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17 Jun 2024 4:35
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  •   Home > News > Education

    Friday essay: crimes against humankind – Rai Gaita on Israel’s war on Gaza and the student protests

    Nothing Hamas has done was comparable to October 7, and nothing Israel has done is comparable to what it continues to do since that day. Student protests, in this context, inspire a measure of hope.

    Raimond Gaita, Honourary professorial fellow, Melbourne Law School, The University of Melbourne
    The Conversation


    I dedicated Justice and Hope: Essays Lectures and Other Writings, published last year, to my grandchildren, but I intended this dedication, implicitly, to be to all young people. This is what I wrote.

    More and more, I fear, knowledge of affliction and cruelty will test their understanding of what it means to share a common humanity with all the peoples of the earth, and to a degree almost too awful to imagine, their faith that the world is a good world despite the suffering and the evil in it. What can sustain that faith? I believe there are few questions more urgently in need of sober realism in their formulation and in the answers offered to them.

    Subjected as they have been to corrosive disillusionment about political institutions, I feared then that hope had deserted young people. The student protests in response to Israel’s war on Gaza and its people have changed my mind about that. At times, the protests appear to express a joyful affirmation that this kind of political action can, indirectly, change the world. I welcome that, though with qualifications I sometimes fear will reduce the voice of hope in me to a whisper.

    Generally, I’m not keen on a declaration of interest in these circumstances, but sometimes it matters. The understanding and discussion of ethical matters is always personal, though this should not compromise a robust attempt to to see things as they are.

    My wife is Jewish, and I have Jewish stepchildren and step-grandchildren. Hardly a day passes when I am not at some level aware that in the lifetime of my parents, most of the nations of Europe were glad to see Jews exterminated like vermin unfit to live on this earth.

    For many people of my age (I’m 78), the Holocaust taught two important lessons. First, irrespective of what they have done and what they are like, no human being should be treated as vermin, outside the boundaries of a sense of a common humanity. That is perhaps why so many postwar preambles to international law speak of the Dignity (capital intended) of humanity: of the inalienable dignity of peoples of all ethnic, religious and national kinds.

    The second is that because of their allegiance to nation or religion, which often forms an essential element of their identity, good people will sometimes do, support or condone morally terrible deeds. To believe therefore they could not be good people is to be blind to the tragic ethical complexity of the human condition.

    My wife is also Israeli. We are shocked and deeply pained by what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank, but do not believe what Israel has become was inevitable from at least 1948, when Israel became a state. (The Palestinians call this the Nakba.) Between then and now, many possibilities were squandered, not realised, or not even noticed.

    Millions of people throughout the world have marched in the streets of their cities, towns and villages to express their revulsion at Israel’s war against Gaza.

    They do not need the results of investigations to know what they see every night on their television screens is also a war against Gaza’s people, if not because it is motivated by genocidal intent, then because it is driven by a fierce desire for revenge that has shown contempt for its victims.

    They are outraged because nothing Hamas did on October 7, or could realistically threaten to do, justifies what Israel has done in response. It is not only the number of dead and wounded, estimated at 35,709 dead and 79,990 wounded at the time of writing, that motivates them. It is the destruction in Gaza of a human way of living.

    When one reflects on how often people have spoken of the way a sense of place has shaped them and coloured their orientation to the world, their sense of being at home in it, then one can see what a heinous crime the physical destruction of a city can be. The claim that it is disproportionate – even overwhelmingly disproportionate – is in the wrong ethical space to capture the moral and human awfulness of it. Summoning every ethical resonance of the phrase, it is a crime against humankind.

    Israel has destroyed this kind of “at homeness in the world” for the people of Gaza. Palestinians are fighting to achieve it in their struggle for national self-determination. To defend or fight for the conditions of this sense of belonging in the world, states will do things that are against morality and law.

    That is why Israel claims, falsely, that its war against Hamas is a fight for its existence and, even more absurdly, for Western civilisation.

    Intergenerational trauma

    It seems that most Israelis and a significant portion of the Jewish diaspora support the war. One reason is that they have not been able to overcome the trauma caused by October 7. It was not the terrorist killing of civilians, including children and babies, that caused it. Nor was it the brutal sexual violence, or the fact more Jews were killed in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust, though of course these were fundamental.

    What made the trauma intergenerational throughout the Jewish diaspora, I think, is that those terrible deeds were committed with exultant Jew hatred. The trauma was compounded by equivocation over the moral and political significance of October 7 by a surprising number of intellectuals on the left and sometimes, even the denial of their sympathy.

