12 December 2006

How Jewish is the question?

The principle accusation levelled at critics of Israel is one of anti-Semitism, the principle description of the country is as the 'Jewish Homeland', many critics use 'Jew' and 'Israeli' interchangeably. From the rabid anti-Semites quoting forged Protocols to the hard-right Zionists pointing to the Holocaust and the Old Testament alternately, to the centrists and liberals asking whether Jews, with all their history, should be treating another people in this way, we see it as a Jewish Question. But the more I see of this and other conflicts, and the more I learn about Jewish history, the more I wonder just how much Judaism and Jewishness have to do with any of this. Indeed, there are those that argue that Zionism is explicitly proscribed by the Talmud, so as with Islam and Christianity, seeing it in terms of an ambiguous and contradictory religion - especially one so conscious of its own ambiguities and linguistic fallibilities as Judaism - is tricky and ultimately pointless.

No culture is, or has ever been even really homogenous, but Israel - the land of a people who for millenia were a worldwide Diaspora, is especially diverse and informed by Eastern and Western European, American, Arab, Persian, Central Asian, African and even Chinese cultures. Yet we outsiders still lump the Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Mizrohim, Tamenim and Beta Israel, Orthodox, Conservative, Hasidic, Reform or Secular into one imagined monoculture, at best split into Zionists and Refuseniks, and then still forget that its tiny population is outnumbered by the remaining Jewish Diaspora, in fact by New York Jews alone. Just as Israelis and Jews come in different forms, so does Zionism. Like all ideologies, it has changed as it has changed hands. Herzl the Zionist, and Kafka and Einstein after him, envisioned Jews honestly buying and cultivating land, rich helping poor, perhaps in Palestine, perhaps in Argentina. Eichmann the Zionist saw a desert dumping-ground for the Third Reich's human garbage and a possible alternative to the incinerator. The Zionist founders of Israel, still in displaced persons' camps in 1947, saw a way out. Now Dayan, Sharon and over fifty years of Zionist generals and politicians have seen a justification for brutalising the unruly Arab natives.

But these varied attitudes are not rooted in Judaism. Israel, despite its situation, Semitic tongue and Sefardi, Mizrohi and Tameni populations, still considers itself a European country. European and American culture are still at the centre of Israel. It was founded by refugees from European history's darkest and most perverse era and countless Olim came from America. From Kafka to Derrida to Fiddler on the Roof, Jewish culture has had a profound and enriching effect on Europe and the West. And whatever bridges they may try to burn, for example phasing out Yiddish, Israelis still famously enter Eurovision and eat apple strudel. Theodor Herzl was a Viennese Jew, born in Budapest, and the rosy utopia he proposed as Zionism was full of 19th Century Europe's collectivist idealism. On receiving their land from the British Empire (who turned a League of Nations mandate into a permanant loan), the Zionists of 1948 adopted American images of the Pioneer and British and French mistreatment and exploitation of the Arabs.

Historically, Arabs and Jews have coexisted far more comfortably (or, at least, far less disastrously) than Jews and Europeans or Europeans and Arabs. Middle-Eastern adventurism has been mostly European: the Crusades, the bizarre borders of Iraq, the ethnic and religious gunpowder-kegs there and in the Lebabon, the installation and support of countless brutal dictators, have been led by Europeans, mostly Britain and France and then later, America. Historically, Americans and especially Europeans have killed, tortured, exploited and forcibly converted Arabs, either directly or by proxy, and we view them with the same disdain as our other colonies: either violent fanatics, thieving savages or unruly children needing civilisation brought at gunpoint. Israel, Europe and America's young son, has inherited these attitudes, and our indifference to Arab death and suffering. Proximity to the Arab world has simply amplified these sentiments, and its behaviour is little different to that of the haughty French and British Orientalists, or the genocidal American pioneers that have provided the model for their new baby country.

Arab critics of Israel too have a tendency to mistakenly see it in overtly Jewish terms, and ask why Palestinians must suffer for what Europeans did, and have long done, to the Jews. Liberals that see parallels with Nazism in Israeli actions and rhetoric call it ironic. They are wrong to do so. The same histories, philosophies and tragedies that informed twentieth-century Europe and America informed Israel, and just as many Britons still clamour for an end to ethnic diversity, just as many Americans love the glory of war, Israel has no more, and can no more, leave behind the centuries of shared thought and experience that created all of Western culture, Nazism and Democracy alike. The link between the Nazi genocide and modern Israeli policy has been much theorised - most notably by Hannah Arendt's assertion that the Arabs are suffering retribution for Nazi crimes too enormous to be punished. To me, this psychological analysis is dwarfed by the simple material facts. The land on which Israel was built was given by Britain, and was not ours to give. The commentators that discuss the Holocaust's role in Israel's policy are historically short-sighted, as this is simply another chapter in a continuous exploitation of Arab peoples since before Hitler was a twinkle in his father's eye.

European or American criticism of Israel, however righteous, is meaningless without atonement for our treatement of the Arab world, and countless other peoples, including Jews, that have crossed our paths. Perhaps by seeing this as a Jewish problem, with all our racist ideas that Jews are racist, are a way to avoid confronting our guilt by projecting it onto our former victims. And, more worryingly, it shows that after centuries of anti-Semitism, we are still reluctant to identify Jews as a part of Europe and the West. The sins of Israel are our sins, and as America and Europe come to terms with their brutal imperialist past and present, we should include Israel in this process. One of the hardest bullets to bite will be our enormous guilt, not just for exploitation past and present but for the prosperity we enjoy because of it. An equally hard task will be to do what we have through naive anti-Semitism consistently failed and refused to do - to consider the Jew as one of us, for better or for worse.

10 November 2006

No - does it really mean no?

An Australian Imam compares unveiled women to exposed meat left out for the cat, and in our hurry to condemn him and his wicked misogynistic religion, we forget the third of Britons surveyed last year by Amnesty International who would agree with him - 37% believing that, in certain circumstances, a woman who is raped is partially, or even entirely, to blame. Clearly Islam is not at fault (especially since the Australian Muslim community immediately stopped him from preaching) and this perverse idea is also prevalent in the supposedly civilised West as anywhere else - that the still-bleeding rape victim was asking for it in that short skirt and that when a woman says "no" she really means "yes". Certainly in all societies, sexual consent is a complex and dangerous issue, and in order to prevent rapes, encourage victims to seek justice and silence the rape-apologists, we need to explore these ambiguities in detail.
When reduced to Feminist slogan, “No Means No” is a reasonable demand: that we should err on the side of caution and assume that when a woman says “no” she means it. In practice, however, language is far more complicated and so, working on the idea that, rather than being fixed, a word’s meaning is the sum of all the places where that word was used, and that even the most simple words are charged with numerous meanings and associations. I shall therefore explore the various meanings of the word “no” and the linguistic act of refusing sexual consent.

To illustrate the difficulty of “no” in a more innocent context, imagine the question “Do you want me to tickle you?” A refusal can mean an outright refusal, or it can also be playing along in the knowledge that the game of tickling is more fun when resisted. Though this seems a grossly inappropriate analogy, with examination it is far closer than may be comfortable.

First we must look at what Dworkin called “the eroticisation of dominance”. What is often simplistically portrayed as a conscious act by sinister patriarchs bent on hegemony is really the involuntary effect of centuries of sexual inequality. Gender and heterosexual eroticism are inextricably linked, the one setting the borders of and defining the other. What those biologically attracted to males find attractive is not the Y-chromosome but the signifiers of maleness, i.e. the fluid concept of masculinity, and similarly females and femininity. If, for thousands of years, males have been dominant in society and females forced into submissive roles, dominance and submissiveness have become central to our definition of gender, and therefore sexy. A sexy man is muscular, uniformed and persistent and sweeps women off their feet; a sexy woman is thin, coy and delicate and makes herself beautiful for men.

When it comes to the game/ritual of courtship, manifestation of gender is the main strategy and part of the fun. The man jokes and the woman laughs, he takes the dominant role and she the submissive, he is expected to actively make a move and she to passively entice and encourage him. Countless rules and theories exist as to how to entrap a man by massaging his ego then carefully picking the moment to sleep with him – in short, a man has the role of pursuing sexual intercourse and a woman of denying it, this is sexy, especially if the man wins. If a woman sleeps with a man too early because she wants to, she is considered unladylike or slutty, whereas a man gains respect and proves his manliness by getting a woman naked as quickly as he can. Similarly, if a man exercises “every woman’s right” and refuses an offer of sex, it can be considered odd, unmanly and even vain. Though we do not explicitly condemn infractions of the rules of the game, we see them as spoiling the fun and being weird or unappealing.

“Playing hard-to-get” not only works for this reason, but is often expected. Unfortunately, it is indistinguishable from being hard to get except in hindsight after the getting. Because the thrill of the chase and the sexiness of the persistent man and the coy, resistant woman is considered a natural part of the run-up to sex, it imbues every aspect of it. A woman can say “no” for a variety of reasons, not all of them because she does not want sex. “No” never means “yes” but it can mean “maybe”, “I want to, but I shouldn’t” or “eventually, with a little more persuasion”. If we expect women to resist before consenting, we expect consent to follow resistance.

