/ 6 May 2024

A rebellion for humanity on American campuses

Pro Palestinian Protesters Holds Gather For Another Protest On University Of Texas Campus
sychology and Pre-med major student Rawan Channa and Palestinians Solidarity Committee student and member, Raneem chant during a rally on the South Lawn at the University of Texas at Austin on May 05, 2024 in Austin, Texas. During a rescheduled May Day rally, students and faculty gathered on the South Lawn to continue calling upon the university to fully divest from Israel. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

In A State of Siege, written in Ramallah in 2002 during the Second Intifada as Israel invaded the West Bank, Mahmood Darwish, the great Palestinian poet, a poet of planetary weight, has a man on the edge of death imagine another life after his death: “This time I’ll have my name inscribed/ in letters of lapis lazuli …”

Darwish died on 9 August 2008, at 69. Hearing the news, his friend Breyten Breytenbach recalled Darwish’s last reading, in Arles in France: “The sun was setting, there was a soundless wind in the trees and from the neighbouring streets we could hear the voices of children playing. And for hours we sat on the ancient stone seats, spellbound by the depth and the beauty of this poetry.” 

Breytenbach wrote that Darwish was “reaching out even more profoundly than he’d ever done before for the universally shared fate and sense of being human”. 

Darwish wanted to be buried in Galilee where he was born and where his mother still lived. The Israelis would not allow it and so he was buried on a hill outside Ramallah. When John Berger visited the grave soon after Darwish’s death mourners had left sheaves of green wheat and red anemones on the dug earth. 

Berger captured some sense of suffering in a form and on a scale that overwhelms understanding: “Disasters are flowing together into a delta that has no name, and will only be given one by geographers, who will come later, much later.” 

What has happened, and is happening, to Gaza is beyond meaningful comprehension. It does not yet have a name, a name that, unlike genocide and more like the Nakba or the Shoah, is not amenable to legalistic reductions and has a simultaneous sense of both the ineffable and the concrete specificity of a particular horror. 

We do know, though, that Israel — the Israeli state and Israeli society —  is rank with the death drive of fascism. Humanity is being systematically denied and people systematically murdered. 

We know that when murder on a mass scale, organised murder, is accompanied by the deliberate destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, universities and places for religious community and practice there is no intent for the survivors to come home when the killing has abated.

We know that the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant declared that: “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” 

We know that an eye witness has reported that before Israel destroyed the al Shifa Hospital, before hundreds of people were executed and their bodies pushed into mass graves with bulldozers, voices amplified from quadcopter drones kept saying: “Come out, you animals!”

We know that Edward Said showed that for Zionism, “The Arabs were seen as synonymous with everything degraded, fearsome, irrational and brutal.”  

We know that Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”.

We know that those who are doing the killing are mostly counted as white and that those who are being killed are not counted as white. We know that those who are doing the killing are counted as part of Western civilisation and those who are being killed are not. 

We know that those who are doing the killing are funded and armed by the US, the UK and Germany — by the leading powers in the West. We know that those who are doing the killing are legitimated by the bulk of the Western media that grants the relentless lying by the Israeli state a dignity to which it has no right.

We know that Israel supported the pro-West military dictatorships in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile and Nicaragua, the dictatorial Duvalier dynasty in Haiti as well as the apartheid state. We know that it supported the Contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador. We know that it supported Jair Bolsonaro’s far right government in Brazil and that it continues to support right-wing regimes around the world from India to Hungary.  

We know that Israel trains US police departments and sells the “battle tested” technologies that sustain its occupation to repressive states across the world and that, as Israeli architect Eyal Weizman observes, “the American military has been ‘Israelized’”.  

We know that Israel is not a solely local problem.

We know that many of the states that have registered the most significant forms of protest against the destruction of Gaza, states such as South Africa, Namibia, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ireland and others, are former colonies. 

This is not surprising. In 2024, we continue to live in the long shadow of 1492, the year that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. This was the moment in which Europe, initially using religion to enforce a split in the count of the human, began to become a planetary power built on genocide and enslavement. While the language and lines that divide a universal humanity are dynamic that division endures. 

It is a plain fact that the West — Europe and its settler colonies — does not accord a citizen of Haiti or Bolivia the same right to choose their government as a citizen of the US or Australia. It is equally clear that in the West a life in Iraq, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Congo or Palestine is not given anything like the weight of a white life in France or Ukraine. 

By any objective empirical measure Tony Blair and George Bush are war criminals, The New York Times often runs propaganda and the US military is the most murderous force on the planet. Yet, in any public sphere aligned to the West, the statement of these facts, no matter how lucid and rigorous, is often taken as irrational, as hysterical and as conspiracy theory. It is common for people noting these facts to be slandered as agents — whether consciously or not — of malevolent foreign powers.

But we also know that principle has no relation to the accident of birth. One either affirms the full and equal humanity of all people or one does not. One either accepts that what S’bu Zikode first called the “vandalisation” of the humanity of some people is acceptable or one does not. 

We know that, across the West, there are millions of people who, as happened with the movements against the invasion of Iraq, apartheid and the Vietnam war, are refusing to accept the destruction of Gaza and its people. We know that wherever there are Jewish people — from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg and New York — there are Jewish people in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

The West has incredible power at its disposal. Along with its economic, military, cultural and media power it also has the power that comes from its donors, NGOs and universities. 

That power will not endure in permanence though. The historical epoch that began in 1492 will come to an end. When it comes to an end Israel will no longer be viable as a settler colonial project. But, in 2024, that power remains so overwhelming that it is difficult to see that the destruction of Gaza and the wider oppression of Palestine can be brought to an end without a revolt within the West.

The weakness of the West, of the empire headquartered in Washington, is that it asserts its right to wield power over much of the world via its claim to be a democratic and democratising actor. 

Its ideological power is strong enough for it to mostly get away with opposing democracy on its periphery because the people on its periphery are not really counted as people within the logic of that ideological system. But when it denies democracy at home, when it sends in its police to attack its own children, it pushes its own ideological system into crisis. 

There are, of course, forces in the West that are willing to accept this kind of open authoritarianism at home. Some embrace it. But there are also forces that are not willing to accept it. The battle between these forces, a battle that will reach a new intensity if Donald Trump returns to the American presidency, will have global ramifications.

The students occupying university campuses across the US in solidarity with Palestine are, at this moment, leading a revolt from within the empire. They are being met with such intense repression because they pose a real threat to the empire.

There can be no technocratic route to a just peace in Palestine because the forces that enable oppression will not concede their power without being forced to do so. Peace is only possible through rebellion, rebellion that will have real costs for many people, rebellion that insists that no person is an animal, that all people everywhere must count as people, that, in Darwish’s poetic voice, every person should have their name inscribed in lapis lazuli. 

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut in the US.