The pragmatism of ethnic cleansing

An Israeli soldier takes position against Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank city of Hebron, December 2008. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)


Barack Obama’s election victory has inspired a windfall of comment, most of it euphoric, with some grumbling from the political right and the small quarters of the left that remain unimpressed, so I am hesitant to contribute to the chatter. There is one element of Obama’s victory, however, that has received less attention than it deserves, and that is his profound commitment to an extreme form of Zionism. I do not wish to spend this essay condemning Obama for that commitment; I have done so elsewhere, and others have offered eloquent condemnation already, though such a perspective hasn’t yet managed to penetrate the liberal left.

As a note of clarity, I do not use the phrase “extreme form of Zionism” for rhetorical effect; I deploy it soberly and literally. Obama’s statements during his campaign unambiguously situate him in a right-wing Zionist outlook both politically and philosophically. During his speech at the hawkish Israel lobby AIPAC’s 2008 convention, for instance, Obama promised, “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything.” Later, he remarked, “It was just a few years after the liberation of the camps that David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the Jewish state of Israel. We know that the establishment of Israel was just and necessary, rooted in centuries of struggle and decades of patient work, but 60 years later we know that we cannot relent, we cannot yield, and as president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.”

These comments are notable for their implicit ferocity. Obama not only expresses fealty to Israel’s lobby, he also refuses to set any parameters for what he would consider acceptable Israeli behavior. “Everything,” after all, is a remarkably broad obligation.

Rather than condemning Obama’s Zionism, I would like to instead focus on the justifications and rationalizations for his decision, especially those that dismiss its moral consequences and instead emphasize what its purveyors claim to be its strategic inevitability. I have seen countless times on the Internet and have heard even more frequently some variation of the following argument: “Obama had to court the Israel lobby in order to be elected; it’s part of presidential politics in the United States.” Bolder commentators suggest that it would be foolish to expect otherwise, a point implied by the novelist and blogger Laila Lalami: “During the primaries, I was often surprised at the line of thinking that equated Barack Obama with the status quo, simply because he was not progressive enough. Of course Obama was not progressive enough.” Other liberals smugly accuse Obama’s skeptics of purism, which they say has no business in serious political conversations.

Let’s unpack some of these discourses. The first thing I would like to argue is that criticizing Obama for not being progressive enough is not the same thing as equating him with the status quo, though such an argument would have plenty of evidence to support it. Nor is it automatically naive to suggest that Obama’s sycophantic Zionism should be contested. To say that Obama had to cozy up to Zionist fanatics in order to be elected may well be true (though it’s not a given), but proponents of this complaint assume that Obama’s election was more important than the policies he supported. They also assume that Obama’s critics misunderstood his motivation, which was to curry favor with a demographic that would help him achieve his goal of becoming president.

I cannot speak for other critics of Obama, but I am well aware that American elections are structured in such a way that certain groups must be appeased, Zionists being one of them (corporations and weapons manufacturers being a few others). I am also aware that no presidential candidate will be adequately progressive, because true progressives do not win presidential elections in the United States. It is not a lack of knowledge that leads me to criticize Obama’s courtship of colonizers, but a devotion to those who suffer from the pernicious American policies that are reinforced by American electoral culture.

Israel is ethnically cleansing Palestinians. There is nothing tolerable about ethnic cleansing; it is a deeply violent process. It is thus ethically dubious to sacrifice the Palestinians (among others) to American electoral pragmatism.

If we are to pursue worldly justice, then, American presidential elections aren’t the best place to devote energy. The problem is structured into the electoral system, which is why those who hope to effect change in the world are forced to concede their most basic moral principles when they invest themselves in national campaigns. They end up expressing a profoundly misplaced sense of purpose.

In the most recent election, they were forced to concede that Afghans may face an even more destructive military occupation and that the Palestinians will continue to suffer what has become a humanitarian catastrophe. This concession may be something they’re prepared to live with, but we should remember that the Afghans and Palestinians have no choice. They must accept the consequences of American electoral pragmatism, which dictates that certain centers of power must remain impervious. Those impervious centers of power also work against the well-being of the vast majority of American voters, which is their particular genius. They manage to get people excited about enacting their own irrelevance.

Antonio Gramsci expertly assessed these phenomena many decades ago with his theory of hegemony, a commonly misused word these days. Gramsci developed the notion of consent that Noam Chomsky would appropriate and make popular. Of Gramsci’s many germane points, the one most relevant here is his observation that what any given community automatically deems “commonsensical” actually supplements the interests of that community’s elite. Commonsense, then, is not an intuitive, self-evident phenomenon, but a formulation that results from a complex process in which popular conceptions of a society’s well-being become coterminous with the needs of the powerful and wealthy.

Ignoring Obama’s uglier electoral moves, then, wasn’t commonsensical or inevitable at all. It was the result of accepting ethnic cleansing as an American political reality. I doubt that Obama’s pragmatists would have been such staunch advocates of electoral realism if they, like the Palestinians, were being removed from their homes and confined to bounded ghettoes. If readers might excuse the hyperbole, I am simply making a basic moral point: there are actual humans with actual feelings and families and aspirations that live with the brute realities that come of our abrogation of ethical probity when we choose instead to submit to the electoral limitations that the powerful have offered us.

I hope that my compatriots will remember that voting does not itself constitute action; work needs to be done outside of state apparatuses. I am aware, though, that most citizens are done acting for four years, having been told over and again that voting, an act of legitimation and not of change, represents the pinnacle of civic responsibility. (To be fair, this is true insofar as civic responsibility as defined by corporate media is to be a good citizen, the kind that doesn’t go around making trouble doing things like thinking critically and challenging systemic injustices.)

One bit of heartening news is the fact that the Palestinians know better. A number of polls, including a recent one conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, show that Palestinians “think the election of Barack Obama as US president will have no impact on the chances of a solution to the conflict with Israel.” Instead of sacrificing the Palestinians to their liberal fetishes, maybe Obama’s apologists should just shut up for a moment and listen to them instead.

Steven Salaita’s latest book is The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought. This essay was originally published by antiwar.com and is republished with the author’s permission.