Blog post

Seeing and Believing in Palestine: Testimonial 12

In the 12th instalment of our Palestine Uncensored series, Adam Kitaji describes how Israel's unrelenting siege in Gaza lays bare the moral and political illegitimacy of liberal international institutions.

Adam Kitaji10 January 2024

Seeing and Believing in Palestine: Testimonial 12

**This testimony was written on November 23, 2023.

Few events have been so heavily mediatized as the genocidal violence currently unfolding, in its eighth week, in Gaza. So relentless is the slaughter that one would expect minimal responsibilities for its acknowledgement. Yet, it is precisely the refusal of that minimal responsibility that has produced such a collective state of schizophrenia: we feel as though our minds are torn asunder because the need to pay our full attention to Gaza is frustrated by our defense of the Palestinian cause elsewhere. And we experience this distraction as the most rapacious of disrespect because of how little it should take to assume probity in the face of such indisputable bloodshed. We guard against depletion “here” in the metropoles, where we recognize the fight against censorship, McCarthyism, harassment, and ostracism is secondary, incomparable even, to the death and devastation in Gaza, but whose orbits we are nevertheless dragged into. “Did you see the bombing?” has become the conversation-starter amongst our allies; “can’t you see the bombing?” is the rebuttal against our enemies. But the question, of course, isn’t about seeing––everyone has seen all there is to see. What Palestine has ruptured is not just the liberal pretenses upholding so-called Western democracy, but the fundamental preposition that justice is rooted in evidence, that truth leads to action, and that seeing is believing. Among the detonations, we are tested on whether we should believe what we see, or are better yet, told. The intense traffic in footage coming out of Gaza has so readily minimized the distance between ourselves––wherever we are––and those amongst the rubble that the metaphor of seeing annihilation “before our very eyes” seems hardly anything but quite literal. One would have thought such intense proximity would make our acknowledgement of that violence irrefutable and inevitable. But yet, an entirely unprecedented amount of energy has been invested into discrediting, diverting, and denarrativizing the very occurrence of these events. We are told not to believe what we are seeing. A hospital is not a hospital. A civilian is not a civilian. An ambulance is not an ambulance. A calendar is not a calendar. We are told to accept the rhetorical authority of legal pronouncements over what we see: a civilian is a “terrorist,” a hospital his “base.”

Labels and properties do not properly stabilize: the question of ontology, what things are, becomes subservient to questions of authority, what they are decreed to be. Signifiers circulate like quicksilver––al-Shifa Hospital starts off as a command “center,” before becoming a “node,” and finally settling, for now, as a weapons “storage” facility, all efforts to modulate more granular degrees of accountability––and the Zionist attempt to hold onto its denominative authority crumbles into quicksand. In the West, however, so strong is the institutional attachment and investment in these initial characterizations that any subsequent confession or revision bears minimal political effect. The turn away from the established news and toward TikTok journalists and social media footage, itself running on partisan, demographic, and generational lines, has provided an upshot, if there is one, in the form of a public renegotiation of who an acceptable authority of trust is. From the start––one that finds its place long before October 7––the Zionist project has weaponized what it has claimed and garnered consensus for as “fact” to the detriment and devastation of the Palestinians. But what changed on and following October 7 is that declared facticity itself no longer bears an iron grip on the minds of the millions that have taken to the streets. When it was presented as “fact” that Hamas beheaded babies, endorsed at the highest levels of US government and echoed again recently, the public response was to a large degree righteous indignation at the wilful misrepresentation as well as the recognition that the media circus was meant to distract us from the slaughter in Gaza. Like gaps in a spider’s web, the Zionist state cannot wind the seal of evidence airtight.

