November 4, 2023
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.

Milton, Samson Agonistes

The following is a brain dump of thoughts, impulses, and meditations during the Israeli-Hamas war, some undoubtedly unfinished and even contradictory; and in no particular order.

Netanyahu should have been fired immediately, not permitted to fight this war. His failure-- which he has not yet even admitted-- was rather grotesque. His predecessor, Ehud Barak, states it as follows, and there is some contemporary evidence in Netanyahu's own reported statements , in meetings, to support it: He thought the Palestinian Authority was a burden, and Hamas an asset. The P.A., a group successfully grossly weakened and corrupted over time, was a burden, since it nevertheless as a negotiating partner had some rightful expectations, both procedurally of good treatment, and substantively, to receive a Palestinian state at the end. Since Netanyahu had no intention of satisfying either expectation, he valued Hamas as a nicely distracting mad dog, which would keep the P.A. weak, and which required only to be effectively caged. This, standing alone, would have been grossly immoral and shocking, even if performed hyper-competently. Coupled with the Egregious Ontological Error of "trusting" Hamas so much that (one failure in a legion) he didn't have enough troops on the border to stop a relatively modest incursion, this becomes what is known in technical military terms as an "Irretrievable Balls Up". Given Netanyahu's incompetence, lack of judgment, and his personal ego involvement in revenging humiliation, why exactly does anyone think he has the ability to fight this war?

Aren't the Israelis bombing the hostages? The IDF keeps making the announcement it has bombed a certain number, or length, of Hamas tunnels. Since, as far as we know, the hostages are in those tunnels, no one has offered a theory of how they will be protected from "friendly fire". I suspect that given his general rage and vengefulness, Netanyahu doesn't much care.

A tribute in lives. If Netanyahu did regard Hamas as an asset, it follows that the Israeli lives Hamas took from time to time were acceptable to him as a tax he paid for the other benefits received. On October 7, Hamas merely exceeded the agreement.

Abandoning Americans in Gaza . There are hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza with American citizenship. It appears that lower level State Department employees are in touch with them, and have at least twice assured them that if they showed up at the crossing into Egypt at a certain hour, they would be allowed to cross. They did, and they weren't. Is it Egypt's fault? Israel's? Hamas also has been blamed, but they aren't even visibly there-- its not like Hamas fighters are chasing the Americans away. Exactly why couldn't they cross at the Israeli border, anyway? Has President Biden actually picked up the phone to call Netanyahu or the Egyptian PM and demanded an immediate resolution? The conclusion is almost inescapable that our government simply does not care about its Palestinian citizens. In the meantime, planes and ships have been arranged to ensure that any American-Israeli who wants to leave can do so. We sent helicopters to Saigon to extract our civilians. Where is the effort for these Americans?

Later: An American security official said on television that Hamas is the sole problem, refusing to consent to the Americans' departure. Something does not smell right, as the American citizens in Gaza expressing their fear and despai-- and sense of abandonment-- in nightly interviews, seem to have no idea this is true.

Still later: The Americans have started leaving. Since Hamas controlled the exit checkpoint, it is possibly true that they interfered with the derparture. However, as Americans started to leave, I heard at least one person involved with the effort say on CNN that the U.S. was slow to help and not attentive enough.

Netanyahu and Trump. Netanyahu's apparent affection for Hamas and Trump's obvious admiration for Vladimir Putin/ Kim Il Sung etc. (and Hamas, as a recent comment showed) may be products of very similar psychologies.

Safer. A huge practical selling point for the existence of Israel (after the touchy feely mythology, "five thousand years" and all) has been that it would make Jews safer to have their own nation. Yet there has never been an incident in my lifetime, in any country, where fourteen hundred people were murdered for being Jewish in a day. Truth be told, Israel never made me feel safe, as an American Jewish person, my entire life: back in the day, whenever I traveled anywhere, I faced the knowledge that I might die by bullet or bomb, solely as a Jewish person, and all because of the existence and actions of Israel. The other day, someone on cable news remarked that Israel is the most dangerous country in the world for Jews, and nobody challenged him-- nor could anyone do so, reasonably, I think.