    When the UN Secretary General António Guterres said, in a tone of frustration many Jews took to be directed at them, that October 7 did “not occur in a vacuum”, they took him to mean they should understand the crimes of that day in their historical context. Many believed that was equivalent to a justification of these crimes. Guterres angrily denied the latter.

    He was obviously right, but it was foolish of him to say it. His statement encompassed the ethical particularity of October 7 and Palestinian terrorist attacks more generally. This was echoed by many others, who described the deeds of October 7 as the actions of freedom or resistance fighters.

    Obviously, one action can fall under several descriptions, not all of them morally salient. Some terrorists are resistance fighters; some resistance fighters are terrorists. And, it is important to note, some who might have been resistance fighters forfeited the right to that expression, with its heroic resonance, because of how they acted.

    At least some of the Hamas fighters forfeited it with their actions on October 7, even if they might rightly have been described as resistance fighters when they broke through the Israel-Gaza border fence.

    They did not forfeit it because they killed civilians, or because they raped (and perpetrated crimes worse than rapes) – nor even because they killed children. They forfeited it because of the obscene glee they took in those deeds as an expression of their hatred of Jews.

    If one wants to understand how they could do it, as of course one should, one needs more than knowledge of the occupation and daily suffering and humiliations of the Palestinians. One needs a political psychology of the kind writer Adam Shatz offered in a fine article in London Review of Books titled Vengeful Pathologies. That is not what most people had in mind when they talked of the need to place October 7 – politically and morally – in its historical context.

    There is another important thing to note. Sometimes, confronted with morally terrible deeds, we are incredulous, bewildered, and we ask of their agents, “How was it possible that they did it?”.

    That is not a question that invites an answer – which is, perhaps, to say it is not really a question. We are not in need of facts, or expert knowledge. We may know the motives, which fully explain why they did it. Often they will be ordinary, banal motives: perhaps they were frightened, vengeful, or sadists, or were obeying orders.

    It’s a fact of human life that we sometimes respond this way to morally terrible deeds. Rather, I want to suggest that the fact we do, the generality of that fact in human life, is intrinsic to (because it partly constitutes) our concept of the morally terrible. People who are blank to this kind of response in themselves or in others, have an impoverished understanding of the morally terrible, or, if you are at ease with this word, of “evil”.

    An analogy might help. Many are bewildered by the disappearance of a human personality in death. That’s not because they hanker for supernatural beliefs of any kind. They know the facts of science. This kind of bewilderment is partly what constitutes our idea that human beings are unique and irreplaceable: not just to those who love and mourn them, but period.

    The aggressive calls to see the atrocities of October 7 within the context of clear explanations felt to some like an uncomprehending assault on the way people – not only Jewish people – responded to them.

    However, I believe it is a moral tragedy for the Jewish diaspora that it has not allowed its trauma to transform into an urgent obligation to criticise what Israel has done in its name. I would say the same about the citizens of Israel. The response of both communities – but especially of the diaspora – is, as it has been for many years, “Israel has enough haters in world. Why should we join them?”

    But just as nothing Hamas or other terrorists have done was comparable to October 7, nothing Israel has done, not even in 1948, is comparable to what it has done and continues to do since October 7.

    When one listens to statements by Israel’s political leaders, it is easy to believe they are out of touch with reality. But it is also necessary to understand the brutal realpolitik that has long been part of Israeli international politics. It is based on the belief that if one can sit out the world’s condemnation, there will come a time when the world will no longer care – or not enough for it to matter.

    That may be true of older leaders in the West, but it is unlikely to be true of younger people in the Global South. Of them, Pankaj Mishra wrote in March in The London Review of Books:

    At the same time, Gaza has become for countless powerless people the essential condition of political and ethical consciousness in the 21st century – just as the first world war was for a generation in the West.

    It will be different for younger people in the Global North, but the alienation from Israel now evident in many of them is likely to continue to affect their attitude to it profoundly in the future, even as it diminishes.

    The concept of a university

    The student protests began some six months after the marches in streets, towns and villages throughout the world. They were inspired by the same revulsion at the crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, but focused on what the students believed to be the varying forms of complicity of their institutions in those crimes.

    Journalists and some students have likened the current protests to those of the 1960s and early 1970s. The reason is obvious, but there is a fundamental difference: in the 60s and 70s, institutions called universities regarded themselves as answerable to an historically deep conception of a university. This governed ideas about what was possible or not. Included, of course, was discussion of what could or could not be done at a university in the name of free speech and protest.

