Why Chinese Keffiyuhs are not destroying the Palestinian Economy

Almost anytime the topic of keffiyuhs is brought up, someone mentions Chinese keffiyuh production as the cause of the shutdown of Palestinian keffiyuh factories, and the precarious situation of the last remaining plant: the Hirbawi textile factory in Hebron.

The argument runs something like this: Chinese keffiyehs, which have printed patterns rather than woven ones, are cheaper and therefore tourists buy them instead of the traditional Palestinian headscarves. Thus putting the plant out of business.

And it’s true, the printed scarves are cheaper – in Hebron you can buy Chinese printed keffiyuhs for 10 shekels, and real woven keffiyuhs from Hirbawi cost 25 shekel. But after that, the argument starts to fall apart. The chinese keffiyehs are nothing like the woven keffiyehs – the fabric is much lighter, and the patterns are not the same. The scarves from Hirbawi come in the various politically significant patterns, and the Chinese scarves do not. And the multicoloured fashion scarves from Hirbawi are much more beautiful, delicate and complex than the Chinese Keffiyuhs. I know this because I brought back many of them, and people here absolutely adore them, whereas the Chinese printed scarves are really just hipster chick.

Moreover, the Chinese scarves are not sold as pervasively throughout the West Bank and Arab areas of the state of Israel as you might expect. Everywhere you go in Palestine you see Keffiyehs, but usually you see the red checker pattern and the black and white pattern made famous by Arafat. These are woven keffiyuhs, and they are not made in China. However, they are usually not made in Hebron either – the reality is most woven keffiyuhs sold in Palestine are produced in the surrounding Arab countries: Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi. You can learn this from the shopkeepers, or if your arabic is good you can read the label. The keffiyehs from Arab countries are of good quality, sometimes better than the ones made in Hebron. For instance, my arafat-patterned keffiyuh, a precious gift from a friend in the Kalandia camp, is not from Hebron but Jordan – and it is a much softer and richer scarf than the arafat patterned keffiyehs I bought at Hebron.

The key here is to see that the printed keffiyuhs and woven keffiyuhs are not goods which are in competition with each other. If someone buys a printed keffiyuh for 10 shekel, they are not buying it instead of a 25 shekel woven keffiyuh. They are bought by different people for different reasons. Or, sometimes by the same people for different reasons. For instance, while I bought about woven keffiyuhs in Palestine, nearly all from Hirbawi, I also bought a single red and black printed keffiyuh – because sometimes, just sometimes, I don’t want to wear something political. Most people are the opposite of me – they never want to wear something which will cause others to scowl and call you a terrorist behind your back. If these people buy printed keffiyuhs, they are not hurting the Palestinian economy, because they wouldn’t have bought a real keffiyuh anyway. 

Don’t think that because I’m opposing the “it’s all China’s fault” analysis that I don’t support Hirbawi textiles. I do – I’m currently working on importing a large quantity of scarves from Hebron, which I will sell at cost to individuals and Palestinian solidarity groups in Toronto (I’m not interested in making a return). There are various groups in North America doing this, trying to help keep the factory open. And this is a good thing to do – I want the people I met there, and had coffee with, to be able to keep their jobs. But it doesn’t help them to spread the idea that the Chinese are putting them out of business – if they had a larger chunk of the Keffiyuh sales, even just in the West Bank (mostly selling to tourists in Ramallah), they would be in a fine position. The fact is, they are being out competed by production in Jordan and Syria – not China.

 

Religions and Secular Ethics as Psycho-Technologies

In A Preface to Morals, Walter Lippman makes the point that religion doesn’t merely give people an ethical theory which describes how they ought to act, but also creates the motivational structures which elicit them to act according to the theory. In other words, religion is not merely a how-to manuel on how to act, to be evaluated alongside other how-to manuels, but is something more akin to a piece of magic – a psycho-technology which bores into people, spreads through groups, and tends to propagate itself while motivating certain individual and social actions for the group.

