Israelis and Palestinians: From a Personal Equiproximity to a Personal Equidistance
18 December 2023
Israel declares war on Palestine’s flag; Image credit: La Prensa Latina Media
This article considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of a logic of signifiers (in both the linguistic and psychoanalytic sense of the term), that is, what the signifiers "Jewish" and "Palestinian" range over. Benvenuto concludes that Jews and Palestinians only exist as effects of an opposition of signifiers, emphasizing the power of symbols in creating tragic political realities involving bloodshed. He analyzes how desiring a Jewish state or a Palestinian state are not the results of neutral ethical-political reasonings, but rather they stem from “reasons of the heart” that themselves have their own logic.
I entirely agree with my pro-Palestinian friends in condemning Israeli policy. By “pro-Palestinian” I mean here, not those who understand the needs and demands of the Palestinians (in this sense I am pro-Palestinian too), but the anti-Zionists who think that these needs and demands necessarily imply the destruction of Israel as a state. Of Israel, not of the Jews.
Since the assassination of Rabin in 1995, Israel has made nothing but mistakes. It has stubbornly prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it has favoured the provocative settlements of Jewish settlers in the same region, it elected Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli state... The dominant figure in Israeli politics from 1996 to the present, Netanyahu, is considered by most leftist leaders in the West to be among the most obnoxious and cynical living individuals. If I were an Israeli, in the October 2023 demonstrations I would have held up, like many other young Israelis, the sign “Give us all of the 200 hostages in exchange for one: Netanyahu.”
There is a crucial difference, however, between myself and anti-Zionist pro-Palestinians. It lies basically in the fact that they gloat over Israeli policies, insofar as they confirm their assumption that Israel is an aggressive, evil, colonial state... and needs to be torn down as a consequence. When Israel attacks, mowing down civilians, children and the elderly, this has a remarkable narrative consonance for them (what others call cognitive consonance): it confirms their storytelling. Instead, I condemn Israeli policy because it jeopardizes Israel’s survival and its need for peace. I am against Israeli policies, not against the existence of Israel.
Am I then pro-Israel?
I used to say that I felt an equiproximity to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. I stopped saying that a while ago. In the meantime, both Arab Palestine and Israel have regressed, and the regression of one perfectly mirrors that of the other – the Palestinians increasingly veer toward Hamas (1), and the Israeli electorate elects the fanatical, warmongering extreme right to government. In short, the two populations are taking the catastrophic path of never-ending war. I now feel equidistant between Israel and the Palestinians.
I stress “the two populations” and not “the two governments”. The sharp distinction between the two, as we shall see, is entirely hypocritical.
In spite of everything, I believe that Jews have a right to their own state, and it just so happens that for 75 years this state has been Israel. (Just as I think that the Kurds, divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, have the right to their state. Why don’t we have a vigorous pro-Kurdish movement in the West?). I disagree with friends who believe that Israel is a theocratic state, while Palestine should be a single secular state integrating Jews and Arabs. (Which is not what Hamas wanted: In the 1988 charter, Hamas declared to wage an armed struggle against Israel, liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation and transform the country into an Islamic state.) I understand the Jews wanting a state in which for once they are a majority. They suffered for two thousand years, especially in the Christian world, because they were always a small minority – this is what the Diaspora means. And being a minority in a democratic country is not enough. The shortcoming of today’s pluralist democracy in liberal-democratic countries is that, by giving all power to the majority, democracy risks legalising the oppression of minorities. If in Italy the majority of Italians elected to government a party that had the persecution of Jews in its agenda, well, that persecution would be a perfectly democratic choice. In short, it is always a risk to be a minority, even in a democracy.
Out of some 10 million Israelis, Jews make up 73% of the population. Being the majority is what matters. In many cases, it is the demographics that decide history. For example, Kosovo became predominantly Albanian not because the Albanians defeated the Serbs in some memorable battle, but simply because they reproduced far more than the Serbs. Often conflicts are decided by General Prolificacy.
In Israel, the Arab minority votes and has all the same rights as the Jews, except one: to carry out military service. An exemption that many in the West would consider a privilege. (2)
I am convinced that political choices are never based on rational arguments, but always fundamentally on matters of the heart. We side with those who, for a variety of reasons, are closest to our hearts. Then we build webs of more or less ingenious arguments to convince others to follow our heart.
