‘Reasoned political action – that’s all that’s left to us. But that is already enough’: Esther Benbassa on Gaza

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Verso author Esther Benbassa is a Franco-Turkish-Israeli member of the French senate and a leading voice in comparative histories of minorities. Below is a translation of her discussion of the turmoil in the Middle East and the response of Europe, original published in Le Huffington Post.



View from the Senate: Gaza in Paris?
by Esther Benbassa

The incessant bombardments of Gaza, the Israelis hurtling down their staircases when the air raid sirens sound, scores of Palestinians killed, and life in Israel and Palestine paralysed. Unfortunately all this reminds me of other bombardments of Gaza, other rockets, and so many peace talks coming to nothing. The nightmare thus returns as usual, after a relatively brief period of calm.

The 'turmoil' over there, and the world-weariness over here

Because history is repeating itself, this scenario has ended up exhausting the interest of politicians, media, and even us men and women of conscience who are, in principle, normally awake to such matters. The peace negotiations between the two sides that took place in the first half of this year were hardly mentioned in the Western media. Nowadays when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the predominant attitude is a mix of world-weariness and cynicism.

The current upheavals in northern Iraq, with the birth of this caliphate – which is perhaps something more than the pantomime of a caliphate – jihadism in the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear programme… we might well think that the ‘turmoil’ is all over there, and that it inevitably comes from over there. From the Middle East, where young Frenchmen – eleventh-hour jihadists whose parents or grandparents came to our country in search of better economic opportunities – mount a vain, perilous struggle in search of an improbable remedy to their disillusion with a society – our society – that has not proven able to include them.

Muslim fanaticism 2.0 is of course only part of the picture. The region has for some time been undergoing a moment of almost all-consuming tumult, which has scared Western leaders stiff. The Egyptian ‘Spring’ and its repeated setbacks, the spiked heads of the fallen ‘emperors’ of the past – from Saddam Hussein to Hosni Mubarak – have proven a harsh test for Western diplomacy. Their impotent worrying in the face of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous policies is connected to this, obviously enough.

If the leaders of the Western countries do not make determined demands securing an immediate halt to the hostilities currently underway in Gaza and in Israel, if they do not block the ceaseless escalation that might result in a third Intifada – and no one knows what that might look like – then what should we be afraid of?

In the name of God!

We cannot simply compare the number of Gazans killed by the IDF’s bombs to the current lack of Israeli victims – in spite of the hail of rockets. This comparison does not alone suffice for taking stock of the situation. On both sides, everyone has had enough of this war. Even despite the powerful media propaganda deployed by the Israeli side, people speak of their trauma, their despair, and their fear. On the other side, they weep for their dead. The average Israeli – neither religious nor an extremist – is also weary of the conflict. He is, moreover, surprised. With the Wall that makes the Palestinians invisible, he had ultimately even forgotten that they existed. The average Palestinian can no longer bear these aggressive and violent settlers who harass him, the Wall that imprisons him, or his countless everyday hazards.

A few months ago I myself visited together with a group of senators. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the despair, the impossible life under occupation, the bullying and the humiliation.  But I also saw the determination to live and to build, in spite of everything. And I heard the modest dream of a sort of negotiation, one that does not even still bear the cursed name of ‘peace talks’. Negotiation, compromise, just a little progress. And now this modest dream has perhaps shrunk a little further, to the hope for a simple, rapid ceasefire. 

I have also spoken on the phone to people close to me, friends of mine, Israelis who are neither extremists nor peace activists – Mr. and Mrs. Everyone, in sum – who deplore the deaths of children, women, and innocent people in Gaza, and who are angry about what is happening. But they are also weary of the air raid sirens. I installed the Haaretz – a left-wing, secular newspaper – app on my smartphone, so that from afar I could put myself just a little bit in the place of those in Israel who ask for nothing except to be able to go about their business calmly.  But I dropped it: there were too many alerts…

Under the rocket fire these people are also feeling eaten up. While naturally shaken by the recent kidnapping and murder of three young Israelis, they expressed no less disgust and revulsion about the martyrdom forced on the young Mohammed Abu Khdeir. They say that they did not fight for a State of Israel in which they would bear witness to such barbarism, the absolute negation of all Jewish ethics. Of their ethics, in any case. Which are not those of the fanatical settlers hell-bent on ‘vengeance’, or of these extremists ready to commit the worst abuses in the name of the ‘Biblical’ (?) frontiers of their state of divine right.