Post-religious ethics is only a few hundred years old. Immanuel Kant is often recognized as the first philosopher to take seriously the need to create a new ground for ethical motivation and moral choice after believing in God is no longer unquestionable enough to motivate moral choice unequivocally throughout a society. Kant may have written before the death of God was complete, but his project of creating a theology-free ground for ethical action is motivated by the warning signs that Christianity is on the decline in Europe. Moreover, it is motivated by Kant’s cosmopolitanism – his desire for different nations to live in peace, and he thought that if ethical action was no longer based on one’s particular God, but on one’s universal humanity, genuine respect for people outside the in-group was more possible. And, that’s still a good idea today.

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Massacre and Memory – the 29th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila

Today is the 29th anniversary of the Maronite Phalange/IDF massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Other than the massacre at Deir Yassin, no other historical event seems to symbolize the Palestinian situation like what happened at Sabra and Shatila between september 16th and 18th, 1982. The event was brutal, this can’t be questioned. But are obliged to question what role the historical-political memory of this event continues to have today, and whether the way the event is represented is fully honest.

The facts of the massacre are, I believe, relatively uncontroversial. After Israel took control over the portions of Beirut where the camps were situated, they amassed the Phalange militias at an airport under IDF control. The Militias were taken to the camps by the IDF, and during the night proceeded to massacre hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians. While the camps had been a stronghold for Palestinian militias, I don’t believe anyone claims that militants remained in the camps, or that somehow fighting with a few leftover militants could have led to many hundreds of civilians dead. Instead, reports suggest full scale massacre – people being lined up and shot.

Responsibility for the massacre is also, I believe, fairly straightforward. Certainly those who committed the acts of murder are responsible, but the IDF is also responsible because it’s actions clearly led to the events, which were foreseable and avoidable. This is relatively uncontrovertial because it’s the finding of an Israeli report (the “Kahan Commission“) which found the Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, personally responsible. They employed a principle of British Common Law (it’s also called the Hegelian duty of knowledge if you’re interested), which basically proposes that you can be held responsible for that which you didn’t intend if you could have and should have foreseen the effects of your actions.

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Palestinian “Statehood”: the UN bid, the Stages plan, and the rights of refugees

The Palestinian National authority is in the midst of a bid to acquire for the occupied Palestinian territories the status of “statehood” at the United Nations. How should we interpret this situation – who’s interests are served by the current plan, and how does it fit into the regional and historical context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

There seem to be three basic narratives we can tell about the statehood bid.

First, we could see it as an attempt to put pressure on Israel to agree to a settlement which could bring about an end to the conflict. In Taba, while it is very difficult to know what was actually proposed, it does seem that what are generally thought to be acceptable solutions on final status issues were reached, but the settlement was rejected by both sides. Since Taba, Israel has not come anywhere close to offering the deal which was offered there – and why should they, since there is no pressure being put upon them. Perhaps the PA today wants to accept what Arafat rejected in 2000, and the statehood bid is an attempt to do this through international pressure.

The second is, we could see it as a fulfillment of the first step in the “phased” plan adopted by the PLO in 1974. According to the phased plan, the first stage of the liberation of Palestine is to establish some form of statehood over Palestinian territories liberated from Israel through armed struggle, and to use that territory and authority over it as a base to pursue further armed operations against Israel. It is true that the PA authority over portions of the West Bank and Gaza was achieved through armed struggle, and it is true that PA authority over this territory enabled the resistance to be effective during the 2nd intifada. However, the PA’s authority over the West bank and Gaza is limited – they do not control the borders, and much of the West Bank remains under Israeli military control. A Palestinian state on the ’67 borders would greatly enhance Palestinian independence from Israel. However, it would change the character of the resistance – as a State it would be forced to take on the responsibility to “fight terrorism”, i.e. control its militias – and if it did not, Israel could consider further terror attacks against it as grounds for a full scale invasion of the Palestinian state. If Palestinians want to continue to pursue armed struggle against Israel, they would be forced into conventional military operations, which would be impossible as Israel will remain by far more militarily powerful, and an ally of the strongest military country in the world. The advantage of the Palestinians – their skill at asymmetric warfare, would be lost.

