Dare We Look Forward?
As an excruciatingly painful 2023 folds, the unavoidable question: dare we look forward?
How can we not? And inevitably, for many of us, hand in hand with every private fear and aspiration comes the collective one. The private and public realms are just that intertwined in this Arab life.
It hasn’t escape me, for example, that as I search for my father through photos and notes and papers and letters and recordings, thousands of Gazan children search for theirs under Gaza’s rubble. It hasn’t escaped me either that as I fight the temptations to stay in Lebanon, Palestinians fight Israel’s schemas of expulsion. Flight in the face of collapse; steadfastness in the face of ethnic cleansing.
The thing is, we’ve all been here before in the span between grandparents and grandchildren we call contemporary history. It’s all raw and very intimately felt even when recounted from memory. Practically every decade has its infamous year(s), when our world took a very hard beating and we watched it hurtle towards another turning point.
Twenty twenty-three, though, is quite audacious in the shocks it has already caused–everywhere. In the final days of it, we are left to contemplate scenarios of the future well beyond our ability to imagine or visualize. We are also already witness to entire value systems, civic norms, and universal covenants coming apart; to extremely uncomfortable truths erupting on the surface of a battered international order.
I could be under the influence of this moment’s trauma, of course, but I don’t recall a crisis approaching the triggers of Gaza’s across so many divides, histories, nationalities, issues, generations, and cultures.
Gaza, for us Arabs, has evoked every tragic watershed in the history of Israel-Palestine: the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), 1967 Naksa (setback), and the 1982 Israeli siege and bombardment of Beirut. It has also invited us to reeducate ourselves in the granularities of Palestinian dispossession, past and present. In doing so, it has revived the fading memories and dormant anguish of the old and allowed the young to live the past, much like their elders have. It has energized agency too, lighting up the public sphere, galvanizing organized civic action, sending out millions into the streets, and demonstrating the effectiveness of pushback across platforms and networks here and elsewhere.
On American university campuses, in its corridors of power, on social media, in its cultural and political arenas, among seething constituencies, Gaza has at once reawakened America’s flirtations with McCarthyism, exposed serious dissent within American Jewry, created even wider alienations between generations, revealed the rifts between the grassroots and the establishment, summoned Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, let loose racism, and forced billionaires to crudely flex their financial muscle in defense of Israel.
I don’t think I have ever encountered State Department cadre so openly expressing their disaffection, seen masked interns holding a vigil at the gates of the White House to call out their administration, or read about the rank and file in mainstream Jewish organizations disagreeing with their leadership.
In Europe, Gaza has invoked the carpet bombing of Dresden in World War II, the massive population transfers during and after that war, and the Holocaust and its political utilities for the continent singularly most responsible for the worst atrocities against the Jews. Tellingly, in their efforts at atonement, many of Europe’s elite institutions, we discover, have conveniently replaced (or at least camouflaged) their antisemitism with almost boastful bigotry against Arabs and Muslims.
Without so much as a forethought, supposedly sacred traditions of freedom of expression and robust commitments to civil and human rights have been trampled. In the US, Britain, and Europe’s leading countries, terms like, “from the river to the sea” and “intifada;” flags, like the Palestinian one; and homelands, like Palestine, have been purposely weaponized to demonize the vocabulary of a century-old struggle and deprive supporters of its symbols and essential terms of reference.
This was not sudden. Over recent decades, the more brazen Israel’s conduct has been, the more rabid its defenders’ response to censure and the more expansive their definition of antisemitism. But this new hysteria of censorship, disturbing though it is, ironically, has only served to confirm the extent to which Israel itself remains contested largely because of its repellent behavior.
In much of the non-Western world, Gaza has recalled the ugly legacies of colonialism and the hypocrisies of a morally bankrupt West caught in the act when it looks to launder its past sins towards one group by committing new ones towards another.
As Gaza and its people confront a brutal Israeli campaign to sniff the life out of them, legal and scholarly experts on ethnic cleansing and genocide debate which term describes Israel’s “killing rage” best. But whichever verdict finally wins the day in court and/or the history books, the implications for the Jewish state are anywhere between grim and terrible. Even as it appears to succeed in making Gaza uninhabitable and the rest of the territories terrifying for the Palestinians, Israel is confounded by myriad quandaries.
The worst of these is the conundrum that is the Palestine Question a century after its genesis. Since Israel’s inception in 1948, it has won practically every battle for the land between the river and the sea, deftly contrived a political chokehold on Western power elites, successfully brandished antisemitism against its growing critics, engineered quiescence among Arab regimes, and yet it can’t seem to close the file on Palestine. After every battle, the same frightening truth reimposes itself: the Palestinians and their cause are not going anywhere. And in striving ever more ruthlessly to jettison both, Israel has, paradoxically, managed to keep them very much alive and, yes, kicking.
I write solely about Gaza, as I look forward to 2024, fully aware that the universe in its entirety is not well. If the unchecked Israeli slaughter in Gaza betrays a madness larger than itself, it is a world whose leaders are content to subject human life to hierarchies of preciousness, all while concocting rationales designed to excuse such cruelty.
But I write about Gaza as well because I sense that Israel, in this generational struggle, has crossed the Rubicon–and therefore we all have–at a time when such world appears least equipped to cope with the consequences.
With that, I pray that 2024 offers its own surprises, all of them kind and merciful; all of them reminders of the genius of humanity in reimagining its place and role on this earth and of its capacity for empathy and wisdom.
In the meantime, I leave you in the company of these two wonderful boys.
On Another Note
In vilifying the Palestinians, Germany has outpaced all its sister countries in the Western camp, in the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attacks. Its sweeping clamp down on pro-Palestinian sentiments and coercive measures taken to suppress and blacken all expressions of it have stunned many. They shouldn’t have been. This tale between Germany and Israel goes back to 1948.
In his recent essay in the LRB, Memory Failure, Pinkaj Mishra elaborates the fascinating context and troubling history of this relationship:
As the Cold War intensified, Adenauer determined that his country needed greater sovereignty and a greater role in Western economic and security alliances; Germany’s long road west lay through Israel. West Germany moved fast after 1960, becoming the most important supplier of military hardware to Israel in addition to being the main enabler of its economic modernisation. Adenauer himself explained after his retirement that giving money and weapons to Israel was essential to restoring Germany’s ‘international standing’, adding that ‘the power of the Jews even today, especially in America, should not be underestimated.’
Such was the ‘unprincipled political gamesmanship’, as Primo Levi called it, that expedited the rehabilitation of Germany only a few years after the full extent of its genocidal antisemitism became known. A strategic philosemitism, parasitic on old antisemitic stereotypes but now combined with sentimental images of Jews, flourished in postwar Germany. The novelist Manès Sperber was one of those repulsed by it. ‘Your philosemitism depresses me,’ he wrote to a colleague, ‘degrades me like a compliment that is based on an absurd misunderstanding … You overestimate us Jews in a dangerous fashion and insist on loving our entire people. I don’t request this, I do not wish for us – or any other people – to be loved in this way.’