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A Paradoxical Equation*

Published onMar 02, 2022
A Paradoxical Equation*

This article describes, in light of German mainstream media coverage of the Amnesty International Report on “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians,” the anti-Palestinian consequences of the German economy of guilt and atonement. The argument centers on the impossibility to integrate the Palestinian struggle for self-determination within the German post-Holocaust narrative of historical-moral atonement and rehabilitation.

The Crisis Dress, From Museum of Smuggled Dresses, ©Nour Shantout, 2020

The expression “cognitive dissonance” commonly designates a state of mind in which irreconcilable sensations, thoughts, and desires trigger a state of discomfort. German media’s (non-)perception of the Amnesty International Report on “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians” of February 1, 2022, could be regarded as an exemplary case study of this phenomenon. What happened? The Amnesty International Report simply registers that and how a state, which does not define itself as a state of all of its inhabitants, but as belonging exclusively to one particular, state-defined segment of it, does everything in its power to dominate the undesired group, to deprive it of its rights, to diminish it, to expel it, to imprison it, and – in extreme cases – to kill it. Once the Zionist settlement of Palestine joined hands with the aim of a Jewish, or Jewish-dominated, nation-state, the presence of non-Jewish Palestinians became a problem. Ever since then, the state of Israel has attempted to rid the claimed territory of its now problematized inhabitants; or, at the very least, to delegitimize their acts of resistance.

With regard to Israeli state action, one might retort that the foundation of each and every state hitherto proceeded along similar lines, and recall that, in their kernel, all states entail a more or less institutionalized relation of violence. Yet the means through which states and societies politically fight out, negotiate, resolve, or consolidate the originary violence of their foundation and its institutionalization are diverse. Only rarely do state actors and the majority they represent succeed in establishing this relation of violence as a long-term, moral undertaking.

On the surface, most German commentaries are therefore only concerned with the definitional question of whether Israel’s measures against Palestinians in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river amount to the crime against humanity “apartheid” as codified in international law. The existence of these measures – be they landgrabs, dispossessions, unlawful killings, expulsions, restrictions on movement, and a graded, multilayered system of legal discrimination – cannot be denied. Yet opinions on the historical-moral legitimacy of these measures are divided. Those who suspect the driving forces behind this report are one-sidedness, lack of objectivity, propaganda, or even antisemitism have no reason to worry about the measures listed, however unjust they may be individually. For they are sure that all these offenses – well-known for years and merely enumerated by the Amnesty International Report once again – will weigh very little on the larger scale of historical-moral justice.

The credo of anti-Palestinian racism in German majority society is as simple as it is evident: the state that claims to speak in the name of those murdered in Germany’s name cannot itself be a state of injustice. For if it were so, the calculation of moral reparation by the descendants of Germans from 1933 to 1945, often presented with didactic verve, may not add up. Yet victims can become perpetrators and vice versa; at times they are both victim and perpetrator within one and the same space of history. Nevertheless, there is no symmetry between the two. Moreover, one of the most problematic legacies of the era of nation-states is the very idea of pure victim and perpetrator identities, the habitual grouping of people and their deeds into consolidated, collective identities to be played out against one another in the abstract. There is no equivalence, no commensurability, and no measuring-stick by which these crimes can be, either collectively or individually, set off against one another and put into a just relation: The justification of one injustice with another leads not only to an abstract leveling of entirely different deeds and human beings but also to the dehumanization of the “lesser” injustice’s victims. Once an ethno-national state project succeeds in credibly defining itself as a representative and successor of a singular victim-collective, the acts of resistance of the defeated and their allies seem stubbornly degenerate, terrorist, or – as in the case of Palestine – antisemitic. 

Within this metanarrative, that is possibly comprehendible only by way of psychoanalysis, every crime against Palestinians will appear – if not justified at a higher level – balanced on a historical-moral ledger: The expulsion of Palestinians in the wake of the founding of the state of Israel offset by, or even set into numerical equivalence with, the illegitimate measures of Arab governments against their Jewish minorities; the consolidation and intensification of an inhuman regime of occupation offset by the singular experience of victimization by the state-appointed perpetrators or their ancestors; and finally, both violent and non-violent resistance to colonization offset by the fact of colonization itself. In a German and liberal Zionist perspective, the “two sides” of the conflict thereby emerge. Yet the production of these “two sides” conceals the relation of violence that inheres in these calculations, rationalizations, identifications, and abstractions.

