The Irony About Self-Awareness

People without a sense of irony are a wretched lot. They have no humor, no fun, are lousy conversationalists and even worse debaters, have no appreciation for nuance, and generally speaking are hypocrites of the worst kind: the high falutin’ one.

I can’t prove it, but I also suspect they are the overwhelming majority of humanity. I say this because the one essential virtue without which there can be no sense of irony in a person or a people is self-awareness: self-awareness of your history, your situation, its relation to that of others, your ambiguities, paradoxes, faults, fallibilities,…

And forgive me, but look around you! How many such individuals actually inhabit your universe?

The truth is–and it is a sad one–self-awareness is not a rare human quality per se, but it is desperately so when the problem or issue is near and dear. That is, it grows terribly faint precisely when it should rule the day.

We see impoverishment in self-awareness everywhere in our own little personal contexts and, alas, in the much larger ones that carry a much heavier cost for all of us.  

In Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis march in defense of “liberal democracy” for them–and only them. Few voices among the throngs identify the subjugation of Palestinians outside the Green Line as the cancer that has been ravaging Israeli democracy inside it. Moshe Radman, a leader of the protest movement, protested recently that “occupation is a loaded word.” Even fewer Israeli voices appreciate the contradiction in the very concept of a Jewish democracy that constitutionally and systemically privileges Jewish Israeli citizens in every aspect of life in Israel, and brutalizes Palestinians right next door, stealing their land, property, and water, severely constricting their sources of life and livelihood, and building ever more settlements, the sum of which is meant to cleanse what remains of Palestine.

Israeli professors, Omer Bartov and Sheira Klein, are two of these voices. Last month, they organized a petition that declared “there cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid, as Israeli legal experts have described it.” Notably, the letter has so far been signed by more than 2000 Israeli and American scholars. However, Bartov and Klein are the first to caution that this recognition eludes most in Israeli society.

Omer Bartov (left), Sheira Klein (Right)

On purpose, I didn’t use terms like “settler-colonialism” to describe the Zionist enterprise and “apartheid” to depict its method in the Occupied Territories, including an encircled and strangulated Gaza. Because as important as these terms are, they’re details for this post’s focus; the material for a thoughtful and very urgent discussion between Israelis, first and foremost, if they aim to construct a future free from the injustice of the past and present.

But at the core of how Israelis have behaved towards the Palestinians, whatever term you’d like to attach to it, is an utter lack of self-awareness. This was the case before 1948, when earlier Jewish generations were in the process of settling Palestinian land and creating a Jewish state; after 1948, when they had established it; and after 1967, when they had conquered and occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

For a people with the deepest collective memory of centuries-long anti-Semitism that encompassed every form of persecution and demonstrated its cruelest expression in the Holocaust, to inflict such untold suffering on another people they deem inferior or undesirable or inconvenient or even nonexistent, they would have had to tear their self-awareness into tiny little pieces and dumped it in the ashbin of their tormented history. Aba Ebban (1915-2002), perhaps Israel’s brightest and most eloquent diplomat, didn’t have this in mind when he said, “Let me suggest that tragedy is not what men suffer but what they miss.” And that’s precisely my point.  

Aba Ebban (1915-2002)

Ironically, it is this breathtaking absence of self-awareness that finds most Jewish Israelis now in mortal fear of losing their own freedom and liberty. Because when chauvinism and racism are actively encouraged or left to grow and firmly take hold, they, ironically, do not discriminate. They abhor all colors, reject all logic, trample on all rights but their own. Worse for these Israelis is the realization they are sure to reach when it’s most probably already too late: they wouldn’t be confronted with the one-state reality now had they long ago recognized the occupation for what it is and insisted on the implementation of the two-state solution. As Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz:

By definition, military occupation is temporary. After 56 years and with no end in sight, the situation in the territories can no longer be considered temporary. And if it’s not temporary, it’s not an occupation. The temporariness of the occupation has expired, and with it the possibility of defining it as an occupation.

Therefore, to talk about the occupation at the Kaplan street demonstrations is anachronistic. To fight against it in the context of a struggle for democracy is irrelevant. The Kaplan Street protesters say they are fighting for democracy. Well, democracy is equality before all else.

Israeli Protest Leaders Moshe Radman (Left), Shikma Bressler (right)

If Israeli liberalism is in a predicament today, it’s singularly of its own making and not of the fundamentalists coming for it. Asking a fundamentalist to be self-aware is like asking the moon to be the sun. It’s actually the meagerness of self-awareness in pseudo-liberals that gives such oomph to the extremists in their quest. And there is no example more striking than the Israeli one.

But such also has long been our own failure on this side of the fence. Lately, we have been witness to Jordanian and Lebanese Islamists, supported by likeminded homophobes, spewing venom against the LGBTQ community and, as if in unison, calling for the criminalization of homosexuality. They do this every so often against a random selection of the vulnerable, all to the delight, of course, of the authorities. In times of extreme need and state inadequacy, it’s either soccer or beat up on the minorities.

While a Jordanian female Islamist professor stated in an interview on the Roya channel that homosexuals should be executed and/or burned alive, our own Lebanese minister of culture dubbed them deviant, a moral corruption, and–oh yes, indeedy–a “Zionist conspiracy,” which opened the floodgates to a sea of bile from all sects in a rare show of Lebanese unity. Last Wednesday, a gay bar in Mar Mikhael in Ashrafieh was attacked by Soldiers of God, a Christian group created and financed by a leading banker. Had, say, Hezbollah’s followers done the deed, all hell would have broken loose about the threat to Lebanon’s diversity and love of tolerance from the mullahs.

But frankly, such license to such forces doesn’t come only from the puppeteers above and the whipped up masses below; it is also generously offered by self-described liberals, who conveniently pick and choose their causes, discreetly entertain their own petty prejudices, and recuse themselves when the argument starts. Bar a few brave souls and progressive groups here and there, the arena is thus left for the bigots unleashed by this silence.

And here’s the meanest irony at the expense of Israeli liberals. They may well think themselves a different category of actor in a better category of political system than us Arabs, but that in itself goes to show the real depth of their lack of self-awareness and sense of irony.  


On Another Note

Adam Tooze is perhaps one of the most sophisticated public intellectuals and historians out there. In his substack newsletter, Chartbook, he weighed in recently on China, debunking the two main models competing to explain the country’s setbacks: authoritarianism vs. growth strategy­. He succeeded. Here’s an excerpt:

If Xi’s regime had not emerged so self-confident from the initial success of its COVID policy in early 2020, if it had deferred its high-risk plan to deflate the housing bubble until after COVID was brought under control around the world, if it had recognized the threat posed by Western COVID variants, vaccinated more comprehensively and prepared the health system, if it had been ready, on that basis, to soften zero COVID at an earlier date, China would not have faced the devastating confluence of recessionary tendencies that have dealt it such a blow in 2022 and 2023.

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