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War Diary

28 November 2023

War Diary

Eruption, Jacek Yerka, 1990; Image credit: Wikiart

In this chronological text, Noam Yuran offers a political and, at the same time, an ontological reading of the nature of this crisis and its relationship with fascism and the extreme right. He argues that during the ten months that preceded the war in Gaza, the state no longer existed in Israel, there was no consensual regime in Israel. In other words, the government declared that it does not accept the current regime and will work to change it against the will of a major part of the population. Their attempt was accompanied by acerbic and massive attack on many state organs and institutions, including the attorney general, government legal advisors, the judicial system, public universities and at times even the military, which was portrayed as a bastion of a threatened liberal hegemonic class. The impotent nature of the propaganda legislation of recent years played a crucial role in the rise of right-wing populism. This power source allows the populist politician to present himself/herself as a leader whose hands are tied by some seep state mechanisms, invoking the need for a further movement to the right. Drawing on Walter Banjamin, Yuran argues that fascism is the channelling of mass energies to the mission of preventing change, of staying in place, which is the basic principle of all right-wing governments in Israel: the principle of un-change.

In November I was supposed to take part in workshop in Leuphana University, organized by Joshua Simon, about the digital revolution as a counter revolution but couldn't bring myself to travel. On October 7th my life in Israel stopped. It happened not only to me, but also to most of my friends. Apart from house chores and some volunteering, I could hardly do anything the following weeks but obsessively follow the news and social media. All conversations with friends eventually circled back to the war. I doubt whether they contributed much to our understanding, but we kept them anyway. In November I was supposed to take part in workshop in Leuphana University about the digital revolution as a counter revolution but couldn't bring myself to travel. Instead, I sent my colleagues some reflections about the political situation in Israel. They were not what I intended to talk about in the workshop, but they were relevant to its topic: thoughts about fascism and social networks; about a shadow, an uncanny presence of fascism in the digital age.


Let me start with some background. From the Israeli perspective, the brutal war that erupted on 7 October 2023 seems like the ending of a morality play. As for its beginning, the immediate answer would be the formation of the most extreme right wing, anti-democratic government Israel has ever known. But one can also stretch the plot further back in time, to processes that led to the formation of this government. Ten months ago, the current government was formed, supported by a coalition of orthodox Jewish parties, a big populist right wing party, and two nationalist settlers' parties, promoting a messianic and implicitly racist worldview. Each of these factions has its own genre of hatred or suspicion of the state – of all state organs as well as of the very idea of a democratic nation state. I have to admit that I personally identify with the orthodox religious version of this hatred, and I wish that greater parts of the Israeli left would adopt a similar view. (1) The alliance between the three hatreds resulted, however, in an attempt to enforce a regime change by weakening the independence of the judicial system. Quite miraculously, the government did not succeed in its plan, and until now only one minor change in juridical deliberation was instituted. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether this change is constitutional. The regime change failed, until now at least, due to the biggest protest movement in the history of Israel. Every Saturday, for about forty weeks in a row, tens of thousands of people marched on the streets in protest in all big cities in Israel and dozens of other locations. A turning point in this short history was a public announcement by the security minister, Yoav Gallant, who called for a stoppage of the process and its replacement with an attempt to reach a consensual reform. He explained that Israel faces severe security risks, which are aggravated by the divide in the nation, which appears to its enemies as a sign of weakness. In response, Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, may he rot in hell, announced that he would fire the minister. At that evening hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously went to streets, blocked highways, and started dozens of bonfires which kept burning through the night. The morning after, the Labour Union, backed by the associations of employers in industry and in commerce, announced a one day shutting down of the economy. In the end, Netanyahu silently backed from his decision to fire Gallant, and the government slowed down the progress of the regime change, but it did not give up on it. Weekly protests went on. All public attention was consumed by the ongoing struggle between the protest movement and the government. On the day of the vote on the single minor element that did pass so far, Israeli television dedicated its schedule to a live broadcast from the parliament, and we were informed that our prime minister refused a request of the military chief of staff to meet him before the vote. Two months later the brutal war erupted.


