Friday, October 13, 2023

Grief Over Dead Jews is not the Cause of Palestinian Suffering

At Dissent Magazine, Gabriel Winant has an essay arguing for why it is wrong to grieve murdered Israelis, in response to Joshua Leifer's call for a "humane left" that recognizes the atrocities inflicted upon the Israeli people even as it mobilizes to defend Palestinian rights (Leifer authors a searing response of his own here). 

Winant's argument against grieving dead Israelis is not exactly the one you're thinking of -- that the dead are "colonists" or "settlers" and so got what was coming to them. It's slightly more roundabout, though ultimately still rather straightforward. 

Israel, Winant says, is "a machine for the conversion of grief into power." In the context of Israel and Zionism, to grieve dead Jews is -- no matter the intentions of the bereft -- a means of providing fuel to the Israeli war machine, "an enormous grief machine, the best in the world, up and running, feeding on bodies and tears and turning them into bombs." Winant's argument is not, to be clear, the position that certain forms of grief and grieving lend themselves to the promotion and justification of future atrocities. It is that any type of grief, no matter how humanistic in spirit, is ultimately a choice to "participate in the ideological project of the Israeli state," and so all grief over dead Israelis should be interpreted as complicity in the deaths of Palestinians.

The Israeli government doesn’t care if you, a principled person, perform your equal grief for all victims: it will gobble up your grief for Jews and use it to make more victims of Palestinians, while your balancing grief for Palestinians will be washed away in the resulting din of violence and repression.

And so we are obligated to not grieve for massacred Israelis so to starve the apparatus of its fuel.

Winant is a historian, a discipline of the humanities. It is moments like this when I'm glad my own training is in the social sciences, where even as a political theorist I gained some capacity to look for causality before making causal claims. It is a curse of academia that it tempts us to make smart arguments for stupid things, or sometimes smart arguments for horrific things. Certainly, the seemingly unanswerable question Winant is trying to answer -- "Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence?" -- is, in fact, exactly as obvious a moral (non-)dilemma as it first appears. But elegant pedigree and august publication venue aside, the mistake Winant is making is not a smart one. It is an error that anyone with even the slightest instinct towards causal inference would have spotted immediately.

The imperative to not grieve dead Jews, Winant argues, boils down to the following:

[I]n the several days that we spent arguing about whether the left was sufficiently decent about Hamas’s victims, Israel geared up its genocide machine—which it now is releasing. Presumably sometime next week, Western leaders will begin to express concerns, by which time it will be too late.

"By which time it will be too late." The argument, apparently, is that if only the world had hardened its heart towards dead Israelis last week, we could have averted the horrors set to befall Palestinians next week. As a causal claim, this is ludicrous to the point of farce -- to the point where I can't imagine Winant actually believes it. Does he truly believe that, if the collective global reaction to massacred Jews was a stoic shrug, that would have deterred an Israeli response? That it would have even ameliorated it? That it would have spouted greater humanism? It is absurd on face; even (maybe especially?) an anti-Zionist should realize the Israeli state would not be deterred so easily.

The brute fact is that the world electing to grieve, or not, over dead Israelis almost certainly made and will make no causal difference whatsoever in how Israel will respond to their deaths. And if grief over dead civilians is an impotent force with respect to the next round of deaths -- if it plays no role in making them more or less likely -- well, then one might as well be humane, be human, and grieve.

Once one identifies the absurd causal premise in Winant's argument, the entire thing falls apart. Grieving for dead Jews does not in fact sweat bombs and excrete bullets; boldly refusing to grieve would play absolutely no role in how many bombs are dropped and bullets are fired. The entire argument is a whirlwind of rhetoric and misdirection to try and obscure the obviousness of "Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence?" And while I said the argument is not quite the obvious "Israelis are colonists and settlers and so got what's coming to them," I suspect the motive of the argument isn't all that far from that -- it is to give people who desperately don't want to accede to the overwhelming power of "Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence?" an excuse, an apologia they can wield to begrudge, begrudge, begrudge.

If there is even the slightest truth in Winant's framework, it is not that Israel transmutes grief into power. It's that Israel transmutes grieving alone into power. The impetus behind Zionism -- I've been in enough of these conversations to speak confidently here -- is not (just) that bad, dreadful things happen to Jews. It's that bad, dreadful things happen to Jews and Jews are the only ones who will ever care. The only people who will grieve dead Jews are Jews; the only people who will rally to the defense of threatened Jews are Jews; the only people who will feel empathy (or anything at all, really) towards frightened or traumatized Jews are Jews; the only people who will erect fortresses to protect Jews are Jews; and so ultimately the only people who can be entrusted to protect and ensure the lives of Jews are Jews. It is not grief alone, but grief alone, that fuels these instincts.

Taken from that vantage point, the scenes of collective global grief over dead Jews represent what might be the closest thing Israelis can get to a non-violent catharsis for their trauma -- the knowledge that Jews aren't actually alone, that others do care when we are pricked and bleed. If you want something that might actually sap the machine of violence and vengeance of some of its forward momentum, that's by far your best bet -- not enforced loneliness, but unconditional embrace and empathy in the moments where it is needed most.

The last week or so hasn't had a lot of laughing moments with respect to the situation surrounding Israel and Palestine, but perhaps the only time I genuinely snickered was when Italy decided to express its solidarity by lighting up the Arch of Titus, of all places, with an Israeli flag. As far as historical ironies go, that one was hard to beat. But it also, in its ridiculous fashion, did illustrate the wheel of history turning in an important way. From celebrating dead Jews, to standing in public grief with dead Jews -- as symbolism goes, that's massive. And if that symbolic shift occurred everywhere, well, maybe Jewish history would be in a very different place than where it is today.

