Gaza and third level education.

Over the last two years I’ve made three images – part collage, part painting – that probably had their starting-point in my reading poems by the American Palestinian writer Naomi Shihab Nye. Inevitably, given events, these came to relate to the attack by Hamas on Isreal and the subsequent genocide in Gaza. I recently found myself writing, in connection to one of these works, that I make images and write so as to conjoin otherwise isolated fragments of feeling and thought. What follows here is one such attempt.

Seeing evidence of the systematic destruction of Gaza and its population night after night on the evening news, I have become haunted by the terrible circularity implicit in W. H. Auden’s lines:  

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return…

Zygmunt Bauman, writing on education, reminds us of Gregory Bateson’s insistence that the tertiary level of education involves “imparting the ability to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame or to dispose of it completely”. Isn’t this pretty much what American university students protesting their Government’s and Universities’ involvement in supporting Israel are attempting to do? Little wonder then, that they’ve been subjected to institutionally sanctioned violence. 

Robert P. Jackson points, in an article in The Conversation on the 3rd May, to aspects of the Gaza protests on US campuses that have been conspicuously missing from most news reports. Some of what he names appears both to correspond to Bateson’s third level of education and to align with aspects of Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the political imagination needed to create “changes of attitude in the ethos of individuals, groups and peoples”. Of the elements in Jackson’s list “religious celebration”, “diversity”, and “protest against gentrification” particularly struck me. The fact that the “overwhelming majority of students protesting have been modelling the peaceful coexistence of religious expression” corresponds, I suggest, to a dismantling of those mental frameworks that create what Ricoeur refers to as “incommunicability through a protective withdrawal”, in this case one ultimately based on a political exploitation of feelings grounded in fundamentalist theological dogma. Jackson’s outlining of the reasons for students calling for diversity and protest against gentrification seem to me to relate to Ricoeur’s insistence on the need to re-work and re-tell dominant narratives so as to include those habitually excluded from them.

That is not simply challenging a university’s attempt to silence Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace but also, by implication, all those engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement, in protests against the repeal of abortion rights, or in Me Too actions. In short, attempts to intimidate or silence anyone who challenges the dehumanisation being advanced on various fronts by those reactionary forces, in American society as elsewhere, preoccupied with returning to a factional set of past “values” and indifferent to human needs in the present.

Unlike those embedded in the culture of big business, which now includes those running universities, student activists understand that there are very real parallels between the drive to “remove” Palestinians from Gaza so that it can be occupied by Israeli settlers and so much gentrification in the USA and elsewhere. In this instance the conflict between those running Columbia University and “neighbouring (predominantly Black and Latinx) communities in Harlem”.

It seems clear to me that the Israeli Government is making every possible effort to ensure that the world is informed that it is always and exclusively the Jewish people that suffer evil in the conflict with their neighbours and, consequently, that their disproportionate response is therefor legitimate. What the Israeli Government seems determined to avoid at all costs, no matter how many innocent women and children are murdered in Gaza, is any notion that the suffering and death of Israelis might be, at least in part, a consequence of evils – the illegal expropriate of Palestinian land on the West Bank, the murder and humiliation of innumerable Palestinians – conducted in the name of, or simply condoned by, the Israeli State.

I can only agree with those who argue that any attempt to justify Israeli genocide in Gaza by linking Hamas’ actions to the Shoah, implicitly or explicitly, is indefensible. Two recent articles in the London Review of Books make the case for this abundantly clear. Furthermore they show how profoundly damaging such attempts are, not only to the credibility of the State of Israel and its allies, but to our collective sense of basic humanity. As Pankaj Mishra writes in the March 21st edition, our understanding of Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazis is: “the foundation on which most descriptions of extreme ideology and atrocity have been built” However that reference point is ‘in danger of disappearing as the Israeli military massacres and starves Palestinians, while denouncing as antisemitic or champions of Hamas all those who plead with it to desist”.

What Mishra names as Israel’s use of the Shoah as the basis of a “manipulative new mythology” has a substantive history and is supports by extensive reference to such diverse Jewish thinkers as Jean Amery, Zygmunt Bauman, Abba Eban, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Primo Levi and Boaz Evron many of whom, as he also points out, would now be open to charges of anti-Semitism by authorities falling over themselves to avoid seeing how the Shoah is now been weaponised by the current Israeli Government. My understanding of the damage inherent in that weaponisation has been deepened by reading the second article, Azadeh Moaveni’s What They Did to Our Women (May 9th).

This is a careful and measured response to the deeply disturbing Israeli reaction to the Pramila Patten report to the UN concerning claims of sexual violence perpetrated against Israeli women by Hamas. A report misrepresented by Israel so as to try to present sexual violence as something systematic and, as such, carried out exclusively by Hamas and/or its allies. (Sexual violence for which no legally acceptable evidence has as yet been found). The misrepresentation of this report by Israel appears to be yet another attempt to distract attention, not only from the genocide in Gaza, but from the history of Israeli sexual violence against Palestinian women. A history that dates back at least to April 1948 when, as Moaveni notes: ‘Zionist militias attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, killing more than a hundred civilians’, an attack that also gave rise to extensive ‘accounts of sexual abuse and rape’. 

If the cycle of evil endlessly perpetuated that Auden’s verse identifies is to be broken, we will need to first acknowledge and then set aside what he, “the public” and “all schoolchildren” believe to inevitably be the case. Having done so, we will need to develop the ability to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame that has allowed genocide in Gaza to be possible and, worse, to continue unchecked. Better still, to dispose of that cognitive frame completely. If we fail to do so it seems to me very likely that, given that it is ultimately inseparable from the causes of a deepening global socio-environmental crisis, that same cognitive frame will prove terminal, not simply in the world’s current war zones, but across the globe.