We too are culpable

Israel’s impugnity in Gaza and the West Bank is enabled not only by its backers in the West, but by the widespread indifference of large parts of society.

Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Photo by Naaman Omar for APAimages CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed.

We are witnessing the genocidal violence being perpetrated against the largely defenseless population of  Gaza. It is a unilateral war of annihilation conducted through the criminal collusion between some of the most powerful, militarized states allied with the Zionist apartheid Israel. The barbaric acts we witness have also given rise to global protests and mobilization against Israeli apartheid Zionism, US imperial interests, and the complicity of other states against human rights and the very existence of Palestinians.

Against this background one hears the question about why “the world is sitting still,” why “world leaders” are not demanding a stop to these brutalities, and why even multilateral agencies like the United Nations equivocate about Israel’s brutality, seeking to win favor with Israel by pointing to acts of violence by Hamas. And why, indeed, powerful national institutions like universities have chosen to remain silent on these issues except where they have openly sided with apartheid Israel.

There are some obvious reasons why Israel remains at the fulcrum of collaboration against the Palestinian people. apartheid Israel’s actions can only be understood through its collaborations with imperial interests since without that it would not be possible for Israel alone to pursue its onslaught on Palestine. The collaborations arise both from the post-war history of the Middle East contrived by European powers and the geo-strategic location of Israel in the Middle East and the Suez Canal. Apartheid Israel lies at the crossroads of three continents, makes sizable investments in military innovation, provides Western powers with intelligence from Mossad, and has close ties with the US’s technology sector. For these reasons also its presence is useful to support the US’s hegemony through the petrodollar. The creation and existence of Israel also assuages the guilt that Imperial states bear, treating the establishment of the state of Israel as a response to Hitler’s fascist Holocaust even though it reinforces the racism deeply entrenched in the ideas of colonial empires together with the xenophobia against people who are not of European origin. Such racism is no less a consequence of what Edward Said referred to as Orientalism, and the “othering” of peoples from outside Western Europe and the US. And in the absence of a genuinely non-aligned movement, even post-colonial states are becalmed because of the dependencies of their political elites who have consented to collaborate with the most powerful global interests as Fanon and others have argued.

Moreover, such global interests now include countries that stood on the other side of “the Iron Curtain” and are now singularly focused on their own economic and political interests, far removed from the issues affecting human rights including Russia, the satellite states of the former USSR, and even China. More recently, added to this is the power and impact of neoliberal globalization and the crass individualism it spawns in maintaining the hegemony of the most advanced capitalist states in the world perpetuated by the support of the global power of the corporate media. In effect, Zionist Israel has, from its earliest days, been a favorite child of imperialist interest and is directly implicated in its global power both as a bulwark against the rise of socialist ideas in the Middle East and for its strategic location as explained above. Ignoring these direct interests, it would be difficult to understand how a small and seemingly insignificant state can act with such egregious impunity. How else could one explain what is happening to the people of Palestine?

Besides these reasons for Israel’s impunity, there is at least one other important reason that explains why “the world remains silent” while the Zionists of Israel continue almost at will to do what they want. This can help us understand why despite the prevailing levels of global protest and demonstration which was last witnessed in response to the American war on Iraq, there a still a steely silence in some quarters about the plight of the population of Palestine It can explain why there is such quiescence despite the obvious rupture between politically conscious citizens and their complicit states in the face of a conscious and courageous minority who are prepared to confront the power of the states complicit in the violence against the human rights and sovereign claims of Palestinian people.

It could be argued that those who are silent are simply too absorbed with their own personal lives and daily struggles, too confused by the power of public and social media, or simply uncaring. Are they simply victims of the power of hegemonic ideas? These may well be some of the reasons, but they are inadequate and need further examination. While it is true that human beings are preoccupied with many things and are often confused, they have rallied to many causes for justice and human rights, against oppressive and exploitative regimes—precisely like that of the Zionist regime of Israel.  The ability to seek the common good is very much a part of the nature of our  being as we can see from the daily acts of sacrifice, compassion, heroism, and collective struggle that we are also witness to. So why the indifference of so many?

I think that one of the unacknowledged reasons why Zionist Israel has been able to act with such impunity and arrogance despite many condemnatory and openly hostile statements against it, is the fact that in reality, a large swathe of the members of society have deliberately chosen to remain silent or indifferent. Yet they choose to remain silent in the face of the horrendous fate facing an entire population of civilians in Gaza despite the horrors that are taking place right in front of their eyes.

