The Democracy Seminar on the War Between Israel and Hamas

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October 31, 2023

The Democracy Seminar on the War Between Israel and Hamas

  • Gaza
  • Hamas
  • Israel
  • Palestine
  • war

On October 24th, participants in the Democracy Seminar met for our monthly get together. These virtual meetings are informal gatherings, without an agenda. We usually catch up with each other and discuss developments in our different locations around the world, in recent months: the apparently never-ending dangers of Trump and Trumpism in the USA, the victory of Lula in Brazil, the twists and turns of authoritarian rule in Turkey, Hungary, and Slovakia etc. Last Tuesday, while noting the good news from Poland, we focused on the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza and Israel, and its broader implications, observing them from our various situations and perspectives.

The discussion was not easy. The horror is overwhelming. Talking about it is exceedingly difficult, especially when so many of the responses only intensify the horror. Those who callously ignore or even celebrate the brutality of the Hamas attacks are mirrored by those who ignore or even celebrate the ferocity of Israel’s bombing. The near silence on the American media about the severity of Palestinian suffering is mirrored by those who explain away the suffering of Israelis with references to “settler colonialism.” Cliched, canned thinking and attitudes intensify the tragedy. I trusted that we could do better.

I knew we would have different interpretations. One colleague, Shireen Hassim and I have had long, sometimes heated, discussion about the fundamental issues over the years. But I hoped despite differences, we could come to agreement on some fundamental issues, given our strong normative agreements. I wanted to discuss this with colleagues with different views, but who trust each other. I thought that perhaps we could come to some agreement about our shared commitments, how they apply to the present situation, and show this to ourselves and perhaps others, even as our political commitments and circumstances were different. I started by suggesting this, which proved to be a mistake.

As the discussion unfolded, it became apparent that before we could make explicit our common ground as it applies to the present crisis, it would be necessary to share with each other our quite different views as they are shaped by our local circumstances. The differences were significant. I hope they will be critically appraised in our future meetings, and in shared posts here, and I welcome contributions by readers of this post. But note a small achievement: the differences have been expressed in the context of mutual respect and understanding, something that has been sorely lacking in not only mass media responses to the crisis, but also in the responses among academic scholars and intellectuals in our respective countries.

Before the meeting Jeffrey C. Isaac offered his initial reflections on the war between Israel and Hamas. After, he posted on Facebook an update:

“I consider the IDF’s current and relentless bombing of Gaza to be a moral and political disaster, and while I understand the complex diplomatic game Biden and Blinken are playing, I ultimately think that their approach is also a moral and political disaster.

And until I expand on these points from the vantage point of NOW, the piece I published last week can stand as a statement of my view: the Hamas attack and kidnapping was terrible, the Israeli response is terrible, the ongoing violence is terrible, hostages should be released, all attacks on civilians should cease, and only some political agreement between responsible Israeli and Palestinian leaders can bring some resolution or at least the pacification of a conflict that has been going on for a long time.

Hamas is culpable, guilty, reprehensible for its barbarous October 7 attack.

But Israel has no “clean hands” when it comes to either the West Bank or Gaza. Not historically, and not at this moment, when it continues to bombard cities where civilians live even if also where Hamas lives and hides. The IDF is responding to October 7 by knowingly dropping bombs that are killing thousands of Palestinian civilians. And declaring ‘we don’t want to kill the civilians, but we have no choice because they are in the way’ is no moral, legal, or political excuse.

Can we please stop turning a blind eye to the history and politics and pretending otherwise?”

This post summarizes the position that Isaac presented at our meeting.

Almost immediately after the meeting I received an email from Hana Cervinkova, based in Poland and Ireland, and Juliet Golden, based in the United States and Poland:

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for the productive conversation today. We wanted to share some of our thoughts during this tense and very difficult time. We have a couple of overarching considerations.

First and foremost, based on the conversations that are ongoing in our respective worlds, we are troubled by the general tendency for people to take definite sides when discussing the conflict in the Middle East as if it offered itself to unambiguous positions. We are worried that this tendency has been accentuated after Hamas’s attack on Israelis and other innocent victims. What became clear through our conversation today was how a search for a response is shaped by the geographic and political location that we come from. It seems to us that it is very important, whatever our starting position is, to include the experience and the suffering of the other in our efforts to respond to this moment of profound crisis. This leads us to the second point. We think that part of the public discussion has been dominated by a rehashing of the past as the foundation for taking positions on the current conflict. We feel strongly that what’s missing is the imperative to envision where we can go. Looking forward, beyond the violence of the moment, we believe, is terribly important for the people who are enmeshed in what seems like a hopeless situation with no possible outcomes. This despair will yield despair. Divisions will yield further divisions. Violence will yield further violence. Which is why Andrew Arato’s comments shared by Elżbieta were noteworthy because – regardless of whether they were political or not – they sought consensus in terms of possible agreed-upon steps that could be taken to shift the conflict to a new terrain of political solutions. For us, it represented more than just coming up with a statement that people could sign onto and signified a chance for a different outcome.

