We are all Israelis now with reference to Gramsci

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Nov 11 2004 - 13:38:09 EST


By Mark LeVine, History, University of California, Irvine

Three years ago, as the pungent odor of what was left of the World
Trade Center slowly pervaded my neighborhood, I wrote a piece called
ìWeíre all Israelis Now.î I didnít invent the idea; in the hours
since the attacks I had heard several commentators say essentially
the same thing, although our meanings were in fact diametrically
opposed. For them, the September 11 attacks had constituted a tragic
wake up call to America about the mortal threat posed by Muslim
terrorism, which Israel had been living through for decades and whose
methods the US would now have to copy if it wanted to ìwin the war on

For me, however, the attacks suggested a more troubling scenario:
That like Israelis, Americans would never face the causes of the
extreme violence perpetrated against us by those whose oppression we
have supported and even enforced, and engage in the honest
introspection of what our role has been in generating the kind of
hatred that turns commuter jets into cruise missiles. Instead, my gut
told me that weíd acquiesce to President Bushís use of the war to
realize the long-held imperial, even apocalyptic visions of the
neoliberal Right, ones that find great sympathy with its Israeli

As I watch George W. Bush celebrate his reelection I realize I never
could have imagined just how much like Israelis we would become.
Think about it: in Israel, the majority of Jewish citizens support
the policies of Ariel Sharon despite the large-scale, systematic (and
according to international law, criminal) violence his government
deploys against Palestinian society, despite the worsening economic
situation for the lower middle class religious voters who constitute
his main base of support, despite rising international opprobrium and
isolation. Sound familiar?

As for the countryís ìliberalî opposition, itís in a shambles,
politically and morally bankrupt because in fact it was a willing
participant in creating and preserving the system that is now eating
away at the heart of Israeli society. Aside from occasional plaintive
oped pieces by members of its progressive wing, the Labor Party can
and will do nothing fundamentally to challenge Sharonís policies.
Why? Because they reflect an impulse, nurtured by the Labor movement
during its decades in power, that is buried deep in the heart of
Zionism: to build an exclusively Jewish society on as much of the
ancient homeland as possible, with little regard for the fate of the
countryís native inhabitants.

As any native American will remind us, America was built on a similar
holy quest. So it shouldnít surprise us that the parallels between
Israelís mini-empire and Americaís Iraq adventure are striking.

Itís not just that Americaís occupation is faring as terribly as
Israelís. In the last week--with more than enough time to influence
the election--doctors from Americaís leading research hospitals
published a study demonstrating that US forces have killed upwards of
100,000 Iraqis, the majority of them women and children killed by
American bombs. Yet before November 2 Americans could at least say
they werenít directly responsible for the disaster that has unfolded
there in Iraq, since an unelected President had taken the country to
war under false pretenses. No more. As of today, American society has
declared its support for the invasion, and as such is morally and
politically culpable for every single one of those 100,000 dead, and
every single one of the tens of thousands of deaths that are sure to

To put it bluntly, Americans have chosen to return a man to the White
House who has supervised the killing of more civilians than Slobodan
Milosevic. We have signed onto a President who sanctions torture, who
wantonly rejects any international treaty--Kyoto, the ABM and the
International Criminal Court--that doesnít suit his messianic agenda.
Who truly believes ìGod Almightyî is on his side.

America, in short, has become a criminal nation, and it must be
stopped. (Yes, there are many other criminal nations, but aside from
Israel how many even have the pretense of democracy? Russia? The
Sudan? China? India is perhaps one; and given its sordid occupation
of Kashmir it shouldnít surprise that a US-India-Israel axis of
occupation and Islamophobia is one of the most prominent features of
the worldís geo-strategic post-9/11 landscape.)

In Israel most citizens know full well the realities of their
occupation; even right-wing newspapers routinely publish articles
that describe its details with enough clarity to make any ignorance
willful. This dynamic is in fact why Israelis have responded to the
civil war with Palestinians by increasing the dehumanization of the
occupation, accompanied by a fervent practice of getting on with life
no matter whatís happening ten or fifteen miles away in ìthe
Territories.î The alternative, actually working to stop the insanity
of the occupation, would lead to much more hatred and violence within
Israel and between Jews than Palestinians could ever hope to inflict
on Israeli society from the outside.

The situation is almost identical vis-ý-vis the American perspective
on Iraq. Abu Ghraib? Mass civilian casualties caused by a war
launched on demonstrably false pretenses? The erosion of civil
liberties? The transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars of tax
payer money (not to mention Iraqi resources and capital) by the US
government to its corporate allies? To more than 70% of Americaís
eligible votes--that is, the approximately thirty percent that voted
for Bush and the forty percent that didnít feel this situation was
compelling enough to warrant their taking the time to vote--none of
it really matters. America is great and strong and can do what it
wants, and to hell with anyone who gets in our way, especially if
they fight back.

The numbing acceptance of large scale and systematic violence
perpetrated by the state as a normal part of its exercise of power
and the willingness of a plurality of the electorate to support
parties and policies which are manifestly against their economic and
social interests (as demonstrated by the increase in poverty and
economic insecurity across the board in Israel and the US produced by
the last two decades of neoliberalism) sadly characterize both
societies today. This is why I never shared the optimism friends who
thought this situation would help elect Kerry. Like Israelís Barak or
Peres, in the context of a post-9/11 militant globalization, John
Kerry offered Americans little more than Bush lite on the most
crucial issue of the day. In Americaís increasingly obese culture, is
there any wonder we chose SuperSize over Nutrasweet?

