Being A Little Honest

One of the most unnerving aspects of the far-right agenda in America is the effort to stifle discussion about the nation’s founding in genocide and forced labor.

I don’t buy the idea, pushed by some conservatives, that a nation should present a whitewashed version of history in school curricula in order to ensure young Americans develop an appropriate sense of national pride and generalized optimism about the country. Pride and optimism can’t be genuine if they’re based on half the story.

The irony in Donald Trump’s claim that removing statues of Confederate generals is tantamount to “erasing history” was almost too much to bear in that regard: The point of removing monuments to slavery is to confront history.

Even if you set aside the systematic erasure of Native American society and the brutal enslavement of Africans, the story we tell ourselves about the country’s founding is romanticized to the point of being divorced from reality.

America, we tell ourselves and our children, is a nation forged in a noble struggle to throw off the yoke of monarchical tyranny — the greatest experiment in democracy the world’s ever known.

In reality, America is a nation forged in bloody guerrilla warfare waged by settlers irritated about taxes. That murderous aversion to taxation lives on today. The founders’ high-minded ideals about liberty, equal rights, free will and self-determination extended to white men. No further.

Whether at the personal or societal level, you can’t make any progress by lying to yourself. Over the past half-dozen years, the truth has increasingly become taboo in America. Conservatives, and particularly right-wing firebrands, claim that’s a natural reaction (a counterbalance) to an “extreme,” society-wide leftward lurch among universities, corporate boardrooms, the entertainment industry and so on. But facts are nonpartisan. There’s no such thing as “extreme” facts. There are uncomfortable facts, but failing to come to terms with them won’t change anything. Facts are immutable.

Over the past month, Americans have been asked to view the modern day equivalent of a Native American war party rampaging through a colonial settlement as an example of “pure, unadulterated evil,” as Joe Biden described Hamas’s attack on Israel — unprovoked depravity committed by savages against civilized people minding their own business.

Any effort to contextualize the situation is to side with “the terrorists,” to abide ISIS-like debauchery, to be an anti-Semite and, implicitly, to be a Nazi. In short, if you endeavor to explain the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict to people who aren’t apprised, you’re an ISIS-Nazi. The only way to shed that label is to accept, uncritically, the interpretation of a far-right government that’s unabashedly ethnonationalist.

This situation is highly amenable to the well-poisoning fallacy for two reasons:

  1. Americans have a visceral fear of Islamic extremism after watching jumbo jets collide with skyscrapers. The American far-right traffics regularly in anti-Semitic dogwhistles, but if there’s a message powerful enough to override and temporarily supplant the rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism in the country it’s, “Deranged Muslims knifed the babies!”
  2. Americans are famously (and deliberately) stupid. The only countries Americans can reliably identify on an unlabeled map are the US and, on “smart” days, Canada. The Israel-Palestine conflict is among the most complex, intractable disputes in the world. To understand it is to be i) proficient in both modern and ancient history, ii) deeply familiar with post-War geopolitical jostling, iii) reasonably well-versed in world religion, iv) capably adept at discussing Mideast power dynamics and v) intimately apprised of the full history of US-Israeli relations. Suffice to say the percentage of Americans who can check those boxes is vanishingly small.

Given that, the bar to clear for the Netanyahu government to galvanize unflinching support among the US electorate for whatever the Israeli military wants to do in Gaza is quite low: “Before you feel sorry for Gazans, remember that Muslims killed the babies!”

It’s become clear to me over the past several weeks that there’s little hope in overcoming that message among those who are insufficiently informed about the history of this conflict. Note that the goal of overcoming that message obviously isn’t to absolve Hamas. Although there are no pictures, I can assure you the aftermath of Native American raids on settler communities in colonial America was horrific. The perpetrators aren’t absolved by the fact that their culture was in the process of being extinguished from history. The goal, rather, is to inform — to make people smarter. The truth can’t be taboo, even if it’s uncomfortable.

I’ve searched and searched this month for an account of the truth that’s measured, concise and unapologetic so that I could cite it for readers who are genuinely interested. Given the complexity of the issues and the high emotions engendered first by Hamas’s rampage and then by Israel’s response in Gaza, such accounts are hard to come by. Finally, though, I found what I was looking for buried near the tail end of an Ezra Klein interview with Amjad Iraqi, a London-based Palestinian policy analyst and a Palestinian Israeli citizen.

Klein (an American Jew), asked Iraqi what he (Klein) should say to his Israeli friends when they contend there’s “no safety” for the Jewish people in Israel in equality. Klein summarized the position among his contacts in Israel. “The fear of annihilation, the fear of eradication lurks deep in the Jewish soul and that’s not going away and for real reason,” he said. “Palestinians want us gone and at times when our politics have been softer… there were suicide bombings in cafes and discothèques. There is no safety for us in equality.”

Again, Klein wasn’t speaking for himself. He was putting the question he’s often asked to Iraqi: “I’m curious what you would tell me to answer when they say, ‘That all sounds nice, but the first thing we need to be able to guarantee is that our children aren’t killed.'”

