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On October 21, a London Underground Tube driver led a “free Palestine” chant over the PA system. A Stanford lecturer had Jewish students stand in a corner. On October 9, the Socialist Worker newspaper carried the headline “Rejoice as Palestinian Resistance Humiliates Racist Israel.” They likened the terror attack to the Tet Offensive from the Vietnam War.
These were all one-sided responses. For the Tube driver, Palestinian suffering seemed to matter more than a massacre of Israelis. The Socialist Worker author was even worse: he celebrated death, killing, murder, torture, and rape as righteous deeds.
Both the driver and the socialist militants treated current events as a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gains are equivalent to the other side’s losses.
Another example of zero-sum thinking: Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant described the Hamas attackers as “human animals,” and the Israeli ambassador to Germany referred to Hamas as “bloodthirsty animals.” My concern here is not about describing Hamas’s terrorist attack as inhumane, it was (I would go even further to say it was evil.) My concern is about the politics.
How does Israel eradicate Hamas when any military means of doing so most likely involves an invasion of one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and will result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians? Is that what victory looks like?
We have, unfortunately, been here before. For too long the rhetoric around this conflict has involved absolutist claims about the absence of a peace partner or the settler-colonialism of Israel. For too long, the rhetoric around this conflict has emphasised violence as a political solution when all violence ends up doing is killing more people and encouraging more violence.
What is lacking from the ideological rhetoric, the polarizing protests, and most of the political statements is an ability to acknowledge the shared experience of human suffering.
I’m referring here to the innocent Palestinian victims of the Israeli army, and to the innocent Israeli victims of Hamas.
We need to think differently, we need to speak differently. We cannot deny that the place many (on both sides) are coming from is one of pain, trauma, anger, sadness, hurt, and despair. And yet these volatile emotions are precisely what so much of the rhetoric around this conflict encourages. It denies the morality of one group in favour of the victimhood of the other. We should stop trying to claim the mantle of the greater victim, as if one group’s pain matters more than the other, or one group’s suffering is morally righteous while the other’s is worthy of celebration.
The question that we should be asking ourselves at this juncture is why is it so hard to acknowledge pain and suffering, death and destruction, without having to score political points about who suffered more? I worry that the zero-sum rhetoric and political ideologies surrounding this conflict are leading to one place: more death.
Hannah Arendt wrote in her book On Violence that “death, whether faced in actual dying or in the inner awareness of one’s own mortality, is perhaps the most antipolitical experience there is. It signifies that we shall disappear from the world of appearances, and shall leave the company of our fellow-men, which are the conditions of all politics.”
At this moment, I fear that too many people around the world are turning toward an exultation of death as a political triumph, as long as it happens to the other side.
That kind of zero-sum game isn’t just sad: it’s terrifying.
Ilan Zvi Baron is a Professor of International Political Theory at Durham University, where he is also Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics. His most recent books are How to Save Politics in a Post Truth Era and Obligation in Exile: The Jewish Diaspora, Israel and Critique.