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Trying to Imagine How I Would Feel
Albert Camus was born in French Algeria in 1913 into a family of pieds noirs, French colonial settlers, and grew up in a poor neighborhood in Algiers. At the University of Algiers he studied philosophy and played goalie on the soccer team. He would later say that what little morality he knew he learned on the soccer field and the stage, which were his real universities.
As the anticolonial movement in Algeria that began after the outbreak of World War II intensified in the 1950s, Camus came under fire from the pieds noirs and the right wing because he did not praise French Algeria and from the left in Paris because he did not support the violence of the FLN (National Liberation Front). While in Sweden in December 1957 to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, Camus met with students at Sockholm University. An Alergian man who was there with a group of friends scolded Camus because he had in the past three years signed petitions for Eastern European countries but done nothing for Algeria. The protester ended his speech with the shout “Algeria will be free!”
According to Camus’s biographer, Olivier Todd, a correspondent from Le Monde reported that the confused dialogue degenerated into a fanatic monologue “by the representatives of the FLN.” Camus responded at length:
I have kept quiet for a year and eight months, which does not mean that I have stopped acting. I have always been and still am a partisan of a fair Algeria, where the two populations must live together in peace and equality. I have said and repeated that we must give justice to the Algerian people and grant them a democratic regime, until the hatred on both sides became such that it was no longer appropriate for an intellectual to intervene, because that might have made the terrorism worse…I can assure you that you have comrades who are alive today thanks to actions that you are not aware of. I feel a certain repugnance about explaining myself in public, but I have always condemned terrorism, and I must condemn a terrorism that works blindly in the streets of Algiers and one day might strike my mother and my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.
His translator explained, “Camus meant that if what you mean by justice is that my mother could be on an Algiers trolley when a bomb explodes, then I prefer my mother to that terrorist kind of justice…Camus wanted his statement to convey his rejection of all terrorism.”
In a personal note included in a letter to the editor of Le Monde Camus wrote,
I wanted to say again, about the young Algerian who challenged me [in Stockholm], that I feel much closer to him than to lots of Frenchmen who speak about Algeria without knowing it. He knew what he was talking about, and his face was not one of hatred but rather one of unhappiness and despair. I share this unhappiness, and its face is that of my country.
Camus comes to mind when I try to imagine how I would feel if I had Palestianian family and friends in Gaza or if I had Jewish family and friends in Israel. Israelis and Palestinians have been struggling for self-determination and sovereignty in that part of the Middle East since the region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire prior to the end of World War I. “Palestinians cite a series of letters in 1915 to 1916 between Mecca’s emir and the British high commissioner in Egypt…as outlining a promise of an independent Arab state.” Israelis consider the 1917 Balfour Declaration expressing the British government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” to be a formal statement of the Israeli state’s right to exist. To Palestinians the Balfour Declaration signaled their dispossession. (Westfall, et al., The Israeli-Palestinian conflict)
The day after Israel declared its independence in May 1948 a coalition of Arab states allied with Palestinian factions attacked Israeli forces
in what becomes the first of several Arab-Israeli wars. In the end, Israel gains control of an even larger portion of territory—not including the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. An estimated 700,000 Palestinians flee or are driven from their land in what Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe” in Arabic. (Westfall et al.)
In this country we are more familiar with terrorism from the Palestinian side of the conflict, for example, the Munich Olympics attack in September 1972. What follows is not intended as a polemic directed against Israel. There is guilt enough and more to go around in the terrible cycle of violence and atrocity the region has endured for three-quarters of a century. The focus here is on Israel only because Israel’s part in this cycle has been largely buried in the back pages of a story shaped by a mythical narrative of a virtuous Israel defending itself against terrorists bent on its destruction.
Contrary to popular narratives I absorbed as a boy through novels like James Michener’s The Source and Leon Uris’s Exodus and through mainstream news magazines such as Time and Newsweek, Arabs never had a monopoly on terrorism. Irgun was a Zionist group that in the 1940s committed acts of terrorism against the British who governed Palestine after 1920 and against the Arabs who lived there. Irgun leader Menachem Begin would later become prime minister of Israel (1977–1983).
Israeli general, later defense minister, foreign minister, and prime minister, Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 carried out repisals against Palestinian fighters in the 1950s and 1960s with indifference to civilian casualties. “The images emerging from Gaza of entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble recall the devastation that earned Sharon his nickname ‘the Bulldozer’” (Iraqi, After the Flood). In 1982 Sharon, as defense minister, was responsible for the deaths of at least 800 civilians in refugee camps in Lebanon (BBC News, Obiturary: Ariel Sharon).
Sharon has been called the spiritual father of the movement to establish permanent Jewish settlements in territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. His rationalization was that the settlements would allow Israel to feel “sufficiently secure to accept risks for the sake of peace” (BBC News). How Palestinians might feel does not appear to have entered into the calculation.