His interlocutor proceeded to deliver the most concise, accurate assessment of the situation that I’ve read thus far, and I think it’s imperative that those of you who might not fully grasp the realities of this conflict come to terms with the truth because, as Klein put it late last month, channeling Spencer Ackerman’s celebrated critique of America’s response to 9/11, the idea that to add context “is to undermine the purity of condemnation” is “an absurd way to think.”

Via Amjad Iraqi, speaking to Ezra Klein for a November 7 interview:

As much as myself and my people come with the cost of this, I understand why Jewish-Israelis have — the way that Zionism has manifested itself. I understand why that’s come about, just psychologically speaking. But if that’s the case, then it begins with being a little bit honest about what the political project is in Israel.

That if the lesson of Jewish history, of anti-Semitism, very violent anti-Semitism all the way up to the Holocaust, if the lesson of that — and this is what Zionism kind of began to take hold, especially — that the lesson is to become powerful overlords, then we need to be a bit blunt about that.

Beginning with that, Israel actually is not a democratic state. Israel is not a light unto nations. Israel is an ethnonationalist colonial project who can only see survival by being an ethnonationalist colonial project. And if that’s their decision, that’s their decision.

But one of the most infuriating things [is] that everyone’s pretending that Israel is something that it’s not. And what’s been darkly refreshing about this far-right government is that they’ve also been very unapologetic, saying we don’t need to apologize. We do want laws and policies that weed out Palestinians. We do want laws and policies that kick them out of their land. We do want a purely Jewish supremacist state regardless of democracy or vote. Democracy does not matter.

And this has been the practice. This has been the experience of Palestinians.

If that’s the case, then I think for American Jews, they need to come face-to-face with that reality and stop kidding themselves that Israel is a democratic model of Jewish self-determination. It’s an apartheid model. And American Jews then need to ask themselves: Are those really where their values align?


24 thoughts on “Being A Little Honest

  1. Many young protesters across the United States appear to believe that Americans and Israelis are products of illegitimate “colonial projects” and deserve whatever evil befalls them. That many other people are not terribly receptive to that idea should not be surprising.

        1. Yeah, look, I don’t think the logic is sound: We’re an indigenous people too and our state is going to be majority us. If that means a lot of you have to leave and stay gone, that’s what it means. If you try to come back, we’re going to treat that as tantamount to a denial of our right to exist because, after all, if you come back, we won’t be the majority. So, stay on your side or we’ll have to kill you. Maybe some of you can live in here with us, but you’re going to be de facto second class citizens, and you better behave.

          Forget morality or anyone’s “rights,” that simply isn’t viable from a practical perspective. There’s never going to be stability and security in a situation like that. One people demands that another people concede the legitimacy of a decreed ethnic majority state that takes up a majority of contested land. Throw in the fact that both sides consider the land sacred and it’s hopeless.

          And with (sincere) apologies, it’s difficult to accept the idea that a state with an estimated 90 nuclear warheads (to a combined 0 nuclear weapons across its adversaries) is seriously concerned about annihilation. Israel was the victim of a horrific terror attack. They weren’t “invaded.” If Iran moved the IRGC to Syria and tried to launch and invasion with Hezbollah, the IDF would turn Tehran to dust with one big bright flash.

        2. I’m not convinced you can call Israel a colonial project, unless you argue that it was, from the pov of the British and French Empire, in the immediate aftermath of WWII. OTOH, I am happy to concede that, in the here and now, Israel is indeed engaged in as much of an ethnic cleansing as they can get away with b/c this is the only way they are going to be safe. It is what it is.

          But, regarding America, of course, it was a colonial project. Before they were the US of A, they were called the 13 colonies for a reason. And I’m pretty sure Native Americans would have viewed them as illegal and illegitimate. OTOH, it doesn’t matter. The US, whether deliberately or by ‘lucky’ accident, left not enough of them to contest the outcome.

          And, yes, Native Americans fighting back were savage, just as the colonists and then US Army were. Massacres on both sides were barbaric. The Comanche nation behaviour was appalling.

          That guy, on Twitter, saying “this is what decolonisation looks like” isn’t wrong. As a French, I could quote some pretty horrendous stuff from the Algerian War in as recently as the 50s. Americans have had some inkling of these horrors with Vietnam.

          Yet, when you are torturing babies and raping women, whether you’re an Iroquois, an Comanche or Hamas, there’s a natural question that comes to the mind of other people – “You say you do it for freedom, in the defense of your tribe, but, with all those rapes and torture stuff, aren’t you also doing it for fun?”

          And people who take pleasure in raping and torturing aren’t the kind of people I want to be associated with. You can kill in self defense. You cannot rape in self defense.

      1. I guess I thought of them as countries rather than as colonial projects. If they are illegitimate, unfinished colonial projects, should they be dismantled and the land returned to the rightful owners? If so, how do we determine the rightful owners? If they are illegitimate countries, are there any legitimate countries?

        1. “Are there any legitimate countries?”

          No. Not really. There’s no such thing as “nations.” We made that up. Notice how they tend to disappear, reappear, get renamed and so on as history unfolds. What does that tell you?

