rough thoughts (on speaking colonialism without acknowledging the people being colonised)

by tobybee

It started with a strange title: that the Middle East is the ‘cockpit of national identities and perpetual conflict’. A cockpit? I’ve never really thought about that term before, and how ridiculous it is. Maybe though it points to precisely the problem: that it is, literally, a space for the acting out of (countering) hegemonic masculinities. It is a space of cocks, a space for the penetration of violent weapons and masculine ideas, rubbing up against, and further dominating, the disempowered.

And, it seemed, that the masculine ruled the day in this discussion that was held at Melbourne Uni as part of their Festival of Ideas, last Thursday.

The speakers present were Saree Makdisi, Naomi Chazan, Mark Baker, and Joseph Camillieri, and the event was chaired by Ghassan Hage. I went along excited to hear Makdisi and interested to see how Chazan and Baker would respond to his presence. What happens, I wondered, to liberal Zionism – with its vague platitudes of peace and goodwill, and everyone having a home with love and reconciliation – when there is a Palestinian present in the conversation? (I make that sound a bit dehumanised and as though Palestinians – specifically here, Makdisi – should be, and can be, used instrumentally. I don’t intend to. What I mean is, the ideas expressed by most people can sound good in the abstract, unchallenged. But what happens when someone who knows something points out that the ideas don’t match up with what they produce; when someone points out that the ideas produce something concrete right now.)

And the opening exchanges were instructive.

As you can see if you watch the film (and I really do encourage you to watch it), what eventuates from this dynamic is that liberal Zionists (or, at least, the two present in this conversation) fall back on their vagueness. They describe how they would love everyone to get along and respect each others narratives; how they like the idea of 2 separate states, because national ‘self-determination’ equals national ‘dignity’; that they have an irrefutable claim to the land. And Makdisi spoke of the histories of the Nakba and the ongoing colonisation in Israel/Palestine. When confronted by these people speaking in vagueness he rightly reminded them of the ‘material conditions’ of colonisation and occupation in Israel.

There were so many startling moments. That Chazan seemingly so proudly spoke of how her parents moved to Jerusalem, and that she had never lived anywhere else, while Makdisi sat next to her and described how he has family who came from all over what is now Israel and the West Bank, but they cannot go back. It was such a profound thing to witness her arrogance and comfort in making these claims to a connection to a land that actively worked to erase the connections of the man she sat next to.

That at a certain point, Chazan said ‘as it was said earlier’ without naming Makdisi, the man who said the point she was refuting. She literally could not say his name. She could not, it seemed, look at him.

And then there was the discussion of one-state or two-state, where Makdisi argued for one, and Chazan and Baker for two. Because apparently, the liberalism of Liberal Zionists doesn’t extend so far as to be accepting of the presence of difference within Israel. Apparently the lessons of history teach us that having a multi-ethnic state can’t work in any way, whereas separating people always works. Yep, that’s definitely what we can learn from South Africa, India and Pakistan. But Makdisi powerfully put forward the idea that people need to live together. He challenged the idea that any people should rely on statehood as a mode of expressing self-determination.

Chazan and Baker’s was an incoherent liberalism, it seems. It’s also dishonest. If you’re going to suggest that your national self-determination, and national dignity, is based only on the creation of a single-identity state, then own up to the fact that this requires the material conditions of displacement to bring this about. Own up to the fact that you are openly desiring that a group of people be demonised and made to suffer. That the one necessarily produces the other.

And it’s strange, because liberals in Australia proclaim the power and importance of multiculturalism: of a vague way for all people to get along and live together without any one group having power over another. Yet liberal Zionists, it seems, argue for an Israel with a vague sense of everyone getting along, but without requiring Jews to relinquish power (or, more specifically, desiring that Jews retain most power). So what is good and necessary on the one (Australian) hand, is to be avoided at all costs on the other (Israeli) hand. This isn’t something that was made explicit in the talks, but I can only assume that, seeing as he lives here, Baker doesn’t think that Jews should be second-class citizens in Australia. So there’s a dishonesty, or an incongruity, at work

And so, don’t speak in vagueness when the platitudes produce displacement.

This liberalism fails when it comes up against emotion and materiality. It cannot be sustained in any coherent manner. And so out of this we can see the necessity for remembering emotions, for remembering the material effects (and affects) that liberalism produces.

As my brother said to me afterwards: they were essentially saying that it is more important that Jews are able to go to Jerusalem than that Makdisi and his family can go home. What a thing for them to say. What a thing to think.

And I thought about the self-indulgence that comes with maintaining a Zionist identity when it comes with – or, more specifically, creates – such Palestinian suffering, as well as disavowing the multiplicity of Jewish (political) identities. (Because there was, of course, a continual reiteration of the idea that Zionism=Jewishness and Israel=Jewish state. As Judith Butler has said, “in fact” there have always been Jews opposing Zionism and arguing for different models of Jewish empowerment (models which, it must be said, did not come at the cost of someone else’s life))

And I wondered, is a Zionism that cannot account for its power worth anything at all?

This was, from the perspective of the Zionists present, a space for the declaration of the dominance of that bastion of the masculine enlightenment: the assertion of the desire for a clearly defined national group which expresses itself – and can only express itself – in a very particular (and harmful) notion of what constitutes self-determination.