Most reasonable men, of course, assume that no means no, but in some cases mixed signals can confuse a reasonable man, when a woman he thought was willing says “no”, hence the phenomenon of “accidental rape”. The rapist here is not at fault for some perversion, but for failing to ensure total consent. It is these cases that lead to victims being blamed, whereas the actual culprits are unavoidably ambiguous language, our expectation that yes must follow no, and, most of all, the man himself who, when in doubt, fucks her anyway.

However, the majority of cases do not involve a reasonable man, and it is easy to see why rapists are turned on by what they do. If we are conditioned to believe that part of female sexiness is a coy reluctance to give in straight away, and part of male sexiness is to be strong and persistent, then there will always be those who see a woman as most beautiful in forced submission, and never feel as sexy as when forcing themselves on her.

What solutions are there? The eroticisation of dominance we can never be rid of without being rid of gendered dominance, and as long as these exist there will be those that take it too far. However, we can encourage justice for rape victims. When cases are dismissed (unjustly painting the victim as a liar and discouraging others) it is often due to the ambiguity of her consent, and the perfectly reasonable legal loophole of having to prove guilt. Rather than blindly asserting that in these cases “no means no”, we should accept that, although it should, it does not always, and tackle that problem.

We must clear up this ambiguity by making explicit, verbal consent necessary (i.e. a “yes, go ahead” not a semi-conscious “mhmm”), and by condemning the rapist, not for wanting to rape the woman but for not bothering to ensure her consent. It is just as wrong to have sex with someone without being sure they want to as it is in full knowledge that they don't. Perhaps the awkward “are you sure you want to go through with this?” will take the romance out of drunken one-night-stands, but that is a small price to pay.

30 July 2006

Suicide-Bombers, Homicide-Bombers, Suicide-Murderers and Just Plain Murderers

The modern phenomenon of the suicide-bomber is a difficult one to understand, even stranger is the way we look at this extreme military tactic. Why do we deplore the suicide-bomber any more than any other bomber? Why should we? The main, and in fact only reason to deplore any form of bombing or terror attack is that it often targets and inevitably hits innocent people. But how is an aerial bombing-raid that kills thirty people worse than a suicide attack killing just as many? We dismiss suicide-bombing as cowardly, as if exchanging your own life is somehow more cowardly than coldly launching cruise missiles from a safe distance.

We assume a bomb is only “aimed” at the target in the centre of the cross-hair. But bombs do not work like longbows and muskets – when you fire any rocket or detonate any jacket, you target everything within the blast radius. You cannot target a Hezbollah militant surrounded by civilians without targetting the civilians as well. Those who say civilised countries do not target civilians are either naïve or liars and hypocrites. The rules have changed since Alfred Nobel. Now even the most noble, civilised and accurate army cannot fire on combattants without knowingly hitting nearby civilians. Total war is now inevitably the only kind of war, yet we are still afraid to acknowlege that soldiers can no longer exclusively fight soldiers and that if our agenda includes war, it must also include the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents on both sides and the blood of children on our hands. No matter what our pretence, explosives kill indiscriminately, and I make no moral distinction between those that use them in the full knowledge that they will hit innocent people, uniformed or ununiformed soldier, hard or soft target.

What separates the suicide-bomber from the conventional bomber is the ruthless fanaticism. Every bomber of every type is willing to take innocent lives to achieve their aim, whether that is a political aim achieved through terror, or a military aim carried out with total disregard for collateral damage. Every bomber must be so bent on this aim that they are willing to kill indiscriminately for it, but foreign, anonymous lives are always cheap compared to one’s own. Suicide-bombers hate their targets more than they love life. Where the indiscriminate murder of civilians using guided missiles can be carried out at both a physical and emotional distance, the suicide bomber must look his victim in the eye. It is we, the organised armies firing smart-bombs or the taxpayers funding them, that are the cowards. We are just as willing as any suicide-bomber to accept civilian casualties for our goals, just as dismissive of others’ right to life when it conflicts with our agenda, but we cover our eyes and hide behind computerised targeting systems and euphemisms like “pacification”, “collateral damage” or “shock and awe”, while putting ourselves at minimum risk. Not only is the suicide-bombers' sheer bloody-mindedness and disregard for life beyond our comprehension, but it also shows a willingness we cannot match to risk themselves and to confront the horrible consequences of their actions.

