In Mirror for man: The relationship of anthropology to modern life (New York: Macmillan, 1949), Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn articulated what was a virtual “mission statement” for anthropology in the modern world:
“Anthropology provides a scientific basis for dealing with the crucial dilemma of the world today: how can peoples of different appearance, mutually unintelligible languages, and dissimilar ways of life get along peaceably together?” (p. 1)
How can they remains a crucial question that ought to engage us all as anthropologists, and an anthropology committed to humanity cannot but be staggered by the inhumanity witnessed by something like today’s (Tuesday’s) Israeli massacre of 43 civilian refugees at a U.N. school in Jabaliya, Gaza, the third time that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have attacked a school in the Gaza strip during its ground invasion, where schools now house upwards of 15,000 civilian refugees who have nowhere to hide in the crowded ghetto that is Gaza. And let us be clear about this, this was no “accident” by an army that boasts of precision, of surgical strikes, that was given the precise GPS coordinates to the school by United Nations workers. Nor is it the only time that Israel has struck a U.N. edifice, knowingly and deliberately, as it did in southern Lebanon in 2006 when it killed four U.N. peacekeepers. Moreover, today’s attack was carried out by a tank — that is rather “up close and personal,” and there is no claim from Israel that its forces somehow did not see all the civilians at the school. The claim is that Israel was targeting Hamas operatives, and we have to assume that at the same time there was a sudden shortage of sniper rifles on the Israeli side which instead chose to use its usual elephantine response for targeting a couple of individuals and wiping out 43. And all of this is if one even believes the IDF that there were Hamas operatives present and engaged in attacking the IDF. The attack was neither surgical, nor did it avoid targeting civilians.
[Update: since this was posted a few hours ago, the IDF has changed its story. Now it claims that Hamas fighters were inside the school, using civilians as human shields…except that no one can corroborate that, and the U.N. has denied it, as reported in today’s TIME. In the meantime, the Israeli blockade against the entry of foreign journalists into Gaza is receiving stern responses even from the likes of CNN.]
This massacre is all that was on my mind Tuesday, thinking the thoughts appearing here even when lecturing on unrelated topics. I was tempted to begin class by saying, “Aren’t we lucky to be in a school that is not being bombed?” I thought that with this massacre, and with much more before it, the Israeli state concedes priceless moral and political territory in its quest to define and defend its expanding physical territory. What I will focus on later is the question of the “right to exist.” I would also encourage the reader to carefully examine the supporting quotes that follow this post.
Today’s massacre was an event, an event that begs the question as to what kinds of assumptions about humanity do the perpetrators of such an attack work with in their own minds. There is an Israeli state “anthropology,” maybe not formally conceived as such, but certainly nonetheless a perspective on the condition(s) of humanity, on who is human, what is human behaviour, and what kinds of rights are to be enjoyed by what kinds of humans. I want to address those, often unspoken, anthropological assumptions of the Israeli state, and I will do so pending three personal caveats:
- That objectivity is not neutrality, despite the popular confusions of the two by individuals who do not know better. A good therapist listens quietly, assessing facts external to his/her mind, the objective facts of the condition of the patient. Presumably there is some objectivity in the listening, but from that objectivity neutrality is definitely not the result. A prescribed action is the result — the therapist takes a committed stance, and comes down on one side. A neutral therapist would either prescribe nothing at all, and thus be utterly useless, or prescribe everything imaginable, just to be neutral, and would be harmful to the point of lethality. I do not mention subjectivity, which is not to malign subjectivity since it is a fundamental, necessary, and inevitable part of the thought process behind the very identification of something as a “problem” to be researched. Subjectivity is also what “gave” the person who became a therapist the values and personal beliefs that were a prerequisite for him or her to one day decide, “I want to become a therapist.” We begin with subjectivity, and we build on it, but what we should not do is to naively abjure it as if it were a stain on a pristine white lab coat.
- That an assessment of the conflict between Hamas and the Israeli state must be balanced, but only if the forces and actions in question are of equal weight. I do not know how many readers have seen scales, and tried to find a balance, but if you have then you know that for there to be balance the two sides of the scale must hold objects of identical weight. Does that apply here? Does it apply when one side fires homemade rockets and the other side has an army, navy, and air force that can demolish entire neighbourhoods? Does it apply when four civilians are killed on one side, while over 100 are killed on the other? Does it apply when one side is an independent state backed by the financial and military resources of the world’s leading superpower, and the other side relies on smuggling basic goods and crude arms through tunnels? Does balance apply when one side has captured the lion’s share of the land that previously belonged to the other side, and that other side is now confined to a subordinate ghetto that is the size of a postage stamp? Do we have balance when only one of the two sides can shut down power, water, and food supplies that the other side depends upon to merely survive? Anyone looking at the Israeli attacks against the people of Gaza who can then walk away with a “balanced” statement is necessarily unbalanced as an analyst, as a person.