The third seems the most likely to me. It is an attempt of the current leadership of the PA to maintain power and prestige, at the expense of the needs and interests of most Palestinians. The settlement of the conflict by a two state solution is in conflict with the fundamental desire of the Palestinian refugees – to return to their ancestral lands. The PA does not represent the Palestinian people, at best it represents the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But, in effect, it does not very much represent them either – since Hamas won the general election in 2006 and Fatah remains in power as a result of a Palestinian civil war, not an electoral mandate. It is essential here to understand the difference between the PLC (palestinian legislative council) and the PNC (palestinian national council). The PLC is made up of the members of the PNC elected within the occupied territories. So, for the PLC to replace the PNC as the main governing body of the Palestinians means for the refugees voices to be ignored.

Any way you cut it, the basic problem with the statehood bid is the perception that it means recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over most of historic Palestine, and thereby recognizing the right of Israel not to allow refugees to return. Fatah certainly wants to avoid this perception, but I have not heard a PA representative speak effectively on the relation between the statehood bid and the right of return.

Confirmation Bias and the Ultimate Attribution Error

Confirmation bias is the tendency to privilege content which affirms existing views over content which challenges them.

The Ultimate Attribution error is the tendency to attribute personality based explanations to the negative behaviors of outgroup members, and situational based explanations to their positive behavior. And vice-versa, it is the tendency to attribute situational based explanations to the negative behavior of in-group members, and personality based explanations to their positive behavior.

The ultimate attribution error is an example of how confirmation bias operates in a social situation. My neighbors, the people towards which I have extended empathy, are good people – so when I see them doing good things, this confirms my belief in their goodness, so I see it as a manifestation of their personality. My enemies, those people towards which I do not extend empathy, are bad people, so if I see them doing something good I attribute this to the situation rather than their personality. Their good behavior challenges my idea of them, so I disregard it by attributing it to their situation, rather than to them.

The ultimate attribution sounds like what we mean when we say that someone is prejudice – but I think that the in/out prejudice can surface as less sophisticated forms of confirmation bias. For instance, last night, as Ron Paul simply began to say that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were “very explicit” about their motivations behind 9/11, strong boos appeared from the audience. There seems to be a fundamental block in people’s minds – they do not even want to hear the enemy as the kind of thing which can give reasons. The enemy’s motivations are pre-characterized (“they hate our freedom”), and if anyone says otherwise they are lying, or maybe worse – maybe they are the enemy too.

It is easy to ridicule confirmation bias from a position of safety, security, and relative neutrality. It is easy, watching the same US television coverage of the Israeli/American war on Lebanon which Bin Laden probably watched, to empathize with his conclusions (see the quote at the end of my previous post). But, there are problems with this too – all we are doing is following out the old liberal line that says an enemy is just a misunderstood friend. Zizek is very good to point out the fallacy in this – what about Hitler? Was Hitler only my misunderstood friend? Of course not. In situations where one can’t help but take sides, one cannot help but feel some revulsion at the suggestion that I have mischaracterized the motivations of an enemy.

I mean – seriously, say someone discovered a Nazi text which claimed that the true motivation for the scapegoating of Jews in the 1930s in Germany was to destroy the power of the banks? There is something revolting about this, it makes me feel a little sick even to write out this as a hypothetical. No! We want to say – Hitler scapegoated Jews because he hated them! It was hatred of jewish people that motivated all of it! And we likely think that anyone who says otherwise is an anti-semite, an apologist.

This same feeling that we share (I hope), this feeling of disgust at questioning the Nazi’s motivations, maybe this is the feeling of those who booed as Ron Paul talked about the explicit motivations of Al Qaeda – maybe they feel that Al Qaeda hates American freedom just as Nazis hated the jews. The pure hatred in the pure enemy. But my relation towards that enemy is also pure hatred. So, it works out to (my) pure hatred of (the) pure hatred (of my enemy).