Nevertheless, the reason Zionist propaganda works, even in its most absurd, comical manifestations is because Palestinians are already so dehumanized that the psychic work has been done before it hits our screens. Israel can afford to lie, backtrack, and distort its own positions because Palestinians are already figured in the imaginary of the Western media industry as “human animals.” To them, claims about dead babies are easily digestible. When facts fail to shore up against the deluge of evidence to the contrary, the Zionist regime falls back on the age-old ideological buttress provided by the long shadow of the Holocaust. The children of this generation, however, are not old enough to be so blindsided by the paranoid obedience the West pays to Israel over its purported monopoly on global trauma. Signs and slogans refuting the equivocation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the dedicated work of Jewish Voice for Peace and various similarly oriented student groups, and the loud support of anti-Zionist descendants of Holocaust survivors, or in some instances, the survivors themselves has displaced the “Holocaust” as a signifier for absolute evil. In its place is the growing recognition of its formation as a series of iterable decisions which are, in fact, being reiterated in Palestine today as part of a longer project of settler-colonialism that began prior to the Second World War, even if it were accelerated by its horrific events.  The largest Holocaust museum in the world, it has been pointed out, is after all built on the ruins of Deir Yassin, a village that was massacred and depopulated during the Nakba. To this, perhaps we can learn from the words of the late philosopher Gillian Rose:

 

Are we guilty for surviving when six million died? God forbid! We would be guilty if we remain defined solely as survivors; guilty because fixed in a counter-identification. To survive––to live again––demands a new tale: a new prayer to be found, a new polity to be founded. It demands a willingness to participate in power and its legitimate violence for the sake of the good. Not as a sanctioned, holy Israel, nor as Israeli, nor any other raison d’état, but as the risk of recognition––the risk of coming to discover the self-relation of the other as the challenge to one’s own self-relation.[1]

 

Much has been written about Zionism’s particular investment in the destruction of material constructs and artifacts as a metonym for Palestinian life and culture. At least an equal amount of ink has filled pages on its attempt to conflate and collapse resistance to settler-colonial violence with anti-Judaism. We see its success in how any concession made in the West is framed in terms of Islamophobia as the only plausible correlate of anti-Semitism. Anti-Palestinian racism is far less often called out for what it is, at the expense of non-Muslim Palestinians. Of course, that Islamophobia has come to stand in for anti-Arab racism writ large is itself part of the effort to reinforce the framing of religious war. Amidst this violence is the claim made nearly two-centuries ago, and historically mobilized by Zionsits and anti-Zionists, Europeans and Arabs alike, that a “Semite,” etymologically, would include Arabs, too. Leveraging etymology against actual language-use has its limits, but what it does indicate is a public willingness to more critically question the deployment and weaponization of conceptual categories that have historically activated genocidal violence. Theodor W. Adorno could have just as well been writing about today when he said that in the twentieth century “the facts that have been advanced as a counterweight to mere illusion have themselves become a sort of cloak and so reinforce the impression of mere illusion.”[2] Adorno here is interested in the kind of mental reservations that are deactivated once we commit ourselves to a practice of fact perception that doesn’t take into account how the “facade of facticity” is historically bound up with the affirmative power of society.[3] What Palestine has shown us is a newfound refusal to engage in conglomerate demands to affirm annihilation. And the degrees of that affirmation has waned as the media elite have felt their grip loosen: rather than mobilize a demand for a robust endorsement, what our governments seem to be asking us is neither consent, acquiescence, nor even mere acceptance but rather passive acknowledgement.

