Since February 24, 2022, the date marking the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I have felt that the place where I had spent my childhood has gone mad. Since mid-October 2023, I’ve had a déjà-vu feeling about the place where I had lived in my adolescent years, namely Israel. Of course, the seeds of madness that came to fruition and appeared in their full, terrible view on these dates had been there long before: in the refusal and inability, on the part of a large section of the Russian population, to mourn the loss of their imperial past (the Russian Empire, Soviet Union…) and in the Israeli conviction that the illegal occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and the blockade of Gaza would last indefinitely. In both cases, acts of genocide perpetrated against a neighboring people and supported by dehumanizing portrayals of Ukrainians and Palestinians respectively have been concrete expressions of the desire to annihilate or totally subjugate the other.
Lest one think that the processes of national derangement in question are relatively new, it is crucial to comment on their fundamental character. Just as they are inseparable from the imperial construction and construal of Russian statehood, so these processes are an integral part of Zionist ideology, which preceded the formation of the State of Israel. The historically silenced voices of the early Jewish critics of Zionism in Palestine are a stark reminder of this foundational violence, which gains new momentum in 2023. One such critic, Natan Chofshi, was the anarchist and pacifist President of the Palestine branch of the War Resisters’ International. Writing in 1946, Chofshi warns: “Without an understanding with our Arab neighbors, we are building on a volcano and our whole work is in jeopardy.” (Chofshi, 1972: 38). The volcano of occupation will, indeed, become the lethal support of the Jewish state (what happens to the 20+% of Arab citizens in a state that defines itself as Jewish?) for decades to come. It is an apt analogy, too: similar to a volcano, occupation can give the appearance of dormancy, while lava is swirling and building up beneath the surface, until the moment when it erupts, burning and burying everything and everyone on its path. And, whatever the ideological delusions of Zionism might be, the volcanic eruption will not spare the occupiers, either.
The relevance of Chofshi’s prophetic words does not end there. In the same text, titled “Into the Abyss,” he decries “Jewish power,” espoused by Zionist zealots “with Jabotinsky at their head,” who clamor for a Jewish state, a Jewish army, and “all […] other manifestations of physical power.” (Chofshi, 1972: 37-38) The state born of this clamoring will demand “endless suffering and bloodshed.” (Chofshi, 1972: 40). Furthermore, drunk with the excesses of power and brute force, Zionists will refuse to hear dissenting Jewish and non-Jewish positions. “But if some level-headed man,” Chofshi writes, “takes the risk of raising his voice and uttering a warning against this disastrous path […], he is told to keep quiet and is accused of indifference to the sufferings of his persecuted and stricken people—and there the ‘discussion’ ends.” (Chofshi, 1972: 37). Is this not what happens today, when non-Jewish critics of the State of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, while its Jewish critics are labeled self-hating Jews and alleged to forget the victims of the October 7 Hamas massacre?
In fact, being scandalized about the genocide in Gaza and the relatively slower but no less deadly actions of the Israeli state-military machinery aided and abetted by pirate-like armed groupings of violent settlers on the West Bank is anything but indifference. First of all, because it is morally and legally impermissible to use one genocide—that of the Jewish people in the twentieth century—in order to justify another genocide—that of the Palestinian people in the twenty-first. Despite desperate propagandistic attempts to link the massacre of music festival-goers and residents of southern kibbutzim to the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’, as well as to the previous pogroms that Jewish community members had experienced for centuries, the Hamas attack was not a continuation of the old persecution of stateless Jewish people. Rather, it took place on the territory of the State of Israel, where the vast majority of the victims were citizens, the very state that failed to protect them and that wages an ongoing war on stateless Palestinian people dispossessed, displaced, blockaded, or murdered in the course of occupation. Respect for the victims of a past genocide and the need to honor their memory should prohibit carrying out genocidal acts against another group, a call that reverberated in Jewish-American protests against the bombings of Gaza under the banner “Never Again—For Anyone!”