On October 7th I could not take my eyes off the Twitter feed. Israelis locked in safe rooms while terrorists were ravaging the streets and sometimes even their homes tweeted for hours. Some posted photos and videos. Many used the platform to voice a desperate call: can someone who reads this inform the police or the military? No help is coming. One message recurred in various formulations: There is no state; the state does not exist anymore. The people who tweeted it didn't mean that the state of Israel was conquered or collapsed. They knew very well that in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem people are safe and order persists. What was gone was the everyday presence of the state that we usually take for granted and don't even notice: the state in the sense of our assurance that when we call the police someone will pick up the phone and hear us. I think, however, that there was a further meaning to their statement: It didn't mean that the state disappeared on 7 October, but that it had already disappeared sometime beforehand. It disappeared throughout the ten months when all public attention and all government energies were exclusively dedicated to questions such as who appoints judges, and whether the supreme court has the power to overrule laws or decisions of ministers and governments. This subsumption of energies exacerbated the ongoing neoliberal neglect of all public services and state organs. In Israel, this attack on public service wears a peculiar form of an alliance between neoliberal economic agenda and ultra nationalist politics, advocating explicitly for various degrees – sometimes real sometimes only symbolic – of Jewish supremacy. There was actually a further literal sense to the statement that the state does not exist anymore. We can see it if we recall that democracies are characterized by a distinction between government and regime. Elected governments promote specific political agendas which are by their very nature controversial. Regime, by contrast, is the consensual aspect in state politics. It comprises of numerous consensual procedures that determine how governments govern: how they are elected and appointed and what limits are set on their governing. The populist agenda fuelling the attempted regime change invoked constantly its concern for democracy, but it subsumed democracy under the principle of majority rule. The populists charged the principle of majority rule with an ontological and ethical weight, obfuscating the basic fact that a majority can rule only insofar as everybody accepts the procedures of its ruling. In this sense during the ten months that preceded the war the state no longer existed. This should be taken in the most literal sense: for ten months there was no consensual regime in Israel. The government declared that it does not accept the current regime and will work to change it against the will of a major part of the population. Their attempt was accompanied by acerbic and massive attack on many state organs and institutions, including the attorney general, government legal advisors, the judicial system, public universities and at times even the military, which was portrayed as a bastion of a threatened liberal hegemonic class.


The last ten months brought to extreme a populist right-wing tendency that has been gathering momentum throughout the past decade or so. The process was marked, among other things, by a series of unique legal creatures: laws whose true secret function is propaganda. Their contents and titles are symbolically charged, while their practical meaning is unclear. Such was the proposed law for "loyalty in culture", which allowed the culture ministry to divest subsidized institutions of state funding if they act against the principles of the Jewish democratic state. The law eventually did not pass, probably due to the inherent vagueness of its criteria. But its very title, and the public discussion on it, gave the right-wing government ample opportunity to cast suspicions of treachery at the cultural elite. The Nakba law allowed the government to deduct budgets from institutions that supported a commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. Most important in this series of propaganda laws was the nation law. It was a basic law – the Israeli partial equivalent to a constitution article – which stipulated that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and of it alone. The Supreme Court repealed petitions to dismiss the law, despite its apparent quarrelsome and inciting nature in a state where about 20 percent of the population is not Jewish. Their reasoning turned time and again to the symbolic nature of the law and recited assurances that it will not harm in practice any civil right or cultural right. Indeed, until now, no court ruling cited the law. The damages it has done lie elsewhere in the realm of consciousness and social relations, further alienating and humiliating the Palestinian minority in Israel. 


Holy Land, Sliman Mansour, 2019; Image credit: Wikiart.
Holy Land, Sliman Mansour, 2019; Image credit: Wikiart.