So here we are, three years after the tragic day of 9/11. The smell
of charred metal, fuel and flesh no longer pervades the five boroughs
of New York; instead it wafts across the major cities of Iraq (where
most Americans donít have to smell it, but I can attest from personal
experience that the odor in Baghdad is as pungent as in Queens). The
Bush Administration is free to proceed with a violently imperialist
foreign policy with little fear of repercussion or political cost at
home--who cares about abroad?--the Left is stupefied at its own
political and moral incompetence, and the people at large are
increasingly split between a fundamentalist religious-nationalist
camp, and a yuppie-liberal camp that has no real legs to stand on and
has little hope of engaging the millions of poor and working class
who have moved to the right because of ìsocial issues.î Indeed, it is
clear that they donít care if the rich are getting richer and the
environment is going to Hell, as long as theyíre
  on the road to Heaven--or at least the Second Coming.

This situation reveals something dark, even frightening about
Americaís collective character. Making the situation worse are the
reasons why people voted for President Bush: the belief that he
better represents Americaís ìmoral values,î along with the faith that
he, not Kerry, will fight a ìbetter and more efficient war on
terror.î What kind of moral values the occupation of Iraq represents
no one dares say. What kind of terror the US military has wrought in
Iraq most American donít want to know.

Better to ìstay the courseî and pray for the safe return of the
troops. Leave the troubling moral lessons of Iraq to be exorcised by
Hollywoodís or Nintendoís latest version of Rambo, helicoptering
across the sands of Iraq blasting away yet more hapless Iraqi
soldiers (as if enough werenít killed in the real war) and rescuing
whatever is left of Americaís honor once the reality of a determined
anti-colonial resistance drives America out of Iraq--the common fate
of occupying powers across history.

Until such time, however, unimagined damage will likely be done to
the world and Americaís standing in it. What are progressives to do
about it? Whether in Israel or the US the liberal opposition--the
Labor Party in Israel, the Democrats in the US--have proven
themselves to be politically and morally bankrupt. They are dying
parties and should be abandoned as quickly as possible in favor of
the hard work of slowly building truly populist progressive parties
that can reach out to, engage and challenge their more conservative
and often religions compatriots who today look Right, not Left, to
address their most basic needs.

In the meantime, the international community, especially the EU, most
assert a defiant tone against US and Israeli militarism and perform
the novel but fundamental role acting as a counterweight and
alternative to Americaís imperial vision (at the same time, however,
they must move beyond a narrow anti-American and anti-Zionist
anti-imperialism to a broader critique of the larger system of Middle
Eastern autocracy and violence, whose victims are no less deserving
of our concern than Palestinians or Iraqis). But this will not happen
on its own; itís up to citizens across the continent to ensure that
their governments donít take the easy road of adopting a pragmatic
approach of supporting the status quo and ìworkingî with the Bush
administration, while waiting for America to bleed itself dry in Iraq
and other imperial adventures.

One thing is for sure. Bush and his millenarian policies canít be
defeated by the kind of violence and hatred that guides his
worldview. As Antonio Gramsci warned us seventy years ago, a ìwar of
maneuverî or frontal assault on an advanced capitalist state by the
Left cannot be won. Instead we need to dust off our copies of
Gramsciís Prison Notebooks and buy a copy of Subcomandante Marcosís
dispatches from the Lacondan jungle. Then perhaps we can find clues
on how to fight a better and more efficient ìwar of positionî against
the terrifying prospect of four more years of George W. Bush.

While the Left has often turned to Gramsci for guidance, most
commentators have ignored one of his most important insights: that
however negative a role religion played in Italian society, it
constituted the most important social force in the struggle against
capitalism and fascism, without which the Left could never hope to
achieve social hegemony against the bourgeoisie. This is because
religion contains the kernel of ìcommon senseî of the masses whose
natural instinct is to rebel against the domination of the capitalist
elite. But because it is largely unformed or articulated, it is
easily manipulated by that elite--as Thomas Frank has so eloquently
shown in his recent Whatís the Matter with Kansas--and needs to be
joined to the ìgood senseî of radically progressive intellectuals in
order to shape the kind of ideology and political program that could
attract the majority of the poor and middle class. But in this dialog
the secular intellectuals would be transformed as much as the
  religious masses, creating the kind of organic unity that helped
propel the religious Right from the margins of their party to the
center of power.

Itís sad but telling that a sickly political prisoner in fascist
Italy writing from memory on scraps of paper could anticipate the
struggle facing America today better than most contemporary leaders
of the so-called Left. But never fear, if John Ashcroft has his way
many of us will soon have a similar opportunity to learn the benefits
of solitary confinement for producing innovative social theory. In
the meantime if progressives donít figure out how to reach working
class conservative Christians, before to long we will all be living
through Bushís dreams of apocalypse.

Mark Levine
Associate Professor of History
Department of History
Murray Krieger Hall
Irvine, CA 92697-3275

email: mlevine a_t_ uci d o t edu

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