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Choosing to weigh industrial-scale slaughter against bacchanalian ultraviolence
I tried and failed not to take a personal view on Israel-Gaza. Also, this is the most miserable and unedifying thing I've ever written.
Why am I writing this?
Because I assume a non-trivial sample of people will have been going through a similar 'sensemaking' process and it might be relatable for someone.
It's about the evolution of personal opinion on a terrible thing and failing to remain aloof in the face of feelings and emotional contagion.
Readers familiar with RC will know already that it isn't going to be about what I believe you 'should' think. They know that I know that it's not my place to make arguments about things designed to persuade anyone else of anything. I'm bored of all that, anyway. Ego-driven 'debate' is for those who feel a need to win arguments. If I'm 'right' about any of it, it's purely accidental. This is true for all that I'm 'wrong' about too.
The piece began writing itself, a few days ago, as an intemperate outpouring of visceral contempt.
Its principal targets were Islamo-Leftishishism* and 'lickspittle centre-leftish* middlebrow, middle class, self-identifying ‘intellectuals’ who part-digest and then sick back up the talking points of academic liberal humanities student politics, mostly for the advantage of signalling their belonging to an ideologically monocultural peer group'.
[*Newish readers note: The 'ish' suffix is to distinguish modern identity-oriented left-leaning political thought from traditional materially-oriented leftist principles. It's a swipe at the cul-de-sac of identity politics built around intersectional victim hierarchies.]
For a while I was really on one, as everything that frustrates me about 99% of politically-inflected conversation converged onto one issue.
For a few days the usual point of Rarely Certain was lost amid the red mist.
Gone were themes like someone's a lot wrong but we should listen to the bits where they're a bit right or there's no need for all this catastrophising - things aren't actually that bad.
It seemed to take several particularly good nights' sleep to resist this urge to polemicise. To vomit out a screed. A racist, Islamophobic screed, as many of its targets would doubtless scream.
Everything had begun so well, when I started out trying to remain detached about Israel-Gaza.
Lot’s of people seemed to like that and the subscriber base swelled.
But subsequent events threw me off balance.
I noticed feelings overtaking thoughts. So I went with the feelings for a while, without committing to publication, just writing for the ‘fun’ of it. Reacting to the things I was seeing.
Here's what that looked like
It was going to begin like this ...
… A university lecturer ('Peter') is complaining in my LinkedIn feed about being accused of antisemitism. It takes discipline to resist the temptation to wade into his comments field.
Thank you for your sanctimonious and pompous lecture, Peter. Here's what was wrong about it.
Thats how I would start. Being quite the troll, when I feel inclined.
Peter has unwittingly become the singularity, as I see it; the archetype who thinks they're being victimised for bravely 'speaking out' while actually enjoying the privilege of majority cover for their opinions.
Majority cover by dint of being of that class which feels that it is their natural place to educate the rest of us by regurgitating a set of currently fashionable ideas that apparently lead inexorably to being on the right side of history.
My usual tolerance of viewpoint diversity and personal determination to avoid partisanship has dissipated these past few weeks. October 7th and the reactions on the streets of Britain and the US did that.
Stop this, Peter, is what I want to say. It's LinkedIn. A professional networking platform for work stuff, not politics. Stop whingeing about those mean people calling you antisemitic for demanding that the state of Israel just lives with missiles and murders day in day out, sheltering under its iron dome, with attack-proof rooms in every home, while a medieval religious death cult rains ordnance onto it every day.
It wouldn't have gone well.
It would have gone like this. But with even more annoying replies from Peter, no doubt.
Peter: I am so sick of being called anti-semitic for calling for a ceasefire in relation to the genocidal bombing of Gaza.
Mike: Peter, it's not genocide. The definition of genocide is not killing a lot of non-combatants to get at the enemy. I'll grant you that killing lots of non-combatants is terrible (although, personally, I don't blame Israel at this point), but it isn't genocide.
Peter: Let's make some things clear so that people aren't frightened to speak out against genocide.
Mike: It's a poor try at making things clear, Peter when it's not genocide. And no one seems particularly afraid to speak out against Israel. You certainly don't seem afraid and nor do the hundreds of thousands of people waving Palestinian flags and Hamas regalia in the streets of Europe and America. So I think you probably don't need to worry much about people being afraid to speak out against 'genocide'. Which is a made-up claim for maximum rhetorical effect anyway.