The picture I presented thus far points at a hysterization of nationalist discourse lacking real consequences. That is not an accurate picture, because this process of hysterization is accompanied by constant aggravation of settlers' violence towards Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet the impotent nature of the propaganda legislation of recent years played a crucial role in the rise of right-wing populism. Impotence is a power source for the populist politician. It allows him to present himself as a leader whose hands are tied by some seep state mechanisms. It allows him to invoke the need for a further movement to the right. Since 1977, Israel had about five years of left-wing governments. And yet, ten months ago the new government could present itself as the first "full right-wing government". Through the cruel irony of history, it is also the government that brought about the worst disaster for Israeli citizenry. The powers of impotence are already recruited: populist speakers name the non-existent left wing as the culprit. 


One of the biggest utilizers of the power of impotence in the government is Itamar Ben Gvir, the minister of national security. Ben Gvir was convicted throughout his activity in nationalist movements in eight crimes and felonies, including incitement for racism and support of a Jewish terror organization. Today he oversees the police. He first came to public attention in the days of the Oslo accords in the 1990s. Sometime before Rabin's assassination he boasted to a television reporter, showing him the brand logo he stole from the prime minister's car: "As we got to his car, we can get also to him". (2) In contrast to the tough image he cultivated, his functioning as a minister was marked by an utter failure. Murder rates rose to monstrous levels, especially amongst the Arab population. From a different perspective, however, his violent rhetoric did succeed. The violence of young Jewish settlers in the West Bank rose to frightening levels. Knowing who is in charge, at one time they raided the Palestinian village of Hawara, burning cars and stores. Some of these settlers, colloquially referred to as "hills' boys", despise or oppose the state and would even define themselves as anti-Zionists. They dream of a kingdom of Judea and a democratic Jewish state (whatever that may mean) is but a pale shadow of their dreams. The question is: Should their violence be considered as enacted by the state? You can already understand that we have little idea left of what is the state in Israel. Whatever its definition is, it must account for the manner the illegal settlers' violence is indeed the violence of the state. That Israeli soldiers did not do all they can to stop the raid on Hawara is just one more sign of the existence of this state beyond the law. 


Today, as I write these words, Ben Gvir takes pride of the imprisonment conditions of captive Hamas terrorists who took part in the October 7th invasion. He took journalists to show them how terrorists are forced to listen to the Israeli national anthem, HaTikva, all day long. Here you have it: the hysterization of national symbols alongside the boasting in impotence (that's all you can do?! No beating? No solitary confinement? Just the national anthem in an endless loop?). It is obviously a barbaric practice unfit for a state (who cares, one may think, after hearing of countless acts of monstrous violence of the terrorists? Well, someone who cares about the state should care) but at the same time it is also a failed, watered down form of barbarism (there is so much one can do in a state facility, which means that one, and maybe it is the state itself, wishes to do much more). Above all, it is a new form of symbolic violence, a short circuit between symbols and reality: national symbols serving directly as means of violence. Our last decade is encapsulated in this moment. All those years we might have thought that we were caught in a psychotic spiral of inflating national symbols, detached from reality. Right wing politicians incited their followers to issues that no sane citizen should care about: Are Jews entitled to enter the mosques area in the Temple Mount?  And if they enter, are they allowed to pray there? And if, while walking through the yard, a camera catches them mumbling to themselves – does this impinge the status quo that forbids Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount? Who is the true sovereign on the Temple Mount? These insane symbolic questions are not at all detached from reality when national symbols are directly a means of violence.


