Child, what will you remember
When you recall your sixteenth year
the horrid sound of helicopter gunships
the rumble of the tanks as they grew near
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about Jenin. I only visited there once, I met some people who ran the co-operative of olive oil farmers, and I bought a shirt. And I got lost, but that’s another story. I didn’t even see the camp, or really see anything, other than some IRA graffiti, that suggested this was a stronghold or that a massacre had taken place here. But Jenin is a legend, commemorated suh passionate songs as Samih Shukair’s “Blood is falling down” and David Rovic’s “Jenin”. There are also myriad films made about Jenin. There are films for Western audiences such as Jenin Jenin, No Need to Cry, and Arna’s Children (of the three I recommend Arna’s Children). And there are films very much not cut for Western audiences, like Champions of Jenin Camp part 1, two and three. And this girl, who could surely defeat the entire Israeli army by herself. And there are even films cut for anti-Palestinian audiences, like Road to Jenin and the Virgin Sacrifice, which seek to demonize Palestinians to Western audiences, partially through deception and partially through showing them the things which pro-Palestinian directors know that Westerners don’t know how to interpret. It’s pretty easy to do that, because many mainstream Westerners idiots and can’t distinguish between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. It’s so bad really that any decent Zionist could show an average Westerner this picture and manage to change the conversation from the destruction of so many people’s houses, to the presence of the Qassam Brigades logo on the tent built on the rubble caused by the Israeli destruction.
But my point isn’t to make a point about Jenin, to tell “the truth” about Jenin – I’m not interested in arguing with some Zionist who’s going to tell me that the destruction of Jenin was necessary because of the beliefs in the heads of the people who lived there. I’m not having that argument. I’m instead presuming that I’m talking to people who already understand that if there is a truth about Jenin it is certainly a moral truth that transcends ideology. A truth about standing up against oppression, a truth about resistance to occupation, and a truth about the continued suffering of a people who refuse to be defeated. And if you see that truth in this place, in the legend, could you see it elsewhere? Could you see it in Yarmouk?
Or in Deraa?
I’m asking this because while in one place suffering and resistance is commemorated as a legend, elsewhere it is forgotten, not even noticed, or dismissed, or even actively trashed by those who claim to know better. I feel such a bitter similarity between the anti-Palestinian interpretation of Jenin, and so much discourse around Syria. As “Road to Jenin” pathologizes resistance, and focusses on Islamist ideology the left makes dismissive claims about how the opposition in Syria is infused by Islamist ideology. It’s not completely honest to simply dismiss the Zionist claim of Islamist motivations amongst the Palestinian resistance, but this does not justify Zionist violence and neither does its corollary justify the Syrian army’s violence against rebel-held areas.
On a broader scale, is it not similar to the Israeli hasbera move of justifying Israeli violence in the name of Israel’s “Western” values, when downplay Assad’s violence is downplayed in the name of his secularism? And his opposition to “Islamic fundamentalism”? The question of whether you agree with someone’s values is fundamentally a posteriori to the more basic question about self-determination and the right to live free from brutal repression. You don’t have a right to judge the oppressed to the point of withholding solidarity on the basis of an ideological disagreement. After all, didn’t the whole world stand behind Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan on his hunger strike? Was his case dismissed on the basis of his ideological affiliation? Trigger warning: you really might not have the stomach for this video.
But the point is – did this video spread like wildfire discrediting his cause? Or did solidarity not stand strong, not with his Islamist beliefs or support for objectionable tactics, but with what was true of his cause – opposition to colonization and oppression? And is it not possible to empathize with the oppressed beyond the point of support – can it not include an empathetic opposition to objectionable acts, an opposition which does not vilify, which does not become hatred and fascism? Again it feels relevant to cite Rovics:
And why should anybody wonder
As you stepped on board
The crowded bus across the Green Line
And you reached inside your jacket for the cord
Were you thinking of your neighbors buried bodies
As you made the stage for this scene
As you set off the explosives that were strapped around your waist
Were you thinking of the City of Jenin
Rovics point is not that we should literally support the kind of attack he describes in the song. The point is more subtle than that – that solidarity includes a moment of empathy and understanding, even with the unforgivable. This ability to make a distinction between the desire for justice, and a just means to bring about that desire, allows a person standing in solidarity to feel what is true and even good in the motivation of the suicide bomber, without in any way morally justifying the action. This ability to separate off, to bracket moral judgement, this is the point of the song – not to agree, but to try genuinely to feel why, from another perspective, something which to you is awful might seem right. To be more reflexive than knee-jerk moral judging allows, which is actually the only path to a genuine condemnation of suicide bombing – one which does not reduce the actors to pure pathological monsters as Israel’s supporters constantly try to do – and for the most part, succeed.
