The compass of mourning

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Interior with children, 2021.
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By JUDITH BUTLER*

How can we even imagine a future equality of the living without knowing that Israeli forces and settlers have killed nearly 3800 Palestinian civilians since 2008 in the West Bank and Gaza?

The issues that most need public discussion, the ones that most urgently need to be discussed, are those that are difficult to discuss within the frameworks we currently have. Although we want to go directly to the subject at hand, we run into the limits of a framework that makes it almost impossible to say what we have to say.

I want to talk about violence, current violence, the history of violence and its multiple forms. But if we want to document the violence, which means understanding the massive bombings and killings in Israel by Hamas as part of that history, we may be accused of “relativization” or “contextualization.” We have to condemn or approve, and that makes sense, but is that all that is ethically required of us? In fact, I unreservedly condemn the violence committed by Hamas. It was a terrifying and revolting massacre. This was my first reaction, and it remains. But there are also other reactions.

Almost immediately, people want to know whose “side” you are on, and clearly the only possible response to such murders is unequivocal condemnation. But why do we sometimes think that asking whether we are using the correct language or whether we have a good understanding of the historical situation would stand in the way of strong moral condemnation? It is really relativizing when we ask what exactly we are condemning, what should be the scope of that condemnation, and what is the best way to describe the political formation, or political formations, that we oppose?

It would be strange to oppose something without understanding it or describing it well. It would be especially strange to believe that condemnation requires a refusal to understand, for fear that knowledge can only have a relativizing function and undermine our ability to judge. What if it is morally imperative to extend our condemnation to crimes as deplorable as those repeatedly highlighted by the media? When and where does our condemnation begin and end? Don't we need a critical and informed assessment of the situation to accompany moral and political condemnation, without fearing that, by becoming well informed, we will be transformed, in the eyes of others, into moral failures accomplices in heinous crimes?

There are those who use the history of Israeli violence in the region to exonerate Hamas, but they use a corrupt form of moral reasoning to achieve this goal. Let's be clear: Israeli violence against Palestinians is overwhelming: relentless bombings, murders of people of all ages in their homes and on the streets, torture in prisons, starvation techniques in Gaza and expropriation of homes. And this violence, in its multiple forms, is exercised against a people who are subject to the rules of the apartheid, colonial rule and the non-existence of a State.

However, when the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee issues a statement asserting that “the Palestine regime apartheid is solely to blame” for Hamas’ deadly attacks on Israeli targets, makes a mistake. It is wrong to attribute responsibility in this way, and nothing should relieve Hamas of responsibility for the heinous killings it has perpetrated. At the same time, this group and its members do not deserve to be blacklisted or threatened. They are certainly right to point to the history of violence in the region: “From systematic land confiscation to routine airstrikes, from arbitrary detentions to military checkpoints, and from forced family separations to targeted killings, Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death, both slow and sudden.”

This is an accurate description, and it needs to be said, but it does not mean that Hamas violence is just Israeli violence by another name. It is true that we should develop some understanding of why groups like Hamas have gained strength in light of the broken promises of Oslo and the “state of death, both slow and sudden” that describes the existence of many Palestinians living under occupation, whether constant surveillance and the threat of administrative detention without due process, or the intensification of the siege that denies Gazans medicine, food and water.

However, we do not obtain a moral or political justification for Hamas' actions through reference to its history. If we were asked to understand Palestinian violence as a continuation of Israeli violence, as in the case of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, then there is only one source of moral culpability, and even Palestinians do not hold themselves responsible for their own violent acts.

This is not how the autonomy of Palestinian action is recognized. The need to separate an understanding of the widespread and relentless violence of the State of Israel from any justification of the violence is crucial if we are to consider that there are other ways to free ourselves from colonial rule, stop arbitrary detention and torture in Israeli prisons, and end the siege of Gaza, where water and food are rationed by the nation-state that controls its borders.

In other words, the question of what world is still possible for all the inhabitants of this region depends on the ways of putting an end to the colonial rule of the occupiers. Hamas has a terrifying and terrifying answer to this question, but there are many others. However, if we are prohibited from referring to “occupation” (which is part of Ban on thinking contemporary German), if we cannot even open the debate on whether Israeli military dominance of the region is apartheid racial or colonialism, then we have no hope of understanding the past, the present or the future.

Many people who watch the carnage through the media feel hopeless. But one of the reasons they have no hope is precisely the fact that they are watching through the media, living in the sensationalist and transient world of hopeless moral outrage. A different political morality takes time, a patient and courageous way of learning and naming, so we can accompany moral condemnation with moral vision.

