GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 6, 2006


Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:41 pm

This will be an experiment in applying originary analysis to an ongoing historical event–that is, the kind where facts undermining the very premise of your analysis might emerge before you’ve completed it; or, to put it another way, before the event is over or “sealed.”

How should we make sense of Israel’s current campaign to free Gilad Shalit, the soldier taken captive by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza? I ask because there seems to me something that doesn’t “fit” here, because I haven’t seen anyone take note of it, and because it seems to me that this event might illuminate some contemporary trends that Eric Gans has discussed in various Chronicles of Love & Resentment regarding contemporary terrorism, white guilt and the problem of asymmetry.

What I find puzzling, at least according to reports I’ve seen so far, is that Israel’s operation seems to be neither a rescue operation nor the initiating of a full scale war on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. A rescue operation, I assume, would be targeted and secret–it would, for example, perhaps be carried out under the guise of “negotiating,” and would therefore not be aided by this full scale assault (or the threat of one–it’s not that clear). At the same time, it doesn’t seem to be an invasion, because the assumption seems to be that if Shalit is returned unharmed, we would return to the status quo ante–that is, Israel doesn’t seem to be taking the kidnapping of one of its soldiers as a causus belli that could no longer be satisfied by anything Hamas does regarding Shalit (just as a Japanese offer to pay reparations for the attack on Pearl Harbor wouldn’t have undone that act or seriously deflected its consequences). I haven’t seen, for example, the Israelis explicitly bringing the continual rocket assaults on Southern Israel since the withdrawal from Gaza into their justifications for entering Gaza. What it looks like to me is that Israel is using its vastly superior military might to intimidate the Hamas government into forcing the kidnappers to return Shalit unconditionally. So, the means of warfare are used to solve a hostage problem, which is hard to see as anything other than a serious mismatching of means to ends: as if the Israelis had bombarded and invaded Uganda in July 1976 to force them to release the hostages held at Entebbe, or the Americans had done the same in Iran in 1979–and then, say, after having secured the release of the hostages in the Embassy (or having failed to), had simply returned home after destroying a good portion of the country (a lot more of it if they failed to secure the release).

One could understand this approach if it were still advisable to simply, as some, like John Derbyshire of National Review like to see, bounce enough rubble to shut down whatever threat a particular weak country poses. This is the unapologetic 19th century imperialist approach: we value the life of one Westerner over your entire country; if you want to play in the big leagues by picking a fight with us, expect it to be no holds barred; and, of course, we have no expectation that you will change your morals or mode of government in the slightest, we just expect you to keep your pathologies to yourself.

I’m presupposing Gans’ analysis of White Guilt in this discussion: the event of Auschwitz (revealing the ultimate consequence of violations of the basic egalitarian premises of modernity), multiplied by the event of Hiroshima (intensifying beyond the possibility of human survival the implications of “Auschwitz”) and, finally, rounded off by an admittedly tendentious reading of Vietnam (even the the self-declared democratic countries are not immune to such extremes–even more, their self-understanding as the “Free World” locked in epic battle with “totalitarianism” might very well license such extremes) has become an unescapable political paradigm. The left has redefined itself, following the fall of Communism, around the propagation of White Guilt, sustaining and seeking to extend the elaborate system of taboos it requires. And the Israeli invasion and then occupation of Lebanon in the early 80s provided the perfect opportunity to apply the template to Israel tout court, with Israeli intellectuals, always imitative epigones of their American and European colleagues, eager to advance the project.

The problem is that no diagnosis of White Guilt, however sharp and comprehensive, can exclude the diagnostician for the simple reason that all out war on the part of the West, and certainly the U.S., is, indeed, impossible. As long as we don’t obliterate our enemies with nuclear weaponry we are “holding back,” which is to say tacitly admitting the asymmetry constitutive of any contest. The incentive to present a particular kind of defiance is thereby inherent in any Western war making: the Third World “resistant” can always say, “go ahead, kill me,” knowing that any such killing is selective (we kill a very small number out of all those we could kill) and therefore tainted (since the choice of who to kill is always to some extent arbitrary, it is always possible to frame such killings as a sign of both weakness and brutality).