The second reason for the non-indifference of the Jewish critics of Zionism to the sufferings of their own “stricken people,” as Chofshi puts it, has to do with the recognition that the Palestinian and Jewish people who are killed in Palestine and in Israel (the former disproportionately more so than the latter) are murdered by the effects of the same insatiable ideology of conquest and domination, utterly incompatible with the vision of a just and equal co-existence of all who live “between the river and the sea.” As the late Gianni Vattimo and I wrote in the introduction to our 2013 co-edited collection Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics: “To deconstruct Zionism is […] to demand justice for its victims—not only for the Palestinians, who are suffering from it, but also for the anti-Zionist Jews, ‘erased’ from the officially consecrated account of Zionist history. By deconstructing its ideology, we shed light on the context it strives to repress and on the violence it legitimises with a mix of theological or metaphysical reasoning and affective appeals to historical guilt for the undeniably horrific persecution of Jewish people in Europe and elsewhere.” (Vattimo & Marder, 2013: xii). We may now add to this tragic list both Jewish Israelis and foreign citizens who perished in the events of October 7, 2023.
The tragedy, though, is wrapped in a farcical politically correct and quasi-legal packaging, even in the terrible situation of the genocidal bombings of Gaza. For one, Israel claims that it is doing so based on its right of self-defense; however, such a right is nowhere legally enshrined when it comes to occupiers allegedly defending themselves from the occupied. For another, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) has been cynical leafletting Gazan Palestinians by telling the civilian population to flee from harm’s way: first from Northern to Southern Gaza, and currently from large parts of the areas they have already been displaced to. Obviously, such actions coupled with utter destruction of building blocks, neighborhoods, and entire cities render Gaza uninhabitable and transform the biggest open-air jail in the world into a concentration camp. More than that, by denying people the basic dignity of having clean water and food, a roof over their heads, and certainty that they will survive the night, the assault on Gaza attempts in practice to dehumanize Palestinian people, completing their discursive dehumanization by the Israeli authorities. And all this with the pretense of concern for the civilian population, asked to leave, in the best of neoliberal manners, “for your own safety”! Genocidal population transfers are then presented as voluntary evacuation under the auspices of the occupiers’ “humanitarian concern.”
The clue these sinister developments give us is that the madness of occupation is not so far removed from that of the global status quo, of the neoliberal policies of divesting public funding and condemning (if in a “civil”—that is, non-militaristic—and, therefore, less obvious manner) the most vulnerable to perishing. Palestine is a singular site of extreme oppression and also a site where the contradictions, lethal excesses, and unsustainable logic of the global status quo are concentrated and magnified. That is why it is at the forefront of the (equally global) fight for justice.
Here, we may revisit Natan Chofshi, who offers his reading of Zion, which is incompatible with Zionism—the Zion of justice for all. That is the sense of the Biblical Promised Land, which, precisely as promised, is the figure of the justice to-come. “‘Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness,’—that is not an abstract vision, but a practical possibility,” Chofshi writes about a verse from the Biblical Isaiah. (Chofshi, 1972: 38). Although it is a promise, Chofshi refuses to convert that other Zion, open to all, into a utopia, “an abstract vision”; rather, he sees in it “a practical possibility.” Were this possibility seized upon in 1946, when the text was composed, and converted into historical reality, Zion would have turned into a genuinely unique place no longer obeying the logic of territorial appropriation. A place of coexistence outside the exclusive purview of a single identity, or, indeed, of any identity; a place of ultimate hospitality beyond the rigidity of the nation-state; a place of ethico-political resolve free of the trappings of heroism and the manipulative discourse of sacrifice.
Chofshi, Natan (1972): “Into the Abyss,” in Towards Union in Palestine: Essays on Zionism and Jewish-Arab Cooperation, edited by M. Buber, J.L. Magnes and E. Simon. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Vattimo, Gianni; Marder, Michael (2013): “If Not Now, When?” in Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics, edited by Gianni Vattimo & Michael Marder. London & New York: Bloomsbury.
Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz