HFT Newsletter #9
What I’ve Written
I’ve written four articles this months, all on joeyayoub.com. They are
- Syrian ‘elections’ and scapegoating in Lebanon May 20th 2021
- On erasures and ‘discourse’ May 21st 2021
- The Jewish and Arab Questions, and European Fascism May 22nd 2021
- Don’t be confused May 24th
I am posting the 2nd and 3rd essays below
On erasures and ‘discourse’
This piece was republished in Lausan under the title ‘the periphery has no time for binaries‘.
As we’re witnessing Palestinians in Al-Aqsa chanting for the downfall of the regime (archived link), I was reminded of a conversation I had on the Istanbul-based podcast Mangal Media following the explosion at the port of Beirut last August 2020.
In our conversation, we both used the term ‘the periphery’, a term I myself adopted from Mangal Media and used in subsequent essays. It is a term I have found convenient to use to describe places as different as Bosnia and Hong Kong, Palestine and Colombia, Kurdistan to Xinjiang, Kashmir to Western Sahara. To me, it works better than ‘the global south’ as that term includes the regimes crushing us. These are places that do not fit neatly in preconceived notions that were largely developed during the cold war, when US/USSR binaries dominated left-wing circles, a habit that continues to this day. We are as peripheral to the ‘global south’ regimes crushing us as they are perceived to be by the Western think tanks and foreign ministers who view their imagined space as the center of the world. China and Russia and Iran are peripheral to ‘the West’, and any and all activists in China and Russia and Iran are peripheral to their governments.
Not everyone has time for the cold war binaries. The ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ organic links being built between Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Myanmar – and potentially other countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, maybe even Iran – do not fit these binaries. The Arab Spring inherently rejected it because some of our regimes were ‘pro-West’ and others were ‘anti-West’. The Sisi and Al-Khalifa regimes are ‘pro-West’, the Assad regime is ‘anti-West’, and they all must fall. Russia is using Israeli drones to kill Syrians on behalf of the anti-Israel Syrian regime, and Chinese cops are learning from American and Israeli ones to crush the Uighurs. Border regimes from China to the US are committing genocide through forced sterilization and other extreme forms of gendered violence.
Chileans and Lebanese learning from Hongkongers do not have time for these binaries. Protesters in Myanmar being repressed with Russian or Chinese weapons do not have time to debate whether these are anti-imperialist weapons or not, anymore than we in Lebanon had time to wonder whether the French government was on our side given that the teargas used against us were French. Shia protesters in Iraq don’t have time to listen to the Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia sectarians violently demanding their silence in the name of the ‘revolutionary’ velayat-e faqih.
I’m pointing this out to make a very simple argument, and one which I’ve been repeating for nearly a decade now. What Tankies, sectarians and other authoritarians say about Palestine and our region has very little to do with what Palestinians in Palestine say about Palestine and our region. The Syrian revolution flag is flown by Palestinians in Palestine, from Gaza to Jerusalem, and Palestinian flags are flown in sites of resistance against Assad in Syria and sectarianism in Lebanon. Palestinians in Ramallah and Jerusalem sing the same song (check the thread for more videos) as Syrians in Homs, and Palestinians in Haifa sing the same song as protesters in Beirut.
Protests for Palestine will never be allowed in Assad-controlled Syria anymore than they’ll be allowed in Sisi’s Egypt. Large gatherings are dangerous to these regimes because, unlike their western apologists on the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, they understand the threat that is democracy.
Syria’s foreign minister will warmly hug his Bahraini counterpart after the Bahraini regime crushed protesters with the help of Saudi tanks, and the same Bahraini regime can then go to Israel two years later and celebrate their newfound love. The Russian government can fake outrage over murdered Palestinians a month after concluding an agreement with the Israeli government on ‘internal security matters’ (if you’re not fluent in doublespeak, ‘internal security matters’ means ‘crushing Palestinians’), but all the Russians need to do is put a camera where Palestinians are being crushed and many ‘pro-Palestine’ activists will think Russia is on our side. The Saudi intelligence chief met with his Syrian counterpart as well as Bashar a few months after meeting with the Israelis, just as Putin will regularly host Bashar and Netanyahu, just not at the same time. Henry Kissinger will praise the CCP, and the CCP will praise Henry Kissinger, and while ‘leftists’ will call Kissinger a monster (which he is), and ignoring, whitewashing or even praising the CCP.