Peter: Israel is a country, it doesn't represent Jewish people any more than Palestine represents Muslims.
Mike: Peter. Oh, Peter. I see what you're doing. You're trying to minimise the significance of the state of Israel to the Jewish people. Perhaps you're making a kind of - oh, what's the phrase I'm looking for - intellectual ethnic cleansing move. Nice one, Peter. You're trying to cleanse Israel of its specifically Jewish statehood.
Peter: Those calling for the return of Israeli hostages, but not the return of Palestinians being held without charge and ignoring the 10,000+ civilians being slaughtered are expressing a view that the lives of Palestinians are worth less than the lives of Israelis - that is racism.
Mike: No, Peter. Everyone knows (including you) that the hostages taken by Hamas were mostly left-leaning kibbutz peaceniks and partygoers at a rave for peace, mate. The last time Israel negotiated an IDF hostage in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners one of them was Yahya Sinwar, who turns out now to be the commander of Hamas in Gaza. I'd say they probably shouldn't have released him except for the fact that they might have murdered their hostage then, because that's what they do.
The thing is, Peter, that there are lots of real Palestinian terrorists in Israeli gaols and no terrorists held hostage by Hamas.
Honestly, Peter, no one is ignoring the non-combatant death count. It's all I hear about every day. As it happens, though, I will confess to caring more about the victims of October 7th than the victims of Israel's retaliation, because I personally feel less affinity for Palestinians and have more sympathy for people who are literally surrounded by religious states that would wish for their disappearance from the region.
I understand that this is understood to be a racist position and I do not care. I care more about the people of Israel than the people of Gaza. I would actually respect you more if you avowed your antisemitism, though. Anyone can see where the balance of your sympathies lies, even though you won't come out and say it.
Peter: Those journalists insisting that people condemn the acts of Hamas (which the vast majority of people expressing sympathy for Palestinians and calling for a ceasefire do) but refuse to condemn the war crimes Israel is committing are expressing racism. Decide which side of history you want to be on.
Mike: I see your triangulating on racism, Peter, and raise you all the Palestinian flags and anti-Jewish slogans (these people on the street constantly refer to 'Jews', Peter, you must have noticed this) among those calling on Israel to stop retaliating.
I think you're bleating because you know that your side in this is riddled with antisemites. Sleep with dogs, Peter, catch fleas.
No. That exchange wouldn't have been pretty.
Peter would have got a traditional duffing up for being wrong on the internet, his both sidesism and false equivalences. My Googling would have given a patina of authority to my arguments as I deployed FACTS and EVIDENCE, which would have felt good. Dopamine would have been produced for us both, but no synthesis of opinion. No progress.
In passing, a friend did drop a comment under Peter's post, asking what he thought about the 400,000 non-combatants killed so far in Yemen by other Muslims. Peter didn't reply. I report this with a certain smugness, as you’ll have detected.
I might have felt momentarily satisfied for trolling Peter and probably thinking that I'd bested him, with his milquetoast leftishist kumbaya cliches and then he would have called me a racist and felt triumphal in turn, and that would have been it.
There's really no point in 'debate', other than as ego massage. You find out what you can and either remain aloof or feel the balance of sympathy where you do and then you decide which side you instinctively favour.
It will now be obvious that I have broken the Rarely Certain rule of not reflexively making your mind up or allowing feelings to cloud your thinking. For all its often abhorrent actions, I couldn't help but notice that the balance of my sympathy lies with Israel in the current moment.
What follows is how that process unfolded. How I went from trying to remain detached to landing on the side of Israel, despite the differential body counts inflicted by each side on the other.
Flag-waving and moral flattening
What seems to have happened first is that I really took against people waving Palestinian flags, seeming not just to want an end to all the killing but also to take the side of Hamas. That, along with an open surge in bona fide antisemitism that I found chilling.
If the protesters had marched solemnly and quietly to protest Israel's sustained program of industrial-scale slaughter in retaliation for Hamas's much briefer bacchanalian orgy of murder I might have thought about things differently.