Therefore, it is my heart that makes me want a Jewish state. The heart cannot be compelled... A choice dictated by the heart, perhaps because some of my great mentors were Jewish or of Jewish origin: Marx, Einstein, Freud, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Derrida... Maybe because I had an American Jew as my partner for years. But even if my heart were not pro-Jewish, I would accept the fact that millions of Jews now live in Israel, and that it would be impossible to convince them to live with an Arab majority. Everyone knows that, after decades of mutual massacres, such a coexistence between Arabs and Jews would be impossible. Political engineering is not enough to force people into forced marriages. Not anymore, not today.
But perhaps the crucial question is: if you believe that the Jews should have their own state, well, who are the Jews for you?
No one knows what it really means to be Jewish.
Not surprisingly, for over a century the most prominent intellectuals have continuously posed the question of what being a Jew means, without ever finding a concordant answer. Jewish ecclesial power too is divided: The Orthodox Jews, the conservatives, the Reformers... they all have their own line. Refined distinctions are made, such as between Hebraism and Judaism, between Jewishness and Judaism.
Sartre, in La question juive (Anti-Semite and Jew), came to a provocative conclusion: Jews exist simply thanks to antisemitism. The antisemitic Other is the basis of the supposed Jewish identity. (Sartre believes that there are no national identities. So do I. This is a corollary of the abandonment of the concept of ‘race’: we are all the result of centuries of genetic mixing, so there are no genetic stakes between “races”, a term that I therefore put in quotation marks. It is often said that Jewishness is a distinctive religion and a unique culture, and this allegedly gives the term ‘Jew’ a very specific, weighty meaning.
Neither the Christians nor the Muslims have ever considered the Jews a race: they were only the followers of a religion they believed to be archaic. Racism is a very modern narrative, dating back to the nineteenth-century. If a Jew converted to Christianity or Islam, they automatically became a Christian or a Muslim. As seen in the recent film by Marco Bellocchio, Kidnapped, at the time of the Papal States in the 19th century, it was enough for a maid to pour a little water on the head of a new-born in a Jewish family for the child to immediately become a Christian. I would say that the racists were actually the Jews: for them you could only be called Jewish if you were born to a Jewish mother. Presumably on the basis of the assumption mater semper certa est, pater numquam (the mother is always certain, the father never). Something is believed to be communicated to the offspring through the mother’s body, something that we may even refer to as race.
But through the ages a great many Jews have been atheists. I was struck by the fact that in many American Jewish cemeteries you can find more tombs with the hammer and sickle than with the Star of David. Among the most famous Jews, many were overtly irreligious, yet keen to be identified as Jews. In the modern world, the close association between the Jewish religion and Jewishness has been severed. Is then a Jew someone who was educated at synagogue as a child?
At the age of 14 I stopped calling myself a Christian. I felt distant from any religion. (According to the statistics, I think I belong to that 28% of Italians who are defined as ‘irreligious’). Yet, as a child I had a markedly Catholic upbringing: baptism, confirmation, communion, religion class at school, intensive reading of the Gospel... My father was a theologian and hence I have a thorough knowledge of the Catholic religion. Yet I’m very keen not to call myself a Christian, while any Jew who does not in any way follow the precepts of the religion would feel like a traitor if he failed to declare himself a Jew. Where does the difference lie?
I think it lies in the fact that I may write ‘Christian’ with a lower case “c”, while I am required to write ‘Jew’ with an upper case letter, as is the rule for the names of all peoples. This is a crucial difference, just like between writing god and God. But why are the Jews a people and the Christians only the followers of a religious creed?
Sartre would say that the difference lies in the fact that the Jews have been persecuted for centuries, while the Christians have been persecutors for centuries. In other words, calling oneself a Jew is a political act of solidarity with all the Jews in history who have been persecuted.
Whereas for me being Italian is of little consequence; I prefer many other countries to Italy and I feel like a citizen of the world. But if Italy were invaded by a foreign power and the Italians became subjugated citizens, then of course I would feel Italian! I would shout it out proudly in every public square in the world. In other words, many identify with a nation only to the extent that this nation is oppressed. Our oppressor is the matrix of our identity.