In the spring of 1956 Moshe Dayan, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, spoke at the funeral of an Israeli security officer killed by Palestinian fighters attempting to enter the kibbutz of Nahal Oz. He recognized what Palestinians had lost, but notably did not suggest reconciliation whereby the two populations might live together in peace and equality.
“Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and saw in front of their eyes how we turned the lands and the villages in which they and their forefathers once dwelled into our homeland.” …But Dayan wasn’t advocating the right of return: he ended his speech by arguing that Israelis had to prepare themselves for a permanent and bitter war, which would have a major role for what Israel called “frontier settlements.” (Weizman, Exchange Rate)
There is no place for a sense of what Palestinians have lost in the rhetoric of Israeli officials today. “On 9 October, [defense minister Yoav] Gallant described the Palestinians in the blockaded strip as ‘human animals’ before cutting off all water, food and fuel” (Iraqi).
Since Hamas’s attack, the exterminationist rhetoric of the Israeli far right has reached a fever pitch and spread to the mainstream. ‘Zero Gazans’, runs one Israeli slogan. A member of Likud, Netanyahu’s party, declared that Israel’s goal should be ‘a Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 1948’. ‘Are you seriously asking me about Palestinian civilians?’ the former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett said to a reporter on Sky News. ‘What is wrong with you? We’re fighting Nazis.’ (Shatz, Vengeful)
You need not search far to find photo after photo, image after image, that prompt me to ask who are the animals here. The Nazi trope is nothing new. “Begin said he was fighting Nazis during the 1982 war against the PLO in Lebanon” (Shatz).
The images of the devastated settlements provided the Israeli army with a free pass from the international community, and lifted whatever restraint may have held it back in previous rounds. Israeli politicians called for revenge in explicit, annihilationist language. Commentators said Gaza should be ‘wiped off the face of the Earth’, and ‘It’s time for Nakba 2.’ Revital Gottlieb, a Likud member of the Knesset, tweeted: ‘Bring down buildings!! Bomb without distinction!! Stop with this impotence. You have ability. There is worldwide legitimacy! Flatten Gaza. Without mercy!’ (Weizman)
No government could fail to respond to the events of October 7 if it has the capacity to do so. There is no getting around the use of force and civilian casualties that would accompany it even if conducted with a good-faith effort to minimize those civilian casualties. There has been no such good-faith effort. The savagery of Israel’s response to October 7 goes so far beyond self-defense that it makes a mockery of the country’s claim to the right to defend itself.
I will always condemn terrorism. I will not stand with those who rationalize and downplay the barbarism of October 7 or the nihilists who celebrate it. Last week a member of an activist group with which I am associated insisted that the situation is not complicated as he called for an unconditional ceasefire. He is wrong. Hamas’s stated, public commitment to the destruction of Israel and obliteration of Jews is a complicating factor. Any call for a ceasefire that deserves to be taken seriously must include provisions to prevent Hamas from using the ceasefire to regroup and prepare for the next attack.
It is amoral to treat respective atrocities from either side as if they are entries on a scorecard demarcating who is more guilty, who less, but difficult to discuss the state of affairs without seeming to do just that. Israel’s government is controlled by individuals whose cruel, unyielding fanaticism matches that of Hamas and the jihadists who carried out the frenzy of kidnapping, rape, and murder on October 7. Beyond killing Jews, Hamas is willing to sacrifice Palestinian civilians to advance its interests. The Israeli government has no qualms about doing its part.
Calls for an unconditional ceasefire issued to governments in the West ignore the fact that Netanyahu does not take direction from the U.S. or anyone else. Joe Biden is walking a fine line, publicly supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, which includes taking on Hamas, while behind the scenes pushing Netanyahu to excercise restraint. Daily four-hour pauses to allow more civilians to leave the northern part of Gaza and facilitate an increase in humanitarian aid from Egypt are woefully less than is needed, better than nothing. They would not happen absent pressure from the Biden administration. Is the line being walked too fine? Should Biden and Blinken do more to put the screws to Netanyahu? I answer “yes” without knowing what to suggest should be done.
Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority represents the majority of Palestinians, nor does Netanyahu represent the majority of Israelis, no more than Donald Trump represented the majority of Americans from 2017 through 2020. The Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas and based in the West Bank is widely reported to be corrupt, ineffective, and unpopular. In Janaury 2006 Hamas won a majority of seats in a Palestinian legislative election, whereupon the U.S. and Israel cut off aid to Palestinians because Hamas refuses to renounce violence and recognize Israel. A year and a half later Hamas took over Gaza in a brief civil war with Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has since ruled Gaza by force and intimidation. It too is widely reported to be unpopular.