Thank you so much for organizing this important meeting Jeff. We were so happy to have been able to be there. Hana Cervinkova and Juliet D. Golden

The ideas of Andrew Arato (an original active Democracy Seminar participant) were shared among a group of New York colleagues. Elżbieta Matynia at the Democracy Seminar meeting shared it with our group. Arato suggested the following:

We need a new statement obviously, that most of the faculty could sign. [I]t should contain:

1. A condemnation of war crimes on both sides, mentioning Hamas and the Israeli authorities, whatever […] their ultimate causes, again on two or more sides.

2. A call for release of prisoners on both sides through a large scale exchange. (we might stress the inclusion of Marwan Barghouti … not only because of justice, but also the need to generate new leadership for the PA).

3. A call for immediate cease fire on both sides, without specifying the order between release/exchange and cease fire.

4. A call for the resumption of all partial negotiations concerning political solutions in Gaza and the [W]est Bank, aiming at a comprehensive international negotiation and agreement.

5. And an explanation, if not actually call for, the need to change of “governments” on both sides (i.e. in Gaza, Ramallah and Tel Aviv) to accomplish 4 (though not 2 and 3).

Matynia, based in New York, from Poland, brought Arato’s suggestions to our group because of the very reasons that Cervinkova and Golden noted. Matynia further judged that our discussion “revealed the kind of crucial insights that escape the analysis based on macro reports … a knowledge that you addressed in The Politics of Small Things.” Therefore, she suggested that a summary of our discussion would be the best way to capture and extend the Democracy Seminar’s stance on the conflict. I am following her suggestion.

Shireen Hassim now working in Canada, from South Africa sent me this follow up on our discussion:

The participants in the Democracy Seminar – committed as we are to finding pathways to just and fair democracies using non-violence share the bottom line that the actions of Hamas on October 7 violated all moral codes. Abducting and killing civilian people, young and old, is utterly unacceptable. We also share opposition to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, both forms of racism on a deadly rise across the world.

Why would a political movement do such things? Well, one common answer is that it is ‘evil’ and that is all that needs to be said. That is an unhelpful response. It displaces analysis of what causes and sustains political violence. October 7 was one (yes, horrific) moment in an ongoing cycle of war. I do not think it is appreciated just how asymmetrical that war has been and what it means for Palestinians who have been living with encroachments on their land, dispossession of homes and farms, increasing encirclement by walls and barbed wire and endless blockades. Gazans have been subjected to chemical warfare, particularly white phosphorus, for well over a decade. They live under a government that has not held elections since 2006, yet they are told that they are indistinguishable from Hamas. The idea that all the people of a territory are responsible for the actions of their government (whether elected or not) or the army that fights in their name is a ridiculous one. Yet to Netanyahu’s government, there is no such thing as a civilian Palestinian. They are all combatants (indeed, they are so vile as to use children as human shields, we are told, so when their children are killed it is their fault after all).

The Israeli state acts with impunity, and it is armed and funded unconditionally by the United States and the EU. Solidarity with Palestinians is routinely cast in the ‘west’ as support for anti-Semitism, a tiring and jaded trope to silence activism. Islamophobia? Well, ‘they’ bring it upon themselves. In France, you may no longer publicly support Palestinian people. In Germany, you may not advocate for any kind of sanction on the Israeli state, not even the peaceful sanctions of academic boycotts. It reminds me of living in apartheid, when we could not fly the ANC flag in South Africa, print pictures of Nelson Mandela or sing any songs that mentioned the ANC. OK then, how about at minimum we call for an immediate ceasefire? Vetoed at the UN by the single vote of the US. Israel has the right to self-defence we are told every day on every TV station and in every newspaper in North America. No matter that it has exceeded any proportionate retaliation and violated international rules of war (over 5,000 Palestinians dead already, and many of them children; 338,000 people have been displaced). The Israeli strategy now seems to be to starve out the population, much like the scorched-earth concentration camp strategies used by Lord Kitchener in South Africa. In an endless stream of horror stories, yesterday I was undone and in tears while reading that heavily pregnant women in Gaza are being given self-birthing kits by hospitals. There is no guarantee of any medical assistance; the fuel is running out, there is almost no water left and women must rely on their own superhuman efforts to sustain life.