The supposed Jewish identity is what, in the wake of Ferdinand de Saussure, we call a signifier. The essential thing is whether or not we fall under this signifier, which can have all the meanings we want to give it – religious, historical, educational, racial, circumcisional... Fall even in the literal sense: if a jihadist on the street makes you fall under the signifier ‘Jew’, he will kill you, if you are a Shintoist he will let you stand. Human beings do not slaughter each other for economic needs, as is generally believed, but above all for needs pertaining to signifiers. If we do not enter into this order of ideas, it becomes very difficult to understand human history.
The point is that signifiers are not harmless, they create ironclad realities. Not only in the sense that people kill or find their death for signifiers, but also in the sense that the latter produce concrete differences. For example, the prohibition for Jews, in Christian countries, to own any land spurred them to engage in trade and money lending, thus making some of them financial powers. Signifiers have concrete effects that are often colossal.
For Israel, the status of Israelite has no racial basis, on the surface. Not anymore, at least. A Christian who has converted to Judaism (Ghiur) officially has the all the credentials to apply for Israeli residency. A well-known epic is that of the Falasha, the tribes of the poorest Ethiopians whose religion is very closely related to Judaism – but their appearance and language are quite similar to those of other Ethiopians. They were transported by airlift to Israel in the 1980s. So, is the criterion of Judaism religious? No, because many Israelites call themselves atheists or agnostics.
We certainly cannot affirm that what brings together Jews around the world is their language, because Jews usually speak the language of the country in which they live. It was necessary for Israel to resurrect a common language, Hebrew, revived only a few decades ago. Zionism produced the Hebrew language, not vice versa.
Now, Israel is based on the Law of Return, which means that anyone who is (1) born to a Jewish mother, and (2) has completed the Ghiur without having been born Jewish, can apply to become an Israeli citizen. The definition seems clear, but it’s actually quite botchy. Saying that someone is Jewish because they had a Jewish mother only postpones the problem, infinitely. What makes this mother Jewish? Her having been in turn born to a Jewish mother. But what makes us say that the mother of this mother is Jewish? Being born to a Jewish mother... A racial assumption emerges here, but one that no country, Israel least of all, actually accepts in theory.
You are actually Jewish even if you are born to a converted mother. Can we say that the conversion of the mother is something we inherit, in the same way as we inherit genes? How does the concept of inheriting a religious faith make sense? All the more so since those born of Jewish mothers descended from generations of Jewish mothers lost in time may be atheists, and yet they can still appeal to the Law of Return. Two incommensurable discourses overlap opaquely: that of genetic transmission and that of cultural transmission. It is as if there were a Lamarckian doctrine at the basis of Jewish nationalism (for Lamarck animals could pass on characteristics acquired during their lives to their descendants).
Judaism resembles a case the Nazi philosopher Arnold Gehlen theorized when he proposed an anthropology whereby “human culture is man’s second nature”. Judaism, as a quintessentially cultural affair, can be seen as the second nature of Jews. But a second nature does not exist.
What about the Palestinians? Do they exist?
When I stated that Jewish is a signifier – hence the upper case “J” – I mean, like de Saussure, that what determines a signifier is not its meanings, which can change even over a short period of time, but its opposition to all other signifiers. The essence of each signifier is its own difference; something ultimately inessential. (3)
So, what does the signifier Jewish determine? The fact that it differs from all other religions. And if we consider the Jews to be a people, this is established by their distinction from all other peoples: Arabs, Iranians, Chinese, etc. So it makes sense to point to someone and say, “That’s a Jew, you know?” even if this person knows little or nothing about the Jewish religion etc.: it simply means “that person is different from us”, whoever this “us” may be.
So, what distinguishes Palestinians? From an Israeli, certainly the following: they are Muslim, or Druze, and they speak Arabic. But what distinguishes them from Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians...? Simply the fact of having been born or living in Palestine. But, where does the signifier Palestine stem from?