Until when?

It is war and the poison of nationalism that encourage such transgressions, on both sides. The Other is dehumanised, set up as an absolute enemy, whether an adult or a child, whether armed or a simple, defenceless civilian.

How could the Jews indefinitely accept war, fire and blood in the name of a nationalism that loses ever more meaning with the passage of time? Can the utterly abominable history that the Jews suffered in days gone by still today justify an occupation like that inflicted on the Palestinians? Can the Holocaust forever continue to be the ultimate, almost divine justification of the sectarian ideal of the State of Israel? Until when?

The West’s silence is, clearly, not without connection to its historical guilt with regard to the Jews. A silence that gives Israel a free hand. When the situation becomes untenable, as with the bombardment of Gaza at the moment, and with the possible coming assault by land, the West breaks its silence but without making any real difference. And even its solemn statements leave a bitter taste. Such as that of our French President, an expression of unconditional support for Israel. Of course, François Hollande soon corrected this umpteenth gaffe, drawing into line with the Foreign Ministry’s more moderated position. But his rectification was a wholly belated one, giving carte blanche for over-excited people of all stripes, including those who reacted by attacking the Paris synagogues. Happily, on Bastille Day François Hollande again spoke his mind, this time with a clear appeal for calm. 

Don't upset our fragile coexistence

Of course, many French Jews do unconditionally support Israel. But they are not actors in this conflict. It is not them carrying out the bombardment. They have nothing to do with the things that the Palestinians have to endure day to day. If they knew exactly what was happening in Gaza and in the other Palestinian territories, perhaps they would offer their support more critically. And without doubt, more constructively.

But to take that and make the French Jews into targets is clearly going too far; it is seriously, completely mistaken. It means to take the conflict between the two peoples out in Israel-Palestine and import it to France, transforming it into a conflict between religions. Such a confusion is full of serious dangers, and risks upsetting our already fragile coexistence in France.

Who truly wants peace?

Netanyahu is betting his political future on these bombardments. Abbas, for his part, is chewing over his failure as well as his unpopularity on account of not having managed to advance his peace talks. But at root, who does truly want peace? Does any reasonable peace exist? Peace is the very opposite of reason, since each side has so long believed that right is on its side.

And it is not over. This umpteenth bombardment of Gaza, if it could only free the Palestinian Authority of some little bit of the discomfit posed by its unruly partner Hamas – well, that would not leave it too displeased. But then there is still the no less troublesome Islamic Jihad. Netanyahu, for his part, is under pressure from extremist nationalists who continue to dream of Eretz Israel. And if Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made this into a holy war, then so too do the extremist Israeli settlers see it a war of religion. They are a time bomb within Israeli society, threatening to go off at any minute. On the one hand, the impossibility of securing Israel’s borders; on the other, the impossibility of achieving recognition as a state.

What is the West afraid of?

All this is going on under the disillusioned or fearful gaze of a West that is unwilling to get its hands dirty and put an end to this infernal vicious circle. Obama has shifted, a little. He is the only one to do so, without doubt because despite everything the United States is not the prisoner of the guilt that paralyses Europe. It has done nothing but good for the Jews, and has no cause to reproach itself. The pro-Israeli lobby is certainly very active, but the American President has shown that he is sometimes able to get around this obstacle. Does he have the will to go all the way, alone, without Europe?

French Jews, whatever the extent of their attachment to and support for Israel, should not have to suffer the local fallout of the conflict. They must also take care not to contribute to it. We simultaneously reject any resulting upsurge of anti-Semitism and any reawakening of Islamophobia. This war concerns us all, for various reasons. First among them, the humanism, demanding and also pragmatic, that must inspire all of us, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, believers, agnostics, atheists, freethinkers…

In the short and medium term there must be a ceasefire and compromises, such that the ideal peace – which everyone talks about but no one knows how to bring into effect, as if it depended on some sort of decree from the heavens – can one day little by little become a reality.

France must set the tone, if it is still up to such a task. If it can go beyond a prudent abstention, if our President can get down to business as soon as possible with determination, courage and seriousness. And we say no to those who want to make their little ‘revolution’ here on the back of the Palestinians out there, or give free reign to their anti-Semitism in the name of an anti-Israelism that is something quite different.

The pen, the spoken word, reasoned political action – that’s all that’s left to us. But that is already enough.

Click here to read the original French version of the article here.

Click here for a free ebook of The Case for Sanctions Against Israel.

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