Over the past decade, fears of an approaching fascism circulated in left wing quarters. For several reasons, I was always somewhat suspicious of this invocation of fascism. It smelled of intellectual laziness. It was as if the invocation of a horrible name was a way to underline how bad our situation is. But then, I thought, isn't our situation bad enough without being a phase in the deterioration to fascism? Can't we explain what is so bad in our situation in its own, more or less factual, terms? It seemed to me like a bad use of history: invoking a historical name, allegedly as a way to clarify sight, but in fact obfuscating concrete reality. The political situation in Israel is bad enough without being a preamble to fascism: occupation in the West Bank, settlers' violence toward Palestinians (but no genocide, neither ethnic cleansing), diminishing prospects of peaceful resolution, symbolic humiliation of Palestinian citizens of the state (with no danger of their losing citizen rights). Moreover, the invocation of processes leading to fascism annoyed me because it seemed to encapsulate a sort of perverted wishful thinking on the left: Waiting for the real horror to erupt, waiting for the brown shirts, for violence on the streets, for political persecution, for militias unbounded by law. On this point I always insisted that the fears are unfounded. There is no real political violence in Israel (within 1967 borders, that is), and I still don't think there will be. The best evidence for this is the simulation of political violence on social media. Netanyahu, our destructive prime minister, maintains his power with an ignoble use of social media – what the left has come to call "the poison machine". It is a web of social media users echoing the messages of the government in varying degrees of obscenity and vulgarity. An example from the last days: at one point, Netanyahu posted on twitter a message saying that he was not warned by the military leaders of an immediate danger of war with Hamas. Some public rage ensued: A prime minister, in the middle of war, implicitly blames the military in an effort to acquit himself. Netanyahu deleted the tweet and even posted an apology (a rare, almost unprecedented occurrence). Yet meanwhile, the poison machine keeps pumping various obscene versions of the original message: the military is the culprit in the failure; there are traitors in the military; and in the whacky conspiratorial version: the invasion was orchestrated in a cooperation between Hamas and the military leaders, intent on toppling down Netanyahu.


Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attends an event to deliver weapons to a local volunteer security group in Ashkelon, Israel on Friday, October 27, 2023; Image credit: Tsafrir Abayov, AP
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attends an event to deliver weapons to a local volunteer security group in Ashkelon, Israel on Friday, October 27, 2023; Image credit: Tsafrir Abayov, AP

Is the poison machine directly operated by Netanyahu's staff? Many users in this shadow army act on their own, out of genuine admiration of Netanyahu. There is evidence, however, that some user profiles are directly operated by Netanyahu's closest circle. In any case, this shadow army must be conceived as an instrument of government. Only this can explain the peculiarity that Netanyahu almost never gives press conferences in Israel, and very rarely faces questions of Israeli journalists outside the circle of his avowed supporters. He does not have to. He has at his disposal an intricate machine that delivers messages directly to his followers; a personalized machine delivering to each one the exact dosage of poison he needs.

Is this or is it not fascism? Is it a sign of imminent fascism? In fact, these are two completely different questions. The extreme rhetorical violence of the poison machine may easily give the impression of impending political violence on the streets. But in truth it is a good sign that such violence will not erupt. There is no need for it. The poison machine works very well without it. It cannot sustain an authoritarian regime in the traditional sense of the term: it cannot suppress votes; it cannot beat or lock down political opposition. It succeeded, however, in sustaining a simulation of fascism within a democratic framework, the best evidence for which is the personality cult for Netanyahu (to understand its extent, consider this amazing fact: Israeli society is still submerged in the worst catastrophe it has known, and all the while an army of social media users are intensely engaged in one mission – clearing Netanyahu of any responsibility for the disaster. Will their efforts work? Time will tell. There is ground for hope that they will not).


Today I no longer recoil from the invocation of fascism. But I do think we have to consider it along the lines of Marx's reference to repetition in history: about history that recurs "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce". What should be stressed is that this idea of Marx is more than a witty remark. A philosophy of history is encapsulated in it. History is defined here as precluding the possibility of repetition. Repetition in history is the mark of difference: repetition differs from its origin by being a repetition. This can be conceived as a fundamental supposition of historical ontology. Marx's clarifies this in the sentences that follow the famous tragedy and farce quip. The uncanny presence of the past is precisely what distinguishes the present form it: "men make their own history […] under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living". [3] In reference to the constitution of the second republic by Napoleon III, Marx invokes, specifically, the function of historical names in creating repetition as difference. While establishing a new political formation people "conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes", to present their deeds "in time-honored disguise and borrowed language." (4) That is how we should use the concept of fascism is relation to contemporary Israeli politics. It is a misnomer but that does not mean that using it is a simple mistake. It should be used as a misnomer, because misnomers are the condition of existence in history, part of the stuff history is made of. We always live in a "borrowed language". The names we use always mark our distance from the present, our misperception of it, which is the condition of being in history.