Meanwhile, Freedom of Speech.In just one out of a hundred recent instances of people being punished for criticism of Israel I could mention, Artforum fired editor David Velasquez after he published a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Three editors and a contributor then quit in protest. "Meanwhile, prominent artists Nan Goldin and Nicole Eisenman told the New York Times that they would no longer work with Artforum, with Goldin describing the current environment as the most 'chilling period' she’s ever lived through". This time is actually disturbingly reminiscent of the years right at the end of and after World War I, when Columbia for example was firing professors for anti-war pronouncements. This is a chilling time. What is so remarkable right now is that I can more freely publish detailed, nasty criticism of President Biden than of Israeli P.M. Netanyahu. In fact, Israelis at home can more freely criticize Netanyahu than I could here (using the exact same words). The problem was neatly exemplified by Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who Tweeted last week: "Anti-Zionism is antisemitism". Omigod, no. As a Jewish person, I have experienced (a very small amount of) real anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a tough older kid pushing you on a deserted country road, and saying, "I can smell a Jew a mile away". It isn't criticism of a political state. It is really dire that we have forgotten this.

Cruel sophistry in wartime About five hundred years of my early life seemed to pass during the Vietnam war, when Times headlines routinely featured the cruel, stupid war-speak of the day, pacification and destroying villages in order to save them and such-like. Today, as the combatant with more soldiers and powerful tanks and weapons, invading an enclave smaller than New York City, in which the inhabitants are totally trapped, we have heard that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza; that it is impossible to let fuel in to run generators in hospitals, because Hamas will steal it; that people who will go south will be safe, even though Israel is bombing the south as well. Then there is the sophistical diffusion of responsibility: if the Rafah border crossing has admitted ninety trucks in three weeks, when hundreds a day are needed, whose fault is that? Its everyone's and no one's.

What is Gaza? Gaza is a prison. Just in the past few weeks I have heard sophistical Israeli politicians say that Hamas rules Gaza, that the Israelis withdrew; but (ineffective as these were October 7) they left walls surounding it, and violent guardians, and controlled all access by land or air. Gaza is a prison camp ruled by the inmates. People can still leave Israel freely for (relative) safety in Europe or the U.S., but no one can leave Gaza without Israeli permission. Israel is therefore saturation-bombing a population which cannot flee.

If you pull the telescope back for a wider view, the spectacle is appalling. The early Zionists claimed that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without land". Gaza has two million inhabitants. Who are they? They are not outsiders whom Israel admitted since 1948 or 1967. They are the descendants of the "non-people", the people who didn't exist, when the declaration was made. Many of their grandparents fled Israel in the face of the violence of 1948, expecting to return when peace ensued, but were never allowed back by the Israelis. I always imagine, as a sort of thought-experiment, a Zionist meeting in 1925 or so, people sitting around a table imagining a Jewish state. I am at that table, probably the lone advocate of the idea that nothing good can come of it. We Jews will descend from the level of Spinoza, Mendelsohn, Maimonides, Einstein, to become liars, killers, propagators of a mad ideological nationalism. And we will painfully sew ourselves to the side of a Palestinian population, the "nonexistent"people already there, with whom we can never live nor ever be separated (without the murderous violence of a "final solution"). In other words: There will be Gaza.

On Not Criticizing Israel Truth be told, I am rather stunned at the success of the Israeli hypernationalists-- people who vastly resemble the Trump base here-- in capturing the narrative in the US, even in the year since the entire Israeli center and left started turning out in the streets to demonstrate against their agenda and influence. In the last few years, for example, thirty five American states have passed laws penalizing support for the BDS movement (a boycott of the Israeli state). In most of those places, in order to receive a state contract, you have to sign an attestation that you have never supported BDS. This is really quite extraordinary: it is in effect a loyalty oath to a foreign ally. There is virtually no precedent in American history.

