Monday, 5 January 2009

Talkin' World War III Blues, #8362: Assault on Gaza/Talmud in Reverse, A Case Study in Why Human Rights Are Bad For You

The military logic that emerges from Israel's assault on Gaza the past week resembles a perverse reinscription of the well-known Talmudic proverb: 'whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.' Instead of this old wisdom we are now told, in a complex and elaborate military language, that whoever destroys one (Israeli) life, destroys the world entire, and must therefore pay back in kind. One needn't go further than the revelations in the mainstream media to catch this. According to BBC online:

"Israel says its intentions are to suppress Palestinian militant rocket attacks, which have killed five Israelis since the start of the campaign."

For five killed Israelis, all of Gaza must be brought to its knees in an all-out air assault, over 500 Palestinians must die, most of them civilians, and the logic of 'collateral damage' - a myth in any modern war - must be invoked to justify the dirty deeds. The family member of a Hamas militant, anyone who supports them, anyone who happens to live near them, their friends, neighbours, their private residence, anyone in their vicinity - all are legitimate targets, which pretty much makes any Palestinian, civilian or not, young or old, a potentially legitimate military target. In the same way in which the kidnap of 2 Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah two years ago justified an all-out war on Lebanon - with thousands of Lebanese civilian casualties, the levelling of entire neighbourhoods in Beirut, etc - five Israeli dead justify the slaughter of 500 Palestinians, and upwards.

I will be accused of taking cheap shots, but this military logic is really not all that different from strategies and tactics deployed by the Nazis in WWII. It is well known that the war broke out following Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. What is slightly less well known is that Germany's invasion was a response to supposed Polish 'border provocations'.

It is also a fact that the Nazis, at least in the Balkans, had a habit of retaliating for partisan diversions by murdering 100 civilians for every German killed, unless the perpetrators turned themselves in. (In fact I believe it was the Nazis who first used the term 'terrorist' to refer to guerrilla insurgents.) Another way of perversely rephrasing the Talmudic wisdom: whoever kills one Israeli has killed five hundred, or a thousand, or more, and must pay back in kind. An Israeli life is that much more valuable than a Palestinian one.

To be fair, it is hardly the Zionists alone who are to blame: in recent years no one has been better than the Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, at playing this double game: on one hand preaching liberty and human rights, on the other openly placing openly a premium on protecting American lives, regardless of the cost to others.

But there is no contradiction here: what this brings to light in crystal clarity is precisely the dual logic of biopolitics/thanatopolitics at its purest, as outlined by Foucault: 'liberty and human rights', the moment they are proclaimed as actualized in a concrete territorial sense (the 'free world', etc), cease to exist as universal content, but become only a relative form of dividing the world and the races and territories of the world, of valuing different lives differently. Perversely enough, it is precisely the fact that Iraqis under Saddam and post-Saddam were not formally endowed with the same rights as Americans that made them more disposable, even in the eyes of American servicemen. Being formally disempowered, they are simply not treated in the same way as Americans, or those 'naturally' endowed with rights (regardless of what 'universal human rights' might apply to them in international conventions, which for all intents and purposes are of no consequence where they are most needed). The Iraqis' formal 'rightlessness' becomes tactically useful to the occupying army, all the while it is decried in the name of 'democracy' and 'liberty'.

The occupying forces, in other words, are quite happy to give the locals no better treatment than what they are accustomed to. In the process they discover that fear is the greatest weapon - just as much as the Iraq War was ultimately a war on the Iraqi people, the ongoing assault on Gaza is an assault on the Palestinian people. Notions of 'collateral damage' and 'targeting militants' lose their meaning in modern urban warfare, where civilians will inevitably die, especially in a place like Gaza, whose extraordinarily high population density owes something to Israel's ethnic cleansing and settlement policy; and what, one wonders, do the Israelis and Americans expect their adversaries to do? Gather in one convenient spot in the desert far from any urban centre with a sign saying 'Terrorist Insurgents'?

All of which is to say that there is simply nothing 'universal' about the demagoguery of 'human rights' as preached from the pulpits of Washington, or in general; the term 'universal human rights' as phrased in various conventions can only refer to a very hollow universal; it draws political street credit at home (in the 'free world') from the persistent presence of oppressed, disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disempowered people everywhere abroad. Therefore it cannot for its own sake even stir to put an end to all forms of oppression worldwide. So long as there are dictators and ruthless monarchs in the world, Americans will trust their leaders enough to vote for them and more-less toe the party line (with or without universal healthcare, job security, pay equality, etc). We live in the 'free world' - we take 'freedom' for granted, whether actual or not, we have the form or semblance of freedom - and therefore can afford to cut back a little on the content. It is in the name of liberty that liberty is denied.

There is no contradiction here, or the contradiction is only apparent. There are at stake two senses of liberty: the universal right, denied to all in the name of the particular, given to some at the expense of others. The reason is simple: the universal right pits all nations against all states, rather than nation-states against one another. And it is nation-states who are ultimately the masters of the rhetoric.

In this sense the tragedy at hand is not only the world's but a tragedy for the Jewish people. Through Zionism the Jewish people have merely adopted the collective notional structure of the modern European nation-state, which is inherently racist, whether in a biological or a formal/territorial sense. This transaction carries with it the danger of losing a uniquely Jewish identity which, in defiance of nation-states, straddles the line between the universal and the particular - the only hope for a truly informed, cosmopolitan, authentic universal humanism.

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