Israel & Hamas: Another Letter, Another Critical Response (updated)


As mentioned in an update to this post, a group of philosophers posted an open letter, dated November 1, 2023, under the heading “Philosophy for Palestine.”

As of the time of this post, the letter has 127 signatories.

It begins:

We are a group of philosophy professors in North America, Latin America, and Europe writing to publicly and unequivocally express our solidarity with the Palestinian people and to denounce the ongoing and rapidly escalating massacre being committed in Gaza by Israel and with the full financial, material, and ideological support of our own governments.

We do not claim any unique authority—moral, intellectual, or otherwise—on the basis of our being philosophers. However, our discipline has made admirable strides recently in confronting philosophy’s historically exclusionary practices and in engaging directly with pressing and urgent injustices. To this end, we call on our colleagues in philosophy to join us in overcoming complicity and silence.

As we write, bombs have killed over 8,500 people in Gaza. By the time you read this, that number will have risen. Thousands more are trapped under rubble. For over three weeks, a siege of the territory has cut off food, water, medicine, fuel, and electricity. A million inhabitants of northern Gaza have been ordered to flee their homes amid airstrikes and in advance of an ongoing ground invasion with nowhere safe to go. Talk of a second nakba is chilling, yet apt. People of conscience have an obligation to speak out against these atrocities. This is not a difficult step to take; what is far more difficult for us is to turn away in silence and complicity from an unfolding genocide.

The whole letter is here.

On November 4th, philosopher and political theorist Seyla Benhabib (Yale) posted a response to the letter, explaining why she cannot endorse it. She writes:

My objection to your letter is that it sees the conflict in Israel-Palestine through the lens of “settler-colonialism” alone, and elevates Hamas’s atrocities of October 7, 2023 to an act of legitimate resistance against an occupying force. By construing the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of settler-colonialism, you elide the historical evolution of both peoples…

There is no sense of history in your statement nor any sense of the tragedies that befell these peoples, and the many missed moments when another future seemed possible. Although you refer to “the conditions that produce violence,” you do not mention that Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish extremist and Anwar Sadat, after his visit to Israel, was killed by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological progenitor of Hamas.

You write: “the people of Gaza have urged allies worldwide to exert pressure on their governments to demand an immediate ceasefire. But they have been clear that this should — this must — be the beginning and not the end of collective action for liberation.” In endorsing these demands, you also endorse Hamas’s position as the supposed vanguard of the Palestinian “liberation struggle.” This is a colossal mistake. Hamas is a nihilistic organization which treats the civilian population of Gaza as its hostage. The leader of the organization, Ismail Hanniye, sits in a luxury hotel in Qatar, while children on the streets of Gaza die. Yes, as Amnesty International has said, “Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world,” but this is also due to the fact that Hamas is an exterminationist organization, whose Charter endorses the destruction of the State of Israel. You also implicitly seem to support this when you write that, “If there is to be justice and peace, the siege of Gaza must be lifted; the occupation must end, and the rights must be respected of all people currently living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, as well as those of Palestinian refugees in exile.” Amen to that! but do you see Hamas a political organization dedicated to “respecting the rights of all people currently living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean”? This defies history and logic. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel; I do not support that. Do you? What moral or political logic is guiding your reasoning here?

Her full response is here.

(Thanks to several readers for bringing these to my attention.)

UPDATE (11/21/23): Muhammad Ali Khalidi (CUNY) responds to Benhabib here.


Related:
George Yancy interviews Judith Butler
Reid Blackman interviews David Enoch

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Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
5 months ago

I think the Israeli letter written by Prof. Michael Gross and colleagues should be featured in this conversation. While I respect and appreciate the letter released by Oxford academics last week, and this one from North American academics, I wonder why the letter written by Israeli academics has gotten comparatively little attention. Specifically because, in many ways, they’re very well-situated to have considered views on these matters. Furthermore, and respectfully, the Israeli letter is also comparatively more detailed, and has more discussion of both philosophy and international law than these other two letters.

In case people haven’t seen them here’s the letter by Oxford academics:

https://academicsongaza.wixsite.com/gazaopenletter

And the reply by Israeli academics:

https://replytoacademicson.wixsite.com/replytoacademicsonga

Michel
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
5 months ago

If we’re worried about philosophers not being sufficiently nuanced and philosophical, then statements like “No instance of deliberate attack on concentrations of civilians is known to us” should not be allowed to pass muster. Anyone familiar with the basic literature on intentionality should know better.

There is so much in that response that I think is just plain wrong, and given the context, I find it to be an appalling apologia. But I don’t have the energy to go through it line by line on the internet, especially in what’s bound to be a hostile discussion.

I will, however, take a moment to point to a horrifying piece of hypocrisy. The response condemns the letter’s condemnation of Hamas’s attack because “it ignores the fact that the mass slaying of civilians, viewed in the context of the Hamas charter and its stated aims“. It then goes on to deny that Israel has killed civilians indiscriminately (it even suggests it may have killed very few civilians!) and says “Despite irresponsible statements by a few Israeli officials, Israeli actions directly harming the civilian population seem to have focused on military needs“.

Can we really hand-wave away the “irresponsible” statements by government officials currently involved in the bombing of a trapped and concentrated civilian population?

Reading stuff like this, from people who ought to know better, makes me sick.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Michel
5 months ago

It then goes on to deny that Israel has killed civilians indiscriminately ”

Many people say, with certainty, that Israel kills civilians indiscriminately. But, and I realize this might be hard to read for someone, what exactly is the evidence for that? The number of killed civilians in Gaza? How accurate is that number? And does it follow with certainty (of any kind) that those civilians were killed indiscrimintaley?