Work a thought experiment with me. Suppose you think that Israel has erred tactically in some respect or another-- let its guard down against Hamas, or bombed too indiscriminately in response. Say you are thinking on a purely practical level, in terms of errors and ways to address them. Is that anti-Semitic, to criticize Israel's handling, for example, of a military situation? Suppose you happen to think, at the same time, that Israel's actions in that instance were also, as a separate matter, morally wrong? Can you also say that? At what level does the chill set in? Why would the Israelis be elevated to a special status in the U.S. that makes it impermissible, or unsafe, to criticize them on either ground? There is no "Israeli" or "Jewish" exception to the First Amendment-- let's also remember that our system of freedom protects even hate speech, so long as it does not contitute a true threat (on the theory that the remedy for speech is more speech). And don't answer me that the chilling and punishment of critics of Israel is all private action, not implicating the First Amendment-- it is happening in public institutions such as universities, all over this country, as I write.

Tells I have been watching people talk on television about anti-Semitism they are experiencing and detected a couple of easy, obvious tells to look out for, that it is a cover-narrative or political chess move to nullify political opposition in American discourse: Many speakers at least once, and perhaps accidentally, use "anti-Zionism" as if it were a synonym for anti-Semitism, which it isn't. The other tell, which is even more obvious, is that the individual spends half his air time, or more, talking about Israel, rather than his own experience as an American Jewish person. Sooner or later, there will be a justification of Israel's military tactics, a statement it is acting in self-defense, or that it is a liberal democracy. Why would a complaint about bias or bigotry in America have to involve a defense of the behavior of a foreign nation?

Saturation Bombing. I read somewhere today that Israel, confronted in private about the dreadful and rapidly mounting civilian casualties in Gaza, threw Dresden and Hiroshima in the American's faces. There is in fact an evil through-line which in all ages undercuts ideas of an ethical international law and law of war, and renders them conditional, and even aspirational. The irreducible fact that we are left with, when the purported Rule-Set dissipates like smoke, is that many more Palestinian childen have now died of Israeli bombs than Israeli children of Hamas bullets on October 7. This even stirs an uneasy memory of Nazi ratios: the number of French or Greek people who would be killed in vengeance for every German death. I fear in Gaza that ratio may be limited only by the total number of the population.

Murder on the West Bank. According to the New York Times for October 31, "[a]ttacks on Palestinians" by extremist Israeli settlers "in the occupied West Bank are surging, with at least 115 killed". IDF members have accompanied half these murder raids. "The Israeli military declined to comment". Israel's extremist security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced an initiative to provide these West Bank settlers with firearms. Ben-Gvir, per other media, is a follower of Meir Kahane who, prior to being tapped by Netanyahu, was convicted of sedition and membership in a terrorist group. He believes in the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel and Jewish appropriation of their land. Lost in the sauce in the middle of all this has been the neverending and pervasive wrongness of Netanyahu incorporating this man into his coalition--or the horror and cynicism of putting him in charge of national security. The fact that Ben Gvir continues to serve in the cabinet in war time caused Avigdor Lieberman to refuse to join the war cabinet-- and I really wonder whether Benny Gantz should have, whether in the end he will assure the avoidance of more crimes and mistakes--- or just share responsibility for them.

Bombing a refugee camp. Israel has just bombed a refugee camp in Gaza, in order to kill (successfully) a particular Hamas commander. To get at him, it was “necessary” also to kill several hundred civilians. A very articulate, calm IDF spokesman, who seems to me to have a huge human piece missing, just offered the following: 1. We had warned the inhabitants to leave and to go south [Israel is also bombing the south however]. 2. Killing this individual was an essential military goal. 3. Hamas is at fault because it wouldn't let the people leave. 4. By the way, the dead were not really “refugees”, but Palestinians living under Hamas rule. Though referred to as a “camp”, it was their home.

