Jewish suffering, Palestinian suffering

Solidarity with Jewish suffering should lead to solidarity with victims of Zionist racism, the Palestinians

"It is Israel... that justifies Palestinian suffering by invoking Jewish suffering," writes Joseph Massad [Getty Images]

The late French scholar Pierre Bourdieu once said that the tragedy of the Palestinians is that their oppressors are the victims of Europe, which led him to call the Palestinians “the victims of the victims”.

For Bourdieu, as for many European and American intellectuals who may be inclined to support the Palestinian struggle against oppression, the “tragic question” is “how to choose between the victims of racist violence par excellence and the victims of these victims?” The answer, of course, should be simple, namely that one should always stand with Jews as victims of European anti-Semitic violence and stand with Palestinians as victims of Jewish racist violence. There is no choice to be made between the two: The first position must lead to the second. Alas, many find this point difficult to grasp.

Over the last century and a quarter, many European and Euro-American Jewish intellectuals have come to recognise the oppressiveness of Zionist and Israeli Jews towards the Palestinians and have taken public positions that criticise Zionist and Israeli conduct and defend the Palestinians. This Jewish dissent began with Zionism itself.

Today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.

by -Primo Levi, holocaust survivor

Zionist brutality

If Ahad Ha’Am recognised the brutality of European Jewish colonial settlers to the Palestinian peasants in the late 19th century, Judith Butler condemns this on-going brutality towards all Palestinians at present. In her recent book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, which discusses Jewish critiques and criticisms of state violence, and of Zionism and Israel, Butler speaks of the difficulty encountered by Italian holocaust survivor Primo Levi when he criticised Israel during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and when he demanded that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon resign from office. Levi had declared: “Today, the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.”

While Israeli Jews were slaughtering Palestinians and the Lebanese, anti-Semitic Italians scribbled racist slogans on the walls of Levi’s town, which alarmed him as it did other Jewish critics of Israel. Butler writes that, “This was an untenable situation, and it produced a conflict: Could he continue to elaborate those principles derived from his experience of Auschwitz to condemn state violence without contributing to an anti-Semitic seizure of the event?”

The answer is straightforward of course, namely, that any condemnation of Israeli Jewish brutality in a European context should always contextualise it in the history of European political power, and contrast it with the situation when European Jews had no such power in Europe and were subject to European Christian brutality and genocide. The way to counter the European anti-Semites is precisely to show that Zionist and Israeli Jewish brutality is not on account of the Jewishness of the perpetrators, but on account of their holding power to brutalise another population and act out their racist colonial violence against them. This is not unlike when European Christians oppressed Jews, as they did not do so because they were Christians but on account of the anti-Semites amongst them holding power to act out their genocidal anti-Semitism on Jews.

Recognising Israel’s constant invocation of the holocaust to justify its colonial crimes against the Palestinians, Butler adds, “If we say that the Holocaust is deployed for the purposes of justifying brutal (Israeli) state and military actions, we must also say that the Holocaust is not reducible to this (Zionist and Israeli) deployment, that it devalues and effaces the specific suffering and political challenge of the Holocaust to make such a reduction.”

One should not be able to speak about the holocaust without condemning Israeli and Zionist crimes either.

Justifying brutality

I agree with Butler’s understanding here but would want to add that as Zionism and Israel and their international supporters have invoked and continue to invoke the holocaust as much to condemn Nazi crimes as to justify Israeli Jewish crimes, we must be vigilant in dealing with this constitutive coupling, which emerges with every Zionist and Israeli invocation of the holocaust.

Thus, it seems to me that if one cannot criticise Israel’s use of the holocaust without condemning anti-Semitism at the same time, lest the anti-Semites use one’s criticisms to justify their rhetorical or physical attacks on Jews, it stands to reason that given the history of the use of the holocaust to justify Israeli and Zionist crimes, one should not be able to speak about the holocaust without condemning Israeli and Zionist crimes either, lest one’s invocation of the holocaust be used by Zionists to justify their on-going crimes against the Palestinians. 

To speak of the holocaust (which, through Israeli exploitation does not exist only as a memory of the Nazi genocide, but is always presented as an argument justifying past and present Jewish colonial violence in Palestine) without condemning Israeli Jewish crimes, I contend, “devalues and effaces the specific suffering and political challenge” of the on-going colonialism to which Palestinians remain subject.

It is Israel’s exploitation of the holocaust that has made it incumbent not only on Jewish critics of Israel, like Butler, but on all critics of racist and colonial oppression, to always be alert to address Palestinian suffering when they speak of Jewish suffering. It is Israel, after all, that justifies Palestinian suffering by invoking Jewish suffering.

In response, Israel’s critics and opponents must show solidarity with Palestinian suffering at the hands of Zionists and Israeli Jews by invoking their solidarity with Jewish suffering at the hands of anti-Semites. At the same time, they must show solidarity with Jewish suffering at the hands of anti-Semites by invoking their solidarity with Palestinian suffering at the hands of Zionists and Israeli Jews. Butler’s example shows that this should not be difficult for anyone with a serious commitment to end colonial, racial, and religious oppression. 

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.