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Understanding the intellectual situation
Play a game with me. Guess, if you can, which American said the following:
“Now is not the time to talk about a ceasefire. We must support Israel in efforts to eliminate the Hamas terrorists who slaughtered innocent men, women, and children. Hamas does not want peace, they want to destroy Israel. We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized.”
Options abound. It may be a Republican, a Democrat, a governor, a congressman, a senator. It might be a liberal pundit, a conservative pundit, a newspaper columnist, a cable news talking head. If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media over the last week, you’ve probably seen some version of this posted dozens of times. Without punching these words into a search engine, you’ll be at a loss.
I’ll help you out: it’s John Fetterman, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania. The same Fetterman who has been something of a progressive folk hero for surviving a stroke, flaying Dr. Oz, and battling the Senate’s dress code. Hulking, hoodie-clad Fetterman has been portrayed as the heterodox liberal willing to speak truth to power, a populist in the mold of his colleague, Bernie Sanders. Fetterman is one of the only Democratic senators, for example, to call on the indicted Bob Menendez to resign.
But Fetterman’s lefty populist streak never, at any point, extended to foreign affairs. During the campaign last year, he was open about being an unreconstructed Israel hawk. He did not offer rhetorical olive branches to the Palestinian cause, as the Jewish, Zionist Sanders has done. Most progressives, at the time, didn’t care. They loved his memes. The Senate was at stake, Dr. Oz was Donald Trump’s carpetbagger, and pushing Fetterman over the finish line was all that mattered. None of this is terribly surprising. For all the polarization that has beset American politics, turning almost every issue in a tribal clash between Red and Blue, the zeal for war remains bipartisan. Democrats were no less enthusiastic than Republicans about invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer are in lockstep on indefinite military aid for Ukraine, even as the United States is pulled into a proxy war with Russia that raises the threat of a nuclear confrontation. In Congress, it is still largely verboten to talk about a negotiated settlement to end a Russian invasion that might last for the rest of the 2020s, killing many thousands of civilians.
Israel, in its demands for unstinting allegiance at home and abroad, is no different. Hamas launched a terrorist attack that slaughtered more than a thousand Israeli civilians. They are holding hostages. None of this is justified. Hamas is vile, and has not permitted democratic elections since 2007. The two million caged Palestinians in Gaza face twin terrors. They cannot overthrow the ruthless and heavily-armed military organization that dominates their blockaded territory. And they cannot turn to the international order to save them from Israel’s wrath. They are stateless. Land set aside for a plausible Palestinian nation has long been occupied by Israeli settlers. Hamas is not a viable negotiating partner—and neither is Israel, which is controlled by far-right political forces that no longer believe in Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian death toll, unsurprisingly, has long surpassed that of Israel’s. This is how asymmetrical warfare works.
Right now, the peaceniks—those on the left who are demanding a ceasefire—look unreasonable, even pollyannish. It’s as Fetterman says: what exactly can Israel do until Hamas is neutralized? The use of such a weasel word isn’t accidental. It belongs in the mouth of a Bush administration official, circa 2002. What Fetterman is not saying outright but is ultimately advocating for is Israel’s endgame: to invade and occupy Gaza, to subdue Hamas at any cost. This is about as realpolitik as hoping Ukraine can obliterate Russia and fully integrate into the European Union tomorrow. Per Reuters, the Israeli strategy is now to “destroy Gaza's infrastructure, even at the cost of high civilian casualties, push the enclave's people towards the Egyptian border and go after Hamas by blowing up the labyrinth of underground tunnels the group has built to conduct its operations.” Such audacity hasn’t been witnessed, globally, in 20 years. The Americans, burning with righteous fury, believed they could rapidly invade and conquer Iraq, exterminating terrorism everywhere while fully governing a people who wanted no part in foreign hegemony. None of it made any sense, but all of it was championed by the president, Congress, and most of the major media organs in the United States.
“Israeli officials have said that they don’t have a clear idea for what a post-war future might look like, though,” Reuters reported. The Americans didn’t seriously comprehend what a post-war future looked like for Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. The latter two conflicts darkly echoed the first. Native populations do not easily comply, even at gunpoint. It is far easier to kill and maim than to establish new governments, build infrastructure, and ensure some semblance of peace. What does Israel think will happen to the million-odd stateless Palestinians who aren’t killed? How will Gaza, in this post-war future, be managed? Hamas—or its successor—will have no trouble recruiting angry young men in this new world order. They will have come of age during this invasion and be out for Israeli blood. Benjamin Netanyahu might believe, through blunt force, he can secure a quick peace. But the future of Israel only grows darker from here. To remain in power, Netanyahu will need to keep appeasing the far-right, ultra-religious political factions that will demand a far greater say in the government. Ethnic cleansing is on their mind.
In the United States, even a mild shift in the political mood has alarmed the Israel hawks. They have the president, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and a vast majority of representatives, governors, and mayors. They have whoever becomes the next speaker of the House. There is no daylight, on Israel, between whichever Republican emerges from the legislative chaos and Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader. Newspaper editorial boards—yes, even the New York Times’—are resolutely supportive of Israel. A famous, very liberal comedian believes bombed-out civilians should lose electricity and water because the autocratic government many of them never voted for attacked Israel first. Even the anti-woke, free speech crusaders give no ground on Israel. Collectively, these forces seek to stamp out the fledgling minority who advocate for the dignity of Palestinians. And who are these advocates? College professors at select universities, college students at select universities, less than a dozen members of Congress, and the Democratic Socialists of America, who have less than 100,000 dues-paying members in a nation of 300 million people. A few small magazines, like Jacobin and Jewish Currents. Actual Palestinians and Muslims, in parts of New York and Michigan.
Israel is the Goliath that longs to be David.
Granted, this support for the Palestinians is much greater than it would have been 10 years ago, and this is disorienting to many. Simply protesting the actions of the Israeli government has been branded as anti-Semitic, even if there’s a long, robust, and very Jewish tradition of anti-Zionism or at least skepticism of a heavily-militarized nation-state acting in the alleged interests of a worldwide religion. There was a time, even, when anti-Semites endorsed Zionism as a convenient way to expel all the Jews from Europe. This sort of history is hurried out of view; it doesn’t serve a convenient political purpose, and few of the politicians in power have bothered to learn it anyway. Easier to imbibe AIPAC’s talking points and send another blank check Israel’s way. It is notable, at least, that after being smeared as a Hamas-loving, Jew-hating organization, DSA is not backing down from their calls for a ceasefire and their overall advocacy for the rights of Palestinians. They are no longer in a defensive crouch. Given the stifling political and intellectual climate—the ferocious demands for unanimity in the face of ever greater slaughter—this is remarkable. If politicians like Fetterman do not want a ceasefire, they must be asked what it is, exactly, they have planned for Gaza when the bombs stop falling. What is their reconstruction plan? What are their hopes for a grand occupation? Force them to mull, for a moment, the horrors still to come.