The Palestinian people only became a signifier in 1928. The term was used in a document of the Permanent Mandates Committee, composed of Muslims and Christians, addressed to the British authorities, who at the time held a United Nations mandate for Palestine. (4) Previously there had only been mention of “Arabs living in Palestine”. But Palestine was in turn an invention of the French and the British (Sykes-Picot agreement) to give a new structure to what had been areas of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, it was after World War I that the nations that still make up the amalgam of the Middle East were concocted. Syria and Lebanon were invented, both delegated to the French, and Palestine, delegated to the British. (5) The boundaries between the various states were decided more or less arbitrarily.
One of the most bungling creations was Iraq, where Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish areas ended up in the same state. With the nefarious consequences that later history brought to the light. I have never really understood what the Iraqi patriotism exploited by Saddam Hussein could have been based on, if not on an arbitrary signifier.
What happened in the Middle East was what would happen in Africa when the British and French granted independence to the African states they had fabricated: the populations of these colonial states took the borders seriously and a patriotism derived from colonialism developed.
According to the 1922 census, 763,000 people lived in Palestine at the time, 89% Arabs and 11% Jews. Arabs who continue to live there as Israeli citizens are known as 48-Arabs (in reference to the Arabs who in 1948 agreed to belong to the state of Israel). Today there are 2.1 million, less than half of Palestinians, more than 20% of Israelis. (6)
Between the two world wars, the UK allowed the influx of great numbers of Jews into Palestine, and this created more and more tension between the Arab and Jewish communities. But at the time nothing distinguished the Palestinians from the other neighbouring Arabs.
The Arab-Israeli conflict was generated by a UN decision: Resolution 181 of November 1947. This established the end of the British mandate and the constitution of two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, while Jerusalem was to have a special international status as a holy city for various religions. Thus the concept of a Palestinian state was created. On paper, this seemed the wisest solution, and yet this is when the fundamental divergence began. Because the Zionists accepted Resolution 181, whereas the Arabs rejected it. The fact of establishing an independent Jewish state alongside a Muslim one could not be tolerated by the Arabs, who were still a majority in Palestine at the time. (7)
In 1948 the Jewish state of Israel, recognized by the UN – hence by Stalin’s USSR too – was officially constituted. (8) Everyone also expected the creation of a Palestinian Arab state... but this never took place. If the so-called Palestinian problem is so acute today – involving 5,483,000 Arabs – this is because the Arabs at the time were unwilling or unable to create an Arab-Palestinian state that would have been immediately recognized by the UN. A deliberate decision or ineptitude? The complexity of subsequent events makes it difficult to come up with an answer.
It is one of the greatest mockeries of history: The Palestinians, to avoid having a neighbouring Jewish state, ended up not having an Arab state in Palestine at all. Because they refused to recognize the Israeli state from the outset, they eventually found themselves absorbed into it.
So, Palestine as a concept came into being simultaneously with the state of Israel: it’s like black and white in the game of chess. Palestine is ultimately an invention of Franco-British diplomacy. If Arab Palestine had joined Syria or Jordan (9), it would have been an entirely different story. The conflict between the Jews, who decided to immediately establish a state (or were capable of doing so), while the Arabs failed to do so, had by then become a conflict between an actual state and what overflowed beyond it, a “Palestinian mass”. Two states can certainly come into conflict, but the conflict between an entity and a non-entity is much more viscous, because the non-entity ends up being identified with the people themselves; in short, it becomes a war between an army and a people. It is not a clash between two forces, but between a force and a weakness, and modern history shows that the clash between a force and a weakness is much longer and far more devastating and insidious than one between two forces. We need only consider the history of the conflict between the Russian and Soviet states versus the Ukrainians.
To describe the storms and passions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of a struggle between signifiers, between entities that as such do not exist, will seem to many a provocation, a macabre divertissement. True, I joke about the saints… but leave the foot soldiers alone. (10) And by foot soldiers I mean all those who experience this struggle first-hand, because they were born in Palestine or because they have ties and loved ones there.
Some might ask: what is the point of knowing whether the cause of a bloody conflict is an opposition between signifiers or a dispute over oil wells? For one thing, the reasons for a conflict often overlap: the signifiers take the form of oil wells, while the wells act as signifying forces. What matters is that we are left with a conflict that promises to be endless.