Number 4 especially demands analysis. Like many others in Gaza, the inhabitants were the Palestinians, and their descendants, who were ejected or fled from Israel in 1948, and were never permitted to return. In a sentence or two, the spokesman erased all that. Statement #4 is also irrelevant to the question he was answering, unless one concludes that he meant they deserved to die because not truly refugees.

Anyway, the gist is that taking hundreds of civilian lives to kill one man is proportional, reasonable, legal. In the October 7 atrocities, Hamas terrorists murdered about 35 Israel children. About 100 times that many Palestinian children have now died under Israeli bombs.

"Human Shield". In the approximately thirteen years I have spent working on the Mad Manuscript, my endless work on the Idea of Free Speech, some of my most pleasurable moments, as well as some of the most disturbing and despairing, have involved analyzing what people really mean by the language they use. "Human shield" is a very pertinent example. The first time I remember hearing the phrase, about forty or fifty years ago, it involved terrorists moving across an open space in the midst of a group of hostages, as at the 1972 Olympics. The next variation was when murderous dictators deliberately placed people they had kidnaped or captured in or around prime military targets, such as factories. Another was when Catholic Workers traveled to Baghdad, in the misguided hope that by voluntarily serving as shields, they would deter American military action. Today, in an example of Definition Creep, the term is being routinely used to describe the fact that Hamas lives and bases its supplies and activities among civilians in Gaza. As a thought experiment, remember the iconic violent resistance fighters we collectively adore, the French Resistance: they too sheltered among the civilian population, looking just like them, then surging out to kill Nazis and blow stuff up. Like so many Ontologies, this settles down to a question of whether we hate or love the cause and the people carrying it out; Resistance fighters are objectively indistinguishable from terrorists, except that we thought the Nazis Had It Coming. We laud their cleverness in hiding in plain sight until the opportune moment, but hate Hamas for doing the same. In any event, I see nothing in either the Art or Law of War which requires or suggests that a far weaker force segregate itself from the rest of the population, perhaps displaying a billboard: "KILL US HERE".

Another issue: The IDF spokesman and many other Talking Heads using the phrase "human shields" as part of sentence which states, or implies, "That's why we had to kill them". That's the reverse of the historic use of the phrase. The people with guns tracking the terrorists at the Munich airport did not shoot the Israeli hostages in order to get the terrorists. It is a new usage to say "We had no choice, we had to kill hundreds of 'human shields' to get one important Hamas commander".

Later: I had forgotten that in the Jenin refugee camps in 2002, IDF soldiers used Palestinians as human shields: "'Yes, because of the snipers,' a soldier said. 'If the sniper sees his friend there, he won't shoot.'He added that the Palestinians were instructed to open the doors. 'We had a soldier who opened a door and was killed by a booby-trap that went off in his face. We let them open the door. If he knows its booby-trapped, he won't open it.'" (New York Times, April 15,2002 page A11)

A thought. The IDF now acknowledges hitting the refugee camp twice, killing numerous civilians each time. Netanyahu deliberately sought the support in his coalition of people who have called for the mass killing of Palestinians, and the expulsion of the survivors. That, despite the participation of Benny Gantz, is the government which is making the decision to bomb a refugee camp and then offering justifications. Vocal resistance in the US, even from members of Congress, is starting to peak: Israel's government as presently constituted is not shaping up to be a tolerable ally.

Morality. Here is an instructive flash of memory. Almost twenty five years ago, I wrote an essay about a failed Everest expedition whose members abandoned one another to freeze to death. I was reviewing Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air. I envisioned the excuse I have heard a million times about Israel, "You haven't been there, you couldn't understand". In conclusion, I gleaned a quote from Krakauer, something another climber (speaking of a different incident) had told an interviewer: "Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality." My response: "[M]aybe humans should renounce going places where they can't afford morality".