Saturday, July 22, 2006


Israel as genocidal state vs Israel as politicidal state

I said I was "somewhat puzzled" by Norman Geras' post yesterday, in which he described this:

Each provocation and counter-provocation is contested and preached over. But the subsequent arguments, accusations and vows, all serve as a distraction in order to divert world attention from a long-term military, economic and geographic practice whose political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation. [Norm's italics.]

as a libel, a disgusting lie and its authors as being at the worst end of a sector of world opinion that is worthy of nothing but contempt.

It's a short post, but they're strong words, which I'm sure weren't written without some reflection, so I think it's fair enough to examine them in detail.

Now: "the liquidation of the Palestinian nation" is actually an ambiguous phrase. "Nation" can be taken as synonomous with "people", and to liquidate a people is what we call genocide. And as indicated yesterday, I, like Norm, disdain the discourse that portrays Israel as guilty of genocide, or of harbouring aspirations in that direction. And so I think it unfortunate that the authors allowed such ambiguity to appear in their letter.

But "the liquidation of the Palestinian nation" might also - or rather instead - mean the liquidation of the Palestinian nation as a nation - the permanent denial of the aspiration of the Palestinian people to nationhood in its generally accepted form i.e. a nation-state, national self-determination.

Given the prominence of the concept of "politicide" (coined apparently by Baruch Kimmerling*) among more radical critics of Israeli policy, it would seem uncharitable (and I think probably inaccurate) to assume that the authors meant the first, rather than the second of the two meanings I have suggested.

But then I'm not sure that that is what Norm has done. His only mention of genocide is in linking the post to a previous one (commented upon here yestereday) pertaining to the "[t]he discourse of Israel as a genocidal state". He opposes the "lie" (that a long-term Israeli aim has been "the liquidation of the Palestinian nation") to the truth that Israel's enemies have sought, and seek still, "the liquidation of Israel". This leaves us no wiser as to what Norm means by "the liquidation of Israel", or what he takes to be meant by "the liquidation of the Palestinian nation" - genocide or "politicide".

In so far as there are any hints in this regard, Norm's reference to "the existential threat stalking the Jewish state" might indicate that, for Norm, "liquidation" is (presumably in both cases - both "the liquidation of Israel" and "the liquidation of the Palestinian nation") taken to mean not necessarily genocide, but also the lesser crime of "politicide". Otherwise he might have made a stronger claim by referring to "the existential threat stalking the Jewish (or Israeli) people".

But cutting through all this semantic speculation let me say this: I certainly don't feel the same way about the discourse of "Israel as guilty of politicide" as I do about the discourse of "Israel as guilty of genocide". I think it would require a good argument to discredit the former - not so much the latter.

Perhaps I am vulnerable to the charge of "permit[ting] [my]self mentally to block out the existential threat stalking the Jewish state" (and thus "worthy of nothing but contempt") due to a couple of things I've written recently, specifically that "Hamas and Hezbollah say they want to destroy the Israeli state, something they have no prospect at all of achieving", and that "'the destruction of the state of Israel' remains (thankfully) a very abstract threat".**

But it has always seemed to me downright insensitive to make so much of the threat to Israel's existence without at least explicitly acknowledging that, when it comes to the denial of a "right to exist" to other nations, Israel is more sinner than sinned against, since the threat to the existence of the State of Israel, being a threat, remains in the realm of the potential, whereas the non-existence of the State of Palestine is very real indeed, and that is (not entirely, but) decidedly the responsibility of Israeli policy.

So: I'm somewhat puzzled that Norm either a) assumes the meaning of "the liquidation the Palestinian nation" is genocide, or b) considers the existential threat posed to the Israeli state by its enemies to be more significant than the existential threat posed to the Palestinian state by its enemies, which he surely must if he considers the accusation of politicide, when leveled against Israel, to be "[r]eversing the truth".

*Kimmerling's 2002 article linked to above describes the Sharon government's policy as "the politicide of the Palestinian people, a gradual but systematic attempt to cause their annihilation as an independent political and social entity." I should note that, whatever the truth or otherwise of that charge, his subsequent claim that "politicide is a crime against humanity that is very close in its severity to genocide" seems to me to radically understate the importance, in his definition of politicide, of the qualification "as an independent political and social entity". I do not think that this undermines my point that one has to distinguish between the accusation of genocide and the accusation of politicide.

**It has not always been so abstract or hypothetical, and nor can we be sure it will remain so if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. But Israel has been the regional military superpower for some time now. That it cannot expect always to be that, and that it cannot expect always to have the uncritical support of the world's most powerful state, are good reasons for it to seek peace by doing justice.

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