    It was taken for granted universities would host faculties (or schools) of humanities – and that their students and academic staff would therefore form political and moral beliefs that would sometimes be radically contrary to those of their fellow citizens. Expressed in actions – or sometimes even just expressed – these beliefs would also be against the law.

    Recall the arguments about pornography and abortion in the 1960s, and about torture after September 11. Not to mention arguments about the justifiability of infanticide in certain circumstances, which started in the late 1970s and are ongoing.

    Regarding deeds rather than arguments, Monash University students openly collected money for non-military aid to Vietnam’s pro-unification National Liberation Front (NLF) in the late 1960s, when it was killing their fellow citizens fighting in Vietnam. They chanted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win”, though “Uncle Ho” was at the time believed to have murdered at least 30,000 peasants in a program of “land reforms”.

    When the institutions now called universities deliberate about which disciplines (or even faculties) they will support, no serious concept of a university even remotely enterS their minds. Some universities have axed philosophy, classics, physics – or even the entire faculty of humanities. Clearly, they would not be moved by the argument that institutions lacking these things do not deserve to be called universities.

    If anyone old enough to have been a student in the 1960s were to offer such an argument, they would betray they had been asleep for at least 40 years. It would never occur to younger people to do so: that concept of the university died before many of them were born.

    Admittedly, even in the 1960s, the argument didn’t have much life in it. Less than 20 years later, at a meeting convened to protect philosophy departments in the UK, philosophers repeatedly told a minister of education, who had come to hear what they had to say, that an institution without a philosophy department – and most certainly one that closed its philosophy department – could not be called a university. He listened patiently for almost an hour and then responded with evident irritation, “In that case, we will call it something else”. The philosophers didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say. Only a lament was truthfully on offer.

    The concept of a university the philosophers appealed to relied on other notions, whose place in living speech was equally unconvincing. Vocation, collegiality, a community of scholars, love of truth – even truth itself.

    When scepticism about truth, and hostility to the intensity that went with talk of love of it, became pervasive in many humanities disciplines, the die was cast: as the UK philosophers discovered. Speaking truth to a seductively cool corporate urbanity that found intensity distasteful proved as least as difficult as speaking it to power.

    Serious discussion

    If they cannot appeal to a serious concept of a university, what can students and staff appeal to when they ask what should be permitted on campus? I don’t know exactly, but here is a rough answer: students and staff should be permitted to say in political forums on campus what they have come to believe in serious discussion in the classroom.

    They should therefore be prepared to say with Machiavelli that political leaders should not desire to be good, and that they should love their country more than their soul. To say with Frantz Fanon that the oppressed can justifiably use political violence, including terror, against their oppressors. To say with Marx that we should aim for revolution.

    And to say with many contemporary writers, including Israelis, that Israel is irredeemably a racist colonial settler state that should cease to exist as a Jewish state – or with the Israeli historian Benny Morris that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs should have been completed in 1948.

    They should be prepared to say, with some right-wing Israeli nationalists, that Jordan should become the home for a Palestinian nation. And to say, with many critical legal theorists, that international law as it stands is Eurocentric in ways that have favoured colonial exploitation of peoples in the Global South – and therefore lacks the authority to claim jurisdiction over them. And to say more.

    Recently, university leaders asked the federal government for advice on what counts as unlawful conduct on their campuses. This implies they would act against students who behaved unlawfully. Perhaps that is why a student at ANU was suspended for expressing unconditional support for Hamas. I assume the student was not suspended for her foolish, effectively amoral idea one might give unconditional support to a political entity. It seems more likely the university suspended her because Hamas is listed by the government as a terrorist organisation.

    Students who study the Cold War, and intellectuals’ arguments about it at the time, are likely to read famous writers and philosophers who refused to condemn mass murder in the Soviet Union – especially if that condemnation was demanded by those who refused to condemn the murder of communists or left-wing leaders and political activists in South America and Asia.

    Reading and discussing these thinkers in class, some students might agree with them. They may, for similar reasons, refuse to condemn Hamas – especially when the condemnation is demanded by those who refuse to condemn what Israel is doing in Gaza and on the West Bank, but instead support it.

    I find it hard to appreciate the moral difference between refusing to condemn Hamas and refusing to condemn Israel’s terrorism in Gaza and the terrorism by settlers on the West Bank (who are often supported by Israel’s defence forces and government ministers). There are, to be sure, important moral differences between the horrors of October 7 and the current war, but someone who believes they can weigh them to determine definitively which is worse must be using scales made in hell.

    One can also argue over whether the thousands of dead civilians in Gaza were intentionally killed, or whether they were killed due to reckless, often opportunist disregard of their lives. (Because of Israel’s ferocious need of revenge and its determination it would not often, or not seriously, risk the lives of its soldiers merely to protect the lives of Gazans, whose humanity is not visible to them.)

