ISIS and the specter of Zionism

 

I’m not saying that Zionism and ISIS are identical or anything as simplistic. But in trying to find generalizing labels for ISIS, such as being a fascist organization, or a totalitarian state and so on, and in the effort to draw parallels between different political experiences one can more subtly propose that ISIS and Zionism have some features in common.

ISIS just like Zionism (at least if we take seriously their media production, in itself a matter of debate) does imagine that a land is promised to them, or should belong to “the Muslims” at large, irrespective of creed, culture, local tradition, etc. ISIS does project the notion that the Muslim homeland involves a rejection of what is not Muslim, or at least a seclusion from what is perceived to be a political other. From the first issues of their newspaper Dabiq, ISIS highly encouraged people to emigrate to this land, to perform “hijra”, based on the idea that the prophet Muhammad also moved from Mecca to Medina to found his community of believers.

Some may retort that Zionism was a secular ideology, yet the seriousness with which the Jewish movement treats passages of the Old Testament as part of the history of a political community is quite similar to what ISIS does with stories of the prophet and his companions, especially when it comes to relating these stories to a material experience involving the seizure of territory and management of population. In fact, the differences (how the religious uses secular textual technologies) as well as the similarities (what they actually do with it) can shed light on the peculiarity of state or other organizational formations in the Middle East.

The production of a climate of fear is essential to ISIS’s political strategy which involves pushing some people out of the territory they control (and thus turning them into refugees) and inviting others, who share their ideological views, to come and live with fellow like minded Muslims. Yet this was exactly what early Zionists practiced in different ways in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the most spectacular image being the Haganah and then the more virulently powerful Irgun, but also the less spectacular political tactics of various groups practicing land appropriations that follows similar rationales. These groups were definitely different from what ISIS is today, just as the context in which they operate, but the political logic is mostly the same.

Because these movements are essentially foreign and irremediably unpopular, their objective is to drive out an eternally discontented population, and to invite another that travels for mostly ideological reasons. In the failure to do so, these movements cannot survive on the long term, which is another reason why a politics of violence is inherent to their modus operandi. And ultimately, just like Zionists Jews imagined belonging to one secular rationalized community despite different geographies and histories, Muslims from all over the world travel to Syria and Iraq in order to belong to a similarly imagined community.

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France and antisemitism: It’s the politics stupid!

The recent events in France betray the primacy of the political (and not religious) dimension in the way different communities, groups, and states have handled (and have been handled in) this affair.

One facet is Israel’s urge to profit from the situation and attract a few more Jews to the promised homeland to which France has answered through Holland’s “Holocaust day speech” that urges Jews to reconsider and reflect on the fact that they are, after all, French.

Now one wonder in this case how truly wonderful are the various ironies of the politics in the age of Nation-State: Jews who have been in France for centuries have no problem going to Israel and adopt a completely different “nationality” yet deterritorialized Muslims who came there for less than a century because of economic imperatives have no place to go.

And another interesting highlight of the speech is a change of emphasis over what antisemitism really means. Although I profoundly disagree with the way the word is used in 99% of cases in contemporary social and political affairs since the end of WWII, Holland did seem to acknowledge that representations of Jews do change over time and come to reflect the concerns of ones time, namely here the politics of Israel and the general politics unfolding in the Middle East. Unfortunately, he acknowledged it through the worst wording ever: “hatred of Israel” (as if the reverse means anything in the first place) and, “imports the conflicts of the Middle East” (conflicts that in large part is fueled by your politically moribund foreign policies Mr Holland). Nobody is importing, it is you (and your predecessors) who is exporting!

And come to think about it, “antisemitism” does not mean much today (except for a very few “white” nostalgics) as it refers to a particular political discourse that is part of a specific period of time that sees the consolidation of national projects in nineteenth century and beginning twentieth century Europe. Today hatred against Jews is mostly similar “politically” to any other form of group hatred, racism or forms of xenophobia that occurs in any heterogenous society.

