Bombs, bullshit, and blunt force stupidity.
“Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.”
That’s from the Talmud, commonly attributed to Hillel the Elder. But the Talmud being the Talmud, there is debate on what it means, about which translation or interpretation is most accurate.
Some insist that the proscription only applies within the Jewish community: “Therefore, Adam the first man was created alone, to teach you that with regard to anyone who destroys one soul from the Jewish people, i.e., kills one Jew, the verse ascribes him blame as if he destroyed an entire world.”
Then there are the simplified, Hollywood versions: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” the version cast about in Schindler’s List, a convenient way of sidestepping the uncomfortable fact that the man who saved a thousand Jews was also a Nazi war profiteer.
But it is the first version that has stuck with me. Eloquent in its simplicity, it reads as an ethical and philosophical thread between the particular and the universal, the individual and the totality. It’s an encapsulation of the worldview sketched by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on History” on the one hand, and his “Critique of Violence” on the other. It is also an ethic that drew me closer to Judaism, as the idea of converting became a genuine goal, an act that would put me right with myself and the world around me.
Hence the pain and rage of now, the feelings of existential displacement. You see, according to the United States House of Representatives, not only does holding the first interpretation make me not a real Jew, it makes me an antisemite. Elon Musk can fart all manner of Jew-hatred onto his keyboard and get praised by the head of Anti-Defamation League. But speak on the side of the 22,000 worlds destroyed — at least a third of them having gone round the sun only a handful of times — and you are nothing more than a pariah, responsible for every crime against the Jewish people.
I’m far from alone. Countless other Jews are crammed in this category, including many Orthodox and the relatively secular. Actors, writers, teachers, train operators, and ordinary social media posters are hounded, threatened with firings or worse. Not even presidents of Ivy League universities are immune. If they can’t outsmart it, how can I?
No wonder it’s been so difficult to write over these past three months. Daily, we are confronted with a dual impossibility. First, the impossibility of not thinking about decimated cities, bombed-out hospitals, families with nowhere to go save for another corner of the same war zone. Then, the impossibility of fully describing it. How can we think, speak, write about anything else? With words stretched so beyond their extreme, dissolving and coagulating into something utterly unrecognizable, how can we write about this very same atrocity and hope to be understood? Unable to look away, unable to bear witness.
I’ve tried. So help me, I’ve tried to write about something — anything — else. I’ve even managed to finish a couple of pieces. They were, on their own terms, modest but successful pieces of writing. They were also cheap, tawdry, and shameless. Because right now, there is no such thing as “on their own terms.” Everything is on the terms of the unspeakable. Unless we succumb to the most callous neglect. Which we all must at some point, simply to survive, to go to work, to pay rent.
This must be what Adorno meant when he described the barbarity of poetry after Auschwitz. For while the thinking feels criminal enough, every word, written or unwritten, points to the cruel indifference that makes atrocity possible. It is a bleak state of affairs when communication — a cornerstone of human consciousness — can become such a flimsy thing.
Do you condemn Hamas?
Recant! Repent! It is the only way to save your soul!
Make no mistake, when pundits shriek the former at those of us calling for a ceasefire, it is the latter that they are in fact shaking in our faces. A question brandished in the same way as Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
Watch, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s morbid repetition of the question two months ago to pro-Palestinian activist and writer Barnaby Raine. Raine, who is Jewish, far more familiar with Israeli politics and history, and in possession of something other than wet cement for his brain, refuses to answer.
This, quite obviously, isn’t because Raine carries some deep-down sympathy for Hamas. Rather, it is that the whole premise of the question is utterly ludicrous. Few of those who ask it are looking for elaboration, context, nuance. Even fewer looking to parse the complicated truth that few of those who resist have bought Hamas’ particular brand of fundamentalism. Fewer still are interested in how successive Israeli governments have slyly boosted Hamas, or the role played by siege and blockade in the militia’s rise.
No, what this crude, sneering rhetoric demands of its object is flagellation, a denunciation of everything its utterer is, an admission that you are, in fact, everything this righteous society hates. You call for the carnage to stop, and that makes you an irredeemable pariah.