I can go on. The Assad regime invaded Lebanon to crush the Left-Nationalist Lebanese-Palestinian resistance with US-Israeli approval, and it crushed its communist movement in Syria. Syria and its allies assassinated Kamal Jumblat, Mehdi Amel, Hussein Mroue, Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni and Lokman Slim. It left groups devoid of any real power in Syria to maintain the much-needed facade, and that still works with a lot of leftists.
Assadist Arabs and their Western allies can post photos of Palestinian mothers mourning and compare them to the Virgin Mary, and then proceed to compare Syrian mothers using the same kind of language that the Israeli far right uses against Palestinian mothers. Israel and Assad cut up Lebanon between them and to this day there are Lebanese who believe that militias fighting for either side were ‘the resistance’.
People forget that Hezbollah isn’t the only group calling itself ‘the resistance’. The Lebanese Forces also call themselves that. They were both resisting different states, and they are now both ‘resisting’ any calls for meaningful reforms in Lebanon, and they are both right-wing, xenophobic and patriarchal forces. The only difference is that one of these right-wing forces calls itself ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-Israel’ which apparently upgrades it to a left-wing party to many lefties. Who needs materialist analysis when you got cool slogans?
In the past decade, western tankies and other ‘leftists’ have joined up with Arab/Iranian pro-regime supporters to help in the ongoing counter-revolution that followed the Arab Spring. They are fully complicit in the erasure of millions throughout our region and beyond. For that simple reason, I make no difference between regressive forces from Egypt to Iran to Israel to Turkey to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether they call themselves ‘leftists’. I do not have the time to entertain the minor differences between them.
So to all of my friends who are very frustrated by leftists ignoring our lived experiences and largely only speaking with one another, I repeat: You don’t have to ignore them altogether, but manage your time better. Focus on building more organic bonds in our lands and between our diasporas. They will continue to invite Roger Waters to cry over murdered Palestinians while he continues to openly whitewash the murder of Syrians because white men contifnue to hold disproportionate influence on our imaginaries. They will continue to treat our dead the same way they treat us while alive, as pawns in an imagined global chessboard where forces of evil battle the forces of good. Our lives do not have meaning beyond such constructs in these circles.
So how does that change in the periphery? Eve Levent said it best in our conversation on Mangal Media. When anti-authoritarian Turks see Hong Kong or Lebanon, they know that they could be next. When French or American leftists see Hong Kong or Lebanon, they do not have to imagine what it would be like if it happened in France or the US, because they are deeply convinced that it never can. Whether or not that is actually true is not as relevant. They just need to believe it. (There’s a podcast called ‘It Could Happen Here‘. Go give it a listen)
Promise Li, a US-based Hong Kong & Chinese activist, said something along those lines on The Fire These Times as well (it will be out in a few weeks). He mentioned how frustrating it’s been to explain the scale of the violence in Hong Kong to American leftists. Both Shui-yin Sharon Yam and JP said the same about Hong Kong, with both struggling with western leftists erasing their lives experiences. Laura Vidal from Venezuela said something similar, and so did Aida Hozic on Bosnia, and so did Rayhan Asat on Xinjiang, and so did Mohammed Suleiman and Sumaya Awad and Shireen Akram-Boshar on Palestine, and so did Sabrina Azad on Iraqi Kurdistan. And of course, every Syrian that I’ve invited on the podcast have expressed similar discomforts. I can guarantee you from now that the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Iraqis, Iranians, Bosnians, Tibetans, Nicaraguans, Indians and others that I will invite will have similar grievances.
It says a lot that the collective weight of such voices have yet to influence ‘the discourse’ significantly. It’s almost like ‘the discourse’ has nothing to do with reality.
The Jewish and Arab Questions, and European Fascism
The recent intensification of violence by the Israeli state led me down a rabbit hole and, for one reason or another, I picked up Enzo Traverso’s 2016 book ‘The End of Jewish Modernity’. As I read his analysis of the establishment of the US and Israel as ‘the new poles of Jewish communal life’ following the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but think of a scene in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Notre Musique (2004) which I’ve referenced a number of times on the podcast.