But there must be some kind of mistake. This leaves us in an epistemic trap – if my enemy is really a pure enemy, then I couldn’t possibly know it because I am forced to believe (and therefore disregard evidence to the contrary) that he is my enemy.

I think the paradox created by radical evil can be solved by allowing for a distinction between empathy and sympathy. In empathy I feel the emotions which I think someone else is feeling (ok, in reality it is more complicated than this but the details don’t matter here). In sympathy I not only feel the emotions, but sympathize with the goals they imply, and desire to help with these goals.

The difference between empathy and sympathy is a moral judgement, whether it is explicit or not. In many cases, I can not decide whether or not to empathize with someone else’s situation – but I do have to decide whether I will allow those feelings to provoke me to take on their goals, to allow their goal structure to have an effect on my own. As a moral agent, I’m responsible for my goal structure, for its carrying out, and for alterations to it. I’m not sure if being a moral agent can mean anything outside of that.

While it might feel revolting to empathize with the situation of an enemy, this might just be because we are not used to making a conceptual distinction between sympathy and empathy, and we are not used to seeing this distinction in others. It might be that this distinction is only clean conceptually, and phenomenologically there is always a tension between empathy and sympathy (or we might say between empathic simulation and empathic concern).

I want this discussion to allow me to say something meaningful about the “love thine enemies” teaching. Love thine enemies can’t mean simply sympathize with them, take on their goal structure, because then (unless they were not truly your enemies, which is certainly the case some of the time) your own destruction would become your own goal.

On the other hand, love thine enemies can’t mean simply empathize with them – because it is possible to empathize without taking their interests into account at all – to empathize purely to improve your own strategy at destroying the enemy.

No – the demand to love thine enemies is neither a military tactic, nor a pure expansion of the zone of moral concern to include all (it is not a call for universal humanity in the French Revolutionary sense). Rather, it exists in some kind of tension between these too interpretations.

I think the key is to go back to confirmation bias, and the blindness it creates. This blindness is not only theoretical – it’s not only that I become an idiot when I see someone purely as an enemy. Although this is certainly true, for instance in the ultimate attribution error I construct an idea of their personality as self-consciously evil – but no one actually constructs their own personality this way. It is also a moral blindness – I am blind to the possibility of recognizing what is genuinely positive in their personality, and I am blind to the possibility of recognizing what is genuinely negative in my own personality. And, if we think that we should see good and evil for what they are, then we might think that my blindness of good and evil as is created by the enemy-relation is a moral problem.

I think most of what is useful about Christianity can be boiled down to the phrase, “don’t be an idiot”. The english term “idiot” comes from the Greek idios which means “privately”, “apart”, or “one’s own”. In other words – don’t be on your own, inside, by yourself – be out there with others. And it’s not just a theoretical maxim – how you are with others has an impact on how we all live together, and that’s ethics, and you’re responsible for that, and that’s why it’s a moral issue. Actually, I think that the trinity is an expression of the Maxim “don’t be an idiot” – God realizes that he can’t actually understand or care for his people because his omnipotence puts him totally apart. The one thing you can’t understand if you are powerful is what it’s like to be weak. So, God knocks up Mary, makes himself mortal. And in the same move, changes his religion from being about “being a chosen people”, to a religion for anybody – and a religion which demands of everybody to see across in/out group lines. Which is again, a way of not being “private”, “apart”, an idiot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ron Paul’s “Boos”: 9/11 or Palestine?

After tonight’s debate between candidates running for the republican nomination in the next presidential elections, many newspapers quickly published articles which highlight in their title the fact that Ron Paul was “booed” for his views on 9/11.

I don’t have time to watch the entire debate, but I watched this compilation of Ron Paul’s answers, and I think it’s significant to point out that only during one question was he booed.