    The difference will matter to the International Court of Justice when it considers whether Israel is guilty of genocide. Morally, though, it will be weighed only by connoisseurs of evil.

    Legitimate and illegitimate persuasion

    An institution worthy of the title of university would see that the suspended ANU student could have reached the belief that made her refuse to condemn Hamas by reading prescribed texts and discussing them in her courses. Such a university** would protect her.

    Not only would it protect her to say what she believes in tutorials, but to express it in the form of protests on campus, ranging from discussion and argument in public lecture theatres to chanting and displaying posters. That is, provided those actions observe a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate persuasion.

    That distinction is as old as Socrates. Legitimate persuasion requires people to renounce their power to make others believe something only because they have lied, successfully exploited that person’s ignorance, hidden relevant information, intimidated them, or exploited their vulnerability to sentimental kitsch – or more generally, their bad ear for what rings false.

    All such forms of persuasion must be renounced in genuine conversation, as a condition of the participants’ respect for one another – and for their human need of truth as a need of the soul, as Simone Weil put it. If persuasion compels, it will do so in the way logic compels. To someone who says in response to what they take to be a valid argument, “I see that I must accept the conclusion”, one would not say, “Don’t be such a wimp. Try. Show a free spirit.”

    This is also true when the discussion involves persuasion directed to the head and heart, inseparably combined. This distinctive form of understanding is partly defined by its resistance to sentimentality, pathos, kitsch and so on.

    The university, as I have been describing it, was a community of scholars in conversation. Of course, a conversational argument can be fierce: while being respectful of the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of persuasion. For some, that can be intimidating.

    But I think one must distinguish feeling intimidated from being intimidated – by someone who intends to intimidate, consciously or unconsciously.

    Protest camps on university lawns are not seminar rooms and chanting is not a form of conversation, but they can be invitations to conversations. In this respect, they share a quality with non-violent forms of civil disobedience.

    I think of civil disobedience as an act of civic friendship. The idea that the concept of friendship can mark a distinctive form of political respect in a democratic society is as old as Aristotle. At difficult moments in their friendship, friends must call on each other to attend to what is endangering their friendship.

    “It’s time to talk, seriously and truthfully,” one might say to the other. In a similar way, citizens may sometimes feel compelled to call on their fellow citizens to acknowledge what threatens to undermine the conditions of a just and truthful political community. “Hey! It’s time to talk. We can no longer evade it.”

    Of course, it takes time for that to be heard. And once it is? It doesn’t need to be taken up. That’s in the nature of an invitation – just as it is in the nature of a conversation that we don’t know where it will go.

    Would a conversation like this be possible between those with relatives murdered on October 7 and those with relatives murdered in Gaza? Those who would deny this, or who believe the suggestion (almost grotesquely) lacks political seriousness, they should be told to take their protests to the streets.

    A university in which such conversations were possible, and such actions permitted, would, of course, have to acknowledge that as a citizen, a lawbreaker protected on campus would be liable to arrest off campus – probably justifiably.

    When the concept of a university had life in it, no one suggested the values of a university should be the values of the general community, or that what should count as freedom of speech and political activity on a campus should apply in wider society.

    Uncannily haunting

    Though defunct, the memory of the university as it existed in the 1960s remains uncannily haunting. That’s evident when people appeal to academic freedom in its name.

    The current resistance to police presence on campuses is motivated by this concept – which was used in similar situations over 50 years before. Students have protested not only as morally concerned citizens, but as members of a community who believed they could appeal to the distinctive obligations that fall on universities, as universities, to avoid being complicit in grave injustices.

    Description of the conceptual features of a university – its conceptual skeleton really – is possible, just as it is possible to describe the conceptual features of chivalry or chastity. That is why the concept of a university can still have effects, like a ghost rattling its chains, in a world that mocks it as having never described anything real – only the elitist nostalgia of a handful of academics who dreamed of a golden age that never existed. But it cannot speak to us in a way that would enable creative engagement with it. As things stand, our life with language can give it no voice.

    The requirement to allow certain forms of speech and action derives not from the idea of a university, but from considerations about what it is to seriously teach. It would obviously be absurd for a teacher in the corporate teaching institutions called universities to teach set texts of Marx, Fanon and Sartre and say to students, “Read them, then we’ll discuss them, but don’t believe them.”