For Hamas, no such doubts arise, though. The recordings of their actions are pretty unequivocal, not to mention their statements and proclaimed goals.

TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  krell_154
5 months ago

The sheer scale and extent of the bombing tells against its being directed at specific, identifiable military objectives, as distinct from civilians and the infrastructure in which they live and work. It is not reasonable to believe that the destruction of 45% of civilian housing (as of a week ago, according to the U.N.), with the kilotonnage equivalent of approximately two Hiroshima bombs, is an absolute military necessity, consistent with the legitimate exercise of Israel’s right to defend its population. Not to mention repeated assertions by Israeli staff officers and political leaders that they intend to use “disproportionate” force.

I am sort of astonished you need to be told this.

Last edited 5 months ago by TF Rector
TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

And: the fact that Hamas violates the laws of armed conflict doesn’t release Israel from its obligation to follow those laws.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

Whenever I read about it, the number of Hamas fighters revolves around 40 – 60 000. They obviously have thousands and thousands of rockets at their disposal. They themselves admit that they built around 500 km of underground tunnels in Gaza.

If those numbers are true, and if it is true that they are actually using civilians as a human shield – which I think is very reasonable to believe, I don’t think it is exactly obvious that Israel’s bombing campaign is disproportionate, in the military-legalistic sense of the word, given the density of buildings in Gaza and its relatively large population.

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

Without more information about, for example, whether Hamas command and control centers are built in tunnels under hospitals, I’m not sure. Numbers like “45% civilian housing” barely make sense in the context of whether those civilians are being used as human shields. What’s clear in that case isn’t whether Israel can bomb the hospital, but rather that Israel has a duty to warn *before* bombing the hospital. That’s my reading of the international law at least, as argued here; feel free to reach out if I can provide sources to that effect.

TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
5 months ago

As I understand it, the attacker must take all reasonable care to minimize harm to civilians even when they are being used as human shields, and must establish that the anticipated civilian casualties are proportional to the concrete, determinate military advantage to be expected from carrying out a specific attack.

Is that honestly what you think the IDF is doing?

Last edited 5 months ago by TF Rector
David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

The sheer scale and extent of the bombing tells against its being directed at specific, identifiable military objectives, as distinct from civilians and the infrastructure in which they live and work.

I am interested in what you think it would look like if a modern military waged war against a large insurgent group actively concealing themselves inside a densely populated urban area, if that military was directing its attacks at “specific, identifiable military objectives”. Come to that, I would be interested if you know of any examples of campaigns that defeated an insurgent group holed up in a dense urban area, that did not lead to devastating damage to civilian infrastructure.

(As I said on the previous thread, the nearest analog I know to Israel’s attack on Gaza is the battle of Mosul, where Iraqi forces with NATO help defeated ISIS. Something like half to two thirds of the city was destroyed.)

TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Yeah, it may be that “modern military” forces–by which you mean, I suppose, the military forces of wealthy states–can hardly ever wage war against “insurgents” in heavily populated urban areas in ways consistent with the requirements of jus in bello.

Not sure what you think follows from that, if it’s true.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

Maybe your understanding of just war is problematic.

I think that the responsibility for the fate of civilians who are used as human shields is onn the side that uses them as such. I read somewhere that the US military operates according to a similar rule, but I’m too lazy to search for more details.

Otherwise, a group like Hamas could strike civilians, then hide among its own civilians and be shielded from retaliation, thus achieving perpetual immunity from a military response.

David Wallace
Reply to  krell_154
5 months ago

I don’t think that’s correct: it’s a war crime to use human shields but the use of them doesn’t absolve the attacker from care as to civilian casualties. I believe it is controversial whether it should affect proportionality calculations.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

You are right that the standard view is that the fact that one side uses human shields does not absolve the other side from all responsibility regarding the fate of people used as such.

Here’s a brief article with links to US military manula, in which the practice regarding human shields is laid out: https://www.airandspaceforces.com/us-war-manual-clarifies-rules-on-human-shields/

However, it seems to me that Israel would have griunds to claim that they didn’t act wholly iresponsibly toward civilians used as human shields. They announced the area where they would concentrate their attacks, they dropped leaflets, sent text messages, released videos and called people urging them to evacuate. They proposed corridors for evacuation – as far as I’m aware, there was one incident where such a corridor was bombed though, plausibly by IDF, which does complicate things. Earier today, or yesterday, they protected Palestinian civilans who were evacuating through one of those corridors. They published specific evidence about the ways in which Hamas uses civilian infrastructure for military purposes.

I don’t know if other militaries do something similar.

David Wallace
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

That the destructiveness of urban warfare is not in itself evidence that attacks are not being directed against delineated military targets.

(And I don’t just mean the militaries of wealthy states; I mean anyone fighting with or against modern weaponry, certainly including the mines, RPGs, IEDs, drones and the like that insurgents currently use.)

Last edited 5 months ago by David Wallace
Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I’m sorry to be late to this discussion.

David, it may very well be that a modern military *cannot* effectively wage a conventional tank-missile-artillery campaign against an insurgent group “actively concealing themselves inside a densely populated area.” (Actually, this is a somewhat prejudicial way of putting it: Gaza is a crowded place; Hamas grew up organically in Gaza. They didn’t come from the outside and conceal themselves for the sake of self-protection.) I think that the conclusion we (or rather Israel) should draw is that they cannot feasibly wage this type of campaign. Maybe they have to wage a much longer stealth campaign using fewer but higher skilled operatives over months or years. (This is what they are reputed to have done after Munich.) Is there something immediately stupid about them drawing this conclusion?