And so I wish I could take the final step of the argument, and say that maybe Winant has everything backwards -- that if the world had grieved hard enough and uniformly enough and passionately enough, it would have sapped the fuel of loneliness and isolation that makes Israel believe that nobody but itself can ever be entrusted to protect Jewish life, and could have knocked us off the seemingly inexorable course to the hell that is about to descend. 

But I'm enough of a social scientist that if I'm going to make a causal claim, I have to actually believe it, and I don't really believe this one. The wounds and fears that nurture Jews' feelings of abandonment run too deep to be dislodged in such a short period, even if it were possible to get everyone on board with the program (which it isn't). What I actually believe is what I said above, that how the world grieved, or didn't, over dead Israelis almost certainly made and will make no causal difference whatsoever in how Israel will respond to their deaths.

And given that absolute impotent immateriality, I also think it's clear that the basic, innocent, human impulse -- that one should grieve dead civilians -- is exactly as obvious and unanswerable as it appears at first blush. There is nothing impressive at coming up with smart (or not-so-smart) arguments to circumvent such an obvious truth.


Benjamin Lewis said...

Glad you commented on the issue, I wouldn't see it otherwise. Thanks.
Your dissection of Winant's absurdist argument is thorough and compelling. Reaching out in comfort to the wounded is always better than not, and is particularly essential for post-traumatic psyches, and probably extra-particularly so for Jews.

At the same time / seemingly holding tension with that, communicating and organizing humanitarian advocacy for Gazans is also essential, right?
There have been some/any public statements early in the week that tried to thread the needle of being devastated for Israelis and also encouraging humanitarian concern for Gazans. Does the juxtaposition of those inherently disqualify the gesture as "unconditional embrace and empathy", for the particular constructive purpose you describe here? Or are there more/less successful ways of doing that (assuming the sentiments are genuine, naturally)?
EG your own posts Saturday and Monday - Does this contribute productively to the catharsis, notwithstanding the concerns for Gazans also expressed? (Or, you prioritized other concerns more highly; or, your subjective position puts you outside the scope of leaving Israelis to grieve alone as long as you don't flip the bird; or... other?)

David Schraub said...

I don't see the tension, at least in most cases. There are some cases where "encouraging humanitarian concerns for Gazans" takes the form of hectoring anyone who has the ill-manners to be sad about Israeli deaths. But in the normal form, I think the belief that these concerns can't coexist is exaggerated by people who want them to be incompatible and so, "regrettably", force one into choosing a side (this is, more or less, Winant's position).

Benjamin Lewis said...

Thanks for reply; totally agree that "hectoring"/discouragement of mourning for victims of the Hamas attack is gross and has no place in humanitarian concern for Gaza; humanitarian concern should transcend the line of control as the humans do.

I wonder somewhat if the truth isn't more in the middle than you lay out, or in terms of your framing if more of the Israeli mainstream than we'd like is in the "want them incompatible" camp?
Case study, consider Biden's speech on Tuesday. I've definitely seen/heard some Israeli reactions emphasizing their appreciation; it was a really good speech rhetorically, for sure. And Israel certainly should appreciate it, it was all support and didn't really go into boundary setting. "We uphold the laws of war" is maybe a cue to restraint if we squint, except that it was already a falsifiable claim about the Israeli response (the "complete siege" was already in effect, etc) so de facto it gave endorsement with moral cover. But would the speech have been so received if, while keeping all of the existing language, some clearer boundaries on the conduct of the military response had been added? I'm honestly skeptical.
But I hope you're right. I'm not as organized as you, IDK why I'm writing - I don't defend or advance Winant and his ilk; they are gross and clearly reverse causal, your critique is spot on. But part of your critique is acknowledging that the phenomenon is real, even as Winant utterly mis-analyzed it. Is reverse causality to Winant's explanation truly the only direction of the phenomenon?

b said...

This may be one of the most horrifying things (besides all the more horrifying things) I've seen come out of this. That knots can be so twisted as to claim empathy and compassion and grief are tools of violence is one thing, but to see that people have missed the Israeli perspective so completely -- or denied its own words on itself so completely, I don't know in this case -- that they would perpetuate the very thing they seek to oppose by misunderstanding. It gives me little hope for understanding -- so I can only hope that we can somehow, impossibly, have peace without understanding.

If someone can write such things in all seriousness, missing the fact that Israel gains much of its support from internal and galut Jews via its status as the protector and refuge of Jewish people in their precarious existence at the whims of other authorities, that disturbs me on levels beyond its cynical use of Jewish pain as an inherently political thing.

I genuinely do not understand how people have missed the mark so entirely. I worry that if the left cannot understand why a traumatized people might create a security state in response to a long history of extermination attempts and over-reach so horrifically to attacks and threats, real and perceived before of this -- and how words like this actually feed this machine, there is something deeply wrong with the entire endeavor or discipline, like you said.

I am simply stunned that this is someone's understanding. I am watching people who have dedicated their entire lives towards peace give up in real time, watching the world's reactions, and I don't know what to do. But I appreciate you giving words to it.

Do you think peace can be achieved through sheer material necessity or geopolitical pressure without understanding? Because right now, that is starting to feel like the only remaining road. Maybe understanding can come second?