I oppose the violence inflicted by Hamas and have no alibi to offer. When I say this, I am making a clear moral and political position. I was not mistaken when I reflected on what this condemnation presupposes and implies. Anyone who joins me in this condemnation might question whether moral condemnation should be based on a certain understanding of what one is opposing. I could say, no, I don't need to know anything about Palestine or Hamas to know that what they did is wrong, and condemn that.

And if we stop here, trusting contemporary media representations, without ever asking ourselves whether they are in fact correct and useful, whether they allow stories to be told, then we accept a certain ignorance and trust the framework presented. After all, we are all busy and not all of us can be historians or sociologists. This is a possible way of thinking and living, and well-intentioned people live this way. But at what cost?

What if our morals and our politics were not limited to the act of condemnation? What if we insisted on asking what form of life would free the region from violence like this? What if, in addition to condemning deplorable crimes, we wanted to create a future in which this type of violence would end? This is a normative aspiration that goes beyond passing condemnation.

To achieve this, we have to know the history of the situation, the growth of Hamas as a militant group in the devastation of the post-Oslo moment for those who, in Gaza, never saw their promises of self-government fulfilled; the formation of other groups of Palestinians with other tactics and objectives; and the history of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for freedom and the right to political self-determination, freedom from colonial rule and widespread military and prison violence. Then we could be part of the fight for a free Palestine, in which Hamas would be dissolved or replaced by groups with non-violent aspirations for cohabitation.

For those whose moral standing is limited only to condemnation, understanding the situation is not the goal. This kind of moral outrage is arguably anti-intellectual and present-focused. However, outrage can also drive a person to the history books to discover how events like this can happen and whether conditions can change such that a future of violence is not all that is possible. It should not be the case to consider “contextualization” a morally problematic activity, although there are forms of contextualization that can be used to transfer blame or to exempt oneself from it.

Can we make a distinction between these two forms of contextualization? Just because some think that contextualizing heinous violence distracts from the violence or, worse yet, rationalizes it, does not mean that we should capitulate to the claim that all forms of contextualization are morally relativizing in this sense. When the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee asserts that “the regime of apartheid is solely to blame” for the Hamas attacks, is subscribing to an unacceptable version of moral accountability.

It seems that, to understand how an event came about, or what its meaning is, we have to learn a little history. This means we have to widen the lens beyond the current terrible moment, without denying its horror, while refusing to let that horror represent all the horror there is to represent, know, and oppose. Contemporary media, for the most part, do not detail the horrors that the Palestinian people have experienced for decades in the form of bombings, arbitrary attacks, detentions and murders.

If the horrors of the last few days take on greater moral importance for the media than the horrors of the last seventy years, then the moral response of the moment threatens to eclipse understanding of the radical injustices suffered by occupied Palestine and forcibly displaced Palestinians – as well as the humanitarian disaster and loss of life that is happening right now in Gaza.

Some people rightly fear that any contextualization of the violent acts committed by Hamas will be used to exonerate Hamas, or that the contextualization will distract from the horror of what they did. But what if it is the horror itself that leads us to contextualize? Where does this horror begin and where does it end? When the press talks about a “war” between Hamas and Israel, it offers a framework for understanding the situation. In fact, she understood the situation in advance.

If Gaza is understood as being under occupation, or if it is referred to as an “open-air prison”, then a different interpretation is conveyed. It sounds like a description, but language restricts or facilitates what we can say, how we can describe, and what we can know. Yes, language can describe, but it only obtains the power to do so if it conforms to the limits imposed on what is sayable. If it is decided that we do not need to know how many Palestinian children and teenagers have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza this year or throughout the years of occupation, that this information is not important to know or evaluate the attacks on Israel and the murders of Israelis, so we decided that we do not want to know the history of violence, grief and outrage as it is experienced by Palestinians.

We just want to know the history of violence, grief and indignation as it is experienced by Israelis. An Israeli friend, who calls herself an “anti-Zionist”, writes on the internet that she is terrified for her family and friends, who have lost people. And our hearts must be with her, as mine certainly is. It is unequivocally terrible. And yet, there is not a moment when his own experience of horror and loss of his friends and family is imagined as what a Palestinian might be feeling on the other side, or has felt after the years of bombing, of incarceration and military violence?

I am also Jewish and live with transgenerational trauma, following atrocities committed against people like me. But they were also committed against people who are not like me. I don't have to identify with this face or that name to name the atrocity I see. Or, at least, I try not to.

In the end, however, the problem is not simply a failure of empathy. Because empathy takes shape mainly within a framework that allows identification, or translation between the experience of the other and my own. And if the dominant picture considers some lives to be more pitiful than others, then one set of losses is more horrendous than another set of losses. The question of whose lives are worth mourning is an integral part of the question of whose lives are worth valuing.

