The recent intensification of violence by the Israeli state led me down a rabbit hole and, for one reason or another, I picked up Enzo Traverso’s 2016 book ‘The End of Jewish Modernity’. As I read his analysis of the establishment of the US and Israel as ‘the new poles of Jewish communal life’ following the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but think of a scene in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Notre Musique (2004) which I’ve referenced a number of times on the podcast.
The following are two distinct musings that are nonetheless interlinked.
In that scene, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is speaking with the Israeli-French Jewish actress Sarah Adler. He explains (in Arabic) that we know of Trojan victims through the words of the Greek tragedian Euripides, and that he is instead “looking for the poet of Troy because Troy didn’t tell its story.”
By now, Adler had already concluded (in Hebrew) that Darwish is ‘talking like a Jew’, to which he agrees, and a few moments later he tells her a sentence that’s been stuck with me ever since I first heard it: “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interests in us stems from the interest in the Jewish question.” (Note: ‘al mas’ala al yahoodyya’ is a reference to ‘the Jewish question’, not just some ‘issue’ as the subtitles suggest. Darwish was referencing European antisemitism and the Holocaust).
Darwish’s insight is complimented by Traverso’s argument that the Jewish question was replaced by the Palestinian question. We can go further and say that because the Jewish question was replaced by the Palestinian question, the Palestinian question still is the Jewish question. At the very least, it evidences the fact that both questions are, if not identical, at the very least interlinked. “The interest is in you [the Jews], and not in me [the Palestinians]”, Darwish tells her, adding: “So we have the misfortune of having Israel as an enemy because it enjoys unlimited support. And we have the good fortune of having Israel as our enemy because the Jews are the center of world attention. You’ve brought us defeat and renown.”
This doesn’t translate too well from the Arabic, but I think Darwish is saying something along the lines of Traverso’s argument, which is in turn expressed by Edward Said as such: To those Palestinian victims that Zionism displaced, it cannot have meant anything by way of sufficient cause that Jews were victims of European anti-Semitism and, given Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinians, few Palestinians are able to see beyond their reality, namely, that once victims themselves, Occidental Jews in Israel have become oppressors (of Palestinian Arabs and Oriental Jews).” Darwish understood that all-too-well, which is why he wanted to be the poet of Troy. This is how he became the poet of Palestine.
In other words, there is a fundamental problem of recognition today. Israeli Jews have yet to recognize, with some notable exceptions, what they have done and continue to do to the Palestinians – and to the land, to Palestine. They have also yet to recognize that they’ve been attempting to ‘answer’ the Jewish question in Palestine rather than in Europe. At the same time, Europeans have by and large yet to recognize the full extent of the crimes committed up until the second world war (not to mention crimes committed since), from the Holocaust to their colonial occupations. With regards to the former, the Holocaust, they are as-of-yet unable or unwilling to understand the consequences of the displacement of the Jewish question, which is why the Jewish question became the Jewish and Arab questions.
The Palestinian natives of the land have had little say in any of this, but many are now saying so in clear terms. We saw this at the protests in Berlin last week. Many held signs such as “Palestinian children pay the price for guilty German consciences” and “liebe Germany, you can’t fix the past by silencing the present”. This is it, in a nutshell, and it is no surprise that this was said in Germany itself. Ironically, I think these Palestinians have understood the consequences of the Holocaust much more so than the European politicians seeking to absolve themselves of the history of their continent through unconditionally supporting the state of Israel. In other words, Europeans continue the tradition of displacing, rather than facing, the consequences of what they have done.
James Baldwin once said that ‘the European dream [my interpretation: the dream of white supremacy] that created America is proving to be too expensive for the world”. One can simply change ‘America’ with ‘Israel’ to make the same argument. The settler colonial imagination that created and continues to guide the state of Israel was created in Europe. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and national founder, was pretty explicit in his belief that the integration of ‘eastern Jews’ into Israeli-ness would require their ‘Westernization’. He believed that Israel had its own civilization mission, not too dissimilar from Europe’s.
I must emphasize the following: even after Europe’s Holocaust, the Nazi genocide, it remained common in Israel, Europe and the broader West to believe that Western civilization was superior to that of ‘the East’. In Ben Gurion’s words, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa would have to get rid of “the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies” in order to become Israelis. Even after the Holocaust and the German Nazi extermination of six million Jews, many Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion viewed the West as inherently superior, a civilization to be replicated. Even after the Holocaust, European racism and white supremacy remained the dominant political currency in Israel, Europe and the broader West.
