North Africa, West Asia

Palestinian-Israeli cohabitation: pluralising the suffering

How should we interpret or reinterpret this rhetoric of suffering which has become such a constant point of reference in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Mohammad Sakhnini
12 August 2014

The rising toll of deaths in the ongoing war on Gaza re-enact the ethnic cleansing strategy which Israel pursued in 1948, while rehearsing over a bitter notion of suffering which Israeli official discourse has always reserved as the exclusive trait of what is it like to be an Israeli Jew, not a Palestinian.

The extraordinary, disproportionate level of aggression on Gaza shows how Israel has reacted against the rhetoric of suffering of their own that the Palestinians have started to develop, one which is becoming increasingly successful in gathering support from ordinary people around the world, and one which is also forming a collective national identity called Palestinian identity.

No doubt: this idea of suffering is important to the history of both the Palestinians and the Jews. But how should we interpret or reinterpret this rhetoric which has become such a constant point of reference in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

It is important that we set out to imagine a solution to the conflict by rethinking the idea of suffering as an exclusive mode of redemption which brings final happiness only to those who strike at ‘evil’ by pursuing ‘evil’. If many Palestinians feel happy when they see Israeli public and private life disturbed by having the shrill sirens that call upon them to go into hiding from the Hamas rockets, then many Israelis also feel happy seeing that more and more Palestinians, including the most vulnerable among them, are dealt the deadly blows of Israeli advanced military equipment. How absurd it is in such a conflict to compare the sufferings of both peoples - who suffers more? - or who is more jubilant when suffering has been more successfully inflicted upon ‘the other’?

Suffering and happiness

The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume once wrote an essay in which he perfectly captured the dialectical interaction between suffering and happiness, one which helps us understand why Israel keeps punishing the Palestinians for their presence on a land which was supposedly theirs but had to be taken from them because of the suffering that only the Jews, more than any other people, have endured. Redemption can only happen by restoring to the Jewish people what they consider their original homeland, even if such restoration requires occupying and confiscating Palestinian lands and making Palestinians suffer.

In Of Tragedy, an essay which appeared in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1742-1754), Hume chronicled how a spectacle of suffering delivers pleasure for the spectators. “The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle”. But the sense of delight which accompanies the spectacle of suffering only emerges as the culmination of a tension occurring throughout in which the spectator negotiates his/her distance from the sufferer (I am happy since I am not the one who is suffering) whereby he or she, “roused by passion and charmed by eloquence, feels on the whole a strong movement, which is altogether delightful”. But this delight only occurs after a) the spectator mobilises the imagination by saying ‘I am not the one who is suffering so why do I need to care about the suffering of the other’ and b) the spectator becomes enchanted with the sobs and tears which the suffering person shows in his/her efforts to explain his/her situation.

When we see how the Israeli war machinery is massacring Palestinian children, this shift from a positive to a negative dialectic comes into its own. Somewhere in the minds of those ordering and performing these military operations there must be a sense of pleasure in seeing the other suffer. The spectacle of suffering shifts from a positive dialectic—that is, ‘he/she is suffering and so I am now suffering’—into one of negative dialectic—that is, ‘he is suffering and so I am happy because it is me who is causing the enemy to suffer but I am not the one who is suffering’.

Suffering and cohabitation

Edward Said and Judith Butler were prepared to imagine a form of cohabitation and, to use Paul Gilroy’s term, conviviality between the two nations. Their solace and hope was the urgency of the nomos of exile in the traditions, memories and histories of both Israelis and Palestinians. Said in his Freud and the non-European (2003) and Judith Butler in her Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012) argued, in their different ways, that the trope of the Jew is one of necessary relations and cohabitation with the non-Jew. Said, who pursued a contrapuntal reading of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, showed how Freud’s Moses had an Egyptian background and how the followers of Moses in ancient Egypt were also influenced by the Arab tribes inhabiting the area. Said concludes his essay by drawing attention to the fragility of the notion of a closed off Jewish identity. But then he goes so far as to say: “Can it ever become the not-so-precarious foundation in the land of the Jews and Palestinians of a bi-national state in which Israel and Palestine are parts, rather than antagonistic of each other’s  history and underlying reality?” Butler offers an answer for Said’s question by emphasising the revival of the notion of exile as a point of departure for reaching a stage of cohabitation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews: “the exilic is built into the idea of the Jewish...in this sense, to ‘be’ a Jew is to be departing from oneself, cast out into a world of the non-Jew, bound to make one’s way ethically and politically there within a world of irreversible heterogeneity”.

The level of destruction and death which the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza inflicts upon the life of Palestinians urgently demands from us a way of imagining cohabitation between both peoples. The problem further requires a way of rethinking the traditions of suffering which are integral to the life of both peoples.

What Israeli Jews need be prepared to understand is that the trope of suffering is not exclusively Jewish and Israeli but it is also Palestinian. The ongoing suffering in Gaza needs to be understood relationally like this: rather than, ‘the Palestinians are suffering, so that we are happy’ - ‘The Palestinians are suffering, then we, Israeli Jews, are bound to suffer or continue to suffer, in this sense’. By imagining suffering as a state of being far from being exclusive and ontologically sealed, Israeli Jews might finally be enabled to see how the ongoing war on Gaza has caused the Palestinians an unprecedented level of grief. Both sides might imagine a peaceful and positive cohabitation in the area, if they were only willing to pluralise the notion of suffering.      

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