It is no wonder that Palestinians feel isolated and desperate. And desperate times produce desperate acts. Massacring Gazans under the guise of self-defence will not resolve the issue of safety for Israelis, or for that matter Jews and Muslims worldwide.

Jacek Kucharczyk offered a strikingly different judgment:

I was very troubled about our discussion and our apparent inability to find substantive common ground. I do not find it easy to articulate my position. Nonetheless here is my take …

Since 7 October, my sympathy has been with the Israeli people and the country of Israel, for whom the current war is an existential threat. I look at Israel as a democracy, albeit very imperfect, surrounded by hostile authoritarian states that are unable to endow their people with the rights and liberties that Israel grants to its citizens. In particular, Hamas turned the Gaza strip into a totalitarian entity, torturing and killing its opponents and denying freedom to the people it claims to represent. An assertion of Israel’s right to exist is to me a crucial part of any meaningful conversation on the Israel-Hamas war. At the same time, I have an extremely critical position towards the current Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu. His attempts to undermine Israeli democracy and his willingness to pander to far right groups and religious fanatics greatly weakened Israel’s international standing and security. The attack on 7 October exposed the fact that Netanyahu lied to his people when he promised to keep his country safe. His policy of using indiscriminate violence against the inhabitants of Gaza and his refusal to take strong measures to avoid the unfolding humanitarian disaster is undermining Israel’s claim to moral superiority in its attempt to root out Hamas. The so-called ‘humanitarian pause’ should be the urgent demand of the Biden administration and European democracies. Saving innocent lives in Gaza and provision of humanitarian aid is the most urgent order of the day.

Last but not least, I am deeply troubled by the response to this war on the part of the self-proclaimed ‘pro-Palestinian’ left. The language I see and read in public events, and statements as well as in social media, is often disturbing. The failure to condemn Hamas and frequently excusing their methods as retribution for ‘historical injustice’ as well as calls for Israel’s destruction are reminiscent of the most shameful episodes of the left’s support for oppressive powers and movements in the 20th century. Condemning horrific acts of violence by Hamas is to me a crucial part of any conversation about the war. I cannot but notice that some vocal critics of Israel and Biden’s policy towards the war had in the past been reluctant to condemn Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine and criticized Western military support to Kiev. 

Daniel Peres in Brazil reported:

So many issues are involved in this conflict that it’s tough for us to orient ourselves and have any clarity. As I mentioned, the Israel-Palestine conflict isn’t mobilizing Brazilian civil society, but it’s very present in the media and has mobilized left-wing parties and political actors. In the mainstream media, the initial reaction was complete horror at the massacre committed by Hamas, as if Israel, faced with such horror, was authorized to respond no matter how. Gradually, this has changed, and today, I believe it’s possible to say that there is a balance, with harsh criticisms of Israel due to the nature of its response. The actions of the Brazilian Government that led to the drafting of a resolution in the UN Security Council, which was only not approved due to the U.S. veto, were seen very positively and significantly impacted public opinion and the media.

Whether parties or prominent figures, the left expresses themselves primarily in complete opposition to Israel. In certain cases, they frame Hamas’ actions as a moment in the struggle for the liberation of the Palestinian people, who are said to live under the rule of a colonial power, which would be entirely foreign to the region. For these figures, Israel is seen as the representative of the United States in the region and, therefore, of capitalism, which is almost the same as the West. Thus, the liberation of the Palestinian people is also seen as a moment in the struggle against capitalism and for a socialist society – whatever that may mean for these people. These people are not a marginal part of the Brazilian left. As I told you, a high figure in the Government compared Hamas and Mandela.  

I’ve been very bothered by the characterization of Israel as a colonial power, which ultimately calls into question the very existence of the State of Israel. It’s as if every Israeli citizen were a reincarnated Theodor Herzl as if there weren’t at least 100 years of history with different characters and perspectives in dispute. Linked to this, all actions, whether by Hamas or Israel, are judged by looking for their causes in the past, and no judgment is made about the world that can be expected from such actions. The vision of justice that guides not only the direct actors but also a large part of the public is the vision of punitive justice, which seeks to achieve justice in the form of the Talion law, if not as pure and simple vengeance. With this, there’s no room to talk about a shared future.

Our differences are real and need to be confronted. It is difficult to apply our shared democratic commitments to the present crisis. But despite my initial disappointment with the meeting, common to Kucharczyk’s. I think we made progress. We all fundamentally agreed with Jeff Isaac’s initial response. I believe we all found Arato’s suggestions for action cogent. I think we all are less concerned with answering the question of which side are you on? As we are more focused on how injustices should be addressed, and how humanitarian catastrophe should be avoided ASAP. We will meet again next month to continue our discussion. I welcome contributions to this platform to further deepen our conversation.


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