There are layers to Israel, and to the Israel-Palestine problem. There is something that has happened, recently: which, on the surface, are the sudden raids by Hamas militants, terrorists, jihadis, what you will, out of the Gaza strip, leading to the murder and rape and abduction of more than 1,500 people. This is the originary event, in recent times. Then there are the reactions to this: firstly, shock and disgust, which was universal at first, for a day, and which some parties want to hold onto, while some other parties want to abandon it for some other sort of reaction. So secondly, we have the reaction which goes beyond the originary event, and refers to context: this context is the contemporary situation in Israel-Palestine-Gaza; and what we find here is the emergence of an argument taking place between two emphatic sides: one which alludes to the originary event, and therefore sides with the Israeli victims, and, consequently, with the state of Israel which is the defender of Israelis (and justifies a retaliatory military intervention); and another which contextualises the event by saying that there is religious, political and historical background which suggests that we should take one step back and see the Israelis as the perpetuator of the first crime – the real originary event – and the provokers of the crime by Hamas which is a second crime, which was a crime carried out on behalf of the legitimate aims of the Palestinian population of Gaza. By this standard, anything that Israel does is not part of its reaction to someone else’s crime, but a continuation of its own original crime. Already, this is quite complicated. But it throws up a simple opposition between those who condemn a crime, and those who extenuate a crime by pointing to a greater crime.
Then, at a deeper level, we have the total historical situation, which is geopolitical – since it concerns the status of the state of Israel, a lone Jewish state in the middle of the Arabic world – and also religious – since it concerns the rivalry of two of the most determined scriptural monotheistic faiths, Islam and Judaism; and also since it interests a largely but not entirely secularised Christian West. Then there is the fact that within Western countries there are long established though not entirely fixed allegiances between certain political positions and certain sides in this battle. So we see, now, that the Left mostly sides with Palestine, and (as far as their opponents are concerned) with Hamas, and, perhaps accidentally, but significantly, with Islam, and hence are opposed to Israel, Zionism and Judaism to varying and complicated extents; while the Right mostly takes the opposite side, siding with Israel and hence Jews against Palestine and ultimately, but again, complicatedly, Islam. All this is modified by various sorts of Liberalism – that descendant of one strand of secularised Judaism (courtesy of Spinoza) and Christianity (courtesy of Locke, Smith, Kant and Mill) – which attempts to acknowledge what we nowadays rather pretentiously call ‘nuance’ (as if it is a singular thing) but which we should probably call rival positions.
Every response, and every article, and every utterance is a simplification: a sort of sword thrust through the arras of an almost grotesque complexity: in which we cannot avoid reference to the Quran or the Old Testament but in which, if we do refer to them, we are, again, engaging in over-simplification (in assuming that texts have simple consequences in historical times).
And beyond the complexities there are the ironies. These include the fact that the Palestinians may originally have been converted Jews, and that many returning Jews were in fact converts from other religions – as detailed in Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jews. These include the fact that both sides share a similar, but not identical, solipsism, of supposing, at some level, that their existence and their actions are sanctified by a regime of significance dependent on a monotheistic God, Yahweh or Allah, who was also a grand legislator at various times for the chosen people of Israel and the second chosen people of Arabia: operating with languages which are supposedly God’s own language. Both are religions of works: unlike Christianity, which is a religion of faith. So Christianity does not fit simply in this comparison (despite our memory of the Crusades, which were a very literal, almost imitative sort of enterprise, attempting to reclaim someone else’s Holy Land of Jerusalem): though it is of course implicated through its own half-Roman imperial sensibility and also its own half-Hebrew city-on-a-hill type consciousness.
At this point we have to engage in simplicity. Judaism wants its Promised Land, its Zion, its Holy City, its New Jerusalem which is also the Old Jerusalem. Islam wants the World. But Islam, originally friendly to Judaism, also wants Jerusalem: hegemony over it, though not necessarily hegemony over the Jewish mind. Muslims were, at first, friendlier to Jews than Romans or Christians were, but Arab nationalism turned Islam – with its imperial sensibility – into a far more fractured and fissiparous entity – defensive rather than calmly dominant – and of course the arrival of the imposed state of Israel turned Arab defensiveness after the demise of the Ottoman empire into an extremely tightly focused determination to begin the reconquest of the world, or, at least the bit of it to which Arabs feels entitled, by eliminating the secular Jewish state from Jerusalem. This is about long historical legacies, dating back 70 years, or 700, or several thousand, and it is about Books. At some level, it is a battle of the books; but this battle, which seems world-historical, is of course being conducted by men who may simply want some sort of local reason for their classical comitatus activities of sharing brotherhood. In the West, we tame our young men with education, sport, business, recruitment into the lower levels of a mandarinate, and many mindless recreations and narcotic distractions; but elsewhere there is a stronger survival of the old comitatus model, noticed by Tacitus and almost everyone in the ancient world, as well as by most 20th Century anthropologists, who saw that the way to deal with aggressive young men was to send them to the boundaries of one’s order in gangs to murder, rape, steal and, by this means, to extend the older man’s order. This phenomenon is ineliminable, and remains atavistic, even in the West. And, of course, in the West, it has been tamed also by the odd method of bringing women into it, so they share in the slightly tamed versions of comitatus activity, of taking sides, shouting, protesting and so on. This explains, perhaps, the rise of all the noise in the West, as the young (with the perversity of a youth culture) hasten to side with victims: taking the side of one’s preferred victims being one of the strangest of modern justifications for an allowed and half-tamed expression of a violent sensibility.
I don’t have more to say about any of this. I am not following the news carefully, and have no particular views about the situation. I am not taking sides. But of course I notice that whereas almost everyone seems to have been united in being for Ukraine and against Russia, the problem of Israel and Palestine has become a general source of disunity in the West, and part of the toxicity of the problem is its transcendence of context. There is what is happening locally; and then there is the magnified, chaotic, half-violent, extremely felt politics of what is happening everywhere else as everyone feels obliged to have an opinion, or at least a reaction to someone else’s opinion. It is not good, all this magnified chaotic politics. It should not be as significant as it is on the streets or on social media. It is as if we, on social media, are always in the position of the crowd in the New Testament who told Pilate to crucify him. The object of crucifixion might change. Some say crucify Hamas. Others say crucify Israel. It is all heat and almost no light. One can see why some people think that the enemies of the West are exulting in having found yet another issue on which our political order can be confounded and brought to ignore its own problems, and why some people think that grand interests in the West are also delighted to find that another problem has come along to spare us from paying too much attention to their errors about other problems – Covid, for instance, or Climate – in recent years. The whole thing is disturbing, and deliberately so, and we would be wise to hold onto some sense of proportion, in this, as in all things.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.