What is it about the nature of Zionism, its racism, and its colonial policies that continues to escape the understanding of many European intellectuals on the left? Why have the Palestinians received so little sympathy from prominent leftist intellectuals such as Jean- Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault or only contingent sympathy from others like Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Etienne Balibar, and Slavoj Zizek? Edward Said wrote once about his encounters with Sartre and Foucault (who were anti-Palestinian) and with Gilles Deleuze (who was anti-Zionist) in this regard. The intellectual and political commitments inaugurated by a pro-Zionist Sartre and observed by Said, however, remain emblematic of many of the attitudes of leftist and liberal European intellectuals today.
While most of these intellectuals have taken public stances against racism and white supremacy, have opposed Nazism and apartheid South Africa, seem to oppose colonialism, old and new, most of them partake of a Sartrian legacy which refuses to see a change in the status of European Jews, who are still represented only as holocaust survivors in Europe. The status of the European Jew as a coloniser who has used racist colonial violence for the last century against the Palestinian people is a status they refuse to recognise and continue to resist vehemently. Although some of these intellectuals have clearly recognised Israeli Jewish violence in, and occupation of, the West Bank and Gaza, they continue to hold on to a pristine image of a Jewish State founded by holocaust survivors rather than by armed colonial settlers.
In an interview with the Revue d’etudes palestiniennes in 2000, the late Pierre Bourdieu said: “I have always hesitated to take public positions…because I did not feel sufficiently competent to offer real clarifications about, what is undoubtedly, the most difficult and most tragic question of our times (how to choose between the victims of racist violence par excellence and the victims of these victims?).
If by this, Bourdieu was referring to the holocaust, then he was a victim of Zionist propaganda. No matter how much Zionism continues to resurrect it and claim it as the excuse for its racist violence against the Palestinians, the holocaust does not justify Israel’s racist nature. If Bourdieu accepted this, then his dilemma of choosing between Israel and its victims would have been readily resolved.
Take Jacques Derrida as another example, who when lecturing in occupied Jerusalem in 1986 stated his position as follows: “I wish to state right away my solidarity with all those, in this land, who advocate an end to violence, condemn the crimes of terrorism and of the military and police repression, and advocate the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories as well as the recognition of the Palestinians’ right to choose their own representatives to negotiations, now more indispensable than ever.” Derrida, however, felt it necessary to assert in his speech that the Israeli State’s “existence, it goes without saying, must henceforth be recognised by all”.
Despite Derrida’s opposition to White supremacist South Africa in the mid-1980s, he believes that Israel, a racist Jewish state, should be recognised by all. Derrida’s refusal and resistance to see that Israeli colonialism and racism operate with the same force, albeit with different means, inside the Jewish state as they do in the territories Israel occupies is a manifestation of an emotional attachment to this Israel, which Derrida declares openly as the motive for his statement: “As is evident by my presence right here, this declaration is inspired not only by my concern for justice and by my friendship toward both the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is meant as an expression of respect for a certain image of Israel and as an expression of hope for its future.”
Clearly, Derrida is attached to a certain image of Israel that is defiled by some of its actions, like the occupation. In that, he hardly differs from Zionist liberals who never minded the massacres and oppression of Palestinians under successive Labour governments but were only scandalised when the Likud governments followed a similar path during Israel’s invasions of Lebanon.
In a later interview which Derrida gave to the newspaper Al- Hayat in March 2000 while visiting Egypt to deliver a series of lectures, he asserted his continued opposition to Israeli occupation and his support for Palestinian resistance against it. He did add one caveat, however, namely that “I am also not on the side of anti-Jewish tendencies.” Derrida never explains the links he sees connecting Palestinian resistance against Jewish racist violence to “anti-Jewish tendencies”.
Derrida’s stance on Israel, like Bourdieu’s, is not unique at all. Leftist French intellectual Etienne Balibar has recently sent a large number of colleagues a statement justifying his recent visit to Israel to lecture there. Balibar, who is debating the merits and demerits of the academic boycott of Israel that some French academics and institutions are undertaking, falls on the anti-boycott side without ever saying so. Although he claims to support the boycott, his visit and lectures in Israel belie that claim. In his justification, Balibar claims his position not as a “contradiction” but rather as a “difficulty”. On the one hand, he does not want to isolate those Israeli academics who oppose their government’s occupation, which, he claims, justifies his visit to Israel, while on the other, he asserts that there are precious few such Israelis anyway.
