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March 16, 2002

Postmodernism Alive and Killing

by Ran HaCohen

While scores of Palestinians and several Israelis are killed every day now, while one of the world’s strongest armies is bravely proving it can turn even wretched refugee camps into ashes, I feel rather uncomfortable talking about ideology. Still, I’ll do it. In a previous column I analysed several arguments of the right-wing ideology of Israeli occupation: a rather simple task, actually. More difficult, and more interesting, is the question: how do parts of the Israeli progressive camp live with the Occupation? I’d like to explore this question this time, by demonstrating just one aspect of the consciousness of secular young Jewish Israelis, university students from the upper classes. Their consciousness makes them feel radical, pro-peace, anti-occupation, doomed to live among backward fanatics; but at the same time, the very same consciousness enables them to accommodate themselves to the Occupation: perhaps not support it, but definitely not disturb it. The intellectual fashion called "Postmodernism" – declining in the West, alive and kicking in provincial Israel – plays an important role here. Let’s see how some postmodernist clichés (oversimplified? reduced? banalised? maybe) are translated into direct political (in)action in the specific context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its present bloody stage.

A Class Experiment

Here is an experiment I made in class. Suppose, I said, we have four basic positions towards the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories: (1) dismantle them all; (2) dismantle most of them; (3) dismantle only distant and isolated ones; or (4) dismantle no settlements whatsoever. I now asked class which of the four positions they believed was the most popular among Jewish Israelis. Almost all the students believed the most popular was either position 2 or 3, i.e. dismantling some or most of the settlements (but not all or none of them).

(The reader is now encouraged to pose this question to her/himself. What do you think?)

Finally, I introduced an opinion poll on this very question, conducted last month by the Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research in Tel-Aviv University and published in Ha’aretz on the 5th of March. According to this opinion poll, the most popular opinion is to dismantle ALL the settlements: this position, which is generally categorised as "extreme leftist", was supported by 32% of Israeli Jews. 14% supported dismantling most of the settlements, 28% supported dismantling small and isolated ones, and 24% of Israeli Jews opposed dismantling any settlement at all.

The Media

It is no coincidence that my students believed the Israeli people was much more pro-settlements than it really was. I had expected it; I believe many readers share the same mistake too. Our main source of information about what people think, feel or believe is the mass media. The media portray the Israeli people as much more pro-settlements than they really are; it definitely does not reflect the fact that the biggest group among Israelis is the one supporting the evacuation of all the settlements. This bias has far-reaching implications, but let’s keep this for another occasion.

The Government

Counted together then, an overwhelming majority of 74% of Jewish Israelis (or, if we add the Israeli Arabs as well, 80% of all Israelis), support dismantling at least the isolated small settlements. Only a minority of 24% of the Jewish (or 20% of the entire) Israeli population think all settlements should stay. Now where does Israel’s Government stand in all this? -Not with these 80% of the three first positions taken together, but even more extreme than the farther end of the 20% minority position. The Israeli Government has not even considered dismantling any single settlement, and it rejects even the American demand to freeze settlement activity. In fact, settlements are constantly expanded and new ones are created every few weeks; "Peace Now" has more on that. If democracy simply means doing the will of the people, Israel is definitely not a democracy and has not been one at least since 1967 (opinion polls on the settlements issue have proved quite stable along time).


If you find all this appalling, wait till you hear what my students had to say about it. Here are some of their comments. Remember we are dealing with students of cultural studies, of theory and criticism, well trained in Derrida and Lacan. We have good reasons to think all of them are progressive, pro-peace, certainly no supporters of the settlements or the occupation. You may wonder: so what did they object to? It wasn’t always clear. First, they were admittedly shocked by having to talk about the present; when I asked if other courses applied to "here and now", one student seriously answered that the closest they had got to "here and now" was reading Jacques Lacan (died 1981)... But I think the point they really wanted to stick to was that every (political) statement should be deconstructed, and that constructive thinking aimed at changing things was unsuitable for a sophisticated, responsible and critically-oriented mind.

(a) Several students noted that "you cannot talk about what people want, because people are stupid and do not know what they want." By the way, when I asked whether anybody in class considered him- or herself stupid, no hands were raised. "Do I scent Baudrillard here?", I asked; the whole class nodded enthusiastically. The French thinker, author of "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place" (ask Iraqi victims), indeed claims that the masses know nothing and wish to know nothing. Here is a political translation of this arrogant, futile claim: people know nothing, people want nothing, you cannot say they oppose the Occupation because they have no will. Asking people what they want is a wrong question. In fact, I even heard the logical consequence of this: the government should not take the will of its people into consideration. The Israeli Government couldn’t agree more.

(b) One student said: "All this is not that simple. Some of the people whom we count as ‘extreme leftist’ and who support dismantling all the settlements, may at the same time oppose refusal to serve in the occupied territories. Now this clearly indicates that there is no ruth." There is No Truth. Another favourite postmodernist cliché. Since there is no Truth, we cannot resist anything and we cannot support anything, since in order to do that we need some Truth to rely on. But Derrida says that there is no Truth (which is, by the way, an absolute truth...), so we cannot take any stand at all; we can only deconstruct and resist any stand that anybody else takes.

(c) "The methodology of the opinion poll can be questioned. Other polls may give quite different results. Therefore you cannot rely on it." Here we have the purest form of radical scepticism, quite typical of postmodernism too. I agree, of course, that everything can (and should) be questioned; of course one could (and should) check if other polls give similar results (by the way: they do). But this wasn’t the point the student was trying to make. The point was: Whatever could be wrong, should be treated as if it were wrong. Any empirical finding should be discarded: not as soon as we actually have a contradictory finding, but as soon as we can imagine one. Being all blind and deaf, we have no access at all to any kind of reality, we can’t say anything about reality, and all we can do is mock those who erroneously claim they can see and hear.

(d) "Governments should be judged by what they say, not by what they do [sic!]. By saying that he is willing to endorse the Mitchell Plan (which demands freezing settlement activity), Sharon has actually frozen the settlements, and you cannot refute a claim that at the bottom of his heart he even wishes to dismantle them all." I believe this is an offspring of the postmodernist insistence on discourse: words are more important than actions, language is the essence of everything, discourse analysis is the key to everything. Thus every utterance of a politician turns into a holy text that should be interpreted ad infinitum (but remember we have no way of telling right interpretations from wrong ones), whereas facts on the ground are polluted disturbances we cannot relate to.

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Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and his PhD is in Jewish Studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

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