Condemn Hamas and we’ll redeem you. We’ll do so by taking your condemnation out of context, cranking it through the grinder of soundbites, social media, and bad faith. On the other end, you’ll be a flawless hypocrite. You may lose friends, family, even jobs. But you’ll deserve it, and your words will prove you deserve it. Welcome to your redemption.
Do you believe Israel has a right to exist?
A strange question. One never asked about other nations, including ones capable of dropping many more bombs than Israel. It’s a question that deliberately packs so many conflicting assumptions into one simple word.
What is this “Israel” we speak of? Is it the old, borderless, Hebraic people? Those who, through millennia of diaspora, have schlepped their stories and rituals and practices around the world, and who, in inviting our neighbors to break bread with us, have established our most precious and sacred traditions?
Is this the “Israel,” you mean? The one of the Tanakh and Talmud? This global, cosmopolitan, multifarious mosaic of people we ask to be blessed when we say the shema?
Should these children of Israel be allowed to exist where they like? How is this even a question? Yes. For fuck’s sake, yes. Should a Jew desire to live in historic Jerusalem or Osaka, Japan or Barcelona, Spain or the hellscape of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they should be allowed to live there in peace. No matter what their reason. It goes for us just as much as it goes for any people of any ethnic or cultural extraction.
It is a tedious point to make, but necessary. Because lately one Israel has been switched out for another. A global collection of stories, rituals, and struggles has been crammed into an area the size of New Jersey, and 5,000 years of history have been squeezed into barely 80.
Linguistic turns stand in for real histories. When something is muddled or traded out when you aren’t looking, it’s normally because something or someone is being deemed undeserving. That someone is attempting to change reality, and the language is being shifted to match. It’s a dangerous prospect. Always has been.
This, of course, is what states are, at least in the spatio-temporal sense. They are delineations between which kind of existence is or isn’t sanctioned by a specific, contrived reality. It’s as true for the current state of Israel as it is for any other, and Israel is forthright in this respect. Successive and increasingly right-wing governments have raised the alarm about Palestinians as a demographic threat. Hence the preferential treatment of Israeli settlers in the West Bank by Israeli courts. Hence the 2018 nation-state law, outwardly defining non-Jews as undeserving of full rights. Hence the restrictions on movement, the open encouragement and arming of Israelis taking over Palestinians’ homes.
To demand that a state capable of this level of force has “a right to exist” is, again, strange. Surely, the amount of financial and military backing provided for it the world over means that its existence is, at least right now, a foregone conclusion. The real question, one that never gets asked, is whether Palestinians have the right to exist. Which brings us to our next word game…
Your denunciations of genocide make me fear genocide.
We’ve crossed the Rubicon. From words that attempt to replace reality, to realities that replace words, and now to words never spoken whose absurd meaning has become reality.
That’s where we are now. It’s been particularly pronounced on college campuses in recent months. Administrators and students alike have raised the cry of unsafety, most frequently followed by calls to ban pro-Palestine rallies and organizations. But are any of these entities openly calling for genocide?
Jonathan M. Katz’s piece at The Racket shows the evidence to be scant. The most viable examples have been a few masked bigots circling around the edges of pro-Palestine events, but with no indication that they represent the opinions of many other attendees or the events’ core values. Past that, the main examples thrown up tend to be statements about the daily (quite deliberately genocidal) reality of Palestinians, clumsily but loudly labeled hate speech.
This is the topsy-turvy we’ve now entered. Where a phrase like “from the river to the sea” is labeled a call for antisemitic genocide, all while the current ruling party of Israel has its own version of the refrain written into its founding charter, justifying continued ethnic cleansing of the region.
Everyone who plies these turns of phrase knows what is behind them. Just like random UPenn alums know that protesters weren’t chanting “we want Jewish genocide.” Just like silly TV presenters know that the sit-in at Liverpool Station was chanting “ceasefire now” rather than “jihad now.”
The lie and the knowledge of the lie are not the point, and they never have been. You can see the pattern in what Jean-Paul Sartre wrote. “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” writes Sartre.