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
5 months ago

I don’t tink there’s anything stupid about your conclusion, but I do think there are some implausible elements in it.

First, the matter of hostages. Granted, I think the IDF doesn’t realistically believe they will be able to rescue them – I don’t think any military in the world would be able to rescue them from the situation they are in. But, if they are at all committed to attempting to rescue them, they have to act swiftly. I mean, there are mothers with babies there. There are many young women among hostages. I don’t think we have to spell out what is likely happenning to them. That, I think, confers na obligation on the Israeili government, to try to save them as soon as possible.

Secondly, the more longer the Israeli response takes, the more time Hamas has to prepare defenses, to arm themsleves, to plan and commit new attacks, or for their leaders to escape. I think military logic requires this action to be swift.

Israel today, with regard to Hamas, is in a much different situation than Israel 50 years ago, with regard to former Nazis.

David Wallace
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
5 months ago

It might be that it’s impossible to satisfy the proportionality requirement in this kind of warfare, in which case: agreed, it would be impossible to wage it legally. (I’m not convinced by that but it’s certainly arguable.) But I was making a narrower point, in response to TF Rector’s claim that the level of destruction proves Israel is being indiscriminate: modern warfare in urban areas is going to be massively destructive even if it is fought with some effort to attack only military targets. (Shorter version: the level of destruction may be evidence that Israel is attacking disproportionately but it is not obviously evidence that it is attacking indiscriminately.)

(Also: I don’t think my “way of putting it” is prejudicial. Nothing stopped Hamas requiring its forces to wear uniforms, or building its tunnel network and firing its rockets in less dense areas of Gaza than Gaza City, or not using mosques and schools as weapons depots, or not trying to prevent the civilian population from evacuating.)

Python
Python
5 months ago

Seyla Benhabib’s letter is the most sophisticated, thoughtful and careful take that I’ve seen.

Python
Python
Reply to  Python
5 months ago

To clarify my previous comment: I didn’t mean that her response to the letter she is replying to is careful. I hadn’t read the original letter before and should have. I have now read it and agree that her response to that letter was not careful. My first comment was rather about her ability to recognize both the deep psychological damage the Oct 7 attack likely has done to Jews in Israel (perhaps elsewhere) and the urgent need for a cease fire based in the horrendous situation facing Palestinians in Gaza (and beginning in the West Bank). I also second many of her other moral demands (e.g., the need for settlers to withdraw from the West Bank), even if they are unlikely to be met.

mike
mike
Reply to  Python
5 months ago

Just to make a small point, as an Israeli I don’t understand why u would refer only to psychological damage. Hamas killed, on purpose, about a thousand civilians, with pretty much ‘bare hands’ and using the most sadistic and cruel methods. They did all this in one day and would have done this to the entire Jewish (and some of the non Jewish) population of Israel if they could. There are now tens of thousands of ‘refugees in their own land’ in Israel as a result of this. The suffering of the people of Gaza is horrible, but there is no need to reduce our suffering to psychological damage (which is horrible enough).

Castorp
5 months ago

Speaking of a “sense of history,” the fact that Netanyahu’s government – as well as Israeli governments before it – have actively supported Hamas, seeing it as a convenient alternative to a more secular, less right-wing opposition, is almost entirely absent from any of these discussions. I guess that would raise a truth that’s difficult to grasp within the paradigm through which we’re used to understanding this conflict (i.e., a perspective of unconditional deference to Israel), which is that the Israeli government is not out to protect its people. The horror of its response to October 7th can only confirm that; it’s amazing to me how many people in the last thread seemed to agree with the state’s framing that this response is necessary to protect Israeli citizens when it seems so clear that it will do the opposite. How does it protect even the hostages, to destroy half of the homes in Gaza? It boggles the mind. Since Hamas is obviously a big part of the problem, then we ought to also be able to recognize that Israeli governments past and present bear their own share of responsibility for its power in Gaza. It is relatively convenient for the state in this form to have Hamas in power; it certainly makes it easier for them to frame this as a war against “human animals” or of “civilization against barbarism”. But in order to recognize that, you have to draw a distinction between the state and the people living under it.

Some philosophers who signed the letter linked in this post would probably say that the tendency to this kind of calculation is baked into a settler colonial state, that it will be unable to act otherwise if it exists in its current form. I find this convincing. It seems impossible to imagine, for example, the fulfillment of the conditions from the letter that Benhabib endorses – the lifting of the siege, the ending of the occupation, and the recognition of rights for all Palestinians – with the state of Israel existing in its current form as an apartheid state presiding over an occupation and massive open-air prison. This suggests a sense in which we can (and must) call for the fundamental transformation of political conditions. This would probably be interpreted by certain defenders of the state of Israel as a call for its destruction – but it has nothing to do with exterminating anyone, nor any connection with the program of Hamas. If there is a difference between the state and the people, calling for the destruction of a state in its current, apartheid, settler colonial form, has no necessary connection with ethnic cleansing. In this case, it is more like an attempt to end it.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

When you say “the state of Israel in its current form”, do you mean with the Netanyahu government, or with any conceivable government that could win elections? Do you think that any conceivable government that could win elections would make the same calculation that supporting Hamas against secular alternatives is the thing to do?