In passing, I couldn't help differentiating in my mind between the forms of violence practiced by the respective belligerents. Unspoken by anyone else I've read or heard I just can't shake a sense that one is 'civilised' and the other is 'primitive'. Not that it really matters, rationally, when the outcome is what it is. Whether you're killed in your home by a precision bomb or an AK-47.
But there was something about those flag-wavers and slogan-chanters I found unnerving. Sometimes even disgusting.
It reminds me of why activism so often fails to win non-committed people over. I was theirs for the taking, but now here I am, willing the IDF to finish what it's started.
No one is saying this is correct. It might just be peculiar to me. But it's how it is. It's my lived experience, you might say.
The right side of history
Something else that the reactions to this conflict triggered is my distaste for the language of modern liberal leftishism.
Take Peter's closing line.
"Decide which side of history you want to be on."
Many rhetorical devices become so familiar that they typically fly past you. They're just ambiently present. But it's occasionally interesting to interrogate one.
The endless arc of the leftish's ambition to arrive at a utopian endpoint is often signalled by this reference to a faith that they will always come to be seen as being on the winning side when 'history' is written.
The faith always that they will prevail and that history will wind up in the shape they chose. So if you aren't with them now, you or your successors will end up looking back to see that you were on the wrong side in some argument or other.
It has a quasi-religious vibe, to me. Ending up in hell or on the wrong side of history are little different as broad concepts, really - the only significant difference being suffering the agony of endless hellfire versus the social shame of history's eternal damnation.
I've also come to see it as symptomatic of modern leftishism as largely a groupish mimetic endeavour, not just about specific principles but also belonging. Peter's LinkedIn post is an archetype of the genre, showing that he belongs.
This personal prejudice first arose when I kept seeing 'read the room' as a common retort on the socials. This means 'fit in'. Look around you and see what everyone else thinks. Then repeat that. We are hegemonic and you need to be with us or silent.
Then another prejudice was needled. I was reminded how a roster of obviously unrelated beliefs gets bundled together in the world of the leftish. Buy one principle - get all the others free. There seems to be little room for the individual in Social Justice politics.
Greta Thunberg wears a keffiyeh at the moment and insists that meeting the challenges of climate change necessarily entails standing in solidarity with Palestinians. Of course she does. It reminds me of the climate march banner from a while ago that I can't be bothered searching for now, which read 'There can be no climate justice without trans justice'.
It all seems to me a deeply unserious but atomising and alienating endeavour which only really thrives because of a mostly unthinking, but status-preserving, class of casual adopter who knows that objecting to it has become déclassé.
This is why most of us who aren't signed up tend to remain quiet. We don't want to be lumped in with the 'gammons' and uneducated conservative types.
This, I guess, is why my LinkedIn is full of Peters. Everyone else stays quiet, except for a gnarly outspoken few on the right, who always enjoy a good online ding dong.
Easy for them. They're gnarly right-wingers. Everyone expects them to think what they do. Not so easy if you see yourself much more as at least partly a bien pensant, as I tend to.
Peter is quite safe to call supporters of Israel racist because calling him on it means singling yourself out from the educated-albeit-middlebrow, middleish-class blob who know which beliefs best signal their status as modern people.
Peter is pumped up with righteous self-belief in his efficacy as an analyst of how Israel ought to react to an event that was the proportional equivalent to a raid killing more than 3,000 people in his own country. So he offers everyone a lecture on it that is clearly more a guide to the rules of membership for his team, who want to identify with people like him - and to be seen that way. That's why he brings racism into it. They always do.
And that's why he doesn't complicate things by going into Hamas's openly shared ambitions to eradicate the state of Israel.
No. Peter just wants Israel to back off and it's racist to think they should do otherwise.
As a triangulation it's not actually all that sophisticated. It's power flows from how most of us are afraid to push back, knowing that being labelled 'racist' is socially and professionally risky. I'm sure the Peters of this world don't see themselves in this way, but I see them as bullies who silence dissent by dangling a social sword of Damocles over the head of even good faith detractors.
Then, inevitably, it's all a reminder of the leftish intuition that the weaker side can never be at serious fault. This means that the playing field can never be level when you're weighing questions such as who might be wisest to give way first in a conflict. Leftishism refuses to be balanced on questions of responsibility or blame. So leftishist reasoning seems to me unlikely to provide any breakthrough insights into the Gordian Knot of this conflict.
Anyway, seeing hundreds of thousands of people waving Palestinian flags and chanting 'from the river to the sea' (which certainly seems like a call for cleansing a place of Jews, whether it really is or not) made me curious about what exactly Hamas wants.
All I really knew was that the much-quoted original charter of Hamas had been replaced. The rewritten charter no longer talks about the duty of Muslims to kill any Jews they find hiding behind rocks. You can easily find that version if you want, but to be fair to Hamas that charter has been superseded, so I decided to find out what they're saying today.
Again, if the Palestinian flag-wavers were denouncing Hamas too, maybe I would have joined them in spirit; liberation from Hamas seeming to be a precondition for Palestinian liberation overall. This is because a world with less violent death in general - including of the sort that Israel is currently causing - is an objective I can easily get behind.
But there was no chanting against Hamas. Which leaves a sense that the protesters demand that Israel lives with Hamas. Negotiates with them. That looks to me to be the default position if you're calling for a summary ceasefire from Israel.
I don’t know. That might work.
But what does Hamas think?
When someone tells you who they are, believe them
The other day a guy called Ghazi Hamad was on Lebanese television calling for the destruction of Israel.
This was around the same time that those hundreds of thousands of people were thronging London, waving Palestinian flags, letting off red smoke canisters and demanding that Israel stops going after Ghazi Hamad's organisation.
Here's what Ghazi Hamad said in the interview.
If you checked Ghazi Hamad's Wikipedia entry above you'll already know that Ghazi Hamad is a ‘senior’ Hamas figure. So I've taken it on trust that he speaks for Hamas. The group that people want Israel to stop going after in their bloody cross-border operation right now. The group that embeds itself in the Palestinian population (except for the very top echelons, who live in other countries, away from the fighting) of Gaza City, firing rockets from hospital grounds that the protesters want Israel to ignore.
Here are some of Ghazi Hamad's observations about October 7th and the future. [Note: I am taking the translation from Arabic to English on trust].
"We will do this again and again"
"The Al-Aqsa Flood* is just the first time and there will be a second, a third, or fourth"
[*Al-Aqsa Flood was the October 7th mission]
"We are proud to sacrifice martyrs"
In answer to the presenter asking if Hamas wants the 'annihilation' of Israel, Ghazi Hamad answers immediately.
"Yes, of course"
He adds ...
"Everything we do is justified"
So Peter and the protesters' ceasefire seems quite one-sided to me.
Remember, though, that not buying into the ceasefire idea is racist.
Of course, were Peter and me to really engage in the traditional pissing contest of 'debate' around this I'm guessing he would just keep telling me to think of the children that Israel is killing and that I'm racist for thinking that Israel probably does need to do whatever it takes to wipe out an organisation that unapologetically seeks its annihilation.
If I mentioned the reports that Hamas started out by gunning down some of its own civilians who were fleeing to the south, after Israel warned them to leave with a massive leaflet-dropping and text messaging campaign before the counter-assault began, Peter would probably deny that this had happened at all. That it was just IDF propaganda. And, of course, it could be. Which is why I prefer to just take Hamas at their own word. I’m listening to Mr Hamad and no one else on this point.
They are clear about what they want and I believe them.
They want Israel gone.
It has bothered me a lot that this seems to be largely overlooked.
There is only one solution. Intifada, revolution and other slogans
One of the interesting features of the discourse around this is the inevitable wordplay, which seems to me to be designed to sanitise the various slogans we've been hearing lately. The intellectual leftish is particularly good at this and that's why quoting Orwell never gets old. Newspeak is a constantly evolving project.
So intifada is kind of glamourised, even though historically it has involved suicide bombings, not just stone-throwing and workers’ strikes.
As for revolution, one can only presume this means - in the literal sense - forcibly overthrowing Israel and making it Palestinian-controlled. Because that's what revolution means. It's a straightforward word.
