One way of understanding Israel that I think should not be controversial is to say that it is a machine for the conversion of grief into power. The Zionist dream, born initially from the flames of pogroms and the romantic nationalist aspirations so common to the nineteenth century, became real in the ashes of the Shoah, under the sign “never again.” Commemoration of horrific violence done to Jews, as we all know, is central to what Israel means and the legitimacy that the state holds—the sword and shield in the hands of the Jewish people against reoccurrence. Anyone who has spent time in synagogues anywhere in the world, much less been in Israel for Yom HaShoah or visited Yad Vashem, can recognize this tight linkage between mourning and statehood.
This, on reflection, is a hideous fact. For what it means is 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. Many Israelis wishing for peace of course cry out that their loved ones should not be conscripted in death in this way. As Noi Katsman said of his brother Hayim, who was killed in the Hamas attack,
Most important for me and also for my brother is that his death won’t be used to kill innocent people. And sadly, my government is using cynically the death of people to just kill—they promised it’s going to bring us security, but of course it’s not security. They always tell us, if we’re going to kill enough Palestinians, it’s going to be better for us. But of course it never brings us peace and it never brings us better lives, it just brings more and more terror and more and more people killed, like my brother. And I don’t want anything to happen to people in Gaza like it happened to my brother, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have either.
But as Katsman observes, it is not up to them. The state will do—already is doing—what it does with Jewish grief: transmute it into violence. For the perpetrator, the immediate psychic satisfactions of this maneuver are easy enough to understand, although the long-term costs prove somewhat more complex.
It is this context—the already-political grief at the core of the Zionist adventure—that makes so many on the left so reticent to perform a public shedding of tears over Hamas’s victims. They are, we might darkly say, “pre-grieved”: that is, an apparatus is already in place to take their deaths and give them not just any meaning, but specifically the meaning that they find in the bombs falling on Gaza. The appetite for the most grotesque images of violence against Israelis is so ravenous—leading to the repetition of dubious claims of mass beheading and rape that have the appearance of blood libels—because the apparatus of state grief runs so hot. It demands raw material. Its power, in turn, is such that the most ringing dissents calling instead for peace and humane mourning for all—like Eric Levitz’s and Joshua Leifer’s—nevertheless resonate only as whimpers of sentiment. Whatever the noble and admirable content of such humane efforts, their form is already molded. They are participating, presumably without intent, in a new Red Scare being prepared not against stray callous advocates of Hamas, but against all who defend the right of Palestinians to live, and to live as equals.
There is an unmistakable effort to push the pro-Palestinian left, including the Jewish pro-Palestinian left, beyond the pale by weaponizing grief, yielding such darkly comical scenes as German politicians refusing to speak to Bernie Sanders, whose family died in the Shoah, to mark sufficient deference to Jewish death. Such is the power of the Israeli grief machine: it authorizes Germans to tell Jews that they are mourning wrong. I joked, on the news about Sanders, that I could imagine a German stuffing me into a cattle car, weeping about the special German responsibility to ensure that the Holocaust never reoccur. Across Europe, governments are attempting to crack down on any demonstrations against the occupation, while U.S. politicians libel Muslims en masse and call for censure of any vocal ally of Palestine. The significance of this fact is that, in the several days that we spent arguing about whether the left was sufficiently decent about Hamas’s victims, Israel geared up its genocide machine—which it now is releasing. Presumably sometime next week, Western leaders will begin to express concerns, by which time it will be too late. Decency in the abstract is quite different from the questions that press on us when hundreds of thousands more children are under the bomb sights.
At the same time, Palestinian death is, famously, publicly worthless and undeserving of commemoration. Israeli politicians will react apoplectically if they are even asked about the subject of Palestinian civilian casualties, which already far outnumber the losses in the initial Hamas attack—and we are only at the beginning. The state declares openly that there are no innocents in Gaza, a society half of which is under the age of eighteen. Around the world, American and European leaders blankly refuse to engage in any way with the indisputable fact that Israel is committing war crimes in broad daylight, on video, hourly.
A genocide of Palestinians looks to be in the works. I know that Levitz and Leifer would not disagree with this assessment, and that they are wretched over the fact of it. But they are not wretched enough to refuse to participate in the ideological project of the Israeli state, even in an inadvertent and indirect way. The genuine humane sentiment that it is possible to grieve equally for those on both sides is, tragically, not true. One side has an enormous grief machine, the best in the world, up and running, feeding on bodies and tears and turning them into bombs. The other is starved for grief. “Soon, the last sliver of electricity and connection will be exhausted,” tweeted the Palestinian doctor Belal Aldabbour on Wednesday from Gaza. “If I die, remember that I, we, were individuals, humans, we had names, dreams, and achievements, and our only fault was that we were just classified as inferior.” Gaza is often called an open-air prison, but equally, the images of bombed neighborhoods reveal a vast unmarked mass grave.
The Israeli government doesn’t care if you, a principled person, perform your equal grief for all victims: it will gobble up your grief for Jews and use it to make more victims of Palestinians, while your balancing grief for Palestinians will be washed away in the resulting din of violence and repression. The impulse, repeatedly called “humane” over the past week, to find peace by acknowledging equally the losses on all sides rests on a fantasy that mourning can be depoliticized. If only it were so—but this would be the end of Zionism, after all. More tragically, the sentiment of those who want peace and justice for all and express this by chastising those in the West whom they see to be reacting with insufficient grief and excessive politics have only given amplification to the propaganda machine that is now openly calling for the blood of the innocent and the silence of doubters.
Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence? Nevertheless, how to grieve, what meaning to give those tears, is cruelly a political question whether we like it or not. And it is one that Israelis might find resources for answering nearby. Palestinians have long lived with the fear that the Israeli military will desecrate the bodies of Palestinians it kills, burying them in “undisclosed military zones without the consent or knowledge of their family,” as the anthropologist Randa May Wahbe writes. “Palestinians call these cemeteries maqaber al-arqam—the cemeteries of numbers—for their shared characteristic of replacing each corpse’s identity with a numbered marker as their anonymous identifier.” The result is an ongoing struggle that happens not outside but within the process of mourning: Palestinians have had to learn not only to grieve each loss on its own but to turn the very acts of burial and commemoration into opportunities to defy the occupying state: recall Israel’s violent attack on the funeral for murdered journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Israelis, if they would hear, might learn from this. It is a high threshold—and right now, perhaps implausible—to imagine that every shiva might become an occasion to curse the state that has made Jews, of all people, into genocidaires. Nonetheless, it is the one that must be met by we Jews who wish to keep fidelity with the full meaning of “never again.”
Gabriel Winant is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.