Castorp
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 months ago

I meant the state as a political body built on systematically displacing and excluding Palestinian people. It wasn’t just about Netanyahu’s government. I suppose one could imagine a government that chose to undo apartheid, to end the occupation, and to grant rights to all Palestinians, but this would certainly require a lot more to change than just the coalition in power.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

Equally absent from these discussions are the Arab-Islamic conquests, the cultural appropriation and erasure of Jews and others’ cultural sites, property, land, and cities in Palestine, the imposition of apartheid in the form of sharia coupled with the Pact of Omar, and the periodic mass murders and ethnic cleansing of Jews and others from the land. Islam has NEVER afforded legal and political equality to dhimmis, let alone Hindus, Buddhists, or others. It is, and has always been, an imperialist religio-legal normative order, bent on subordination of others. Claims of this diagnosis being a function of a “phobia”, “ignorance”, “bigotry”, etc., simply do not hold up to honest scrunity.

Equally absent is the absence of discussion of the fact that the entire international legal order is a white western imperialist edifice, one that’s directly being challenged now by the rising powers, and which is largely indefensible as a tool of subordinating (and robbing) the Global South. This frame is also weaponized to determine what counts as settler colonialism, and when, along with who counts as “indigenous”. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE VERY NORMS YOU WISH TO USE TO CRITICIZE AND DELEGITIMIZE ARE THEMSELVES WHOLLY IMPUGNED AS ILLEGITIMATE? What will the blowback be to YOU, not just from the Global South, but from a very angry American and European “far” right, who can see they’ve been duped by their governments into financing this imperialist crap globally?

The Jews are now re-framed as “white settlers”, rather than as the indigenous people (despite all the relevant scientific evidence of their true provenance) reclaiming their land from imperialists who culturally appropriated their stuff, in a way that CANNOT logically or credibly be claimed to simply be an expression of anti-Zionism. (Query: what do such proponents say, or imply, to anti-Zionist or non-Zionist Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews about where they REALLY come from?)

We can couple this with some people weaponizing of the language of “genocide” (despite its clearly not meeting the international law definition, and it defying common sense), and the doublethink involved in opposing such a thing while simultaneously lauding calls for “from the river to the sea” and dismantling Israel (pretending that the Palestinian leadership or people actually would tolerate a pluralist state, given the abundant evidence that the would not.) As I noted on the previous post, equally absent is what the Palestinian leadership and press, and the middle east press, regularly, consistently state and promote.

Castorp
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

But the understanding that this is not a colonial situation is relatively new! Before its foundation, proponents of what would become Israel recognized that the foundation of this state would require displacing the “native population.”

This is Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923:

“There can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestine Arabs. Not now, nor in the prospective future. I say this with such conviction, not because I want to hurt the moderate Zionists. I do not believe that they will be hurt.

Except for those who were born blind, they realised long ago that it is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting “Palestine” from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority.

My readers have a general idea of the history of colonisation in other countries. I suggest that they consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent.

The native populations, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, irrespective of whether they were civilised or savage.

Last edited 5 months ago by Castorp
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bd3tA_dAl-A&t=100s

You can also do a tracing of the place origins of the Palestinian tribes in the Arabian peninsula, Egypt, Kurdistan, and elsewhere. Want to know where “Khalidi” comes from?

The native populations, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, irrespective of whether they were civilised or savage”.

That’s exactly why the Israelites have fought to reclaim their homeland after all these centuries.

Sorry, but one Zionist guy’s claims, taken out of context, isn’t going to invalidate either the abundant empirical, scientific evidence of the Jews’ origins in the middle east or the Arab-Islamic conquests and subsequent migrations to Palestine.

MrMr
MrMr
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

Castorp’s point was (clearly!) not supposed to be that Jabotinsky’s claims demonstrate anything about Jews’ origin in the Middle East. Instead, the point was that those origins notwithstanding, Jabotinsky still believed that establishing an Israeli state would be a colonial project. That demonstrates that he did not accept your conceptual framing according to which the history of Arab conquest meant that the Arab then-inhabitants of Palestine were colonizers and European Jews like himself were actually indigenous. You can dispute how much it matters for the correctness of your conceptual framing whether it was accepted by earlier Zionists, but that is the actual point.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  MrMr
5 months ago

MY point in the response was that one person’s (Z) framing it thus is not evidence of the view being representative, and, more importantly, does not render it accurate or definitive — irrespective of what the early Zionists thought. Hence, Castorp’s point is NO REAL reply to mine (the commencing “Equally absent…”.)

Notice that, even on your account, your third sentence doesn’t follow from your first and second: it CANNOT demonstrate that Z didn’t believe the Jews were ultimately the indigenous group and the Arabs were colonizers; at best it shows he thought the Arabs had been there for a long time and would consider themselves to be native. You can read Z’s works, beyond this one quote taken out of context, to see that that’s what he actually thought.

More importantly, the Palestinian Arabs ARE colonizers, imposers of apartheid via sharia and the Pact of Omar, culturally appropriated the holy sites, cities, and religious concepts. Many of them also know exactly where their clans/families really hail from originally as well. The extent to which this “national” identity is itself shaped in part by jihad and religious imperialist will-to-power is wholly absent from public Western discourses.

Castorp
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

Great, so can you point to any early Zionist figures who saw Palestinians as colonizers? Because there are a ton of examples of them seeing the project of establishing Israel as a colonial one.