He was booed was while he was describing the explicit motives for 9/11 as described by Bin Laden and Al Quaeda. I’ll write it out in full because I think it is significant to notice the exact moments when the “boos” appeared.

…Osama Bin-Laden and Al Quaeda have been explicit and they wrote and said that we attacked America because you had bases on our holy land in Saudi Arabia, you do not give Palestinians fair treatment. And you had been bombing…I didn’t say that, I’m trying to get you to understand what the motive was. At the same time we had been bombing and killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for ten years. Would you be annoyed? If you’re not annoyed, then there is some problem.

The “boos” come in two choruses. The first is right after he says”Osama Bin-Laden and Al Quaeda have been explicit”. I’m not sure what the motivation for this could be. Is it just that the “terrorists”, as the radical evil enemy, can not be allowed to speak for themselves? Or is it that people listening assume that the kind of empathy required to understand the motivations of others is the same as sympathy – the support for other people’s positions and goals. Either way, the first boos are not very interesting.

The boos stop, and significantly there are no boos at all while Ron Paul says “because you had bases on our holy land in Saudi Arabia”. This is significant, I think, because Ron Paul has already mentioned the issue of foreign military bases several times in the debate, receiving many cheers. So the “bases” talking point is not a new issue – and if people thought that America had the god given right to have bases over there, maybe they would boo at this moment. But they don’t, so maybe we could think about that.

The second chorus of boos actually happen immediately after Ron Paul says “you did not give Palestinians fair treatment”. I wonder if there is a significant portion of Republicans who simply programmed to “Boo” whenever the term Palestinian is used. This joke aside – this I think is something we should think about.

I have to wonder what it sounds like to a Christian zionist like Glenn Beck even to hear the term “Palestinian”. I imagine the mere saying of it invokes the presence of a people who’s very existence appears as a threat to his beloved Israel. I’m not one for “understanding both sides” of an issue, at least not for knowledge’s own sake – but maybe the word “Palestinian” sounds to extreme Zionists pretty much the same as the word “Zionist” sounds to anti-Zionists – it is after all the very presence of the Zionist movement which threatens the rights of Palestinians to exist as a people. So, while I won’t say there is anything symmetrical about the situation, I will acknowledge that there is some reciprocality to these terms and their meaning.

It’s kind of funny to imagine the same statement in a very different context. Imagine if Ron Paul were talking about the zionist motives behind the King David Hotel bombing

…Begin, Ben Gurion and the Hebrew Resistance Force have been explicit and they wrote and said that we attacked Britain because you had bases on our holy land in Eretz Israel, you do not give Jewish refugees fair treatment…

Imagine if a chorus of boos launched out – not only after the the mention of the names of the Zionist leaders, but also a second chorus after the phrase “you do not give Jewish immigrants fair treatment”. This is helpful, I think, changing the context – because while anti-Zionists likely have no problem booing the very idea that Begin and Ben Gurion should have their motives taken seriously, so we can boo that, we shouldn’t be booing the very idea that we (“we” here would mean Britain) were mistreating Jewish refugees. That would be racist. I might disagree with Begin and Gurion’s views on unlimited jewish migration to Palestine in the mid 1940s, but I would never boo if someone were to raise the issue of the mistreatment of jewish refugees.

So, I think the American right, or whoever it was, is not just disagreeing with the Palestinian cause but genuinely being very racist if they are going to boo at the mere mention of the treatment of Palestinians.

Incidentally, if anyone is interested, the treatment of Palestinians was central to the motivation of Al Quaeda in planning the 9/11 attacks:

While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women

God knows that it had not occurred to our mind to attack the towers, but after our patience ran out and we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon, this came to my mind

The Value of Loyalty

Loyalty gets a bad wrap today amongst those who fancy themselves leftists. It sounds old-world, it is associated with Monarchism and maintaining the status quo at all costs. And it’s true that loyalty is a conservative value – if you want to keep things the same and maintain existing categories, it’s important not to turn on your friends or have your friends turn on you every time you might do something that people think is wrong.