In the epilogue to his essay about "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction", Walter Benjamin turns quite suddenly to fascism: 


Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values. (5)


I must admit that I never quite understood what this passage has to do with Benjamin's analysis of changes in sense perception brought about by new visual technology and of the changing status of the work of art. Moreover, his claims about the loss of aura of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction seem to run counter to the notion of anesthetization of politics in fascism. Today this passage makes more sense to me. Fascism, in this view, is the channeling of mass energies to the mission of preventing change, of staying in place. That is, of course, the basic principle of all right-wing governments in Israel: the principle of un-change. Israel cannot annex the occupied territories – it would become an apartheid state in the literal sense of the term if it did (or cease to exist as a Jewish state). From a right-wing perspective it can neither let go of them. To be sure, there are always messianic wackos in the government who push for annexation, no matter what the consequences will be. External observers might be alarmed by them, as if they mark the direction to which Israel is progressing. I believe they are wrong. Messianic whackos serve as signals for what must be avoided at all costs, for a positive aim that can only be indefinitely deferred. They are essential for the politics of impotence, where all energies are invested in the mission of not doing anything – keeping Israel in its undefined state, where the west bank is both a part and no part of it. Social networks are the aesthetic corollary of this politics of impotence. The escalating rage they produce on all sides of the political spectrum reflects not only the fact that they give the masses means of expression but also that this expression is worthless. The political quarrels on Twitter between the poison machine and their critics have gone to extreme. At first sight, they might appear as a sign of an impending event. They are not, as attested by the fact that no one ever bothers to answer anyone else. 


***


An optimistic thought: In the last decade or so, Israel went through what looks like accelerating collective psychotic processes, replacing real questions with attachment to symbols ("Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish nation" – what kind of a politician, supposed to devote himself to the present predicaments of his citizens, would bother them with "eternity"? Netanyahu, of course). It might be that the trauma of October 7th would mark the end of these processes. The popularity of the current government sank to previously unheard-of levels. If a sane government would be elected in the aftermath of the war – one that addresses reality rather than symbols – there are chances that it will come to the conclusion that the time window for reaching a solution of the Palestinian problem is not very wide.


 


NOTES 


1. About the three hatreds: The orthodox religious hatred of the state echoes what Nietzsche has put in Zarathustra's mouth: "Where there is still a people, there the state is not understood, but hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs". (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Thus Spoke Zarathustra : A Book for All and None, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978, p.49) Theirs is a hatred of a traditional community whose laws and customs are alien to the concept of state-law. It goes without saying that these laws and customs are patriarchal in nature, yet they maintain a closely knit community, characterized by solidarity and social support networks unimaginable in liberal societies. The populist right's hatred of the state reflects a desire for unbridled power as an end in itself. It reflects, that is, a love of corruption and cronyism. The religious Zionist parties, representative of settlers on the West Bank, hate the state as part of their messianic worldview: a state is a pale shadow of their fantasies of restoring the Kingdom of Judea.

2. See Grégoire Sauvage, “Itamar Ben Gvir, the ultra-nationalist accused of stirring up violence in Jerusalem”, France24, May 15, 2021,: https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20210515-itamar-ben-gvir-the-ultra-nationalist-accused-of-stirring-up-violence-in-jerusalem

3. Marx, Karl, The Karl Marx Library, vol. 1, ed. Saul K. Padover McGraw Hill: New York, 1972, p. 245-46.

4. Ibid. 

5. See Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, translated by J. A. Underwood. Penguin Great Ideas. Harlow, England: Penguin Books, 2008.

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