- That I am not unfairly picking on the Israeli state alone, when land expropriations and the dispossession of native peoples is the very same reality of the nation-state that governs over me. To back up that claim, anyone can verify it by seeing my previous posts that liken the very conceptualization of a “Canada” to a hate crime, that cite “Canada” as an invasion phenomena, and that barely mask my belief that the Canadian state ought to be ruptured and dissolved (see here, here, here, here, and here, ). Now, what would have been truly surprising is if I had not adopted similar principles when speaking of Israel.
Anthropology teaches us not to naturalize any human construction, and to recognize the arbitrariness of culture, not to mention the arbitrariness of power. Political Anthropology invites us to recognize that the state is the most violent of all arbitrary institutions in human history, that all states on earth owe their existence to massive and bloody assaults, and continue to preserve and promote themselves through violence against the peoples governed by other states. To say that Israelis have biological bodies ought not to naturalize the state of Israel — the state is not the individual writ large, nor is every body the state, except in truly fascist, nationalistic ideologies. To say that those human bodies have a right to life should not mean that the state that governs those bodies enjoys the same right. States make their own rights, they announce their own rights, and they establish those rights for themselves through might.
There is no balance in question here — what we see is a tacit endorsement by the Israeli and American states, and many other Western states and their media, of an observation that has been attributed to Josef Stalin: “When one dies, it is a tragedy. When a million die, it is a statistic” (some argue that this really comes from the novel Der schwarze Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque (1956): “Aber das ist wohl so, weil ein einzelner immer der Tod ist — und zwei Millionen immer nur eine Statistik“). The Israeli state pleads that we count the value of the lives of Israelis over all others, at many times the value. The United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that of all the deaths due to violence between Israelis and Palestinians from September 2000 to July 2007, 4,228 have been Palestinians, and 1,024 were Israelis. More than four times as many Palestinians were killed. Of the overall number of children killed, 88% were Palestinian, and 12% were Israeli. In the current Israeli attacks on Gaza, Al Jazeera has been keeping a toll which at this moment reads: “590 Palestinians killed…and 9 Israelis killed.” In terms of the rocket attacks that Israel claims as a provocation, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has kept its own tally, and for the purposes of comparison using available numbers, while the MFA says that in 2006 there was a drastic increase in the number of rockets fired at Israel (946 in total), the OCHA reports that for the same year, 2006, 14,000 Israeli artillery shells were fired into Gaza. Yet when it comes to media coverage of deaths, one study calculated that “ABC, CBS, and NBC reported Israeli deaths at rates 3.1, 3.8, and 4.0 times higher than Palestinian deaths, respectively,” even worse in the case of deaths of children from conflict, where Palestinian children died at 22 times the Israeli rate and yet “deaths of Israeli children [were] covered at rates 9.0, 12.8, and 9.9 times greater than the deaths of Palestinian children by ABC, CBS, and NBC, respectively.” When the Israeli propaganda machine, and U.S. mainstream media, monopolize “tragedy” under an Israeli banner, they endorse Stalin’s alleged statement. Palestinian deaths are a statistic, an underreported one at that. That is appropriate for a monster regime.
“Might makes right” is possibly one of the most brilliant popular sayings we have. Might thinks itself right, when it succeeds; but when might meets counter-might, as it does in Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, then might goes insane. Israel has no moral right to exist as a state, and in this world, history has seen many states come and many go. If I say this about Israel, I say it about all states. What Israel does have is the might to exist — and all might is temporary and conditioned by contextual factors outside of the control of the given state. To borrow one of Hugo Chavez’s favourite phrases, por ahora.
Israel is trying to write its own political anthropology, but it does not stop there. It is “writing” its own general anthropology as well. Examine the assumptions, both unspoken, and spoken (and see the quotes at the end).
What does the Israeli state assume about the humanity of Palestinians when it expects them to succumb to force and accept the right of Israeli might? It assumes that Palestinians, unlike Jews, unlike human beings, have no memory, no capacity for remembering, and no capacity for emotion either. The Palestinians, presumably, will merely bury their dead, forget about it all, and move on.