It’s easy to see the downsides of loyalty – when people are supported because of who they are rather than what they say, that looks like turning off our critical faculties. And certainly instances where there has been too much loyalty have been a major cause of stagnation in society, and this isn’t really good for anybody.

But, if you don’t have enough loyalty, you are likely to live in a world which is very unstable. Especially if you exist in social situations where categories are constantly being blurred and shifted, you could always do or say something which isn’t up to date with the consensus. And if the actions of people are interpreted only on the basis of their immediate content, (i.e. treating everyone “equally”), good people can quickly be excluded. This is bad for everybody, both because some amount of stability is required for flourishing, and also because it might result in people who could continue to contribute positively to a group being excluded.

Being loyal to someone means interpreting their actions not only immediately, but in the context of their character – something you know because you’ve known them over time. I think most of us recognize that people have characters, and that not everything they do manifests their main personality traits. And recognizing this means, strangely, not treating everyone equally – but treating people as the kinds of things which have histories and futures. And we don’t know the history or future of people we don’t know – so there is no use being loyal towards them.

The converse of loyalty, I’m not sure it has a name, but it would be something like deciding to generally ignore, not follow, and even oppose the actions of people who you have judged to be of poor character. There is always the danger that your judgement is wrong, but that isn’t an excuse not to make one. Having loyalty to the wrong people will pull you down, will prevent you from flourishing. And, will probably prevent them from flourishing as well – because your loyalty towards their bad character is supporting it. If someone of bad character is abandoned by their friends, they might take this as a cue to change their character. People can transform themselves, and enabling the indefinite delay of this is not a positive thing for anyone.

We sometimes say “when things go wrong, then you find out who your real friends are”. And, normally we might think of this in terms of the people who “really care about you”. But this might be wrong – maybe the loyalty that is expressed in crisis situations is not a matter of “care”, but a judgement of character and an act of mutual self-preservation. Certainly care can be manifest, but it might be a mistake to take it as the ground level motivation for the expression of loyalty.

Secularism is a religion amongst others

I have problems with all religions. Why? Because any religion can be used to suppress free thought, progressive movements, new ideas – and as a philosopher I trade in these things. So, any religion appears as a potential danger to me. Also, I consider myself very progressive – on the vanguard of a new world, and conservative forces appear as threats – wanting to quash our dreams and keep rebuilding the walls of our existing society, which means reproducing all its violences if potentially in slightly sanitized forms.

But there are two problems with this. The first is that no society can survive without some conservative elements. If all the structures that we use to organize ourselves are constantly in flux, constantly changing every time somebody has a new idea or something goes wrong, they will never be refined, they will never even come close to working properly – and society will erode and die. It needs to be hard to overthrow the establishment, otherwise it could be overthrown by bad ideas to the detriment of everyone.

The second follows from the first – the conservative element in nation-states is detached from traditional religions. You can call it nationalism, loyalty, state-worship – you can call it what you want, but in effect it is a religion because it embodies the conservative tendencies societies need to maintain some stability, and because it demands peoples absolute loyalty (and though it may not always get it, it gets it more or less – enough to maintain peace and order, to a degree).

So, I am not opposed to there being a state religion – I think it follows analytically from there being a state. (Actually, I don’t think there should be a state religion because I don’t think there should be a state, but that’s another story). The question is what should its content be? I think the best is for the state religion to be secular, that way it can appear not to clash with anyone’s particular religion, and we might avoid sectarian conflicts which result from people feeling like a religion is being imposed upon them.

But, at the same time, we might think that we should be honest about the state religion being a religion – because otherwise we might become radically intolerant of particular religions, seeing only the bad in them, and saying “why can’t these people be non-religious like me?” But, in fact, “me” can’t be non-religious insofar as I’m obliged to practice the state-religion of obedience to the law and loyalty to state institutions.