One way it has tried to achieve this is through the alarming practice of making Palestine appear over and over again only in the context of its own disappearance. Places and faces only register from across such a distance as they are on the brink, or have already, disappeared. The uncanny effect is to diminish our ability for a robust affirmation of Palestinian life; instead, we are forced to accept that by the time we acknowledge its displays, it has likely already ceased to exist. This epistemic violence is part and parcel of Zionism’s genocidal logic of dehumanization: minimizing the duration Palestine and Palestinians are allowed to appear on our screens, it is thought, would diminish our ability for attachment. The intention is blatant: to overwhelm our capacity for grief and suffuse our indignation with defeatism. Forcing the world to witness this horror intends to instill a sense of powerlessness. Mourning becomes anticipatory. The sixteen or so hours Bisan disappeared from our screens saw her Instagram profile flooded with comments already contending with her death. She is, thankfully, as of the time of this writing, still alive; but our pre-emptive mourning remains coiled up like a spring gathering tension. This should not be taken as equivocation with the kinetic violence eradicating Palestinian life on the ground. Instead, what is becoming more apparent is the extent to which the Palestinian struggle lives on as a global issue. It is undoubtedly Palestinian freedom fighters whose heroic efforts at resistance that take primacy here, but still: what happens “over there” is shaped by the popular demands taking place “here,” which in themselves have tested the very limits of our supposedly democratic ideals. From the US Congress’s admonition of student movements in support of Palestine and the dissolution of campus organizations, to the sacking of government officials, lawyers, and celebrities, who have spoken out in favor of Palestinian freedom, to parliamentary demands for integrating recognition of Israel as a constituent element of citizenship in Germany, Palestine has become the metonym for the social contract’s limits. The narrowing scope of what opinions are “permissible” for expression is mirrored in the expansion of the domain of what constitutes “hate speech.” The result is such a rapid bad-faith devaluation of the definition of “anti-Semitism” in ways that will inevitably jeopardize the safety of Jewish people globally. On the other end, however, the ethical injunction to bear witness and mourn the thousands dead and displaced has become intertwined with the reckoning of what is likely to be a revolutionary historical moment. The polarization of public opinion, and the stark opposition of global mass movements to “democratic” governmental representation, has amounted to the most widespread delegitimization of the Zionist State in history. It is, of course, a question as to what that delegitimization will bring about.

No privacy is afforded to Palestinian grief for the sake of this delegitimization. Instead, Palestinains must hold up their traumas like a sun hoping it is bright enough that our allegiances will flock around them. One of the few surgeons left in Gaza was forced to operate on his son without anesthesia. The child died of the pain. The whole world witnessed his father’s tears. We tumble from image to image, falling head over heels into what seems like a vertigo of bottomless depths trying to match faces to names before it inevitably degenerates into an ever-growing list. And it is that list that has been carried through protests, laid out on senate floors, or draped around alma matters as if to say “what more proof do you need?” The response has without fail propped up October 7 as the gaping singularity that swallows up the last 70 years like a black hole in the night sky. What is especially insidious about the expectation to preface claims for Palestinian justice with a condemnation of October 7 is the implied concession to the liberal pretense that “all lives matter” when it has been proven time and again to not be the case. The condemnation of Hamas cannot be divorced from the same kind of abstraction that is couched in the liberal pretense of a universalism that cannot live up to its own promises. To condemn October 7 is to make the concession that “all civilian lives matter” which advances a performative gesture that fails to muster actionable power behind it. It is part and parcel of the same abstraction at work in international humanitarian law that creates equivalences where there are none: to subsume anticolonial killing under the rubric of “war crimes” implies that it is in some level commensurable to genocidal violence. The only thing this accomplishes is the collapse of qualitative difference into the quantitative standards of measure (proportionality, necessity, etc.) that set up flat equivocation: a dead Israeli is “just as bad” as a dead Palestinian. The irony, of course, is that it is the opposite that is true. An Israeli life is politically more valuable within the global economy of grievability than a Palestinian’s. Separating grievability from accountability, which with each detonation become increasingly intertwined, can have the effect of immobilizing political action. For one, neither Israel nor the US accept the ICC’s jurisdiction. Now, even without these procedural barriers, the order of violence we are witnessing is possible because and not in spite of the liberal rule of law. Countless “violations” and broken Security Council resolutions have failed to change absolutely any of the facts on the ground. Even worse, legal notions of “dual targets” that Israel has retroactively deployed to justify striking hospitals, schools, and other civilian establishments are legitimizable within the framework of the liberal framework of humanitarian law. The fact that this turned out to be false carries less weight than the claim that Israel believed itself to be targeting “terrorists.” This raises the question about why we should put our faith in liberal institutions when it is precisely liberalism that not only enables but legitimizes this violence? “Genocidal intent” is a standard of proof: what we see and experience to be true may not hold up in a court of law. Impinging validity to legality will never get us closer to a notion of justice adequate to reckon with the violence we are witnessing. Across registers of morality and legality, then, Palestine calls for something else entirely.

