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Notes on Gaza, Mowing Grass, and Nationalist Violence
I wasn’t going to write on Israel-Palestine because there’s a glut of coverage, it’s all grim, and it’s very fast-moving. There’s also no way to write about it without angering at least some people, and I’m not sure how productive that is. But someone close to me wanted to know what I thought and requested some “unbiased” readings because, he says, “I feel like I’m getting screamed at by two sides of my friends.” So this is my response to that.
What I've seen of The Intercept's coverage has been solid; will forward you an email with a series of links from them. This interview with Matt Duss was also pitch perfect. And this Boston Review essay from Raja Menon was very good at contextualizing things.
If “unbiased” means an analysis that avoids benefiting one side or the other, well, the situation doesn't give us that luxury, and neither does good analysis. I think what we idealize as “unbiased” is just transparency about what people assume and occlude when they express a perspective; an “unbiased” perspective has their cards on the table when it comes to their analytical priors (priorities and assumptions). A good perspective tries to account for as much as possible that's relevant to the thing they're explaining.
It's important too not to confuse explanation with justification—people in freak-out mode want to collapse the distinction and claim that if you're explaining why something happened that you're justifying it. That’s nonsense.
Given all that, maybe the useful questions are 1) would you prefer to think about proximate or foundational causes of the current situation, and 2) what is the consequence of the position/condemnation someone wants you to adopt?
Nobody worthy of attention supports freaking Hamas; come on. I mean, you can find people who do, but it’s never anyone with any power.
The outrage that some (extremely politically marginalized) leftists feel that is getting understandably interpolated by others as “pro-Hamas” is, I think, a proxy for outrage about the double standard of outrage itself. Their outrage is at people rightly aggrieved by Israeli civilian deaths but who have shown no such outrage about the decades-long suffering of Palestinian civilians at scale because of the Israeli state. That is a bullshit double standard and it’s all over mainstream media.
Every reasonable person condemns civilian harm, full stop…but then what? Israel gets to do genocide? Bomb civilian hospitals, as the UN Secretary General just said it was doing? Lay siege to two million people in Gaza, a million of whom are children? Moral posturing should not be separated from the real question about what is to be done.
At some point you have to grapple with root causes and the historical context that produces the tragic situation, and everyone knows that's about Israeli settler colonialism. And Israel inflames the problem further because they have a theory of deterrence crassly called “mowing grass,” which holds that they'll be more secure from attacks in general if, from time to time, they go on the offensive to thin the population of terrorists, insurgents, and potential future recruits for such activity (the grass is their enemies, mowing is killing). Just by sheer body count over time it's obvious that this mowing-grass theory is horseshit—counterproductive, but also an intellectual justification for militarist policy preferences.
But Hamas is not a bunch of good guys—they're extreme right-wing nationalists, which ironically is not far from what the Israeli govt is.
Encasing political will in ethnonationalist projects is just not liberatory, and violence is a shit answer to the problems of both Israel and Palestine. Eric Levitz had a controversial piece in NY Mag that I would not entirely co-sign, but it made a very useful point I hadn’t seen anyone else make:
The political necessity of criticizing Israel on universalist grounds, rather than ethno-nationalist ones, is…urgent…leftists tend to cite the gross power imbalance as somehow exculpatory…precisely because Palestinians cannot hope to prevail in a contest of brute force, it is incumbent on their champions to make the case for their liberation in terms that honor the basic rights of Israelis.
Well said. The balance of power does not favor Palestine, full stop. Violence as self-defense sometimes works for political strategy. And where some leftists would take issue with this is in what counts as self-defense. But my read is that Hamas’s use of violence goes well beyond self-defense (killing civilians should be a no-brainer red line). So the balance of force is unfavorable to the Palestinian cause and Hamas’s use of political violence is not in self-defense—doubly problematic.
For what it’s worth, the most meaningful debate I've seen is really about whether rich latte sippers living in Cosmopolis get to judge the methods that oppressed people use to get free. I think we don't, but I get that Eric and others feel differently and that’s a debate that’s at least productive.
I should also add that even if it’s Sysyphean, Israel has a right to go after Hamas...but it doesn't have a right to kill civilians or commit war crimes. And if it goes after Hamas while continuing with settler colonialism in the West Bank, then this will just keep happening and escalating over time.
For Americans in particular, the real question with immediacy that's being dodged is what US policy ought to be—that's also the only thing over which Americans actually have some control, in theory. Individual statements of belief or condemnation or whatever are not necessarily useful, whereas calling your Congressman or taking a position about US policy actually could result in something.
There's room for debate here, but I think the Biden administration is far too materially and symbolically supportive of an Israeli government doing immense harm to Palestinian civilians and the Palestinian cause. If “America stands with Israel” is the rhetoric that justifies continuing to arm Israel to the teeth and support an Israeli siege of Gaza, then that's the wrong sentiment and the wrong policy. And I think that's precisely where we're at right now.
I also think it's stupid to nurture any policy that doesn't at least try to grapple with the root causes of a problem (in this case, West Bank settlements). That’s why the Matt Duss interview is worth reading.
Finally, I did a panel on whataboutism a while back, and it was released as a special episode of the pod. The context in which we were considering what separates the problem of whataboutism from just useful analytical comparison concerned China, but all of it actually applies to this Israel-Palestine shit. So maybe give it a listen—you can skip to just my remarks, which are squarely about this.