Home 2008:11 Why we cannot be confused by history

Why we cannot be confused by history

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We cannot sit on the fence when people in Gaza are being murdered before our very eyes, asserts Farish Noor; we have to do something.

The liberal conscience is a rather peculiar thing. Right now, as Gaza is being bombed to oblivion yet again, liberals the world over are wrestling with their own consciences instead. Faced with the reality of a colonial state that is bent on grabbing more land for itself and which has systematically aided and abetted the creation of illegal settlements all over the occupied territories, liberals are still unsure of what to do, what to say and what stand to take.

We see this happening around us all the time. In cyberspace one encounters the response of the liberals time and again: They say and write things like “Yes, we know that what the Israelis are doing is wrong, but doesn’t Hamas have rockets too?” or “Yes, we know that Palestinians have been killed but haven’t Israelis too?” or “Yes, we know that Israel is expanding its territory more and more, but didn’t Israel exist in the past and haven’t the Israelis the right to rebuild their nation?”

Much of this confusion stems from a skewered and manipulated understanding of history and an misunderstanding about what history can and should do for you. So in an attempt to assuage the tender liberal conscience and to show just why these liberals need to take a stand now, let us revisit the history of the region and more importantly understand what the discourse of history is all about.

History is a record of facts and all the discourse of history does and can do is remind us of the paths that we have taken and the actions that have brought us to where we are today. A discourse that is forever recounted after the fact, history does not have the agency to compel, rationalise or justify our actions in the immediate present. I emphasise this for the simple reason that we tend to assume a continuity of historical agency over time and a continuity of responsibilities over time that is simply not there: A German child born today is simply not responsible for the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis of the past, and for no reason can any young German citizen today be held accountable for the past of his/her country; any more than a young Brit is responsible for the British Empire.

Yet Israeli expansionism – which in reality has been nothing more than systematic colonisation – has been justified precisely on the grounds of such historical continuity, as if an Israeli born today is entitled to enjoy the rights and entitlements of Jews who lived thousands of years ago.

Now one does not and cannot deny the historical existence of the historical Jewish kingdom of King Solomon and David. Nor would one want to deny the existence of the kingdom, for that would amount to a denial and erasure of history. But there has to be a clear distinction between the historical kingdom of Solomon and David and the present state of Israel that came into being in 1948. The historical kingdom of Solomon and David existed at a time when the very notion of the nation-state did not even materialise yet; while Israel is a modern nation-state that was created in the wake of World War Two, and which has been seen and cast by many as a result of Europe’s moral debt to the Jews who were annihilated by the Nazis and Fascists in the 1930s and 1940s.

This does not however alter the fact that the creation of Israel occasioned a terrible moral rupture among the Palestinians who were there and the fact that since its creation in 1948 the modern state of Israel has behaved in a manner no different from the colonial states of Europe in relation to its Arab neighbours and the people of Palestine in particular. Israel’s record of colonising the lands of the Palestinians is a modern fact in the here-and-now, and not a historical fact residing in the ancient past. It is a living reality in the present and it has led to the brutal conduct of its troops in their own colonising efforts we see today.

To defend the modern colonising state of Israel on historical grounds would therefore be akin to saying that just because the Roman Empire existed then Italy today has the right to resume her former glory and conquer half of Europe and Africa . It would be like saying that just because the British and French empires existed then Britain and France also possess some historical right to expand their boundaries again.

Yet this fallacy has yet to be debunked for the rot that it really is. Should the extreme right-wing Zionist fundamentalists who currently run the Israeli modern state get their way, then their long term aim would be to re-create in modern times what was an archaic historical kingdom whose borders extend all the way into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Arabia. The Liberal conscience that may have been persuaded by the bogus historical claims of Zionist propagandists and apologists should therefore see this for what it is: nothing more than a longing and justification for Empire and empire-building at its crudest and rawest form.

It is also the duty of the historian to remind all of us that we are not and should not be captives to history and the abuse of the discourse of history. The historical existence of the kingdom of Solomon has never been a matter of contention, for it is not the historical kingdom of Solomon and David that is sending jet fighters to bomb Palestinian schools and hospitals, sending tanks into the occupied territories and sending bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes. These atrocities are being committed by the government of the modern colonial state of Israel, and it is the modern colonial state of Israel that deserves to be condemned for its colonial ambitions today.

The question of parity

As the death toll in Gaza mounts by the hour, there are still faint Liberal voices around us that bemoan the violence and deaths on both sides. We hear and read in the internet again and again about the violence of Hamas and the fact that there have been Israeli casualties in the fighting as well, as if the death of a dozen Israelis can be equated with the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians and the wounding and maiming of thousands. At times such as these, liberals tend to demonstrate an acute lack of understanding of mathematics and seem to have trouble counting…

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The most common refrain that we get from the liberals comes in the form of the argument: “Yes, but doesn’t Hamas have weapons too and haven’t the Palestinians killed Israelis?”

Here the moral dilemma of the Liberal stems from a misunderstanding of power-relations and parity. It is based on the idea that killing is wrong (which many would find difficulty in arguing against) and the idea that no attack on civilians is ever justified. Due to the fact that Hamas and other Palestinian groups have attacked Israeli civilian settlements, the conclusion they come to is that all Palestinians are equally guilty.

Let us clear up this confusion by raising a few questions ourselves and pointing to a few facts:

Firstly, let us remember that many of the attacks on Israeli civilian settlements were also focused on illegal settlements that have been universally condemned by the UN and practically every civilised country in the world. It is a foregone conclusion that no country on the planet would welcome the intrusion of any other foreign power, and that any nation that has been deprived of its territory would retaliate. (In fact, not to do so would be unnatural and illogical.) How then can those Israelis who have settled in illegal settlements, built on stolen land, expect to be left in peace? And how can these illegal settlers continue to wonder why they are being attacked? The incredulity of these illegal settlers is astounding, and akin to a situation where a thief wonders why his victim is fighting back…

Secondly, let us look at the question of parity. The fact is that there is NO parity between the trained colonial army of Israel and the irregular forces that have been assembled by the Palestinians. One can be in a genuine moral dilemma if both the Israelis and Palestinians possess the same military might and armed power; and we would be faced by a moral dilemma if – and only if – we see Palestinian jet planes bombing hospitals and schools in Israel; Palestinian tanks attacking Tel Aviv; Palestinian helicopters strafing the suburbs of Israel and Palestinian bulldozers smashing down civilian homes in Israel.

But tell me when did you last see a Palestinian jet fighter plane, attack helicopter, tank or bulldozer? The answer is there simply aren’t any because there is simply no parity between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The delay with which the Liberal conscience acts is therefore unpardonable under the circumstances, when we are witnessing what can only be described as a totally uneven and unequal contest between an aggressive colonial state and a colonised people fighting back. But for Liberals to assume a neutral stance in the face of a decidedly un-neutral situation beggars belief, and points to the moral hypocrisy of liberals under such circumstances.

Finally there is the question of WHY the Palestinians (Hamas, Hizbullah, Fatah and other civilian groups) have been fighting against this Israeli colonial goliath despite the fact that they have been outgunned time and again. Well, the history of anti-colonial struggles worldwide will show that all nations fighting for freedom have gone up against Empires and Imperial forces infinitely stronger than them. During the Indonesian and Vietnamese wars of Independence as well as the anti-colonial wars of Africa, local insurgent forces fought with all they had against modern western colonial armies that were better armed.

The record of anti-colonial wars in Asia and Africa shows that it was always the local insurgents who suffered the most. For every Dutch colonial soldier killed by the Indonesian freedom-fighters, hundreds of Indonesians were killed. Yet they fought on relentlessly till they won their independence despite the human costs they were forced to bear. Today the people of Palestine are fighting a war of national liberation against a colonial Zionist state that has the tacit backing of the most powerful hegemon of the planet, the USA . Yet they do so despite the odds because they know that to lay down their arms would be to capitulate to imperialism and colonialism.

So the confused liberal who cannot decide should consider this: Had the freedom fighters of Indonesia , Vietnam, Burma as well as their comrades across Asia and Africa not fought against the odds, would the colonial powers have relented and unilaterally given them their independence? If one is naïve enough to believe that the colonial ambitions of a state like Israel can be appeased by surrendering the struggle, then one deserves to lose one’s country!

The realities of colonialism

Consider the following scenario: A band of thieves break into your home while you are out, and help themselves to your property. When you return you find them comfortably installed in your home and enjoying themselves. Just as you are about to do the logical thing by doing whatever is necessary to kick them out, they say to you: “No, don’t attack us. We want peace. We want peace because we want to watch your DVDs on the DVD player; we want peace because we want to enjoy the food in your kitchen; we want peace because we want to sleep in your bed tonight.” Then as soon as you lose your temper, you are accused of being a terrorist, terrorising their peace!

It may sound ridiculous, but that is precisely the ridiculousness we are hearing from illegal Israeli settlers and Zionist propagandists who are telling the world that Israel wants peace and is the victim of Palestinian terrorism.

The realities of colonialism have been the same throughout history. Every imperial colonising power from the Romans to the Europeans have sought to justify, rationalise and normalise the realities of colonial expansionism by resorting to the discourse of peace. When the Europeans colonised Africa and Asia from the 17th to 20th centuries, they did so on the grounds of ‘progress’, ‘civilisation’ and even the rule of law. Africa and Asia were to be colonised ostensibly to bring progress to the natives, to expand the scope of free trade, to establish modern governance. Yet colonies are never modern, free, democratic or progressive in the first place: they are little more than the expression of primordial greed, lust for power, hatred of Others, racism, bigotry, sexism and common prejudice.

The pathetic moral dilemma of the wishy-washy liberal is compounded by the invented dilemma of the colonialist who dreams to live in peace while residing on stolen land and stolen property. It is this double-hypocrisy that has to be addressed and exposed once and for all. The liberals among us are ever-so-sensitive to the plaintive emotional appeals of the Israeli settlers who claim that they have been victimised by the Palestinians, but at the same time conveniently fail to recognise the simple fact that no illegal settlement can ever be left in peace.

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Once again we can turn to our own colonial history in Asia for pointers:

During the bad old days when the European Imperial powers were installed across Asia and Africa, there were incessant wars and rebellions when the colonised subjects rebelled to gain their freedom. It has to be remembered that the creation of modern post-colonial independent states across Asia and Africa did not come naturally or without pain and struggle. Thousands of Africans and Asians fought and died, thousands were imprisoned, exiled, tortured and made to ‘disappear’ by the colonial powers that refused to vacate their stolen colonies.

Today of course we celebrate these freedom fighters who fought and died as the martyrs and heroes of our respective countries and count them among the founding fathers and mothers who gave birth to our independent states.

Now during our own anti-colonial struggles, did we (or rather our forefathers) bother about the discomfort and fear of the colonialists whom they constantly and relentlessly opposed by all means necessary? Let us recount our own past with honesty. We did not negotiate or dialogue with imperialists: we opposed them, fought them, and when necessary attacked and killed them. Independence was not won in a game of cards or polite conversation. It came through years of guerrilla warfare, ambushes, assassinations, acts of sabotage, strikes and boycotts. That’s how we became free. And wasn’t that how the first Americans gained their independence from the colonial government of Britain too?

Now if that was the case for practically every country that has been colonised in the past, why doesn’t it apply today for the people of Palestine ?

Let us not, therefore, be taken in by the glib rhetoric and sweet appeals of the Zionists and their American backers. The modern colonial state of Israel today is a proxy for superpower interests and in its dealings with the Palestinians it has been nothing more than a violent, expansionist, colonial state bent on expanding its colonial possessions and territorial outreach. The modern colonial state of Israel has been at the forefront of working and collaborating with the most reactionary Arab pro-American regimes and helping them retard the development of democracy in their own countries.

The realities of colonialism are that any and every colonial state has been built on force, violence and coercion, and that their continued existence into the future rests on the continued use of such violence and coercion. But like the band of thieves who have stolen into your home and robbed you of your property, they cannot expect to be left in peace and they will never enjoy peace as long as they exist as a colonial power. Israel is no exception to this rule, for this was the lesson learned by every imperial power throughout human history: No colonial state has the right to safety and safe boundaries, as long as those boundaries are drawn on land that has been illegally and forcibly stolen on others. You will never have safe frontiers as long as your frontiers are drawn on the land of another.

The power of boycotts

One of the best ways not to do anything and vegetate at home while watching DVDs and eating junk food is to say to yourself, “Well, what difference can I make? I’m just one person and one person’s actions will not save the world.” It is through passive indifference that authoritarian regimes thrive around us. Tyrants and despots rely on the passivity of their subjects to gain time and ground to spread their poisonous tentacles, and in our idle sleep we forget that our comfort zones are being eaten away bit by bit, inch by inch, till the day comes when the stormtroopers are standing at our doorstep.

Today the calls for the boycott of goods and services related to Israel and its hegemonic benefactor, the United States, are similarly being met by such casual disdain, by trendy liberals who think it is ever so cool to pretend that we are all powerless and that the rotten mess we see unfolding in Gaza at present is something we cannot do anything about. Wrong.

Let us re-visit some of the premises above and debunk them one step at a time:

First of all, boycotts work. They work, they are effective and if carefully planned, well co-ordinated and maintained for long enough a period of time they can make and break the fortunes of nations. Let us return to the days and months after the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoon controversy’. I do not wish to revisit the facts of that controversy, but rather look at its aftermath and the reaction of the major industrial powers to the international boycott of European products.

In a space of 12 months after the crisis broke out, I had written two academic papers, given eight talks and taken part in six international conference on the issue. Now let me recount one of these conferences in some detail. It was a conference held in an Arab country that was put together by an American-European business planning institute and present at the meeting were CEOs of some of the biggest players in the capitalist world. I am not at liberty to go into the details of the discussions we had due to the Chatham House rules by which we operated, but let me just say that one CEO in particular was at the helm of one of the biggest automobile companies in Europe .

This is what the CEO of the European car company had to say to me: “33 per cent of our exports go to the Arab world, and 15 per cent goes to the developing world. If a major global boycott of our cars is carried out, we can hold out for six months before retrenchments begin. After 12 months we close down for good, because we can never recover after such a thing.”

Now these were the words of one of the most important CEOs on the planet. Cognisant of the fact that their luxury cars are increasingly bought in Asia and the Arab world, he knew very well what a boycott of their cars would do. And the man was scared. Terrified in fact.

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That the CEO of a company as powerful as this could tremble before the prospect of a clientele that exercises their collective will is instructive. I saw the same with the other CEOs and at all the business meetings I took part in during the 12 months after the Danish cartoon controversy. This proves several things, namely:

•    that boycotts work and that they scare the living daylights out of even the most powerful companies;

•    that boycotts have the power of equalising power relations between producers and consumers, and thereby restores power and dignity to consumers who should never be seen as passive sheep;

•    that consumers can dictate the terms of production and management in the same way that consumers have compelled companies to adopt environmentally-friendly modes of production and to halt unethical business and investment practices.

Now look at the successes we have had over the past few decades in terms of boycotts:

•    The environmentalist lobby – through threats of boycotts and consumer awareness campaigns – has forced companies to adopt greener modes of production and more ethical means of raw material procurement (as in the case of fair trade coffee, etc.);
•    The anti-apartheid lobby has managed – again through boycotts – to compel communities and governments to isolate the apartheid regime of South Africa to the point where maintaining such a discriminatory regime was unsustainable in the long run; and managed to make them pariahs in the global diplomatic scene;

•    The ethical banking lobby – again through threat of boycotts – has managed to compel banks and financial houses in Europe to return stolen funds embezzled by Third World dictators and has also managed to persuade banks to dis-invest from countries like South Africa .

So with all these examples to mind, why on earth would a boycott of American and Israeli goods not succeed in the long run if they are carried out in a well-co-ordinated and sustained manner?

Related to the liberals’ concern is the somewhat pathetic refrain that boycotts will also hurt local producers and local workers who may be working for these multinationals. We offer a three-pronged reply to this fallacious argument:

Firstly, it would be ridiculous to suggest that companies that invest in a colonial state like Israel actually care about the rights and dignity of their workers elsewhere. A company that has no issues or problems collaborating with imperialism and colonialism is a company whose directors have scant regard for human rights and dignity in the first place, including the rights and dignity of their workers.

Secondly, the closure of companies that invest and support the colonial Israeli state can be seen as a good thing in the long run as it will compel communities such as ours to seek real jobs and real livelihood for its citizens instead of flogging our people off to work as cheap labour for fast food companies and other such concerns. In places such as Kerala, India, where American fast food companies have not been given a chance to enter, we see the long term benefits of such a prudent move: the local industries are protected, Keralan citizens do not feel compelled to abide by lifestyle standards set by American consumer culture, local identities are protected, and overall the people have a stronger sense of identity and self-pride. Compare the streets of Kerala that still have their local character to the dreary streets of Kuala Lumpur where every other shop-lot has been taken up by some gaudy fast food company and you will see my point.

Thirdly, we need to remember that we are also compelled to act morally even in cases where moral action does not necessarily bring immediate positive results. We do not tell the truth simply to score points with our friends. We tell the truth because that is the ethical thing to do. Moral action entails responsibility and we need to remember that even if we are not directly positively responsible for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, we are nonetheless negatively responsible by our inaction.

To fail to act, to fail to make a stand now in the face of such overwhelming evidence, is to commit the mistake of negative moral responsibility via neglect. It would be akin to letting a blind man cross a street while a car was coming and not warning the blind man before he is struck down. In such a case we are not responsible for running down the man, but we are responsible for not trying to warn him. The guilt remains with us nonetheless.

Therefore the liberals among us need to take their stand and do whatever is necessary to end the atrocities in Gaza now, in whatever ways and means they have at their disposal. To look the other way, or worse still to say that we are powerless, is to deny our moral and rational agency when we all know that we have it. We are not children, nor are we animals. To count ourselves as rational adult citizens means having to accept our capacity for moral judgement and our responsibility for moral action.

To boycott the goods and products of those companies that actively support the colonial government of Israel is but one simple step to make our point. This act is as simple and mundane as it is necessary and obligatory upon us. To stall judgement and sit on the fence when people are being murdered before our very eyes makes us active witnesses of a crime we did nothing to prevent. In such a case, we would be little better than the colonialists and murderers themselves.

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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