And here racism comes into play in a decisive way. If Palestinians are “animals,” as Israel’s defense minister insists, and if Israelis now represent “the Jewish people,” as Biden insists (collapsing the Jewish diaspora in Israel, as reactionaries claim), then the only people pitiable in the scene, the only ones who present themselves as eligible for mourning are the Israelis, as the scene of “war” is now represented between the Jewish people and the animals that seek to kill them. This is certainly not the first time that a group of people seeking to free themselves from colonial shackles has been defined as an animal by the colonizer.

Are Israelis “animals” when they kill? This racist framing of contemporary violence recapitulates the colonial opposition between the “civilized” and the “animals” who must be defeated or destroyed to preserve “civilization.” If we adopt this framing when declaring our moral opposition, we will be implicated in a form of racism that extends beyond speech to the fabric of everyday life in Palestine. And therefore, radical repair is certainly necessary.

If we think that moral condemnation must be a clear, punctual act, without reference to any context or knowledge, then we inevitably accept the terms on which this condemnation is made, the stage on which alternatives are orchestrated. In this more recent context, accepting these terms means recapitulating forms of colonial racism that are part of the structural problem to be resolved, of the permanent injustice to be overcome.

Therefore, we cannot afford to look away from the history of injustice in the name of moral certainty, as we run the risk of committing more injustices and, at a given moment, our certainty will waver on this not very firm ground. Why can't we condemn morally heinous acts without losing our ability to think, know, and judge? Certainly we can, and should, do both.

The acts of violence we witness in the media are horrific. And in this moment of heightened media attention, the violence we see is the only violence we know. I repeat: we are right to deplore this violence and express our horror. I've been feeling sick to my stomach for days. Every person I know lives in fear of what the Israeli military machine will do next, whether Netanyahu's genocidal rhetoric will materialize in the mass killing of Palestinians. I wonder if we can grieve, without reservation, the lives lost in Israel, as well as the lives lost in Gaza, without getting bogged down in debates about relativism and equivalence.

Perhaps the broader compass of mourning serves a more substantial ideal of equality, one that recognizes the equal mourning of lives, and gives rise to an indignation that these lives should not have been lost, that the dead deserved more life and equal recognition. for their lives. How can we even imagine a future equality of the living without knowing, as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has documented, that Israeli forces and settlers have killed nearly 3800 Palestinian civilians since 2008 in the West Bank and Gaza, before even from the beginning of the current actions. Where is the world's mourning for them? Hundreds of Palestinian children have died since Israel began its “revenge” military actions against Hamas, and many more will die in the coming days and weeks.

It is not necessary to threaten our moral positions to take the time to learn about the history of colonial violence and examine the language, narratives, and frames that currently work to report and explain—and pre-interpret—what is happening in this region. This type of knowledge is essential, but not with the aim of rationalizing existing violence or authorizing even more violence. Its aim is to provide a truer understanding of the situation than an unassailable framing of the present can provide on its own.

In fact, there may be more positions of moral opposition to add to those we have already accepted, including opposition to the military and police violence that saturates the lives of Palestinians in the region, stripping them of their right to grieve, to know and to express their outrage and solidarity, and to find their own path to a future of freedom.

Personally, I advocate a policy of non-violence, recognizing that it cannot operate as an absolute principle to be applied on all occasions. I maintain that liberation struggles that practice nonviolence help create the nonviolent world we all want to live in. I unequivocally deplore violence, while, like many others, I want to be part of the imagination and fight for true equality and justice in the region, the kind that would force groups like Hamas to disappear, the occupation to end, and new forms of political freedom and justice to flourish.

Without equality and justice, without an end to state violence conducted by a state, Israel, that was itself founded on violence, no future can be imagined, no future of true peace – that is, not “peace” as a euphemism for normalization, which means maintaining structures of inequality, injustice and racism.

But that future cannot arise without us being free to name, describe and oppose all violence, including Israeli state violence in all its forms, and to do so without fear of censorship, criminalization or being maliciously accused. of anti-Semitism. The world I want is a world that opposes the normalization of colonial rule and that supports Palestinian self-determination and freedom, a world that, in fact, fulfills the deepest desires of all the inhabitants of these lands to live together in freedom , without violence, with equality and justice.

This hope certainly seems naive, or even impossible, to many. Yet some of us must cling to it quite wildly, refusing to believe that the structures that currently exist will exist forever. For this, we need our poets and our dreamers, the indomitable madmen, the kind who know how to organize.

*Judith Butler is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She authored, among other books by Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence (Authentic).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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