A Reply to Gabriel Winant

A Reply to Gabriel Winant

The right to grieve is no less a human right than the right to live. If the left cannot recognize this, then it has learned nothing from the catastrophes of the last century.

This is a reply to Gabriel Winant’s “On Mourning and Statehood.” You can read Joshua Leifer’s original article, “Toward a Humane Left,” here.

Gabriel Winant has taken issue with my call for a humane left that has the moral clarity to denounce the killing of innocent civilians not just when it is Israel doing the killing but also when it is Hamas. Perhaps what he and I agree on, if nothing else, is the tragedy of even needing to continue this argument at the very moment the Israeli government is carrying out a barbaric act of ethnic cleansing in the Gaza Strip, amid its already indiscriminate and devastating bombing campaign and the ferocious wave of settler violence and army in the occupied West Bank. But there are assertions that Winant has made whose quality rest at that junction between flimsy and disgusting—there is no other way to characterize the neologism “pre-grieved.” So I will do my best to respond to a few of the most reasonable ones.

Winant writes “that it is not possible to publicly grieve an Israeli Jewish life lost to violence without tithing ideologically to the IDF—whether you like it or not.” Such a statement is a cruel abstraction, possible only from myopic remove, that misses how real, living Israelis and Palestinians are responding to this moment. It is not very hard to find examples that disprove this facile assertion. Here’s one: on Thursday, Ayman Odeh, who chairs the Arab-Jewish socialist party Hadash, delivered a speech to Israel’s Knesset. Odeh has felt the pain of Israeli apartheid on his own flesh; he has been wounded by its armed forces; he has devoted his life to resisting Israel’s abuses. And yet, as a Palestinian Arab and socialist leader, he was still able to say the following: “There is nothing in the world, not even the cursed occupation, that justifies the killing of innocent civilians.” If Odeh can manage this—under the boot of Israeli oppression, despite calls by Israeli rightists for his deportation and for genocide—then surely Winant and others on the Anglophone anti-imperialist left can, too.

It seems that at the core of Winant’s claim—that, under current conditions, it is objectionable to publicly mourn Jewish Israelis’ deaths—rests the idea that by doing so, one inevitably feeds the vicious Israeli war. This argument, most charitably, is essentially a strategic one, positing an impossible double-bind: mourn innocent Israeli dead, contribute to the making of innumerable Palestinian deaths. Yet it is also an instance where Winant and many others have allowed the normally salutary left-wing attention to differentials of power to eschew actual political strategy in favor of self-marginalizing gestures. Winant accuses me of embracing a “fantasy that mourning can be depoliticized”—but, in fact, it is Winant and so many on the left who have refused to see the real political stakes here. Ironically, Winant references Bernie Sanders as an exemplar, but fails to observe that Bernie’s statement on the war managed to do—because he understands both what is moral and what is strategic—what so many others on the left could not bring themselves to.

Let me explain. If the aim was really to disarm what Winant describes as the Zionist “grief machine,” then in the days of Hamas’s attack and in the immediate aftermath, many on the left should have tried to avoid confirming Zionists’ worst suspicions—that indifference to Jewish death is rampant throughout the world. Instead, some did precisely the opposite by celebrating the Hamas attacks, which most Israelis and most Jews saw as proof of the old Israeli slogan: the whole world is against us. Others simply felt no need to denounce them. Within the U.S. political arena, the result has been the obliteration of the left’s moral credibility. The fact that so many on the left were unable to say something actually quite simple—don’t kill innocent people—has, I fear, erased many of the gains made in the West by the movement for Palestinian freedom over the last decade. The truth of U.S. politics in the Middle East is that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to shift our government’s position on Israel/Palestine without also shifting the views of people who find the killing of innocent Israelis unacceptable. That includes American Jews who, I believe, can be brought into alignment with support for Palestinian rights. But such essential political work will now be much, much more difficult. The pose of radical hard-heartedness that Winant and others have struck is disastrous politics.

Yet the greatest failure of Winant’s position is ultimately not strategic—it is moral. Winant writes, “the genuine humane sentiment that it is possible to grieve equally for both sides is, tragically, not true.” I recommend that he experiment by uttering this statement to ordinary people on the street, or maybe repeating it to himself facing a mirror, so that he might come to realize its monstrous meaning. For it is a notion that goes against the basic moral intuition of most reasonable people. Winant’s belabored justifications for this notion are excuses for callousness and indifference—this is perhaps why they are also, in photo-inverse, what vengeful Zionists say when faced with the deaths of Palestinians. To frame as inevitable and inexorable the instrumentalization of Jewish grief in service of apartheid, rather than working to demonstrate that it need not be, is to abdicate our moral responsibility to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The right to grieve is no less a human right than the right to live. And if the left cannot recognize this—if the left fails at this very basic task—then it has learned nothing from the catastrophes of the last century.

Toward the end of his piece, Winant decides to write as a Jew, and so I would like to respond to him here as a Jew. According to the Jewish tradition, mourning is a collective endeavor—the dead are mourned as members of a community and as members of a people. Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, can only be said with a quorum. By insisting that no public expression of grief for Israeli Jews is acceptable, Winant and others are demanding from those of us who must mourn an act of communal and familial renunciation: that we accept that our friends and loved ones will be killed and tortured—acts imagined by erstwhile comrades as part of some cleansing, liberatory event—and that we not speak of their deaths. This is, yes, an inhumane demand that no differential of power, even one as great as that between Israelis and Palestinians, makes acceptable. It has also increasingly begun to feel like this demand would not be made of any other people, nor is it one that any self-respecting member of a people would agree to. So forgive me, but this is something that as a person and as a Jew I cannot do.

Nevertheless, the task of the hour is to oppose with every effort Israel’s assault on Gaza, to protest the horrific war crimes, and to demand an immediate end to the war. And I believe we must continue to do so, not in spite of mourning the Israeli Jewish dead but alongside the grief and the recognition that there will be no viable, just, and long-term end to this if we cannot frankly acknowledge the moral horror of taking an innocent life.

Joshua Leifer is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.

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