North Africa, West Asia

Longing for normalcy

There is a paradox in Zionism. Zionist Jews show willpower and initiative when it comes to war, but when it comes to reaching a historic compromise, the world appears to them as definite and immobile.

Raef Zreik
22 September 2014
Ze'ev Jabotinsky with his wife and son

Ze'ev Jabotinsky with his wife and son. Central ZIonist Archives/Wikimedia. Public domain.What would be more normal than longing for normalcy? Waking up in the morning, for example, only to find the roof above our heads is still intact, and the number of family members has not decreased since last night. We even require normalcy in less dramatic circumstances: to find our book at the same spot we left it yesterday, to sleep on the same pillow, to be able to start the car in a rainy winter day.

Longing for normalcy was part of Zionism since its beginning. It sought to normalize the Jewish people’s existence given its abnormal circumstances and in light of growing antisemitism. On the face of it, the demand to be like all other people is straightforward. The early, constitutive texts of Zionism have their eye on Europe and not the Arabs. They look forward rather than backward, preoccupied as they are with the saving of Jews. On the face of it, Zionism didn’t demand much. It didn’t want to enslave another people, didn’t want to conquer, didn’t want expulsion, didn’t really plan to turn hundreds of thousands of people into refugees, and didn’t mean to discriminate.

But even if it didn’t plan the 1948 expulsion, an expulsion did take place. Even if it didn’t really plan the 1967 war, and didn’t really plan to conquer what remained of Palestine—it did conquer, and did place millions of people under military rule. Even if it didn’t plan to discriminate, it did and still does discriminate. And in the recent bombings on Gaza, even if it indeed did not plan to kill children, women, and ordinary civilians, in actual fact it did indeed kill.

It could be that when it comes to politics as opposed to ethics, historical processes as opposed to specific events, processes that involve whole people as opposed to individuals, the role and significance of intent is limited. Intent can be misleading and deceptive, a kind of smoke screen that allows whoever see themselves as victims to shut their eyes, to be content with looking inward into the depths of their hearts instead of outside towards the world. And once they find that their intent is sincere and their heart is one with itself, then everything is allowed: even doing horrible things and feeling oneself righteous because one is a “victim.”

Ze'ev Jabotinsky put this well in his essay “The Iron Wall”: Either Zionism is just or it is not, and if it is, then there is no room for hesitation as to the means for its realization. Once we are on board that train it must reach its final destination. Once the Zionist enterprise began it must not waver mid-way in light of the violence involved in carrying it out. It never occurred to Jabotinsky to ask the opposite question: had we known Zionism requires so many victims from us and from the Arabs, would we then find it just or unjust? It never crossed his or anyone else’s mind to wonder whether the fact Zionism did what it did without intent to harm anyone—does this fact change in any way the suffering of hundreds of thousands of refugees, of uprooted people, of the wounded, not to mention the dead.

There is a paradox in Zionism. On the one hand it was born as an ideology of creation, centered around the willpower to start again, to transform and shape reality. On the other hand, when it comes to Jew-hatred and antisemitism, Zionism tends to adopt a worldview that is static and unchangeable. At first it was antisemitic Europe that was perceived as unchangeable. Then came the Arabs, whom one cannot negotiate with. Zionist Jews show willpower and initiative when it comes to war, but when it comes to reaching a historic compromise, the world appears to them as definite and immobile. Failure in war is perceived as the Jews’ own responsibility, yet failure to reach peace is always on the Arabs. The Zionist Jew is always the hero of a war that was enforced upon him: a protagonist in a play written and produced by others. “Its up to us to win the war, and up to them to make peace with us.”

In this sense, Zionism, which saw itself as rebelling against history—which in a certain sense it did—is also the slave of history. Its capacity to generate solidarity of Jews from around the world depends on the existence of hostility, on a certain degree of antisemitism and an ongoing conflict—in other words, on an abnormal life. Whereas its original purpose, as mentioned earlier, was precisely the normalization of Jewish life. What began as an expression of willpower turned into powerlessness. Its vision of a motor of history looks today like a marionette. “Wars are enforced upon us.” “We live in a constant state of no choice.”

This approach leads to a retreat from the world, and to the denial of both actions and consequences. It is what is referred to as the principle of “double effect,” which distinguishes between the consequences people intend to achieve and those they do not, yet can nonetheless be expected to result from their actions.

For example, when it comes to the damage to civilian populations in battle. Shooting has a double effect: the one desired and intended, and the other completely undesired. It can then be argued the actor is disconnected from the latter consequences. He is not responsible for them. The link between action and consequence is thus severed. While there are times in which such an approach is unavoidable, its dangers are manifest. The actor does not “own” the deed, and hence its results cannot be attributed to him. The doer recedes into internal self-justification that detaches him from the world. He stops seeing himself as a political actor in charge of his actions, who can decide what that world should look like.

Therein lies the danger of double-effect theory. It leads to a dwindling of responsibility and the demise of politics. The Israeli case is doubly worse. It is hard to convince oneself that the “collateral outcomes” of military actions, in the form of civilian casualties, are perceived as undesired in the first place, given that the air in Israel is full of slogans such as “Death to the Arabs!” and calls “eliminate” and “destroy” the enemy. On the contrary, one has every reason to believe, even without definite proof, that Operation Protective Edge was a war against an entire people.

Being overly-preoccupied with intents reveals a kind of irresponsibility and self-deception. The same goes for the longing for normalcy. Such longing often makes people regard certain things as self-evident, regardless of the surrounding social and political reality. The right to eat three meals a day seems so natural, normal, and obvious. But in a society suffering from hunger, it could be that your right to three meals means someone else would starve to death, and so you have to make do with one. Sexual relations are a natural thing, but if you have a sexually-transmitted disease, and you don’t inform your partners, your sex becomes a crime.

Normalcy can be normal under one condition only: that it allows normalcy for the other person as well. Normalcy for the one without normalcy for the other amounts to declaring one’s superiority over the other. When Israelis demand to live in peace and quiet while Palestinians are still under occupation, to enjoy water while those under their rule suffer thirst, to build homes for Jews while destroying those of Palestinians—this is not a demand for normalcy, but an arrogant act of racist superiority. Superiority and normalcy simply don’t go together.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Haaretz on September14

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