    Nothing, however, that is essential to the identity of such institutions prevents them from forbidding students from expressing beliefs they formed in class discussion in political forums on campus, or from axing the courses, the disciplines to which they belong, or faculties, if they create problems with donors or the government (though it might prove embarrassing for a time).

    The embarrassment would be caused by the faint memory of a defunct concept. Therefore, it could be an occasion for universities to face the reality of what they have become – and without a trace of guilt, to purge their institutional memories of uncanny resonances.

    At the beginning of this essay, I said I have serious qualifications about the hope the students’ protests inspired in me. Aspects of the protests bewilder and alarm me. I do not understand the aggressive contempt (it appears) with which so many participants speak of Zionism and, worse, Zionists. I find it hard not to hear the voice of Hamas in their tone and therefore in how I should understand their meaning when they chant, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”. Presumably they mean free of Zionists.

    Do they not know there are many ways of being a Zionist – from the vile ways of some of the right-wing members of the Israeli government to the profoundly humane ways of anti-state Zionists like Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber?

    Do they not know that in Israel, Zionists like the director of Breaking the Silence, an organisation recording testimonies of Israeli soldiers about crimes they and others have committed against Palestinians, receive death threats?

    Do they believe because they are Zionists, such people deserve their contempt?

    Such Zionists believe Jews have a need of and a right to institutions of political and cultural self-determination in the land “between the river and the sea”, provided it is consistent with the realisation of the Palestinians’ same need and right. If one can be a Zionist without being a Jew, then I am that kind of Zionist.

    Many protesters believe Israel could be compelled to cease to exist in any Zionist form. That belief is dangerously out of touch with reality. Israel will never be compelled to give up what it believes to be its responsibility to realise the need of the Jewish people for self-determination. Not militarily – it has nuclear weapons – and not under the pressure of boycotts, divestments and international hostility. For anything like the foreseeable future, Israel will continue to exist as a Jewish state.

    Political realism requires one to acknowledge that the Palestinians will receive justice only if Israel is persuaded, albeit under considerable pressure, to give it. It will do so only if it is consistent with some form of Jewish self-determination.

    The hope that a radically anti-Zionist project can be achieved is a fantasy. As such, it expresses the kind of thoughtlessness Hannah Arendt argued could produce great evil. The kind of thoughtlessness she had in mind is a failure of judgement that erodes genuinely critical thinking.

    It is a conceit on the part of the institutions now called universities to believe they can teach students to be seriously critical thinkers. This was often so, even when the concept of a university meant something.

    They can teach students facts, how to weigh them in support of conclusions, how to argue, in the sense in which philosophy departments teach them to be good at argument. They can even teach judgement about how to weigh facts as evidence to support certain propositions. But they cannot, in anything like the same way, teach them to possess the courage or humility necessary if one is to care more for truth than the opinion of one’s peers or fame.

    The need for such virtues could be appreciated in what we now call the “culture” of institutions where the academic form of the life of the mind was partly constituted by the distinction between vocations and careers: and by hardheaded talk of the love of truth. Or as Simone Weil put it, the spirit of truth in love – in love with the wondrous treasures available to students and staff in their common effort to understand the world and themselves. Institutions now called universities put obstacles in the way of developing those virtues, enacting them and even understanding the need for them.

    Nor can universities teach – in the same way they can teach judgement about factual matters or how to argue – the kind of sensibility necessary to understand the meanings of things in our lives. A sensibility in which feeling and thought are inseparable. A sensibility that informs efforts to try to see things as they are, in the domain of reflection.

    That domain includes, of course, ethical questions about the nature of love, virtue, what counts as sobriety in political action and what is needed to become resistant to the enchantment of rhetoric and spin.

    Albert Camus said he distinguished between two kinds of intelligence: intelligent intelligence and stupid intelligence.

    Stupid intelligence is like what Arendt called thoughtlessness. It can be high-flying and can pass for being critical because it takes a self-regarding pleasure in debunking. But it seldom stops to question the assumptions that inform the debunking.

    Stupid intelligence can be formidable, intimidating and quick on its feet. It can take you, deservedly, to the highest reaches of academic life and to international fame. But it is not thoughtful.

    It cannot, of itself, take you to wisdom or make you truly answerable to someone who calls on you to be serious. It cannot take you to the virtues necessary for thought that constantly reflects critically on its assumptions.

    How do we restore intelligent intelligence, the conditions that generate and nourish thoughtfulness in our institutions of education? That is our challenge, if hope is not to decline into fantasy.

    This essay is based on the annual Jim Carlton Integrity Lecture delivered recently at the Melbourne Law School.

    The Conversation

    Raimond Gaita does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
    © 2024 TheConversation, NZCity

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