They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
Those who note the present irony — of Sartre’s description of antisemites now aptly describing people ostensibly opposing antisemitism — are likely also feeling the sting of how shameless and stupid our time has become. Not tragic. Not farcical. Just base, rank, and stupid.1
But then, stupidity has always been a part of empire. There has always been some kind of aggressive bluster, designed not only to fill in the gaps in its own logic, but to overwhelm the logic of its opponents. It is a process that, in devaluing anything having to do with reason, integrates it into a more elemental component of empire’s identity: force.
It doesn’t matter that they cannot win the argument. The fists and clubs, tanks and bombs will do that for them. All that matters now is to confuse and frustrate you, to demean and demoralize you as much as possible in preparation for the dropping axe.
We should be quite familiar with this tactic by now. It’s been practically force-fed to us over the past several years with the rise of the far-right, the smug “I don’t care” smiles on the faces of Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Meloni, Milei. Figures far more responsible for the rise of antisemitism than anyone in Gaza. And yes, we should count Netanyahu in this league, his cabinet being easily the most right-wing in Israel’s history, including Kahanists and settler fundamentalists all-too-willing to spew bigoted filth about not just Arabs, but queer and trans people, even secular Jews.
What troubles me isn’t so much that these political stripes are plying the blunt force of stupidity. Again, we should be used to it. No, what troubles me is that these lines of bizarro-reason are now being accommodated by people who should know better. It does not, to put it mildly, bode well for the future.
You have likely heard the word shoah used a bit more than usual lately. You may also know that it is often used to refer to the Holocaust, a reference that became more widely understood after Claude Lanzmann’s sprawling, masterful nine-hour documentary Shoah. One of the virtues of Lanzmann’s documentary is that it makes the events of Europe’s genocide – the round-ups, the ghettoes, the camps – feel like the present instead of the past. It feels exactly like what it was: an immense, unfolding catastrophe. Which is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word shoah.
There is a contradiction in Lanzmann’s Shoah, however. One he likely couldn’t have overcome even if he were conscious of it. In sketching the sprawling enormity of this catastrophe, rightly illustrating the shadow it continues to casts over a continent, the shoah itself seems exceptional, a once-in-history event.
Words indeed fail to describe the existential horror of the Holocaust, the enormity of the abyss that stared back at its victims. To cordon it off, to draw a line under it linguistically or historically, is to learn the wrong lesson. That, it seems to me, is one of the most urgent assertions Adorno was making with his “poetry after Auschwitz” comment. Not that the brutality the shoah shouldn’t strike awesome horror into us. But the death drives that made it possible have yet to be dug out of the systems that shape our lives.
It is, in fact, difficult to point to a single nation or culture that does not understand this on some level, even subconsciously. Every language, after all, has a word for catastrophe. Many of them, particularly in Europe, call it something we recognize in English — catástrofe in Spanish, katastrophe in German, and so on. Others are unrecognizable to Anglophones — zāinàn in Mandarin, tabaahee in Hindi.
In Arabic, the word for catastrophe — for shoah — is nakba. Already applied to the great displacement of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, it is also being promised to Palestinians with the bombardment of Gaza. This is no exaggeration. “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba” says Israeli cabinet member Avi Dichter. “Right now, one goal,” tweeted Knesset member Ariel Kallner, “Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!”
In a sane world, the deliberate repetition of atrocity would be seen for what it is: an unspeakable travesty, something to be prevented, a scenario rendering “never again” an empty slogan. But this isn’t a sane world. This is a world where one kind of life can be arbitrarily declared more worthy than another. Where those who question are called murderers. Where language and history both disintegrate into pious, menacing white noise.
No pause in the onslaught. No debate. Certainly no pondering whether our path is leading somewhere irrevocably inhuman. Just another day in Babylon.
This is not for a second to dismiss actual antisemitism. Again, quoting Jonathan M. Katz, who sums it up better than I: “Antisemitism is a huge and growing problem, one that directly threatens my children — not to mention myself, my wife, and the rest of our family. (As is Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment in the U.S., which has already resulted in three Palestinian college students getting shot in Vermont and a six-year-old getting stabbed to death in Illinois.) But the threats we face aren’t from pro-Palestine activists. Nor are they even remotely commensurate with the hell that is facing millions of Palestinians right now, who sit in the crosshairs of a brutal military that is funded by my government and executed by another that claims to fight in my people’s name.”