The following are two distinct musings that are nonetheless interlinked.
In that scene, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is speaking with the Israeli-French Jewish actress Sarah Adler. He explains (in Arabic) that we know of Trojan victims through the words of the Greek tragedian Euripides, and that he is instead “looking for the poet of Troy because Troy didn’t tell its story.”
By now, Adler had already concluded (in Hebrew) that Darwish is ‘talking like a Jew’, to which he agrees, and a few moments later he tells her a sentence that’s been stuck with me ever since I first heard it: “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interests in us stems from the interest in the Jewish question.” (Note: ‘al mas’ala al yahoodyya’ is a reference to ‘the Jewish question’, not just some ‘issue’ as the subtitles suggest. Darwish was referencing European antisemitism and the Holocaust).
Darwish’s insight is complimented by Traverso’s argument that the Jewish question was replaced by the Palestinian question. We can go further and say that because the Jewish question was replaced by the Palestinian question, the Palestinian question still is the Jewish question. At the very least, it evidences the fact that both questions are, if not identical, at the very least interlinked. “The interest is in you [the Jews], and not in me [the Palestinians]”, Darwish tells her, adding: “So we have the misfortune of having Israel as an enemy because it enjoys unlimited support. And we have the good fortune of having Israel as our enemy because the Jews are the center of world attention. You’ve brought us defeat and renown.”
This doesn’t translate too well from the Arabic, but I think Darwish is saying something along the lines of Traverso’s argument, which is in turn expressed by Edward Said as such: To those Palestinian victims that Zionism displaced, it cannot have meant anything by way of sufficient cause that Jews were victims of European anti-Semitism and, given Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinians, few Palestinians are able to see beyond their reality, namely, that once victims themselves, Occidental Jews in Israel have become oppressors (of Palestinian Arabs and Oriental Jews).” Darwish understood that all-too-well, which is why he wanted to be the poet of Troy. This is how he became the poet of Palestine.
In other words, there is a fundamental problem of recognition today. Israeli Jews have yet to recognize, with some notable exceptions, what they have done and continue to do to the Palestinians – and to the land, to Palestine. They have also yet to recognize that they’ve been attempting to ‘answer’ the Jewish question in Palestine rather than in Europe. At the same time, Europeans have by and large yet to recognize the full extent of the crimes committed up until the second world war (not to mention crimes committed since), from the Holocaust to their colonial occupations. With regards to the former, the Holocaust, they are as-of-yet unable or unwilling to understand the consequences of the displacement of the Jewish question, which is why the Jewish question became the Jewish and Arab questions.
The Palestinian natives of the land have had little say in any of this, but many are now saying so in clear terms. We saw this at the protests in Berlin last week. Many held signs such as “Palestinian children pay the price for guilty German consciences” and “liebe Germany, you can’t fix the past by silencing the present”. This is it, in a nutshell, and it is no surprise that this was said in Germany itself. Ironically, I think these Palestinians have understood the consequences of the Holocaust much more so than the European politicians seeking to absolve themselves of the history of their continent through unconditionally supporting the state of Israel. In other words, Europeans continue the tradition of displacing, rather than facing, the consequences of what they have done.
James Baldwin once said that ‘the European dream [my interpretation: the dream of white supremacy] that created America is proving to be too expensive for the world”. One can simply change ‘America’ with ‘Israel’ to make the same argument. The settler colonial imagination that created and continues to guide the state of Israel was created in Europe. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and national founder, was pretty explicit in his belief that the integration of ‘eastern Jews’ into Israeli-ness would require their ‘Westernization’. He believed that Israel had its own civilization mission, not too dissimilar from Europe’s.
I must emphasize the following: even after Europe’s Holocaust, the Nazi genocide, it remained common in Israel, Europe and the broader West to believe that Western civilization was superior to that of ‘the East’. In Ben Gurion’s words, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa would have to get rid of “the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies” in order to become Israelis. Even after the Holocaust and the German Nazi extermination of six million Jews, many Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion viewed the West as inherently superior, a civilization to be replicated. Even after the Holocaust, European racism and white supremacy remained the dominant political currency in Israel, Europe and the broader West.