Is there a respectable history book you can point to that makes that argument? The video of Hamas’ interior minister doesn’t really help your argument. It seems like he’s just saying that many Palestinian people have family ties in Egypt and other places… But that doesn’t mean that they colonized Palestine. If that was an event that actually happened, it should be easy to give more direct academic evidence of it. From what I understand from the couple books I have read about this, mostly by Israeli historians, there were Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in what we call Palestine today for hundreds of years, and while there were occasional conflicts and acts of political exclusion, there was nothing like a systematic project of displacing millions of people until the chain of events begun under the British Mandate.

Last edited 5 months ago by Castorp
JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

What definition of ‘colonization’ are we using here? Kriegs seems to be using a definition according to which it is impossible to “colonize” one’s ancestral homeland, and where taking over someone else’s ancestral homeland through force does count as colonization. Castorp seems to be using a different definition. (Or maybe I’m misunderstanding.) But the main disagreement here seems to be about how to define ‘colonization’, not about historical facts.

Castorp
Reply to  JDRox
5 months ago

Well, when one’s interlocutor uses claims like: “ the Palestinian Arabs ARE colonizers, imposers of apartheid via sharia and the Pact of Omar, culturally appropriated the holy sites, cities, and religious concepts”; or, “Islam has … always been, an imperialist religio-legal normative order, bent on subordination of others”; I think that the conversation necessarily requires an appeal to historical facts. Kriegsflaggesteinberg is literally saying that Palestinians are only in what we call Palestine by an act of colonization; I am asking for historical evidence.

My definition of “colonization” is not and cannot be about “ancestral homeland,” because it is clear, especially in this case, how vague and overlapping claims of “ancestral home” can be. In this case we have a territory to which at least two groups claim this kind of connection. And actually not a lot turns on that definition. My point is more that for early theorists of Zionism – Herzl, Jabotinsky, but also figures like Ben-Gurion – the establishment of Israel was understood as a colonial project requiring the forcible displacement of the Palestinians. I’m suggesting that this understanding of an original claim to this land and Palestinian “colonization” (which seems to require also that there were no Arabs there at one point) is a post-hoc invention, more ideology than history. It’s hard to see why this ideological justification would not have been deployed in as widespread a way in the mid-20th c., if it is so obviously true. So as far as I see it quite a lot actually turns on history.

Last edited 5 months ago by Castorp
JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

My question was directed at both of you, I wasn’t trying to suggest that you were mis-using ‘colonization’ or anything. I just think there is a real risk of taking past one another. Ultimately, I care about morality, not the term ‘colonization’, but if we are taking ‘colonization -> wrong’ as given, then we had better be clear about exactly what does and doesn’t count as colonization. My own suggestion, for what it’s worth, would be to not do that and instead debate the circumstances under which it is permissible to forcibly displace people, using what kinds of force, etc.

TF Rector
TF Rector
5 months ago

Benhabib is confused. Nothing in the letter endorses Hamas’ actions, leadership, or defining ideological commitments. Many groups favor the “liberation of Palestine”—Hamas construes this in a way the letter clearly rejects (when it states that “all rights must be respected” in a liberated polity). The letter does not mention settler colonialism (though Benhabib doesn’t exactly provide a case as to why that framing fails). Since the aim of the letter is to express solidarity and call for a cease fire, a detailed historical account of the conflict’s long development is outside its scope. It is unclear which historical details, if any, Benhabib thinks undermine our reasons for solidarity at the present, given what we know. She herself ends up at the end articulating many of the letter’s principal claims. So what is the point of her intervention?

Castorp
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

Totally agree. She doesn’t show how claiming that a ceasefire “should/must be the beginning and not the end of collective action for liberation” amounts to an endorsement of Hamas’ position…

tired.
tired.
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

You don’t see why calling for Israel to enact an immediate ceasefire, while Hamas continues firing rockets into Israel, without likewise calling on an immediate ceasefire from Hamas and a return of hostages amounts to an endorsement of Hamas’s position? Plainly, it’s a short-term outcome Hamas would love. . . Indeed, the letter does not mention the hostages, and has nothing to say about “Hamas’s attacks” (of what kind and on whom?). In lacking any balance of regard for the victims of real, physical violence, and indeed any stated regard for Jews who have suffered from these attacks, it just reads like another sanctimonious rhapsody against Jewish evil, which non-Jews have indulged in for millennia. — I don’t see these philosophers saying anything, anywhere, about what Pakistan is doing to Afghans right now, even though the letter’s first signatory is Pakistani. I wonder why that is?

TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  tired.
5 months ago

The letter condemns all violence against civilians, including that of Hamas. The disproportionate, indiscriminate bombing of Gaza is “real, physical violence.” Criticism of that violence is not anti-Semitic (!), and if you have any evidence for the letter being motivated by anti-Semitism, show it or retract your slander, like an honorable person.

Castorp
Reply to  tired.
5 months ago

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. This is a government that has dropped the equivalent of two Hiroshima bombs on Gaza, killing at least 3,600 children since October 7th. In what world is demanding an end to that “another sanctimonious rhapsody against Jewish evil”? This criticism simply has nothing to do with anybody being Jewish.