Insofar as I have a moral compass it tends to point away from achieving change violently (which includes Israel's own brutal and demented religious and nationalist extremists on the West Bank). But another issue I have is with being infantilised and lied to about what things mean. And the inevitable (mimetic) way that many people simply accept these re-framings in that well, actually, you only -think- it means that, but we - the Elect - know better kind of way, so typical of the intellectual leftish.
As a way of making it feel risky to demur, it's brilliant. But it only feels risky if you care about being frowned on by leftishists and scared to be cast out of the camp. Which I'm not in, so I don't mind so much.
Meanwhile, I just couldn't buy that intifada, jihad and revolution are peaceful activities.
Never mind 'Academics' and 'intellectuals for a free Palestine' schooling us otherwise.
Nothing I see addresses my scepticism that jihad - as so often practiced outside the esoteric world of Islamic jurisprudence - is the peaceful pursuit of a noble end. Whatever it's supposed to mean, in practice it is self-evidently a lot about murdering people for being the wrong sort of people.
Between 2001 and 2015 there were 167,221 victims of jihad that the 'academics' and 'intellectuals' insist isn't jihad, worldwide. Most of these were Muslim on Muslim murders, as Sunni and Shia sorted out their theological differences and competing visions for the perfect Islamist homeland (which, according to them, must ultimately encompass the whole world, but that's another story).
I also began to grasp that English speakers caught up in this sometimes don't know exactly what they're promoting.
Antisemitism and criticism of Israel are obviously not equivalent
The problem I was having with the protests was that they appeared more like celebrations. It seems to require active self-dishonesty not to see this. And it requires simple bad faith not to acknowledge it. Many people were clearly 'stoked' by the October 7th massacre, a reaction that brought me up sharp.
It started me thinking about antisemitism, really for the first time.
A few years ago I joined Britain's Labour Party, for the first time. My enthusiasm to take the plunge came from a proposed programme of national investment and I even joined the 'far left' pressure group Momentum, whose mission is to steer Labour leftward and away from the 'corporatist' neoliberal style of the Tony Blair years.
Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn there was a relentless controversy over antisemitism, due in large part to Corbyn's championing of the Palestinian cause. And in some part due to some obvious actual antisemitism at the fringes, which has always plagued both ends of the left-right spectrum.
Receiving frequent accusations on Twitter that I was antisemitic for saying that Israel often behaves deplorably made me see the confusion that the existence of a specifically Jewish state causes. Including, at the time, for me.
Matt Yglesias (again) offers an interesting commentary on the difference between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, which is better than I could muster - and it includes interesting data.
So, of course it's technically possible to be anti-Israeli behaviour without being anti-Jewish, per se. Nonetheless, there still seems to me to be a there there, when it comes to the line between supporting Palestine and deploring Israel.
I don't know how to process this, really. Beyond what I said up top about Peter and his evident disapproval of Jewish statehood in that region.
But in the end, I'm as vibe-driven as anyone else and the vibe I get from the street scenes over the past weeks is that a lot of the participants would love to see Israel dissolved and its inhabitants return to their status as just a diaspora. Or maybe to see Israelis outnumbered in their own state.
The protesters of course want Israel to stop killing Palestinians and stealing their land and who in their right mind wouldn't? Count me in.
But I noticed myself drawing an instinctive line where Israel's existence, just as it is right now, is concerned.
The moment that this tension was most evident came for me, came this past weekend. With a contrast been the mass protests in Britain and one in France.
In Britain it was all about the pro-Palestinian vibes. In France it was about a recent rise in antisemitic incidents (including a murder) and the moods were very different.
In Britain the sea of Palestinian flags suggested a lot of people wanting Hamas to get its way. In Paris and other French cities there were just people. Not wearing regalia of any sort. More than 100,000 of them. There wasn't a sea of Jewish flags. And they sang the Marseillaise. There were no speeches praising the pummelling of Gaza City.
It was about values, not sides. And a fear that I find in myself too.
Temperamentally, I prefer the French reaction.
I prefer my criticism of Israel to be criticism of Israel, rather than celebrations of Israeli deaths and demands for Israel to abandon what looks to be working. Which is rooting out an enemy which basks in the admiration it received in the West for committing an unspeakable atrocity. Those celebrations just looked too much to me like celebrations of Jews dying.
I was having none of that.