In any case, to go back to Holland’s speech, I don’t know what others think, but this is a huge improvement: moving from an atemporal abstract concept of antisemitism to one that may have some political historically situated logic (again not that “antisemitic” to describe these acts is in any way a useful term), in official western state discourse. It took the French to start it, who would have known!

Nasrallah’s press conference

While the world analyzes the meanings, validity, and consequences of yesterday’s Secretary General of Hizbullah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s press conference one should, I think, focus on one major important point made by this event as a whole:

Regardless of who killed Lebanese former prime minister Rafic Hariri, this press conference showed that just like other tracks of investigations, there is another one that could be taken and that amazingly enough has not been taken: the one of Israel. What Nasrallah proposed was a “change of perspective” so to speak. In this sense and on logical grounds, he is deligitimizing the consistency of an international tribunal that never took care of pursuing the Israeli track seriously, when the mere fact that Israel watches over every corner of Lebanese territory (and it does way more than that as shown in the conference) is sufficient enough to consider it as a “usual suspect”.

Probably the most important purpose of this conference is to say: Why wasn’t Israel considered as a suspect, and its officials, intelligence services and what have you, interrogated or asked to deliver that type of material, while you’ve been inventing all these phony suspects then due to lack of evidence forced to release them and building accusations here and there successively indicting the Lebanese security system, Syria, and now Hizbullah?

In this sense, Hizbullah does succeed in showing to what extent international organizations and missions are devoid of any ‘neutrality’ through Nasrallah’s use of what could be called an implacable methodology. The problem is does it succeed in shaking certain representations of Israel Lebanese have?

Indeed, the other revealing aspect of this event is the apathy a part of the Lebanese population has with regards to the entity called Israel. Perceptions of Israel among that part is quite revealing and runs as follows:

Israel is a criminal state in Palestine. This permits the person to empathize with Palestinians “over there”, and deplore the state of affairs in that remote place called Israel or Palestine. With regards to Lebanon, Israel is at best the bullied one. Because it is criminal and “radical”, it should not be messed with because one would suffer the consequences. That is why Hizbullah is most of the time guilty of any actions taken against Israel whatever the logics of these actions. That type of narrative considers that Israel has no business in killing anyone in Lebanon except Hizbullah-related actors, or basically people living “down there”.

It would be something if Nasrallah can shake this overall representation of Israel. The problem is that it will take more than a methodology driven by ‘logics’ to shake the anxieties of those people. Behind reason stands the passions that dictates the directions taken by the thoughts, and the particular ‘logics’ they wish to endorse.

Jews, Jews, where art thou?

Back in September 2009, after listening to a speech by Hizbullah’s SG Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, I wrote this post that was left unfinished. I thought of proposing it today.

On the 18th of September 2009, Hizbullah celebrated what Khomeini had instituted as “Jerusalem Day” (that takes place every year on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan). It was as usual an incredibly interesting speech that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave, an accumulation of fine-tuned reading of political and social history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict passed through a lens along with the gradual Arab disinterestedness in the question. Notwithstanding, the enlightening ethical advice that a cleric of this stature is bound to give, especially during a month of fasting.

After saying that Jerusalem day should be an occasion to be celebrated by Muslims and Christians as well, Nasrallah poses the question: “Well one could ask, aren’t there any holy sites for Jews?” And he quickly answers quite enigmatically: “What the son’s of Israel have done historically to their prophets, their selves, their tribes, their families and those who oppressed them did not leave anything for them there”. That’s it, territorially at least, Jews have no tradition they could claim as would the Muslims and Christian can. Why? Simply because they have been oppressed and have left. Today, they are a bunch of heterogeneous groups coming from various remote spots of the planet.

Of course, Hizbullah’s officials like to raise the tone with rhetoric of the sort just to anger the Israeli public. But this time it still sounds as if something is missing: There is something profoundly realistic about what Nasrallah is saying, yet also very sad. How did the Jews ‘messed it up’? But more importantly, and that is a question Nasrallah probably does not really ask: Can we Arabs, Muslims or whatever you want to call us, do something about it? My point is that the future of the conflict between Arabs and Israel may well depend on a particular understanding of Jewish traditions.