          This whole thing is ridiculous at its core. If we were seriously concerned about surviving as a species, we’d stop with all of this senselessness and work on solving issues that don’t see borders. Notice how COVID didn’t seem to care much about national identities.

          When one of the hemorrhagic fevers mutates and goes airborne, or when some hurricane comes along one day with 400mph winds, or when the asteroid comes that we missed because we were too busy spending money on wars to fund NASA, we’re going to wish we didn’t waste our lives bickering over stuff that isn’t real.

        2. There are no “rightful owners”. No one owns the land. We all stole it from someone else, down the ages. Every place on Earth has been take multiple times over and our extinct cousins, the other hominid races, would probably have something to say about “original = rightful” owners…

          It’s an hopeless dead-end. It’s best to accept the realities on the ground if you cannot change them and move on.

  2. I’m not Israeli nor Jewish, but I really don’t want to pay for their dream, nor for the DoD support package. There has been and will be a negative roi for usa usa as long as we’re there anywhere. What we and they have done and continue to do doesn’t give them, nor us, more security. Endless cycle of hate and suffering.

  3. TY H for this piece. So well said.

    The thing I’ve been working to come to grasp with (and this article furthers my thoughts and understanding) is that Israel has weaponized compassion in furtherance of their apartheid/genocide/ethnonationalism. This is Israel’s big lie.

    I say that as a Zionist in principle in so much as I believe the state of Israel has a right to exist. I do not however support their ethnonationalism. I’m working to reconcile these thoughts, can Israel exist without enthonationalism? I think so. I hope so. But I’m not sure at the moment.

    1. Israel has weaponised compassion? Hm… Debatable. Hamas certainly does, deliberately and systematically using the Palestinian civilians as human shields and then using the victims for garnering international support/condemnation of Israel.

      Can Israel exist without being ethnonationalist? In short, no. Palestinians in general haven’t reconciled themselves to 1948 and their constant stream of military defeats since. Until they do, Israel cannot exist without being on a war footing. To my mind, the fact that they have a significant Arab minority in Israel is an amazing fact and a security risk I’m not sure I would approve of, where I to be Israeli…

        1. I honestly don’t know.

          Matt Yglesias was pointing out that the Mexican-American war of 1848 that allowed you guys to seize a fair chunk of land from that country was as imperialistic as it gets and seen as such at the time (i.e. there were no valid casus belli ; you did it because you could).

          Would today’s Mexicans be best served by declaring war on the USA for this historical wrong? What would it get them?

          At some point, you cut your losses and you put on a new trade. Some Palestinians have managed to immigrate. They’re probably better off at this point than if they had stayed. And we could try and engineer compensation/reparations from Israel.

          1. Actually, scratch that. I kinda have done so.

            My mother is of Italian descent and her family were colonists in Tunisia. My mother was born there, my grandmother, when she was alive, used to talk about her childhood in Tunisia so I think she may have been born there too.

            They were kicked out of the country when my mother was a teenager. It was peaceful compared to what happened in Algeria or so my mother told me but they ran with a few suitcases. Everything they owned, land, shops, houses, had to be left behind. And obviously it was confiscated, not compensated for. With the death of my maternal grandfather, my grandmother fell further down the ladder and went from being a more than comfy bourgeois wife to being a cleaning lady…

            My mother has never talked about revenge and and I’ve never thought of attacking Tunisians to pay them back for that dispossession…

          2. That’s an interesting story, but I’m afraid it’s unlikely to sway many Gazans. But who knows, you could try! Maybe Egypt will let you ride an aid truck in through Rafah. Let me know how the sermon goes. And watch out for airstrikes.

          3. Why the snark? You asked me an honest question, I tried to give an honest answer. But if the Gazans refuse to surrender and prefer to die fighting, it’s no skin off my back.

            I don’t have a strong personal preference, to be honest. I used to be quite strongly pro-Palestinian but their constant fumbling (my first memory of their idiotic leadership is with Arafat siding with Saddam Hussein in the invasion of Kuwait) and, yes, the deliberate cruelty of 10/07 plus the general agreeableness of the few Israelis I know and the technological advances that country managed to produce has titled things for me. I still have no problems acknowledging their government is far right, ethnonationalist and unpleasant.

            My only caveat is – Apart from stopping their settlements in the West Bank, what else could they do? They deliberately withdrew from Gaza. They didn’t put Hamas in power and Hamas didn’t have to dig water pipes (offered by the EU apparently) to turn them into rockets. Hamas and the Gazans don’t seem to really care about the West Bank/the PLO/Fatah and vice versa (as in, the illegal settlements aren’t their reason to fight).

            It takes 2 to make peace.

          4. Who was that who allowed Qatar to keep funding Hamas in Gaza? Who was it who wanted Hamas to remain in power in Gaza in order to be sure the Palestinian resistance remained split and the PA weak? It’s amazing how not much gets into Gaza that Israel doesn’t want to get in, but somehow all the money from Qatar kept getting to Hamas. So crafty, those guys. Israel doesn’t want peace, my friend. Not really. They want Palestinians to acquiesce to marginalization at best and cultural oblivion at worst. There’s a name for that. It’s not “peace.”

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