North Africa, West Asia

Philip Gourevitch’s ‘honest voice’: problems with liberal Zionism

With the disappointment of metropolitan intellectuals who feel let down by the ungrateful natives, liberal Zionists fail to see why it is those natives are angry.

William Eichler
16 August 2014

The Israeli novelist and peace activist Amos Oz poses two rhetorical questions in an interview with a German radio station, which Philip Gourevitch, writing in The New Yorker, uses to open his essay, An Honest Voice in Israel :

“Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery?

Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”

For Philip Gourevitch, Oz is an “honest voice”, in contrast with Columbia historian and former Palestinian diplomat Rashid Khalidi, who presumably, although Gourevitch does not say so explicitly, is a dishonest voice. The “godfather of Israeli peaceniks”, Amos Oz is an opponent of the occupation and a critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. But Khalidi, whose essay Collective Punishment in Gaza Gourevitch is responding to, is insufficiently critical of Hamas and “refuses to acknowledge that Hamas exists to end Israel's existence and thrives on Palestinian wretchedness.” This argument requires unpacking, starting with Oz's questions.

Firstly, the “neighbour” analogy is a false one. It creates parity where none exists. It places both parties to the conflict on an equal footing when the reality is the opposite. The Palestinians are not the neighbours of the Israelis; they are an occupied people who are subject to Israeli rule. (This includes Gaza which has been subjected to a blockade since the settlers were pulled out in 2007.) Language that treats the two sides as equal obliterates the historical context and fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the conflict. If you start from the basis that the two sides are simply “neighbours” or in a marriage that requires “a fair divorce” (another of Oz's metaphors) then you obscure the reason for the seemingly unrelenting cycle of violence.

There is a more problematic aspect to Oz's questions; namely, the repetition of the line that Hamas uses children as human shields, the insinuation being that Hamas is the reason for the high civilian death toll in Gaza. It is true that Hamas, like many secular and religious national movements living under occupation, make a cult out of death and sometimes fire rockets from populated areas. And Hamas certainly shares some of the blame. But Hamas' ideology or rockets or tunnels are not the main reason for the high number of casualties.

The Gaza strip is a tiny canton with 1.8 million people (a large proportion of whom are children) living in awful conditions. Gazans, who are being suffocated by Israel and Egypt's medieval seige and who watch day-by-day the West Bank being divided up into smaller cantons by an occupying power, resort to violence out of desperation. As Khalidi writes, “Gaza is a ghetto and ghettos will inevitably fight back against those who ghettoize them.” Israel, for its part, responds with massive force against areas where it knows civilians live. This response is not, as Oz's questions would suggest, self-defence. The Palestinians are an occupied people after all, not an external aggressor. Instead, Israel is defending its illegal occupation. And rather than engaging directly in talks with the Islamists, it prefers to ensure its dominance between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean by destroying Hamas.

Gourevitch does not ignore the occupation. But for him it appears to be a secondary consideration. He is more exercised by Hamas' ideology and Khalidi's lack of overt condemnation of the Islamist organisation. The problem here is that by putting Hamas and its ideology before the occupation, Gourevitch – just as he does with the question of Palestinian violence – is confusing historical causality. Hamas is a product of the occupation. (In fact its early cadres were supported by Israel in the 1980s as a means to counter secular Palestinian resistance.) The anti-Semitism contained within its deplorable charter is a product of the historical situation. Israel repeatedly claims to represent world Jewry (it does not) and refers to itself as a 'Jewish state'. This has served to collapse the very real difference between Zionism and Judaism in the minds of many and so people wrongly associate Jews with Israeli violence. This feeds anti-Semitism, particularly amongst those living under Israeli occupation.

Gourevitch and Oz's focus on Hamas' ideology and declared intentions ignores and effaces the deeper structural causes of the present crisis. It removes it from any serious historical context and presents a picture of an Israeli government fighting, albeit overzealously, an evil aggressor that poses an existential threat. This places the blame on the Palestinians, who are the victims, and buttresses Israel's spurious claims to self-defence. A more accurate picture would be of an occupied people who, faced with the systematic destruction of their homeland and the denial of their rights, have turned to violence. Liberal Zionists find this hard to understand. With the disappointment of metropolitan intellectuals who feel let down by the ungrateful natives, they fail to see why it is those natives are angry.

Khalidi's essay focuses on the fact that is the key to the entire conflict: Israel's occupation and its oppression of Palestinians. As he put it, “[i]t is not about rockets. It is not about 'human shields' or terrorism or tunnels. It is about Israel's permanent control over Palestinian land and Palestinian lives.” By underplaying this issue and focusing on Hamas and its ideology at the expense of the situation on the ground, Gourevitch and Oz mischaracterise the present conflagration and the entire conflict. Perhaps it is not Khalidi who is the dishonest voice.

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