At root, I don't like crusading religions and so I'm dispositionally more inclined to feel greater affinity with the side in this conflict that doesn't want to convert the entire world to its way of life. Years of growing weariness with 'correct-thinking' liberal apologism and fear when satirical magazine cartoonists are murdered, concert-goers blown up, a teacher beheaded in the street and so on have made me appreciate what Israel - and therefore Jews who are hated for being Jewish - faces.
Of course it's complicated. A perfect Gordian Knot.
But also, it's simple. I find the contrast between two types of cruelty committed by these belligerents increasingly easy to parse. One of them is a 21st century kind of cruelty. The kind that can be worked on to prevent. The other is a 15th century kind of cruelty, pursued by people who don't mind dying while pursuing it because they have ridiculous beliefs. This transcript of a recent monologue by Sam Harris says it better than I can.
This is how I found myself drifting inexorably into taking a side. The protests played an interesting part.
The standard heuristic of which side to take seems so easy for the leftish. You just look at who has the most money and military hardware and decide that they're automatically in the wrong. Unless it's Yemen and the Saudis. You don't take to the streets for that. Jews seem to be seen differently and that has been bothering me.
It's bothered me enough to make a futile gesture.
I 'stand with Israel'
Few things make my eyes roll more reliably than the phrase "I stand with ...".
When someone says it I imagine how they woke up, got out of bed, took a shit, had some breakfast, did whatever else they do, picked up their phone or opened a browser and announced that they stand with whatever-it-is that day. Last year it was Ukraine. Some time before that it was something else. None of their 'standing with' made any difference.
As idle gestures designed to signal to ourselves and our peers that we took a side on something while just cracking on with our lives, as a low-cost move it takes some beating.
Oh, you stand with x do you. That's nice. What does that mean in the world?
It means you said a thing. Took a 'stance'. In your head and among your (probably mostly online) peers.
Well, I just signed my name to something in a similar way.
I feel distinctly uneasy about this, given the complexity of the situation. I will just live with that unease.
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Personal lessons so far ... (I reserve the right to update these positions as time goes on)
These events are really entrenching what I find unhealthy about the left's transformation into the identity-focused leftish. And how it denies agency to those it sees as the 'underdog'.
I've also come to understand why 'you can criticise Israel without being antisemitic' is a somewhat pat or naive position to take, even though it's technically obviously true. It seems more nuanced than that, given Israel's unique situation.
It's been striking but not surprising to notice how much more revolted I was by October 7th than by the carnage wreaked in response by the IDF. This feeling plays an outsize role in driving my thinking. It says that I have greater moral and cognitive tolerance for 21st century violence than the older, more up close and personal violence of times gone by. I worry a bit for my humanity that I don't feel as strongly about the insanely high body count in Gaza as I do about, say, the people killed, raped and taken hostage at Re'im.
However, if anything, my conceptual sympathy for ordinary Palestinian people has increased, now that I understand more about their predicament on Hamas's watch. If I were rich I would make a point of helping out some of the surviving displaced.
But something else gnaws and it isn't going away.
For the first time ever, I've felt a visceral sense of foreboding for Israel and the Jewish people. This is new and leaves me feeling genuinely unsettled. I've never been afraid for people far away like this before.
Also, for the first time ever, I'm happy to hear about two American aircraft carriers and their associated strike forces hanging around a region. And normally I strongly disapprove of US interventionism, which usually seems to make conflicts worse.
My possibly naive hope is that the IDF can sufficiently degrade its enemy - despite collateral carnage - so that Hamas is replaced by people who might welcome martyrdom a lot less. There's nothing glorious about death in my worldview, whatever the cause. But I worry quite a bit about supranational institutions currently parroting tropes about war crimes and genocide and demanding that Israel stops an operation designed to root out as much of the Hamas command structure as possible.
Because, if they spare Hamas now, everyone knows what Hamas will do.
Believe them when they say it.
"We will do this again and again"
This is interesting to read, with Israel-Gaza in mind.
An interesting and depressing statistic.
(90% of wartime casualties in general are non-combatants, according to the UN Security Council)
Finally, I loved‘s piece on not falling into the trap that I did. Michael is a better, more centred man than me and I recommend signing up to his Stoic Observations.