Castorp
Reply to  tired.
5 months ago

Also, aside from the fact that Hamas doesn’t seem to support a ceasefire, the fact that they “would love” it doesn’t mean much. I am sure many people would love this outcome. This group includes, incidentally, the tens of thousands whose family members have been killed – and many of the hostages’ families who have been actively advocating for a ceasefire…

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Castorp
5 months ago

This is a government that has dropped the equivalent of two Hiroshima bombs on Gaza

What is this supposed to mean? The mean estimate for casualties in Hiroshima is ~120,000. Nobody is claiming that anywhere near 240,000 Gazans have been killed. Is the claim that the amount of firepower unleashed on Gaza is equivalent to two Little Boys? But then that firepower must be being unleashed several orders of magnitude more discriminately than was done in Hiroshima (i.e., not “indiscriminately”). That seems obviously right to me, but TF Rector denies that above, so…

My name
My name
5 months ago

Benhabib. As genocide is taking place the gaze must shift towards and register at the way Hamas does not uphold democratic relations: the priority. Why look at what’s taking place when you can look at how Hamas held relations with Palestinians
that were less than democratic?. And who are those people amidst the rubble to be the object of attention?.The latter demonstrative of the condemnable practices that do away with civilian life. Hence the reason why Israel cannot be denounced since their practices more than go about their way to do away with civilian life. Since the death toll was not as high after Israel and intl friends defended their rights to pure victims it is evident that there victims are Hamas’s victims. And as everyone knows the history of class struggle meta-natrative and settler colonialism avoid to register the evolution of ungrounded exploiters and exploited.

Last edited 5 months ago by My name
Why is THIS a response to THAT?
5 months ago

What is Benhabib talking about???

1. She says:
My objection to your letter is that it sees the conflict in Israel-Palestine through the lens of “settler-colonialism” alone, and elevates Hamas’s atrocities of October 7, 2023 to an act of legitimate resistance against an occupying force”

The letter does not say ANYTHING about colonialism. It condemnds the killing of innocent people on both sides. It does not call what Hamas does a “legitimate resistance”

2. She says

“You write: “the people of Gaza have urged allies worldwide to exert pressure on their governments to demand an immediate ceasefire. But they have been clear that this should — this must — be the beginning and not the end of collective action for liberation.” In endorsing these demands, you also endorse Hamas’s position as the supposed vanguard of the Palestinian “liberation struggle.””

Just WHAT? How does the second thing follow from the first thing????

David
Reply to  Why is THIS a response to THAT?
5 months ago

“The letter does not say ANYTHING about colonialism. It condemnds the killing of innocent people on both sides.”

I do not intend by this comment to argue that Benhabib’s response is as careful or charitable in its interpretation of the letter as it should be, but your defense isn’t either.

The letter links directly to articles that certainly do say plenty about colonialism, for example this one which makes a direct argument from the lens of ‘settler-colonialism’ to the assertion that no one can our should expect Hamas to stop killing civilians, drawing comparisons to Nat Turner and the Haitian revolution: 

https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/no-human-being-can-exist/

Why is THIS a response to THAT?
Reply to  David
5 months ago

Those who signed the letter signed the letter. They didn’t sign the links for discussion that someone has put up on the website!

David
Reply to  Why is THIS a response to THAT?
5 months ago

The links are embedded directly in the text letter itself on the website. They aren’t “links for discussion.” The website itself has a link at the bottom of the page to put your name on the letter as it is presented on the website.

My name
My name
5 months ago

What it looks like is that what appears, footage of the genocide, and what they are cannot be the case. The latter a really violent contradiction/antagonism. Since what appears and what they are doing cannot be the case, and the mind of Others is just another rival in the “battle for hearts and minds” (another site of antagonism), then what must appear, at the level of writing and demands to the other, is the violent attempt/syntax-error at “doing away” with what holds about them: the dense social contradictions/real: See Mesazaros “Theory Of Alienation In Marx”, Debords “Society Off The Spectacle”, Yannis Stavakakis “Lacan & The Political” on identity construction.

Your moral outrage about anti-colonial Hamas
Your moral outrage about anti-colonial Hamas
5 months ago

The letter itself does not even mention colonialism. However, one of the links in the letter that talks about the “conditions of violence” does suggest that we could put things in an anti-colonial framework. I’m sure many of the letter writers skimmed the links, but they might have not read all the linked content. Here is what that linked item says:

What we are not allowed to say, as Palestinians speaking to the Western media, is that all life is equally valuable. That no event takes place in a vacuum. That history didn’t start on October 7, 2023, and if you place what’s happening in the wider historical context of colonialism and anticolonial resistance, what’s most remarkable is that anyone in 2023 should be still surprised that conditions of absolute violence, domination, suffocation, and control produce appalling violence in turn. During the Haitian revolution in the early 19th century, former slaves massacred white settler men, women, and children. During Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, insurgent slaves massacred white men, women, and children. During the Indian uprising of 1857, Indian rebels massacred English men, women, and children. During the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, Kenyan rebels massacred settler men, women, and children. At Oran in 1962, Algerian revolutionaries massacred French men, women, and children. Why should anyone expect Palestinians—or anyone else—to be different? To point these things out is not to justify them; it is to understand them. Every single one of these massacres was the result of decades or centuries of colonial violence and oppression, a structure of violence Frantz Fanon explained decades ago in The Wretched of the Earth.

What we are not allowed to say, in other words, is that if you want the violence to stop, you must stop the conditions that produced it. You must stop the hideous system of racial segregation, dispossession, occupation, and apartheid that has disfigured and tormented Palestine since 1948, consequent upon the violent project to transform a land that has always been home to many cultures, faiths, and languages into a state with a monolithic identity that requires the marginalization or outright removal of anyone who doesn’t fit. And that while what’s happening in Gaza today is a consequence of decades of settler-colonial violence and must be placed in the broader history of that violence to be understood, it has taken us to places to which the entire history of colonialism has never taken us before.