In 1952, David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer (chancellor of West Germany) worked together to sign the “Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany” which compensated losses in Jewish livelihood and property resulting from Nazi persecution. Two years before that, in 1950, Ben Gurion’s government passed the infamous Absentees’ Property Law, which confiscated the property of all the Palestinians who were expelled, fled, or who left their lands after 1947 and was handed over to the state of Israel. That law remains in effect to this day.
(To be clear, I absolutely support Germany paying reparations to Holocaust survivors. And by the way, about a third of Holocaust survivors in the US still live in poverty and about one quarter of Holocaust survivors in Israel lived in poverty as of 2015)
I’ll end this section with the summary of the book ‘The Arab and Jewish Questions‘ (edited by Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh): “Nineteenth-century Europe turned the political status of its Jewish communities into the ‘Jewish Question’ as both Christianity and rising forms of nationalism viewed Jews as the ultimate other. With the onset of Zionism, this “question” migrated to Palestine and intensified under British colonial rule and in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Zionism’s attempt to solve the “Jewish Question” created what came to be known as the “Arab Question,” which concerned the presence and rights of the Arab population in Palestine. For the most part, however, Jewish settlers denied or dismissed the question they created, to the detriment of both Arabs and Jews in Palestine and elsewhere.”
The ease through which reactionary forces in Europe and North America alternate between antisemitic aesthetics (QAnon, Soros, ‘the globalists’ etc) and islamophobic politics is also related to the Jewish and Arab questions. In France, it is all the clearer given the Rassemblement National consciously positioning themselves as the defenders of the Nation against the forces of ‘globalism’. (Note: they changed their name from National Front to National Rally as the former sounded too fash).
The ‘globalists’, a term loaded with antisemitic connotation (think of Winston Churchill ranting about ‘cosmopolitans’, or fascists accusing Jews of being ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ more specifically), are being portrayed as the masterminds behind ‘the great replacement’ conspiracy theory, the idea that those Muslims and other foreigners are coming here to replace ‘us’. Basically, Soros and his buddies are bringing people like me to Europe’s shores, and y’all need to defend Europe against people like me because we’re not like you.
Ironically, I agree with Le Pen who put it in even simpler terms: the fight is between nationalists and globalists. Obviously, I don’t mean globalists how she means globalists. I simply mean nationalists versus internationalists. In our era of global warming, the former is nothing short of catastrophic. We know for a fact that we need cooperation beyond the social constructs that are borders and the long-outdated Westphalian nations sustaining them. The latter, internationalism, if coupled with critical long-term thinking and just solutions, can lead to better tomorrows.
My worry however is that the current structures of the EU are both unable and unwilling to deal with the threat of fascism, not least because they have too much in common with the forces they’re supposed to be against. The problem is that in order to recognize this the EU will have to recognize its part in fueling that far right, and take steps to improve upon itself. It’s not entirely impossible, but as of now I don’t see many reasons to believe that this is going to happen.
The demonization and scapegoating of black and brown migrants and refugees is fueling a rapid (re)normalization of white supremacy in Europe, with the ‘socialists’ of Denmark and their anti-refugee obsession only matched by proud fascists throughout the continent (the Danish chapter of the far-right Generation Identitaire praised them). Meanwhile, the statements of Ursula Von Der Leyen, the ‘center-right’ president of the European Commission, are indistinguishable from that of either the French far right or the Danish ‘socialists’.
The EU is already treating black and brown migrants and refugees with a militarized language. Through that logic, border violence against black and brown bodies becomes a necessary evil, if an evil at all. The Greek coastguard becomes a shield (aspida, to quote Von Der Leyen), protecting Europe’s fragile whiteness against the black and brown threat.
Victor Orban seems to have understood that the politics he championed some years ago are rapidly becoming normalized throughout Europe. He said in 2016 that his politics were “once condemned, despised, looked down upon and treated with contempt”, but are now the EU’s “jointly held position”. He wasn’t wrong. While most EU politicians may continue to treat the person of Orban as an outcast, they are rapidly mirroring his politics.
And while the far right always ends up collapsing upon its own contradictions, we cannot ignore the fact that the damage they will do in the meantime will be severe. In our era of global warming, we simply cannot afford to wait it out.