In my previous post I noted how the unfolding events in Gaza are a litmus test for those who identify as radical thinkers. Recently Seyla Benhabib failed this test by publishing a screed that, while claiming she was all for a ceasefire, distanced herself from an open letter signed by many of her former colleagues that was in support of Palestinian self-determination. Such distancing was accomplished by reminding readers of who she was and how she has in the past "supported the rights of the Palestinian people for self-determination," and then regurgitating Israeli state propaganda. Published by The Hannah Arendt Centre, it was immediately lionized by other "progressive" academics, mainly Arendtians: Samantha Rose Hill claimed it speaks to "the need for moral clarity," and Katerina Katarina Kolozova celebrated its critique of "anti-settler reasoning." But Benhabib should be ashamed by this letter, and Hill and Kolozova should be ashamed for their comments. As for The Hannah Arendt Centre, it is not surprising that an organization dedicated to a political philosopher who defended Jim Crow by opposing the Civil Rights Movement would publish such an ill-timed and poorly considered letter. And clearly people influenced by Arendt would, like Arendt, have the fuzziest (if not dishonest) conception of settler-colonialism–-particularly its apartheid/segregationist form––and thus think that there is "moral clarity" in criticizing "anti-settler reasoning."
Indeed, Benhabib's entire analysis is achieved through the willful denial that Israel is a settler-colonial formation. She is quite clear about that from the get-go. "By construing the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of settler-colonialism," she writes, "you elide the historical evolution of both peoples." So what is this history she thinks is being elided? Apparently, for Benhabib, the history of Israel-Palestine begins in 1967 with the expansion into what would become the so-called "occupied territories" (the West Bank and Gaza). There is not a word about the establishment of Israel in 1948, after years of settler-colonial violence akin to the settler-colonies built throughout the Western Hemisphere in the continent that would eventually become the US and Canada. In fact she only mentions 1948 at the end of her letter, but not in regards to the colonial establishment of Israel after the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba. Rather, this date is mentioned in reference to a letter criticizing the establishment of what would become the Likud (a letter that does reference the Deir Yassin massacre, something she just quotes in the letter but the historical meaning of which she elides in her entire essay), and yet this is summoned to communicate her worry about the rise of Judeo-fascism which she seems to blame on the actions of Hamas (more on this later). In any case, her pompous claim about how her friends and colleagues are eliding history (or rather "the historical evolution of both peoples") is in fact eliding history. When she does mention the Nakba as a term, it is not to think it according to settler-colonial ethnic cleansing. "The cease-fire must be accompanied by the immediate evacuation of the wounded, the elderly and the young from Gaza," she writes, "There must not be a second Nakba." But the Nakba was the evacuation of a massive population to escape death, it was removal and part of ethnic cleansing. So there is a second Nakba taking place and Benhabib is saying that this Nakba of "immediate evacuation" is not a second Nakba? Moral clarity and consistency? What is going on here: this is logically inconsistent.
Let us be clear: Israel is a settler-colonial nation-state. Although Zionist ideologues have recently been trying hard to cast doubt on this claim (sometimes by grossly claiming that the Ashkenazi Jews who initiated the Zionist movement were the "real" Indigenous peoples because of the religion emerging in the region thousands of years ago), any serious academic scholarship on the issue tells us otherwise. David Ben Gurion and Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky (among others) conceptualized Zionism as a settler-colonial project. They justified it as a European colony in a sea of Arab barbarism; they did not pretend that this was not the case, and openly cast themselves in the role of the civilizers. Indeed, before focusing on Palestine they were considering a Jewish State in Africa: the project was a colonial one, though driven by a response to and internalization of anti-semitism. (Which of course makes Benhabib's other ahistorical claim that "Zionism is not a form of racism" utterly silly. It is a racist doctrine, as all colonial ideologies are racist doctrines.) Indeed, in the Second Congress of Third International the Zionist project, when it was beginning to gain ground, it was roundly condemned by the majority of revolutionary delegates as a colonial and imperialist project, including the Jewish Bund. And since Israel's inception in 1948 when it ethnically cleansed the Indigenous population, sometimes moving settlers into abandoned houses and just taking over the possessions of the people who were murdered or forced to flee, it has developed according to settler-colonial logic. There is an entire scholarship about its Apartheid system that came into being fully, yes, after 1967 and the occupied territories, but the settler-colonial logic of the order begins with the theory of Zionism and then the application that led to the establishment of Israel in 1948. And this lens is in fact very historically important. To deny it, as Benhabib does, is the actual elision that is taking place. Without it you cannot explain why 1967 happened, the laws that come into effect following this process, how Oslo was articulated, and all of the practices and legal cantonments that have structured Israel since then. You can't explain why Israel was good friends with South African Apartheid, why these two states identified with each other. Why its ideologues in the US in the 1950s and 1960s loved Jim Crow. Or its entire way of being: the settler-colonial lens matters.
