatory, even among progressives like Robert Sheer and Akiva Eldar, who takes a moment to assert “her national right, as a Jew, to live in [Israel].” This national right, it should be mentioned, has no basis in any legal system anywhere in the world beyond Israel’s insidious Law of Return.
Both corporate media coverage and Eldar’s obduracy suggest that the Palestinians are unworthy of the freedom that Jews naturally deserve. Palestinian deaths therefore become unremarkable. Most commentators can only view Palestinians in the context of Israel’s whims and desires. And these days Israel wishes to conduct the business of its colonization and ethnic cleansing without the inconvenience of those ungrateful Palestinians rejecting the whip of modernity in favor of basic dignity and freedom.
Steven Salaita is assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech. His latest book is The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought.