Gaza and the Liberal Conscience: Why We Cannot be Confused by History

(Part I)

By Farish A. Noor

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 is 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.

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