Prior to October 7 Netanyahu was facing trial on corruption charges and widespread protests against his plans to weaken the independence of the judicial system and make judges more subject to political control. Netanyahu has a respite from the trial and protests while Israel wreaks havoc in Gaza but, like the PA and Hamas, remains unpopular. Many Israelis hold him responsible for the intelligence failures of October 7, for which he has refused to accept responsibility. “But the mood of the country has turned, according to opinion polls showing a large majority blaming him, underpinned by images of cabinet ministers being abused in public when they step out of their official cars” (Mackenzie, Israel’s Netanyahu).
David Shulman is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and peace activist inTa’ayush,
a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership…[striving together] for a future of equality, justice and peace through concrete, daily, non-violent actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all.
Shulman has written unflinchingly of Hamas, “a murderous terrorist organization driven by an extreme, indeed lunatic fundamentalist ideology, a brutal travesty of Islamic tradition,” and of Israel, where, he writes,
An entire conceptual system that has dominated Israeli thinking, and also government policy, for the last several decades has been exposed, repeatedly, as dangerous and delusional. You cannot lock up two and a half million people for years in an open-air ghetto, with minimal necessities for survival, and expect them to remain docile. But at the heart of the present crisis lies an even deeper moral failure.
On the one hand, the messianic settler hypernationalists and Jewish supremacists—also delusional in their own way—have effectively hijacked the state in pursuit of their annexationist goal. On the other hand, we have a prime minister who has undermined the central institutions of Israeli democracy, including, first and foremost, the courts, and who has betrayed in word and action the classical Jewish humanistic values that were foundational to the state from its inception. (Déjà Vu)
He harbors no illusion about “Israel’s ruthless, hate-driven enemies” while noting a sense of déjà vu with “deep roots in Israeli history, going back to the early Zionists in the pre-state era and their blindness or indifference to Palestinian rights, indeed to the very existence of a Palestinian people.” In an earlier article written prior to October 7, Shulman stated that there are still serious Palestinian partners for peace, including some he has known. “Most Palestinians,” he wrote, “want what most Israelis want—a livable life, without war. They also rightly want, and some day will certainly achieve, equality and an end to the current regime of discrimination, oppression, and constant threat” (Heading Toward a Second Nakba).
In the wake of October 7 he sounds no longer hopeful: “Vengeance is almost always a transient pleasure. I fear the cost will be devastating, beginning with what happened on October 7, 2023.”
Ingmar Bergman said that his film Shame (1968) “originates in a panicky question”:
How would I have behaved during the Nazi period if Sweden had been occupied and I’d held some position of responsibility or been connected with some institution? Or had even found myself threatened as a private person? How much civic courage would I have been able to muster up under the threat of violence, physical or spiritual, or in the war of nerves in an occupied country?
Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow play a married couple, violinists, living on a rural island where they are caught up in a nightmarish civil war. In the middle of the film Ullmann’s character says, “Someone has dreamed this—oh, how ashamed he’ll be when he wakes up!”
Each day we wonder anew what more we might do to be partisans of a fair Israel and Palestine where the two populations can live in peace and equality. We wonder how we might stand against calls to level Gaza, against calls for the destruction of Israel, against terrorism in whoever’s name, against the mind-numbing surge in both antisemitism and Islamophobia. We wonder how we might ever do enough.
Keep the faith. Stand with Ukraine. yr obdt svt
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References and Related Reading
Stig Björkman, Torsten Manns, Jonas Sima, Bergman on Bergman: Interviews with Ingmar Bergman, tr. by Paul Britten Austin, Simon and Schuster, 1073
Hamas and Israel: a history of confrontation, Reuters, May 14, 2021
Amjad Iraqi, After the Flood, London Review of Books, Vol. 45 No. 21 · 2, November 2023
Tovah Lazaroff, Obituary: Ariel Sharon - A Bulldozer in War and Peace, The Jerusalem Post, January 11, 2014
James Mackenzie, Israel's Netanyahu faces reckoning over Hamas disaster, Reuters, November 1, 2023
Obituary: Ariel Sharon, BBC News, January 11, 2014
Reza Sayah, Top Hamas official in Tehran discusses relations with Iran and the attack in Israel, PBS NewsHour, November 9, 2023
Adam Shatz, Vengeful Pathologies, London Review of Books, Vol. 45 No. 21 · 2, November 2023
David Shulman, Déjà Vu in Israel, The New York Review of Books, October 11, 2023
Shulman, Heading Toward a Second Nakba, The New York Review of Books, October 19, 2023 issue
Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, tr. by Benjamin Ivry, Alfred A. Knopf 1998
Eyal Weizman, Exchange Rate, London Review of Books, Vol. 45 No. 21 · 2, November 2023
Sammy Westfall, Brian Murphy, et all., The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A chronology, Washington Post, November 6, 2023