In 1952, David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer (chancellor of West Germany) worked together to sign the “Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany” which compensated losses in Jewish livelihood and property resulting from Nazi persecution. Two years before that, in 1950, Ben Gurion’s government passed the infamous Absentees’ Property Law, which confiscated the property of all the Palestinians who were expelled, fled, or who left their lands after 1947 and was handed over to the state of Israel. That law remains in effect to this day.
(To be clear, I absolutely support Germany paying reparations to Holocaust survivors. And by the way, about a third of Holocaust survivors in the US still live in poverty and about one quarter of Holocaust survivors in Israel lived in poverty as of 2015)
I’ll end this section with the summary of the book ‘The Arab and Jewish Questions‘ (edited by Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh): “Nineteenth-century Europe turned the political status of its Jewish communities into the ‘Jewish Question’ as both Christianity and rising forms of nationalism viewed Jews as the ultimate other. With the onset of Zionism, this “question” migrated to Palestine and intensified under British colonial rule and in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Zionism’s attempt to solve the “Jewish Question” created what came to be known as the “Arab Question,” which concerned the presence and rights of the Arab population in Palestine. For the most part, however, Jewish settlers denied or dismissed the question they created, to the detriment of both Arabs and Jews in Palestine and elsewhere.”
The ease through which reactionary forces in Europe and North America alternate between antisemitic aesthetics (QAnon, Soros, ‘the globalists’ etc) and islamophobic politics is also related to the Jewish and Arab questions. In France, it is all the clearer given the Rassemblement National consciously positioning themselves as the defenders of the Nation against the forces of ‘globalism’. (Note: they changed their name from National Front to National Rally as the former sounded too fash).
The ‘globalists’, a term loaded with antisemitic connotation (think of Winston Churchill ranting about ‘cosmopolitans’, or fascists accusing Jews of being ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ more specifically), are being portrayed as the masterminds behind ‘the great replacement’ conspiracy theory, the idea that those Muslims and other foreigners are coming here to replace ‘us’. Basically, Soros and his buddies are bringing people like me to Europe’s shores, and y’all need to defend Europe against people like me because we’re not like you.
Ironically, I agree with Le Pen who put it in even simpler terms: the fight is between nationalists and globalists. Obviously, I don’t mean globalists how she means globalists. I simply mean nationalists versus internationalists. In our era of global warming, the former is nothing short of catastrophic. We know for a fact that we need cooperation beyond the social constructs that are borders and the long-outdated Westphalian nations sustaining them. The latter, internationalism, if coupled with critical long-term thinking and just solutions, can lead to better tomorrows.
My worry however is that the current structures of the EU are both unable and unwilling to deal with the threat of fascism, not least because they have too much in common with the forces they’re supposed to be against. The problem is that in order to recognize this the EU will have to recognize its part in fueling that far right, and take steps to improve upon itself. It’s not entirely impossible, but as of now I don’t see many reasons to believe that this is going to happen.
The demonization and scapegoating of black and brown migrants and refugees is fueling a rapid (re)normalization of white supremacy in Europe, with the ‘socialists’ of Denmark and their anti-refugee obsession only matched by proud fascists throughout the continent (the Danish chapter of the far-right Generation Identitaire praised them). Meanwhile, the statements of Ursula Von Der Leyen, the ‘center-right’ president of the European Commission, are indistinguishable from that of either the French far right or the Danish ‘socialists’.
The EU is already treating black and brown migrants and refugees with a militarized language. Through that logic, border violence against black and brown bodies becomes a necessary evil, if an evil at all. The Greek coastguard becomes a shield (aspida, to quote Von Der Leyen), protecting Europe’s fragile whiteness against the black and brown threat.
Victor Orban seems to have understood that the politics he championed some years ago are rapidly becoming normalized throughout Europe. He said in 2016 that his politics were “once condemned, despised, looked down upon and treated with contempt”, but are now the EU’s “jointly held position”. He wasn’t wrong. While most EU politicians may continue to treat the person of Orban as an outcast, they are rapidly mirroring his politics.
And while the far right always ends up collapsing upon its own contradictions, we cannot ignore the fact that the damage they will do in the meantime will be severe. In our era of global warming, we simply cannot afford to wait it out.