Why is all this relevant to Syria? Because if you’re Syrian and you are struggling against oppression there is a hand coming from every direction encouraging Syrians to do what from my comfortable seat in Canada I can easily call “a deal with the devil”. Whether that devil be American imperialists, or Qatari funded Jihadists, the neo-liberals in the opposition, everyone outstretching a hand to oppressed Syrians seems more reactionary than the last, more attempts to subvert any revolutionary potential, encourage religious sectarianism, and abandon the poor. And it’s easy, so easy to tell them what to do, to totally dismiss any Syrians who make the “wrong ideological decision”. But why do so many feel comfortable doing this here, who would never do that when talking about Jenin? Why do many of these same people resist the Israeli attempt to dismiss Palestinian nationalist aspirations as merely a means to bring Hamas to power? Certainly analytical resources that have been developed for the Palestinian solidarity movement could be employed to help interpret the role of Islam in the Syrian opposition. Why this is not being done, to me seems pure hypocricy.
I’m not trying to say the Syrian and Palestinian situations are the same, but we are lying if we refuse to admit the similarities. As a Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority in Palestine (most of it displaced), an Alawite minority rules over a Sunni Majority in Syria. Both countries are plagued by sectarian identities strengthened both by colonialism and by the reactions against colonialism. And both countries probably need to pass through stages of nationalism on the way to more universal identifications, while at the same time conflict is sometimes pushing identity away from the national towards the local. What is needed in Palestine is not the absolute military victory of Palestinians over Israelis, but probably the restoration of dignity and a balance of power which would make a just and dignified peace possible. The second intifada was an attempt to foster this dignity through military means, and the BDS movement is an attempt to change the balance of power through peaceful means. What is needed in Syria is not the absolute military defeat of Assad, but a political solution which allows the majority to come to power without forcing the dominant minority into suicide. We know what military means are being used to force Assad to come to the table, but what peaceful means might the international community take to pressure Assad in this direction?
But this isn’t suppose to be a post about the pragmatics of activism, I’m more interested here in why so many people who talk about Syria and who claim to be progressive, simply aren’t motivated by the suffering in Syria. If one believes that suffering and oppression is irreducible, and that resistance against oppression is universal, then what is our justification for hallowing the righteous victims and fighters of Jenin, while abandoning any sense of solidarity towards the Syrian opposition on the basis of a disagreement over ideology? If the state sieges your city, are you only worthy of solidarity if your revolt is ideologically progressive?
How many Jenins are there in Syria? How many neighbourhoods have been destroyed by artillery and tank incursions? How many Syrian children are swearing their life to their country and their neighbourhood, and against the criminals who destroyed their town and killed their family and friends? And how many respond by gripping to objectionable ideologies which seem to give them strength in the face of oppression? And how quick are western “activists” to vilify them, to say “nothing special” is happening there. I don’t even have the patience to get into the question of how racist it is to say “nothing special” is happening in Syria. And I won’t quote the Zizek piece, you can search for it yourself.
Of course, if you talk to Syrians, it’s different. They speak names of villages where the revolution began, villages have been attacked but refused to surrender, in the same hush tones as Palestinians and Palestinian rights activists speak about Jenin. Deraa comes to mind, and certainly Yarmouk Camp, but honestly, I don’t even know where these places are. I’ve never been to Syria, I have little sense of Syrian geography.
I know there is something important missing from this post – a recognition of the wills of the many Syrians who oppose the opposition, and support the Syrian army. These people cannot be ignored – I know this is again a different situation, but ignoring grassroots support for the state army was a huge failing in interpretations of the Egyptian revolution. Reactionary wills can’t simply be dismissed – both on the side of the opposition and the government side. In fact, not dismissing reactionary wills has really been the point of this post – rather, I should try to see what is not merely reactionary in a reaction against oppression. All reactions to oppression have a seed of universality in them by virtue of the universal character of opposition to injustice. I should notice and support that seed regardless of where it appears. Now, for the most part, I don’t see that seed in statist opposition to rebellions or to Islamic groups – because fidelity to the state is loyalty to an institution rather than a principle. But just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
So this post isn’t going to come to any clean summation; it’s written from the heart, and from the head, and from a heart and head that feel confused and find certainty only in opposition to the claims of certainty by others. As we continue to live in a world which does not for the most part (despite the many protests of academics) respond to injustice motivated on the basis of generalizable prescriptions, we will need heart as well as science to remain human in the face of the ongoing catastrophe of history.
EDIT: An initial draft’s profuse use of the term “we” has largely been edited out of this article.
EDIT: Read Boudour Hassan’s article, much clearer than this post and with strong connecting analysis to the “anti war” campaign.