The author is clearly talking about a causal explanation. They say this is not about justification. They say it is an explanation. They say we should not be surprised.

To be sure, the author does suggest that the Hamas act was “anti-colonial” I realize that some of you are too shy to say this: but all the other examples of anti-colonial violence that the author lists are examples of acts of gruseome violence against civilians, too. For those who, as the open letter explicitly states, deem killing of innocent civilians as unjustified, those anti-colonial massacares were unjustified, too.

The author of that linked piece, and I guess, by extension, those who signed the letter, are suggesting that this type of immoral violence is nevertheless predictable — oppressed humans under similar conditions have gone astray in a similar way.

For the 1375947th time: calling Hamas “anti-colonial” is NOT to *justify* what they did.

Devin
5 months ago

Very confused by this part:

You write: “the people of Gaza have urged allies worldwide to exert pressure on their governments to demand an immediate ceasefire. But they have been clear that this should — this must — be the beginning and not the end of collective action for liberation.” In endorsing these demands, you also endorse Hamas’s position as the supposed vanguard of the Palestinian “liberation struggle.”

As far as I can determine Hamas does not endorse a ceasefire. So I’m struggling to understand Benhabib’s inference here.

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
Reply to  Devin
5 months ago

This comment by SB is as idiotic as it is defamatory. Regardless of what Hamas has demanded – they have had an offer on the table for decades of a permanent truce in exchange for Israel abiding by international law, and lately have offered a ceasefire and prisoner exchange – the idea that endorsing this is endorsing Hamas’s position as the vanguard of Palestinian struggle is something I would expect from one of the more unskillful Israeli propagandists. I bet Hamas also says that the sun rose yesterday. So all y’all who think that are endorsing Hamas.

Josh Sheptow
Josh Sheptow
5 months ago

Suppose the only way to prevail in a just war is to violate the laws of armed conflict (LAC). Are those laws absolute constraints, such that the just side should simply accept defeat if victory, while abiding by those laws, is impossible? 

Does it matter if the unjust side’s very strategy is to embed itself so thoroughly among millions of civilians that the just side could not destroy it without violating the LAC?  Hamas, after all, could have cordoned off military zones in Gaza and placed its infrastructure – its rockets, its bunkers, etc. – only in those zones, without extending into (and under) the cities and refugee camps. I wonder why they didn’t do that.

I don’t know whether the IDF is abiding by the LAC. I don’t think anyone knows, apart from the generals ordering the strikes. But if there is no way to uproot Hamas – indeed, no way to substantially degrade it, given how embedded it is among civilians – without violating those laws, is Israel obliged to simply declare defeat, batten the hatches, and pray that October 7th never happens again?  

David Wallace
Reply to  Josh Sheptow
5 months ago

I think this is a dangerous line to take. Insurgent groups might likewise claim that only through use of human shields and indiscriminate terror attacks can they prevail. (Indeed, pretty much this position was advocated on the previous thread.)

I also don’t think it’s necessary. Some edicts of LOAC are categorical; no collective punishment, no reprisals, no actively targeting civilians. (And if Israel were to argue “we can’t win this war without copying Hamas and kidnapping toddlers to behead” I hope all would reject that.) But others are situational: proportionality is contested in meaning, but a plausible reading is “not excessive”, I.e. “not more than necessary.” So if you’re fighting a justified war and it’s impossible to win without a given level of civilian casualties, you have sone grounds for claiming that that level is proportional.

Of course, whether a war is justified in the first place is going to depend to some degree on the expected casualties in prosecuting it. (And nothing here is intended as a comment on whether this war is justified or whether IDF targeting is reasonable.)

Josh Sheptow
Josh Sheptow
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Thanks, these are all good points.  

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

“Not more than necessary” is the necessity condition, which is distinct from proportionality. A simple illustration from self-defence: if you’re trying to kill me, killing you in self-defence is proportional but not necessary if I could save myself by punching you in the nose. And if you’re trying to tickle me without my consent and the only way I can stop you is by killing you, that would be necessary but not proportional. So a means in war can be necessary for victory but not proportional and so not allowed.

David Wallace
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

That’s helpful, thanks.

Do you know a good source for the interpretation of ‘proportional’? (In current IRL, as opposed to revisionist proposals.)

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

My partly-informed sense is that there isn’t a legally definitive interpretation of proportionality because there hasn’t yet been a prosecution under that heading, precisely because the interpretive issues it raises are so difficult. It’s easier, at least legally, to prosecute for violations of discrimination (targeting civilians) or necessity. The militaries of the world all have their own interpretations of proportionality but these can differ, with (I believe) those of the U.S. and Israel being more permissive than others.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

Thanks!

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

Just following up a bit more (having done some homework and thought about it):

I take the point that proportionality is distinct from necessity. But I wonder if there is some more indirect connection. I see in a number of places that proportionality is judged on the basis of what the ‘reasonable military commander’ would o. From that perspective, I can certainly see that there will be individual attacks ruled out by proportionality that are not ruled out by necessity – for instance, if there’s a single terrorist gunman holed up in a preschool full of kids, there’s no proportionate way to kill him and so if I’m a reasonable commander, I’ll wait him out or bypass him. But if there’s a whole class of attacks such that if I don’t make attacks in that class, I’ll plausibly lose the war, it seems different. The reasonable commander can’t say, ‘I probably can’t win without doing this sort of thing, but the civilian casualties are unacceptable if I do it, so I’ll choose to stop prosecuting the war’, because that’s a strategic decision above his pay grade.