Balibar does not explain how lecturing in Israel has helped these few Israelis break their isolation, and whether his visit simply increased the legitimacy of Israel, visited as it is by prominent world intellectuals who are even able to criticise it while there (thus confirming Israel’s propagandistic image as “the only democracy in the Middle East”). Nowhere in his justification does Balibar note the fact that Israel is a racist Jewish State; his opposition is only to its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Balibar seems to believe that by meeting and/or including Palestinian academic institutions and academics as part of his audience, his visit would be justified.
Balibar is obviously not ignorant of the nature of Israel and its racist policies. He does liken it to South African apartheid, for example. Would he however have visited apartheid South Africa in the mid-1980s and called for the withdrawal of South African troops from Angola and Namibia and asked that he meet with Namibian academics while remaining silent the whole time about South African racism? What kind of ethics is being enacted in such a justification? One wonders if Balibar would see this as a “contradiction” or as a “difficulty.”
In his recent book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, famed Slovenian socialist intellectual Slavoj Zizek tackles the Palestinian question in a most unoriginal manner. What concerns him most is not the foundational racism of Zionism and its concrete offspring, a racist Jewish state, nor the racist curricula of Israeli Jewish schools, the racist Israeli Jewish media representations of Palestinians, the racist declarations of Israeli Jewish leaders on the right and on the left, or the Jewish supremacist rights and privileges guiding Zionism and Israeli state laws and policies - all of which seem of little concern to him - but rather Arab “anti-Semitism” which should not be “tolerated”.
Zizek makes Zionist-inspired propagandistic claims that have no bearing on reality, namely that “Hitler is still considered a hero” in “most” Arab countries, and that The Elders of the Protocols of Zion and other anti-Semitic myths are found in Arab primary school textbooks. While he seems to note Israeli discriminatory policies against Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli daily terror visited upon the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the conflict, for Zizek, seems like one of competing nationalisms and can be solved by possible NATO intervention. It is not Zionist Jewish colonialism and its commitment to European white supremacy in Jewish guise that the Arabs are reacting to and resisting; rather, it is Islam’s rejection of “modernity” triggered by a Jewish “cosmopolitanism” that characterises this conflict. “Israel’s stand for the principle of Western liberal tolerance” is attenuated in his essay by noting its neocolonial role, but this clearly does not prevent Zizek from visiting the racist Jewish state where he was a week ago delivering four lectures in which, according to Ha’aretz he never mentioned the Palestinians or Israeli racism and terror once. Such is the legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre on many European leftist intellectuals.
If Sartre failed to see how European Jews who left Europe as holocaust refugees arrived in Palestine as armed colonisers, Zizek’s approach is more insidious. While he insists that the holocaust is not connected to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he proceeds in viewing the Jewish colonists as still remaining holocaust refugees and possible victims of some alleged Arab anti-Semitism. Herein lies his obsession with opposing the alleged anti-Semitism to which these Jews are subjected by those who resist their racist violence. Zizek’s own anti-Semitism which manifests in reducing Judaism to the anti-Semitic notion of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition, and which identifies Jews anti-Semitically as “cosmopolitan”, is never clear to Zizek who projects it onto the Palestinians.
While suspending the status of European Jews as holocaust survivors, these European intellectuals fail to see that much of Zionist colonialism began half a century before the holocaust and that Jewish colonists were part of the British colonial death squads that murdered Palestinian revolutionaries between 1936 and 1939 while Hitler unleashed kristallnacht against German Jews. Zionism’s anti-Semitic project of destroying Jewish cultures and languages in the diaspora in the interest of an invented Hebrew that none of them spoke, and in the interest of evicting them from Europe and transporting them to an Asian land to which they had never been, is never examined by these intellectuals. Nor do they ever examine the ideological and practical collusion between Zionism and anti-Semitism since the inception of the movement.
Zizek seems observant enough, in another essay, to note that Zionist Jews are employing anti-Semitic notions to describe the Palestinians. His conclusion is not, however, that Zionism has always been predicated on anti-Semitism and on an alliance between Zionists and anti-Semitic imperialists, rather he perceives the alliance that today’s Zionists have with anti-Semitism might as the “ultimate price of the establishment of a Jewish State”.
When these European intellectuals worry about anti-Semitism harming the Israeli settler’s colony, they are being blind to the ultimate achievement of Israel: the transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite, and the Palestinian into the Jew. Unless their stance is one that opposes the racist basis of the Jewish State, their support for Palestinian resistance will always ring hollow. As the late Gilles Deleuze once put it, the cry of the Zionists to justify their racist violence has always been “we are not a people like any other,” while the Palestinian cry of resistance has always been “we are a people like all others.” European intellectuals must choose which cry to heed when addressing the question of Palestine.
The writer is lecturer of political science at Columbia University, USA.
This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly. It is reproduced by EI with permission of the author.