Yet I think that an awareness of the symbolic trigger of even the fiercest wars can change our perspective, and help us better understand the crux of conflicts. It is precisely when you discover the vanitas vanitatum of political struggles that you can access a decentralized point of view, and come out of the militant logic of blind antagonism.
So, to return to my choice (but do we really make choices in politics?) of supporting the existence of a Jewish state in any case, matters of the heart aside: precisely because the signifier ‘Jew’ attracts the persecutory impulses of so many human beings, whether due to envy, contempt or fear, I believe it is important to secure a state for the Jews. Besides, the Christian West owes a centuries-old debt to the Jews. A debt is a symbolic matter too. The Christians persecuted the Jews for centuries, under the pretext that they were deicides. Precisely because I understand the extraordinary power of human symbolic life, I think that Judaism – this evanescent thing – needs to be defended. Antisemitism is a mole that burrows underground, often rising to the surface, unpredictably, bringing with it frenzies of extermination. Judaism has been persecuted for centuries precisely because it stood as pure difference within homogeneous nations.
That said, none of this exempts Jews from the risk of drifting themselves towards racism, fascism and fanaticism.
The edifying rhetoric that almost all of us bow to today repeats that we need to distinguish between populations and military and political leaders. And that it is populations who are mostly subjected to the choices of political and military leaders. This is not true. Whole peoples can fall into delusions of persecution, uncritical visions of grandeur, bloodthirsty rage, into a desire for extermination and revenge. And so they will express persecutory, megalomaniac and bloodthirsty leaders. Did Hitler not come to power with free elections in 1933? Did Hamas not win the 2006 elections in the Gaza Strip? Has Putin not been elected by an overwhelming majority of Russians for decades? Has Netanyahu’s far-right government not been voted in by the Israeli people? Are the people really always innocent, always unaccountable?
The assumption that people always want peace, while politicians choose war, is a populist fiction. Majorities amongst the peoples of the world are often more roguish than their leaders.
1. Hamas came to power in Gaza through free elections in 2006. Elections haven’t been held in the West Bank for years because it’s taken for granted that Hamas would win them. Can we really distinguish between peoples and their leaders?
2. A recent poll by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation among Arabs in Israel shows that 60% are not hostile to the Israeli state, and that 64% percent believe an Arab party should join the government coalition after the next elections. An Arab party has been represented in the Knesset since 1949. Today the United Arab List, made up of conservative Muslims, has 5 deputies (out of 120) in the Knesset. It has always been, and is currently, in opposition, except for one year (2021-2022), when it was part of the governing coalition. One of the five deputies is a Druze.
3. For example, the phoneme /v/ in English, as in vain, is a signifier because it is different from other phonemes in English, such as /p/, /m/, /r/, /l/, /g/, and so on. In fact, if we replace /v/in ‘vain’ with another phoneme, we obtain words with completely different meanings: pain, main, rain, lain, gain...
4. Britain held the mandate from 1920 to 1948. This has nothing to do with colonialism, there was no English colonization. Instead, the settlers who flooded in were Jews from all over the world.
5. The British were also mandated the Emirate of Transjordan, present-day Jordan. The British and French were cautious enough not to create a large Arab state encompassing what is now Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Arabia: it would have been too vast an empire.
6. Israel has a total population of just under 10 million.
7. In 1948 there were just over 600,000 Jews living in Palestine and over 1,200,000 Arabs.
8. The Communist International (Comintern) also included the Communist Party of Palestine (created after World War I), composed mainly of Jews, but on anti-Zionist positions. But Yishuvism, a current that mixed communism and Zionism, later flourished in Russia and elsewhere. This explains the USSR’s support for the creation of the state of Israel.
9. From 1948 to 1967, the West Bank was administered by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip by Egypt. It is important to note that today these two countries, Egypt and Jordan, have no intention of administering these regions. The Palestinians are rejected not only by the Israelis, but by other Arab states themselves.
10. A reversal of the Italian saying “scherza coi fanti e lascia stare i santi” (‘joke about the foot soldiers and leave the saints alone’) reminding us to distinguish between the holy and the profane.