(Of course, the political leader can say, ‘winning the war carries an unacceptable body count, so let’s not fight it in the first place’. But that seems to be about whether the war as a whole is just, not about whether military forces prosecuting it are doing so lawfully.)

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I don’t think Josh Sheptow’s take is *that* dangerous. He stipulates that the war in quetion is just, and only questions the absolute nature of the laws of armed conflicts. Basically he says, I think, that those laws might have to be revised, so not to permit the scenario in which a terrorist group is rendered immune to retaliation by hiding among civilians.

I don’t think that’s close to claiming something like ”Everything in war is allowed, if there is no other way to win it”, which would be very problematic indeed.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  krell_154
5 months ago

I read Josh Sheptow as saying: given the actual laws of war, would it be permissible to violate them if there was no other way to fight a just war?

I agree that there is a separate question of whether the laws of war ought to be revised if they make it impossible to fight just wars, but I didn’t think that was what was being suggested. I am also quite nervous of that question, though. Insurgent groups think their wars are just (and some of them are right), and the sort of asymmetric warfare they tend to engage in would often be much harder for them if they conformed to the laws of war.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Parties in a war will always disagree on who is conducting a just war. That still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use that condition (that a party is leading a just war) in analyses.

I do agree that it might be problematic if the phrase was used in legal formulations. From what I understand, they explicitly avoid that issue and frame the law in such a way that it appies equally to both parties, irrespective of which side is leading a just war.

That’s why they use something like ”legitimate military goal” in legal contexts, i guess.

Josh Sheptow
Josh Sheptow
Reply to  krell_154
5 months ago

Krell’s first reply to David Wallace captures what I meant in my post. 

We all agree (obviously) that there are absolute constraints against atrocities like what Hamas carried out, strikes targeting civilians, collective punishment, and the like. For any decent person, that goes without saying.   

My question is, how should we respond to the specific case where a terrorist group, be it ISIS, Hamas, Al Qaeda, etc. deliberately entrenches itself in a civilian population, such that strict adherence to the proportionality requirement in the laws of armed conflict would render that group immune from attack?

Does this mean that the terrorist group’s victims must simply declare defeat, patch up their defenses, and hope the terrorists don’t commit another massacre?  

To be clear, I’m not claiming that proportionality shouldn’t apply when one is conducting a just war. Rather, I’m thinking about how to approach the narrower circumstance where a group commits undeniable atrocities, burrows itself in the civilian population, and then seeks to use the proportionality requirement to shield itself from attack.  

TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

After completely mischaracterizing the open letter, she makes some good points. It’s confusing why she felt the urge to write this in response to *this* letter. (There were other letters that say what she pretends this open letter says!)

Python
Python
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

I agree with this

Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

“Although you refer to ‘the conditions that produce violence,’ you do not mention that Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish extremist and Anwar Sadat, after his visit to Israel, was killed by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological progenitor of Hamas.”

This part of SB’s response is infuriating. First, at the time, Israelis nearly unanimously blamed Rabin’s assassination on Netanyahu’s extremely reactionary rhetoric. Second, a lot happened between the early days of the Muslin Brotherhood and Sadat’s assassination in the 80s, and Hamas winning the 2006 PA elections and seizing control of Gaza. Like, you know, Netanyahu’s Likud funneling them money to undermine Fatah’s political power. Nearly all conditions for violence can be traced back to Netanyahu and the Isreali right, the exact same people now slaughtering Palestinian civilians by thousands two decades later.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

Hamas did not seize control of Gaza. They won an election, handily.

Nearly all conditions for violence date back centuries, as evidenced in the Arab conquests, the ethnic violence in the 10th century (and the legal subordination of Jews), the banning of Jews from living in Jerusalem, the pogrom of 1929, the Hamas Charter that calls for genocide, etc.

More accurately, the conditions for violence can be traced to the religiously anti-Jewish remarks in the Quran and Hadiths themselves, for which there’s a clear causal connection.

Jean Kazez
5 months ago

I prefer Seyla Benhabib’s letter. While both letters support the Palestinian cause and argue for a cease fire, the philosophers for Palestine do not directly describe or condemn the Hamas massacre—the worst atrocity against Jews since the Holocaust and an atrocity that has left 240 people, including children, still held as hostages. They only mention in it in the neutral statements that they don’t “celebrate violence” and don’t “equivocate on the value of innocent lives” and consider all civilian deaths “tragic and unacceptable.” They do mention “Hamas’s attacks on October 7” but only for purposes of warning against saying the violence began there. For some reason they can’t bring themselves to look directly at the atrocity and say, “this is absolutely horrific and inexcusable” full stop. I can’t understand the refusal to say something like that—it just baffles me. 
 
Seyla Benhabib, on the other hand, doesn’t let her support for Palestinians get in the way of looking directly at the atrocity—

“October 7, 2023 is not just a turning point for Israel and the Jewish diaspora; it must be a turning point for the Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian people must free themselves of the scourge of Hamas. The acts of violence engaged in on October 7, 2023 — the desecration and mutilation of bodies; the killing of children and babies; the burning alive of young people at a music festival; rape and ritual murder and kidnappings — are not only war crimes as well as crimes against humanity; they also reveal that Islamic Jihadi ideology, which revels in the pornography of violence, has overtaken the movement. The struggle for Palestine and the killing of Jewish people is now seen as a jihad.” 

That’s the way to talk about what happened on October 7.