An instance of this paradox is in Israel’s decision to arrest the Hamas leadership itself–there was previously the policy (or, perhaps, practice) of targeted assassinations back when Hamas was merely an underground terrorist group (embodied in all kinds of above ground activities as well, of course); Israel seems to be threatening to resume that policy today, but so far they are just detaining Hamas leaders. On the one hand this may seem especially humiliating for members of what is now a “government”; on the other hand, it’s hard to see what deterrence power this entails, since once detained the leaders know they will not be mistreated, much less killed. And if they can be captured and detained, what justification remains for killing them? How long before calls to release them or put them on trial become an international cause celebre? And who else, aside from perhaps Israelis themselves (and not all of them by any means) would be convinced by a trial, no matter how scrupulous? They would still be widely viewed as prisoners of war, leading to more kidnappings of Israeli civilians and soldiers.

There might be one way out of this stalemate that Israel seems to be unintentionally generating, and that is indicated by the occasional hints that Syria may be held responsible for the activities of Hamas. In other words, even when dealing with suicidal terrorists, those terrorists, at some point along the way, are dependent upon the support of someone who doesn’t want to die–find that weak link and attack it relentlessly. Here, the asymmetry shows up as an advantage, but the risks involved dramatically increase. Without a sustained unity of purpose between, at least, the U.S. and Israel–a unity of purpose which has not yet taken shape and will not as long the U.S. government is still thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “peace process” which is crucial to the War on Terror rather than simply another front in that war–such an approach is most likely to get caught in the same tangle of cross purposes: Israel will threaten Syria, giving Syria the opportunity for some credibility enhancing “defiance,” knowing that Israel will not be able to carry through on its threats because as soon as one starts modeling possible consequences the advantages of doing so start to look vaguer and vaguer.

This seems to be a kind of degree zero of the victimary, leaving the stronger party with the equally untenable alternatives of investing unsustainable resources and moral capital in rescuing single individuals (which might not even be possible–what’s to stop his captors from simply killing him once the rescuers get close?) or initiating full scale warfare without any definition of “victory” that doesn’t simply lead you back to a status quo ante that has already been tried and rejected. (And, of course, the Palestinians are equally trapped, since a condition of this condition is that they can’t accomplish anything either, even on their own terms)

And yet this intense focus on the fate of a single individual, so much a part of Israeli morale and morality, must nevetheless be a basis for constructing some kind of new and more adequate approach. We can assume that one consequence of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has been the loss of strenuously (and, no doubt, often, in moral terms, dubiously) constructed intelligence networks which otherwise might have facilitated the rescue of Gilad Shalit. Why not compensate for that loss by announcing that all Palestinian individuals who offer intelligence helpful to the recovery of Shalit will be granted asylum in Israel, with a chance of gaining Israeli citizenship at some point down the road–including, let’s say, immediate family members and anyone else associated with that individual who might be in danger of being murdered as a “collaborator”? Let’s see how solidly Palestinians are united behind their new, “resistant,” uncorrupt leadership. Let’s find out how much, as individuals, they genuinely hate Israel. On the Israeli side, genuine solidarity with those Arabs who have taken the side of Israel’s right to exist, and, more generally, the side of peace and democracy, would have to now be demonstrated (as, we must acknowledge, has by no means always been the case). Attention would be redirected towards the maintenance of “consensus” among the Palestinians, to the treatment of “collaborators,” and divisions within Palestinian society might open up–not towards civil war, but towards new ways of being responsible for one’s community. For example, Palestinians with the courage to provide intelligence, or just speak openly in ways that subvert terrorist plots, might decide to reject the offer of Israeli citizenship as a way of demonstrating solidarity with a community which they would now be daring to protect them. New icons of political courage would emerge.

This approach would not exclude waging war against the Palestinians as they are currently constituted; however, it would certainly enter into strategic and tactical calculations–but perhaps in positive ways. Rather than calibrating attacks and withdrawals according to the false logic of encouraging and strengthening “moderate” negotiating partners, the calibrations would now be aimed at giving Palestinian citizens the space in which to step forward, and form relationships with Israelis that would match the various theaters of protest in which Israeli leftists and Palestinians periodically participate. And I haven’t touched on how even a trickle of such Palestinian dissidents into Israeli society might lead Israelis to think about citizenship in new ways.

Perhaps not a single Palestinian will step forward. We would be back in a bad situation, back trying to figure out what form of pain could, at this point, have significant influence on either the Palestinian government or people. But we would be no worse off than we are now, and perhaps a little better, morally speaking.

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