On the other hand, if we become too aware of secularism as a state-religion, people might begin to see how it is in conflict with their own particular religions, and decide to reject it, and we could descend to a situation of sectarian conflict.

But, I don’t think maintaining social order through a pervasive ignorance is a good  thing. It may be the situation today, but I think the situation could be improved if we decided to become more aware to the extent to which secularism and obedience to the law has become a religion. Because, after all, if we are all expected to practice it – we might want to know what it is so we can criticize it and make sure it doesn’t become pathological and murderous.

Certainly the rise of the right in Europe should be a harbinger of the dangers of not noticing the common beliefs we are expected to hold. The idea that “we” are normal and “they” are dangerous outsiders who don’t really subscribe to the state religion (various ways of saying this are, “they don’t integrate”, “they don’t learn the language”, “they obey their God above the law”, etc…) can easily become a source of sectarian hatred and violence. We should take this danger seriously, and be honest with ourselves and with others about the role of the state-religion, and think creatively about ways it can be seen as not conflicting with other religions.

We should also always remember the difference between other religions which are at the centre of a cultural identity (like white protestantism in Canada), and religions which are at the periphery – which are poorly understood, actually about which people generally understand very little at all, and what they have heard has been edited to frighten them.

So, while I have a problem with all religions, I also recognize that religion is inevitable and an essential part of human social organization. Rather than do away with religions, we should strive to live in a productive relationship with its conservative tendencies, and think openly and honesty about to what extent the conservative elements are needed, and to what extent they are destructive and should be changed or done away with.

Zizek on the specificity of anti-semitism

In Living in the End Times, Zizek argues that the radical left is wrong to ever express unease in its unambiguous condemnation of anti-semitism, “as if to do so would be playing into the hands of the Zionists”:

There should be no compromise here: anti-Semitism is not just one amoung ideologies; it is ideology as such, kat’exohen. It embodies the zero-level (or the pure form) of ideology, providing its elementary coordinates: social antagonism (“class struggle”) is mystified/displaced so that its cause is projected onto the external intruder. (136)

I think Zizek is committing a fairly elementary error here – the equivocation with the embodiment of ideology as such for “ideology as such” itself. If we think the universal appears in the particular, that means we think the universal is separable from the particular, and no particular particular exhausts the universal. Moreover, while a particular might be the first expression of a pure form in a particular history, and this might give in this case one specific racism a special status among racisms, that can’t be generalized across history unless we take Heidegger at his word and assume Western European history has become unilaterally history of the world.

But isn’t the Heideggerian move the problem with Zionism in the first place – the idea that the whole world is the West, and if the West has committed genocide against the Jews then the Jews should have their pick of countries. But, of course, this lie only served the purposes of the very states which, while they did not commit the holocaust, certainly could have done more to stop it – the UN plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine conveniently took Western powers off the hook from increasing their quotas for Jewish migration after WW2. The displacement of the problem of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who did not want to return home to Palestine is a move which includes by excluding – Palestine is declared Western precisely so that the interests of its inhabitants can be ignored.

I do not think that there can be a single racism which embodies the zero-level ideology of world history, anymore than there exists a single universal history in the world – in the real world different situations are different, and different groups play different roles at different times, and it’s complicated. (And philosopher’s don’t like this, because it means they might have to go somewhere other than their office or sitting chair in order to learn something). Perhaps the zero-level ideological racism of North America is anti-indigenous racism, in the sense that the displacement of indigenous people from their land is the condition for our politics at all. Even Noam Chomsky accepts this as fait accompli when he declares that it is actually immoral to advocate for the return of indigenous peoples to their lands when such a return is tactically impossible – before we can ever start doing solidarity politics, we have to assume that land rights claims have no practical validity, people must accept their own displacement and systematic oppression as the condition for becoming participants in the political conversation at all.