What does the Israeli state assume about the humanity of Palestinians when it demands that they surrender, that they cease to respond to forcible Israeli expropriations of their lands, barring Palestinian refugees from returning to their lands while establishing a “Law of Return” so that anyone from New York to Kiev can assume possession of a land they have never been to but to which they claim a relationship as eternal natives? In assuming that Palestinians will cease to respond, they assume the humanly impossible. And in assuming the humanly impossible, the Israeli state furnishes itself with a pretext for genocide — the killing of Palestinians can never stop, because their response to such killings will never stop.
What does the Israeli state assume about the intelligence and emotional makeup of Palestinians when it suggests that suffering incurred by Palestinian civilians ought to turn them against their Hamas leadership, that they should blame Hamas for their suffering? It assumes that victims of a bombing will blame a fellow target, not the bomber. Why, do Israelis react that way to rocket attacks? Do Israelis say, “it’s the fault of the other settlers, they deserved to die, the Palestinians were right to fire at us”? In fact, where has the assumption that punishing civilians turns them against their leaders ever worked? And indeed it is a tested assumption, tested against North Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Iraq. Nowhere did the people targeted show themselves as any less human than the attackers.
What the Israeli state implicitly assumes, to the extent that it takes its own propositions seriously, is that Palestinian life matters less, is of less value, and the only way it can be of less value is if one sees Palestinians as less human. Israeli identity is thus assumed to be better, more deserving of rights and privileges, with an exclusive emphasis on Israeli suffering.
Meanwhile, the humanity of the Palestinians is denied, and it is in this context of its creation that the Israeli state expects its “right” to exist to be accepted? Of course all anthropologists should be feeling their stomachs turn, that is, if they see their discipline as being anything like a science in service of humanity.
* I would like to thank my colleagues, Lorenz Khazaleh at antropologi.info (see his post on “Anthropologists on the War on Gaza“) and “Pamthropologist” at Teaching Anthropology (see her post, “Gaza: A Frightening Anthropological Analogy“), for inspiring me to continue writing on this subject. In return, I hope they continue to keep up their own great work.
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On using massive firepower and knowingly accounting for high Palestinian civilian losses, to reduce Israeli military losses and maintain high Israeli public morale, see:
ANALYSIS / Using aggressive tactics in Gaza to save soldiers’ lives
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
January 7, 2009
Senior officers admit that the IDF has been using enormous firepower.
“For us, being cautious means being aggressive,” explained one. “From the minute we entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage on the ground … I just hope those who have fled the area of Gaza City in which we are operating will describe the shock. Maybe someone there will sober up before it continues.”
What the officer did not say explicitly was that this is deliberate policy. Following the trauma of the war in Lebanon in 2006, the army realized that heavy IDF casualties would erode public (and especially political) support for the war and limit its ability to achieve its goals. Therefore, it is using aggressive tactics to save soldiers’ lives. And the cabinet took this into account when it approved the ground operation last Friday, so it has no reason to change its mind now.
On Israeli public opinion, see:
Poll: Most Israelis support continuing Gaza military op
By Yossi Verter, Haaretz Correspondent, and Haaretz Service
January 1, 2009
“…just 19 percent say the Israel Defense Forces should launch an extensive ground incursion.”
“In contrast, 19 percent of respondents say the government should negotiate a cease-fire as soon as possible.”
On the lack of balance:
Pitfalls that Opponents of Israeli Attack Must Avoid
by Titus North / January 5th, 2009
“…we need to be careful to avoid two pitfalls while we criticize Israeli policy: the first being the blaming of both sides for the violence and the second being the vilification of Hamas.”
“In referring to the ongoing crisis, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said ‘Let me be clear. I condemn unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms the ongoing rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian militants. But I also condemn the excessive use of force by Israel.’ What’s wrong with this statement? First let’s look at the content. Obviously, the condemnation of Hamas was unequivocal and in the strongest possible terms, where as the condemnation of Israel included no such emphasis. Also, the Hamas rockets were labeled ‘attacks’ whereas the Israeli bombs (where were not specifically mentions) were simply referred to as ‘use of force.’ More importantly, Ban only condemned the ‘excessive’ use of force by Israel, thus implicitly legitimizing violence by Israel up until the point it become ‘excessive,’ which of course is a subjective call.”
On previous recognition of the fact that Israel itself broke the ceasefire with Hamas:
UNRWA chief: Gaza on brink of humanitarian catastrophe
November 21, 2008
carried by HAARETZ
“Israel closed the crossings after Palestinian militants responded with daily rocket salvoes to an Israeli army incursion on Nov. 4 into the Hamas-run territory, where a five-month-old, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire had largely been holding.”