Some who choose to do so consist of an educated elite in universities and other educational institutions, professionals of all kinds, members of the civil service, political parties, cultural and religious bodies, and even some trade unions representing organized workers, among others. These constituencies will likely have access to the information for making moral commitments. What other possible explanation can there be for their abstention, especially in the institutions of learning that boast a democratic culture of debate, “critique,” and discussion? This indifference can be seen in the deafening silence of university leaders and public intellectuals, who are vocal about many other issues but who have chosen to remain silent about the Palestinian question. I think that this can be attributed to the deep-seated, mostly unconscious, affinity with at least some of the values contained in reactionary Zionism and other conservative socio-economic and political ideologies. These values are often subliminal and rarely acknowledged, except among those who are open adherents and promoters of these ideas. These values held subliminally are nevertheless extremely influential in the world, given the breadth of their appeal not only in states that are authoritarian but also in countries that describe themselves as democratic; not only in the advanced capitalist countries of the West but also in their former colonies as we saw from Rwanda and elsewhere. They are very much a part of the rising global tide of neo-fascist regimes and political systems we are now confronted with in a wide variety of countries. And they are very much a consequence of the individualism promoted in so many ways. What is the basis of these value systems reflecting the rise of a new global and neo-fascistic culture that mirrors what gave rise to World War II?

Firstly, these values are built on entrenching the power of a privileged caste within societies based on ideas about its specialness. This claim is derived from some or other proclamation, historical or religio-cultural demand that justifies such privilege. Secondly, is the claim of “superiority” derived from the belief that such a group is inherently endowed with some or other characteristic that entitles it to a preeminent place in society. We in South Africa have a particularly torrid experience of the effects of such racist ideas. But the idea of superiority is not limited to conceptions of “race” alone because it is pervasive in the relations between genders, amongst social classes, between urban and rural populations, and of course in the realm of global relations especially between highly developed capitalist economies and their colonies and post-colonial dependent states. These relations remain pervasive despite the proclamations about democracy, freedom, and the imprimatur of postcolonial constitutions. These ideological regimes seek to dominate our lives, shape our values, determine our social relations, and create markets for our needs. They manufacture our consent, and even shape our spiritual perspectives, family, and human relations and generally pervade every aspect of our life. They affect our moral, political, and social choices and the judgments made about the most pressing personal and social issues. In South Africa, we have direct knowledge of both direct and subliminal racism and xenophobia and its pervasive effects. In the case of Palestine, Israel’s racism is no less an attribute of global Islamophobia and its right-wing neo-fascism which it tries desperately to obfuscate.

It is these values and attributes that are particularly remarkable in Zionism and the Israeli apartheid state, which uses them to advance the idea of its entitlement. This explains the extraordinary power of Zionist Israel and its ability to hold the world to ransom, for its interests.  These ideas are often unseen yet are deeply embedded and provide both the conceptual foundations and the effects of racism, patriarchy, and other such prejudices. They exist in our society despite the proclaimed advances in general levels of understanding and “civilization” because they are perpetuated by those who have an interest in constructing social relations that are unequal, exploitative, discriminatory, and oppressive. Regrettably, they also conform to what is often misconstrued as one’s “culture and tradition.” And the values I refer to are pursued, both openly and unwittingly, in the public media, political organizations, and paradoxically in the organizations that proclaim support for oppressed communities. The most culpable of the social institutions in this regard are the institutions of education and those academics who have steadfastly remained indifferent to the unfolding events in Palestine and elsewhere. For those of us associated with academia, we remain deeply, even if unconsciously, culpable because of the depth of the unrecognized prejudices we have imbibed and continue to privilege.

That is why we must act to excoriate them. We are not helpless in these matters since catastrophic events such as the destruction of Gaza and its people cannot be understood by the “critical analysis” of “discursive regimes” favored by some academics in place of action. Gaza cannot be the subject of intellectual processes removed from its reality. It is not an abstraction substituted for reality or theory devoid of the agency for change. It is not a prescription for paralysis and sterility.

Gaza requires an orientation to public action and attention to the processes of mobilization of consciousness about the reality of oppressive regimes and the strategies for dealing with them. It speaks to the imperative of solidarity to sustain public action, rejecting the power of the dominant ideas through reaffirming our common humanity. It asks us to use educational processes to promote consciousness through collective actions, protests, and campaigns to oppose the power of Zionist apartheid Israel and its backers. It requires us to discuss these issues in our families, social circles, and more widely in our communities. We can insist that our educational institutions choose and act to develop progressive social consciousness and support for the forms of organization and democratic practice which are the only guarantee against the continued rule of regimes like that of apartheid Israel.

About the Author

Enver Motala is research associate with the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University, and is a member of its Palestine Support Organization. He is co-editor with Salim Vally of Against Racial Capitalism: Selected Writings by Neville Alexander.

Further Reading

Apartheid of a special type

The Israel/Palestine system meets the definition of apartheid in international law, but presents different challenges for the campaign against it than was the case for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.