(As an aside it is supremely weird that Benhabib mentions Ben-Gurion only in light of his misgivings about the 1967 expansion, but not in any way about his thoughts on 1948. Again, the entire colonial content of Zionism as a political movement is vacated in her article. It makes me wonder whether her scolding about her supposed support of Palestinian self-determination was ever meaningful. At the opening of this article she writes: "over the last half century, I have advocated sometimes a binational state; sometimes one state, sometimes a federated structure." Aside from this quasi appeal to tradition––I did this for half a century, so you should listen to me!––what is this litany meant to accomplish? That she has been inconsistent? So much for clarity and consistency.)
Then there is Benhabib's very dishonest treatment of nationalism. What she claims is the elision of how the Zionists and the Palestinians developed as a people. "Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms mirror each other," she writes, "and at the end of the day they have to live cheek and jowl and share territor with one another." This is just an elision, on her part, of two very different meanings of nationalism. One is the nationalism of a colonial oppressor, another is the nationalism of the oppressed. These are not mirrors; they are diametrically opposed. The entire history of anti-colonial thought has compared these two kinds of nationalisms. Fanon, Mariategui, Kaypakkaya. And again back to the Second Congress of the Third International where the rights of colonized peoples to assert their self-determination as a nation was recognized by revolutionaries the world over. The nationalism of the US or Canada is not equivalent to the national self-determination of the Indigenous nations it has supplanted for those of us who care about resisting settler-colonialism. Again, this lens is important. Again Benhabib weirdly elides the historical debates on this question, and her supports think this is clarity, or that to care about this is to get absorbed in an "anti-settler reasoning" that is somehow problematic––why? The question is always: do we stand with the oppressed or the oppressors, is our perspective from below or above?
Finally, and most importantly, Benhabib's article recycles Israeli State talking points about Hamas and October 7th. Because this is the generative moral logic of her article. She believes that what happened on October 7th is exactly what the Israeli State initially conceived it to be despite the fact that none of those claims have been verified. She writes: "The acts of violence engaged in on October 7, 2023––the desecration and mutilation of bodies; the killing of children and babies; the burning alive of young people at a music festival; rape and ritual murder and kidnappings––are not only war crimes as well as crimes against humanity; they also reveal that Islamic Jihadi ideology, which revels in the pornography of violence has overtaken the movement." Except the October 7 attacks did not happen in that way. There has been no confirmation of this specific orgy of violence (beheaded babies, mass rapes, desecration of bodies, ritual murder) despite the fact that mainstream media initially claimed such things happened. They all retracted these specific claims; there has been no evidence of these particular war crimes beyond what the Israeli state keeps emphasizing as it bombs the shit out of Gaza and targets hospitals and humanitarian centres. In fact the recent release of the casualties on October 7th by the Israeli state itself reveals that the majority of the dead are IDF combatants. As for the holding of hostages, why doesn't Benhabib note that Israel has been holding over 2000 Palestinians hostage in brutal prison conditions without evidence? That this conditioned the hostage taking of settler garrison encampments? What wonderful "moral clarity" this article is producing, thank-you Samantha Rose Hill for your authoritative intervention in this area.
In the end I suppose we can be glad that Benhabib also thinks there should be a cease fire. But the fact that she gets to this position by demanding the Palestinians and their supporters agree to the narrative of colonial ideology––which she also denies because she denies settler-colonialism and Zionism as a racist colonial theory––is severely disappointing. In a decade or two, when we see the results of this phase of colonial war, theorists like Benhabib and their supporters (The Hannah Arendt Centre, Hill, Kolozova, and others) will be asked to account why they chose to side with the oppressor, why they chose to push these discourses in the face of the genocide of Palestinians. What will they say?