Update: this point was also made forcefully on CNN, which is no friend of the Palestinian cause:
On the “right to exist” in light of breaches of international law and ethnic cleansing:
Silence is Complicity: We’re All War Criminals Now
by Joe Mowrey / January 5th, 2009
“…Israel has refused to abide by UN resolution 194 which guarantees Palestinians the right of return to or compensation for lands taken from them during the war in 1947-48. As a result of that war and the 1967 war Israel expanded well beyond the borders allotted to it by the original partition of Palestine and has been in violation of the Geneva Conventions as well as the terms of the original United Nations partition plan since its inception.”
“The widely accepted and vociferous contention that ‘Israel has a right to defend itself,’ is a bizarre transposition of the rule of law. It is like saying the family that occupied your home has a right to defend itself from your actions to remove them. Israel does not have any right under international law to ‘defend’ its ethnic cleansing and illegal occupation of Palestine. The attack on Gaza, and indeed, any Israeli action taken against Palestinian resistance, whether that resistance be violent or nonviolent, is not an act of self defense. It is an act of aggression against a legitimate resistance movement. Israel is not defending itself, it is defending its illegal colonization of Palestinian lands.”
On collective punishment, on Palestinian memory, on the assault on humanity:
Palestinians Will Never Forget
by Susan Abulhawa / January 6th, 2009
“Many have compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Apartheid South Africa. But not in their cruelest hour did the Apartheid regime wreak such wanton murder and destruction. Let us stop mincing words. What is happening to Palestinians now whispers of Warsaw and Lodz.”
“Schools, universities, mosques, police stations, homes, water treatment plants, factories, and anything that supports civil society, including the only mental health clinic in Gaza, have been blown to rubble from planes that rain death from clear skies without any resistance, because Palestinians have no opposing air force. Nor do they have an army or navy. No mechanized armor or heavy weaponry. Thanks to Israel, they haven’t even had continuous electricity or fuel for the past two years. Or food and medicine. Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza has prevented the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, including the import of the most basic goods necessary for survival.”
A recent study by the Red Cross showed that 46 percent of Gazan children suffer from anemia. Malnutrition affects 75 percent of Gaza’s population, half of whom are under the age of 17. There has been widespread deafness among children due to Israel’s intentional and frequent sonic booms from low overflights. An alarming number have stunted growth and serious mental disorders due lack of food. The only way they have been able to survive thus far has been due to the tunnels that smuggle food and goods from Egypt.”
“Half of Gazan children under 12 have lost their ‘will to live.’ Can anyone fathom the kind of oppression that leads small children en mass to lose their will to live?”
“This is what Israel has done to Gaza over the past two years. They ghettoized Gaza and turned it into an open air prison – a concentration camp of civilians with no way to earn a living, no way to defend themselves and no place to run from the slaughter bombarding them from air, land, and sea….”
Fixing a high price for Israeli blood:
“It is not in our hands to prevent the murder of workers… and families… but it is in our hands to fix a high price for our blood, so high that the Arab community and the Arab military forces will not be willing to pay it.”
Fixing a high price for Israeli blood and might makes right:
“it was in our power to set high price for our blood, a price too high for the Arab community, the Arab army, or the Arab governments to think it worth paying. . . It was in our power to cause the Arab governments to renounce ‘the policy of strength’ toward Israel by turning it into a demonstration of weakness.”
Occupation to provoke a response, to justify occupation:
“Along the Syria border there were no farms and no refugee camps — there was only the Syrian army… The kibbutzim saw the good agricultural land … and they dreamed about it… They didn’t even try to hide their greed for the land… We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was…The Syrians, on the fourth day of the war, were not a threat to us.”
Palestinians can live like dogs, or leave:
“We have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads.”
Righteous victims defend “their” borders:
“Using the moral yardstick mentioned by [Moshe Sharett], I must ask: Are [we justified] in opening fire on the Arabs who cross [the border] to reap the crops they planted in our territory; they, their women, and their children? Will this stand up to moral scrutiny . . .? We shoot at those from among the 200,000 hungry arabs who cross the line — will this stand up to moral review? Arabs cross to collect the grain that they left in the abandoned villages and we set mines for them and they go back without an arm or a leg. . . [It may be that this] cannot pass review, but I know no other method of guarding the borders. Then tomorrow the State of Israel will have no borders.”
Of course Palestinians should hate Israelis:
“Let us not today fling accusation at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred to us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.”
Expansion without end:
“During the last 100 years our people have been in a process of building up the country and the nation, of expansion, of getting additional Jews and additional settlements in order to expand the borders here. Let no Jew say that the process has ended. Let no Jew say that we are near the end of the road.”