The point is that Palestine will test how far Western democracies are willing to concede in their own material interests to appease popular demands. It will test, in other words, whether delegitimization in public consciousness is commensurate with delegitimization in the form of internationally-sanctioned political action. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets every single week to demand an end to genocide, and yet this barely registers among the elected representatives of various opposition parties.  The gap between elite consensus around a cheque blanc and popular horror at the murderous latitude is so vast and visible that it has fundamentally fissured the pretense of liberal democracy. It is no longer tenable to assume that there does indeed exist a fundamental identity or even isomorphism of interests between the ruling class and its elected officials and the people’s will. There are a couple of implications that follow. First is that it has become clearer than ever––even with the overwhelming historical record––that the state does not care about our trauma, which is diverted into fodder for political disputes that themselves have become grounds for moral legitimacy and illegitimacy; and second, that the question has now become how much the state finds it necessary to maintain its internal relationships via that allowance.  The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, it was recently pointed out to me, argues that the rise of fascism is driven by the impulse of a reduction toward singularity. In “Fascistic States of Mind,” he points to a specular symmetry between fascism and psychic organization, which is itself a partial cause of fascism and how its self-replicnating perpetuity is maintained. On both the social and psychological level, fascism works by a reduction in the plurality of distinct voices, instead giving way for the emergence of one authoritarian vantage. In the subordination––or what in psychoanalytic literature is referred to as “abnegation”––of multiplicity, a “moral void” is created. The intolerability of that void is felt by the fascist as a demand to find a victim who could contain it. 

 

On the verge of its own moral vacuum, the mind splits off this dead core self and projects it into a victim henceforth identified with the moral void. To accomplish this transfer, the Fascist mind transforms a human other into a disposable nonentity, a bizarre mirror transference of what has already occurred in the Fascist's self experience.[4]

 

For Bollas, fascism arises in instances where people organize themselves around political formations that demand crystallized notions of identity and alterity, because it more readily allows for the suppression of ambivalent feelings. But the attending feeling of moral impoverishment is too burdensome that it must be cast off like a dead weight onto a scapegoat who, forced to their knees, is literally believed to be less than human. The “delusional narcissism” at work in this remarkably violent process of projection entails a loss of symbolization, or meaning-creation, which is replaced with the pressure felt for concrete action that minimizes tolerance for ambiguity and ambivalence. The fascist is incapable of entertaining the possibility of their own moral shortcoming and instead secures their core concept in an airtight vacuum chamber. Perhaps this best explains the Zionist propensity to understand not even the dismantlement of the apartheid state but the mere call to end genocide as an existential threat. To them, even the idea of coexistence cannot be entertained because the virulent dehumanization has foreclosed the possibility of seeing Palestinains as humans to live alongside. Zionism, as fascism, recognizes that to depopulate Palestine would require nothing short of repopulating the world with, to borrow from Herbert Marcuse, one-dimensional men. Lest we forget: “That no reforms within the world sufficed to do justice to the dead, that none of them touched upon the wrong of death.”[5]

 

[1]Gillian Rose. Mourning Becomes the Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 100.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno. History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann and translated by Rodney Livingstone. (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 29.

[3] Adorno, History and Freedom, 30.

[4] Christopher Bollas. “Fascistic States of Mind.” In Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self-Experience. Cambridge and New York: Routledge, 2003, 203.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1992, 385.

If you have a story to share, please send it to pdiaries@verso.co.uk. We are publishing testimonies from all over the world. To see the full collection of testimonials, check out the Palestine Uncensored series' main page.

← Read Testimonial 11 in our Palestine Uncensored series 

Read Testimonial 13 in our Palestine Uncensored series → 

[book-strip index="1"]

Towers of Ivory and Steel
Israeli universities have long enjoyed a reputation as liberal bastions of freedom and democracy. Drawing on extensive research and making Hebrew sources accessible to the international community, ...
From the River to the Sea
In the final months of 2023, as this ebook is published, Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza. Israeli officials have repeatedly made their intentions to do so extremely clear; talking of collec...
The Palestine Laboratory
WINNER OF THE 2023 WALKLEY NON-FICTION JOURNALISM PRIZEShortlisted for the 2023 Moore Prize for Human Rights WritingA BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New Republic, WiredIsrael's military industrial com...

Filed under: israel-palestine, palestine-uncensored