Indeed, weren’t there vibrant Jewish traditions in what has been called the Middle East? Why is there a total silence around that in the contemporary and politically-engaged intellectual elaborations? In the “Islamist” literature, speeches, media production, we don’t see the mention of Jews. They don’t exist. There are Zionists of course, but not Jews. Islamists call for an Islamic-Christian dialogue, and there is a lot published on the subject. Hizbullah’s media apparatus, books, speeches, all treat of the subject at length. Although this “dialogue of religions” smells liberal in its form, it is still a bit different, no need to go into this aspect of the question.

I find this glorification of Muslim and Christian co-existence so flowery and nice but totally void of content if one is not willing to push the argument further and include the Jews that originated from this region. These ‘co-existence’ dialogues should not be bound by national construction imperatives. Iran includes Jews in their discourse just because it has a significant number of them there. And then when does a significant number becomes eligible for political presence? It seems clear that the reason for mentioning this or that tradition is to create nations.

Now of course, the obvious answer to the omission of Jews from intellectual efforts is that it is the Jews themselves who chose this path, for most of them, by going to Israel. And let’s say that Arabic governments have not done much to stop this process. Indeed, where are the Jews of the East? Mostly in Israel and not really caring much about their “Arabic” background, or what could probably more accurately be called “Islamic” heritage. These Jews refuse to be called “Arabs”, they are “Israelis”. Most have even lost the Arabic language (at least those I had the joys to meet in other countries). There surely must be a sense of disarray amongst these Jews in Israel (see for example Eyal Sivan’s movie “Izkor”).

Isn’t it time to reclaim these Jews as belonging to this area at least at the symbolic level, preparing the ground for a long-lasting different vision of the region? Isn’t that a ‘strategic’ thing to do? Isn’t it time to include in the different efforts at writing history the presence of these Jews everywhere from Iran to Morocco and their once highly rich and complexly different traditions? Belittling Jewish history as taking place only in Europe, even though Zionism works on that, is I think highly immature, and as re-active as any petty European Nationalist discourse was when developing in the nineteenth century. It actually helps Zionism gain ground as a monolithic, nationalistic if not hollywoodean reading of Jewish past.

Now more than ever, when Israel’s existence as a Zionist expansive, chauvinist and violent entity can really be put into question and threatened by successful groups like Hizbullah, now more than ever, it is time to reclaim the Arab Jews and actually give back the European, American and other Jews their rich traditions. Hizbullah (and others) have done a lot in the direction of building a ‘dialogue’ with Christians: They actually re-invented a Christian – more socially conscious – tradition! Can we use this method in order to reclaim the Jews and probably outstrip the last bit of phony legitimacy Israel has? If the Jews of the world can re-embrace their diverse past affiliations, what will be left of Israel?

The main danger in the modern world is not how religion gets mixed up with politics. In any case, religion is profoundly political. Liberal privatized notion of religion (which is a religion/tradition itself) impose this understanding that there is a separation between politics and religion. The real danger, the catastrophic impasse is the use of a poor understanding of religions, traditions, reading of the past, in order to edify these rigid, intolerant, ethically empty, and territorially bound Nations-States.

Priceless quotes

Every time I come here, I get so supercharged with energy,” she said. “I truly believe that Israel is the energy center of the world. And I also believe that if we can all live together in harmony in this place, then we can live in peace all over the world.


So now don’t make a fuss
if you hear Madonna could not make it to Baalbeck or Beiteddine. Seriously… Supercharged! Did she mean nuclear energy?i

US taxpayers fund Israeli settlers

Emily strikes beautifully with this detailed account of how certain American charities contribute to the building of huge complexes in Palestinian territories for incoming Jewish settlers.

This settler business makes me think that never in the history of mankind has arrogance reached these heights, this despicable misreading and imagining the past as a legitimate device to expropriate belonging by claiming chunks of land where people actually live.