But, I’m being slightly imprecise; Zizek articulates what he means by “pure form” or “zero level” more specifically with a reference to Lacan:

Lacan’s formula “1+1+a” is best exemplified by class struggle: the two classes plus the excess of the “Jew,”, the objet a, the supplement to the antagonistic couple. The function of this supplementary element is double: it is a fetishistic disavowal of class antagonism, yet, precisely as such, it stands for this antagonism, forever preventing “class peace.” In other words, if we had only two classes, 1+1, withou thte supplement, then we would get not “pure” class antagonism, but on the contrary, class peace: two classes complementing each other in a harmonious Whole. The paradox is thus that it is the very element which blurs or displaces the “purity” of class struggle which serves as its motivating force.

Because North American indigenous peoples have not since the 19th century succeeded in sustained resistance, certainly not enough to create an indefinite state or culture of indefinite emergency, I am not sure whether or not they play an important role in blurring class antagonisms here – whether in motivating or stifling class struggle. However, if we move back to Palestine, we might think that it is anti-Arab racism which forms the zero-level ideology of Zionists: the idea, whether one is religious or secular, that “God gave us this land” – and that the land rights of its former inhabitants can be categorically dismissed on the basis of their non-Jewishness. While the dismissal of the right of return might be the same kind of a priori racism in the State of Israel as anti-indigenous racism is in Canada, the sustained resistance against the Zionist project has given anti-Arab racism a very different kind of role in Israel than anti-indigenous racism plays in Canada. In short, anti-Arab sentiment is a constant obfuscation of tensions between different Israeli groups – between political and revisionist zionists, and between secular and religious Jews. I was told by a proud Israeli while in Tel Aviv that “As soon as we make peace with the Palestinians, we’ll be at war with each other” because of all the internal divisions and real tensions within Israeli society. The anti-arab sentiment certainly motivates a strong felt need for loyalty and nationalism, which in my view stifles the working out of the many class and social conflicts. I suppose Zizek would want to say that, if anti-arab sentiment is the pure form of ideology in Israel, then it would actually motivate class antagonism – but I don’t see why ideology’s “pure form” must play exactly the same role in every historical situation – different historical situations are different, and it could be that base level ideologies are adaptive (or maladaptive) for their particular roles.

I see Zizek’s desire to absolutely condemn anti-semitism as a way of repeating the Zionist ideology that the Jews are a people unlike any other. It may be that Jews are a people unlike any other for Europe,  because they played a particular role in European history, which, while it could have been played by any people, could only have been played by a single people. However, Europe is not the world (Heidegger’s remarks about the essence of technology, which are serious, aside), and to say that in Palestine anti-semitism must be unambiguously condemned, whereas other forms of racism can be weighed and measured in complexes of interests and sentiments, is exactly to play into the hands of the Zionists. It repeats the ideology that the Jews are a people like any other, and interprets this specific difference as something special about Jews, rather than something particular about their situation in European politics. And, through this essentialization (which is a word I try to avoid using but seems appropriate here), it includes the middle-east (or better, the Eastern Mediterranean) within the moral sphere of Europe, and this inclusion allows Palestinians to be blamed for the Holocaust just as we blame every other European people for this event in European history.

The inclusion of the Palestinians within “Europe” in order to justify their displacement, and the corresponding politically acceptability of anti-Arab sentiment of denying the right of return (as well as all other anti-Arab racism, which is more contingent on particular circumstances year to year, i.e. what party is in power) is the zero-level of ideology in Palestine. All other racisms can be interpreted contextually, and can be mitigated by the use of more specific terms (i.e. anti-Israeli sentiment or anti-Zionist sentiment).

We should all remember that it was Fatah, the militant Palestinian liberation movement, which when fighting for a one-state solution, understood their struggle not as anti-Jewish but anti-Sectarian, i.e. anti-racist:

We are fighting today to create the new Palestine of tomorrow. A unified and Democratic nonsectarian Palestine in which Christian , Moslem & Jew worship, work & enjoy equal rights. This is no utopian dream or false promise, for the Palestinians have always lived in peace. Moslems, Christians and Jews in the Holy Land. (Fatah Poster 1979)