However, the principle aspect of suicide-bombing that rightly leads us to condemn it as cowardly is its deliberate use against civilians. This is in no way exclusive to self-destruction, as Madrid, Dresden, Guernica and Mai Lai demonstrated. We do, however, associate the concept of the suicide-bomber with that of asymmetric warfare, something which is again both cowardly and courageous at once. The courage required to attack a much stronger enemy is counteracted by the seemingly cowardly methods necessary for any kind of success – attacks on soft targets, ambushes, hit-and-run and so forth. This is however not a craven act of fear, but a necessary strategy, and so not cowardice in the usual sense. It is also this importance to asymmetric warfare, which will inevitably be the enemy of dominant military powers and the Western world, which fuels the special hatred we have for the suicide-bomber. It the emblem of our enemy, the religious fanatic so filled with hatred for us that he disregards his own life as much as he does our civilians’. We perceive this enemy as so deranged and zealous that negotiation and compromise are impossible, conveniently for governments that wish to frighten us into war, and there is no strategy more closely associated with this enemy than the suicide-bomber.

This is reflected in the often bizarre alternatives to the phrase 'suicide-bomber' that have developed, particularly 'homicide-bomber' and 'suicide-murderer'. The former is perhaps the most indicative of this condition, and came to prominence just after the Madrid train bombings. Though the killers shared suicide-bombers’ agenda and homicidal indifference to innocent lives, they inconveniently did not destroy themselves. Certainly, it was mostly right-of-centre commentators who introduced the phrase 'homicide-bombing', partly because 'bombing' alone failed to express the aim of destroying lives and not property/infrastructure, but mainly because it lacked the same emotional punch, the same link to our Great Satan in the Middle East. 'Suicide-murderer', the preferred term of the avowed liberal Johann Hari also shows how, worryingly, the word 'bomber' has begun to lose its potency. That we need seperate terms for our enemies’ use of high explosives and our own shows the necessary double-standard of a “clash of civilisations”. It is probably no coincidence that both Hari and most users of 'homicide-bomber' were fervently pro-war. Perhaps these new words were a ploy to encourage us to think in binary terms and aid the rush to war. Or perhaps, more likely, the people using them were simply more distanced from the reality of modern warfare, and so less sickened by the word ‘bombing’ alone. All bombing is homicide, and there is precious little distinction between a bomber and a murderer.

The odd psychological effect of suicide-bombing on the population it attacks is perhaps its most dangerous aspect. The perpetrator is now beyond punishment and the thirst for revenge of the victims and their countrymen remains unquenched. Suicide-bombing not only reflects the most ruthless and bigoted side of those behind it, but stimulates the most ruthless and bigoted side of those who consider themselves under attack. In the absence of a living culprit, the desire for vengeance is directed at the innocent people that share the bomber’s religion, country or skin-colour. After the September 11th attacks, American fury was vented on Afghanistan, when the Taliban fell too quickly and Osama escaped, they were quite ready to wreak the remaining vengeance on a country that had had nothing to do with the attacks. The London bombers dead, Britain turned on its own Muslims, sympathising with none and suspecting all. (Despite 99% polled by the Telegraph rejecting the violent destruction of Western society). Suicide bombers, in effectively carrying out their own death sentence, make their innocent countrymen the target for retaliation. Though the responsibility for the murder of civilians lies solely with the murderer, by cluster-bomb or explosive jacket, the suicide-bomber by nature escalates the racist "clashes of civilisations" and entrenches the prejudices that drive them.

Both “terrorist” paramilitaries and State armed forces are quite willing to sacrifice civilians for their cause, the sole difference is whether the deliberate slaughter of innocents advances this cause enough to justify the cost of munitions. If we are to dress total war as just war, we must emphasise the differences between the total war of our enemies, carried out because of a frightening ideology that hates its enemies more than it loves its own life, and our own total war, carried out through sheer homicidal negligence. The chief distinction then is not whether the Great Satan from the desert will sacrifice innocent lives for his cause in a margianally nastier way then we will, but that, at a time when our warfare is safer and safer for its practitioners, he will sacrifice himself. But for the passing child killed in the blast, the distinctions between suicide-bombing and aerial bombardment and between deliberate and collateral damage mean nothing.

29 July 2006

I have a blog now

I've always had ideas, written essays, come up with theories, and apart from one article wondering why everyone's so mean to Linkin Park (below), never got anything published, never even really tried. So I'm putting my ideas, mostly theoretical, up on here for nobody and his dog to read. Incidentally, my dog can read. All the posts before this one are old essays, roughly dated from when I guess I probably wrote them.

Some of this used to be on LiveJournal but it's probably gone by now.