It was quite disturbing to watch these images of settlers moving in imperturbably with their boxes, their personal affairs, their books, cds, their petty life artifacts while Palestinians were screaming outside the house. Kind of a snapshot of how Israel was built: Moving ideas and fantasies on the remains of oppressed reality.

Waltz with Bashir

I finally watched the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir, and I know that so many people found it really good, as it was “putting into questions things”, addressing longstanding issues from within Israel, and showing “the horrors of war”. Here, let me be very skeptical about what Israeli cinema can question, and knowing that this comes from the ‘left’ side of Israeli society, what Israel can ever put into question.

Let me start from a tangent. Anyone seen holocaust movies? Here is a list of Holocaust films from the 1940s on. I had this intuition that no major German movie has been made on the subject. And I was right, German movies really start appearing in the 1970s and only few of them relative to the massive numbers of foreign production. Basically the history of ‘horror’ has been written ‘for’ the German and not ‘by them’ establishing a harsher defeat, a cultural one.

According to a dear German friend of mine, most Germans don’t like these movies (especially the foreign ones) because they feel that they don’t really address the Nazi question in a satisfactory way. More interesting than that: they think that Nazism should probably not be dealt with in images because it would render ordinary and acceptable something that is just unacceptable. It seemed always weird to see Hitler being played by an actor whatever the angle played: Hitler was what he was, no need to ‘play him’.

There is none of that in Waltz with Bashir. In a sense it follows the general line found in Spielberg movie Munich (that is of course much worse), in that it engage the audience with a lot of self-loathing turned into conscience boosting and so in a paradoxical legitimating device. Israelis here are already “playing Israelis” making of them either heroes or anti-heroes which amounts basically to the same thing.

Here are the main ideas that can be drawn from the movie:

1- The real demons are the Phalangists, and the Israelis if anything let things happen. At most, they unleash the real beasts, those with no conscience. The Israelis have a conscience and are always wondering what the hell they are doing. Those with no conscience are the Phalangists. The ‘other’, the enemy has no conscience either, does never talk and Israelis are too self centered in the first place to ask questions about them. The enemy is invisible in any case.

2- There is no real reflection on or dialectical engagement with the enemy (the Palestinians) or the ally (the Christian). It shows how much Israelis is eager to learn about them. Knowing that in reality there were lots of interactions during 1982 and of course before that between the various parties.

3- The actual waltz scene (a guy shooting in the air randomly to the background of Bashir Gemayel’s posters) is quite revealing as it betrays a romanticist tone to the rebellious character of participating in a war. We see in the movie how this waltzer later becomes a practitioner of martial arts and is quite happy of what he has done all his life. It is a bit like American movies on Vietnam which ends up making the soldiers look like heroes because they actually ‘been through this’. The audience sympathize with these character. It is the anti-hero, the pop-culture hero.

4- The most flagrant thing is that at no point in the movie do you have this understanding that Israel was wrong to go to war for this or that political reason, at no point are causes discussed or anything like that. Everything stays at the basic level of condemnation of killing and repenting. We are told that soldiers are a bunch of pot smoking adolescents dragged into something they don’t really understand. It is morally charged for no reason. No reason means idealization. Idealization is apologetic.

But Israeli cinema has still hopes. Check for example the documentaries of a guy like Eyal Sivan. Izkor: Slaves of Memory (1991) is a great documentary on the Israeli writing of Jewish history that is taught to kids at all school levels . Izkor, which is the commemoration of the holocaust remembering, really puts into question the idea of Israel and its perception of ‘Arabs’. One idea I found extraordinary in this documentary is how Zionism actually impoverished Jewish multiple source of history, tradition, and relations to the past whether Arabic or other.

Update: Check this article on Hollywood’s (the Americans)  fascination with the Holocaust. Just this year there are already 6 movies out of Hollywood’s machines touching on the subject. I don’t think it is about Germans anymore, but about American culture and their relation to the different narratives exposed in this story. They are writing “the Holocaust” as a multiple story theme to illustrate their concern with death, torture, murder, politics etc. This is not anymore a German event but an American one.