Founding figures of right-wing Zionism like Ze’ev Jabotinsky were more honest and less sentimental in this regard. They knew that the Zionist colonization of British Mandatory Palestine could not rely on the peaceful acceptance of its non-Jewish inhabitants: Settlement would have to be violently enforced and asserted against local resistance. Such a realistic assessment still acknowledged the moral integrity of the defeated but eventually did not prevail as the winning narrative. Today’s struggles for the recognition of legitimate relations of violence are about the status of morally immaculate collectives of victims. It does not suffice, therefore, that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and an end to apartheid and occupation, has been historically unsuccessful; it also must be criminalized, delegitimized, and marked as the aggressive act of a perpetrator – as terrorism, “hatred of Israel,” and antisemitism. Yet this can be achieved only through a historical-moral calculation of guilt.

The “anti-antisemites,” whose preferred sphere of activity consists in the reinterpretation of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, are confident of their righteousness. When denying, relativizing, or setting in perspective the crimes listed in the Amnesty International Report, they believe to speak in the name of the Holocaust’s victims and of all people affected by antisemitism. In doing so, they play a paradoxical game that has “incomparability” as its trump card. Discourse about the incomparable, quasi-theological singularity of the Holocaust is the heaviest weight on the imagined scale of historical injustice. In this mirror hall of collective desire and historical-moral identification, the Palestinian struggle, by principle, is not given seat. And maybe it indeed does not belong there. Maybe the Palestinian catastrophe, the Nakba, cannot be inscribed into such a kaleidoscope of historical economies of guilt and moralizing atonement narratives, however multidirectional they may be. But there, where no space can be granted, the logic of the entire place begins to shake. Perhaps it is precisely this uneasy shaking that makes itself heard in the discomfort – the cognitive dissonance – of the Amnesty International Report. For here, too, it can be assumed that every report finds its addressee.

Translation Hannah Tzuberi

*An earlier version of this article was published in German language on Feb. 17, 2022, in Der Freitag, 07/2022

Further Reading

Anidjar, Gil. 2007. “When Killers Become Victims: Anti-Semitism and Its Critics.” Cosmopolis. A Review of Cosmopolitics 3: 1-24

Anonymous. 2020. “Palestine Between German Memory Politics and (De-)Colonial Thought.Journal of Genocide Research 23(3): 1-9.

Chaumont, Jean-Michel. Die Konkurrenz der Opfer. Genozid, Identität und Anerkennung, Lüneburg: zu Klampen Verlag 2001

El Bulbeisi, Sarah. 2020. Tabu, Trauma und Identität. Subjektkonstruktionen von PalästinenserInnen in Deutschland und der Schweiz, 1960-2015. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

El-Qasem, Kawthar. 2017. Palästina erzählen. Inversion als Strategie zur Bewahrung des Eigenen in Dekulturalisierungsprozessen. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

Goldberg, Amos and Bashir Bashir. 2018. The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History. New York: Columbia University Press

Khatib, Sami. 2017. “Where the Past Was, There History Shall Be. Benjamin, Marx, and the “Tradition of the Oppressed.” Anthropology & Materialism I. (Special Issue: Discontinuous Affinities)

Lapidot, Elad. 2020. Jews Out of the Question. A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism. New York: State University of New York Press (SUNY)

Meister, Robert. 2010. After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights. New York: Columbia University Press

Moses, A. Dirk. 2021. The Problems of Genocide. Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Moses, A. Dirk. 2021. “The German Catechism.” The New Fascism Syllabus, ed. by Jennifer Evans [Originally published as: “Der Katechismus der Deutschen.” Geschichte der Gegenwart, edited by Svenja Golterman and Philipp Sarasin]

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