But not like this
On living and dying with ghosts
When the war began I was in Wrocław. Not long ago, I woke up one morning in Beijing and went to sleep that evening in Warsaw, having crossed, in the intervening haze of time, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire and the socialist confraternity of nations. It felt very weird, being in Europe again. This loose, leaky, haphazard continent, where you can just jump on a train without even buying a ticket, and people are apparently free to spraypaint whatever they want all over the walls. But it was also very undeniably nice. The warm stucco of the old city, the peacefully crumbling concrete of the old socialist-utopian blocks. After the gargantuan scale and unfathomably violent history of China, Warsaw was very human-sized, cosy. Accordion players on cobbled streets, church bells, a beer on the terrace. I almost forgot that all the old buildings in the old city were facsimiles, that none of them were actually any older than 1945, because for the previous five years the most civilised powers of Europe had unleashed a mechanised bloodbath across these lands, industrial exterminations, warfare on a scale unseen in human history, in which every city between Moscow and Berlin was razed flat.
Wrocław is another nice, cosy Polish city. But it's impossible not to notice, as you wander along its pretty gingerbread streets, that this used to be a nice cosy German city called Breslau. The churches all have their stained glass windows and gloomy oil paintings, but the austere brick and plaster still reminds you that this place was built by Lutherans. The German inscriptions might have been erased from every stone—everywhere, that is, except in the Old Jewish Cemetery—but there are still clues left behind. In the rest of Poland, you can only say you're from somewhere if your family have been there for four generations. But in Wrocław, everyone is from somewhere else: back in 1945, everyone who’d lived here for generations either died or fled. This place is like a little American frontier, a zone of dislocation, a melting pot, within Europe. Most came from the area around the Polish city of Lwów, which was about to become the Soviet Ukrainian city of Lviv. (Now, of course, more have followed them: something like a quarter of the city's population are migrants or refugees from Ukraine.) But unlike in America, the previous inhabitants left their things behind. My Polish friends told me that for the first few decades of the Polish People’s Republic, people in Wrocław ate off dinner plates decorated with the swastika. Strange continuities seep in. The philosophy department at the Uniwersytet Wrocławski is very proud of its distinguished alumnus, the hermeneuticist Hans-Georg Gadamer. In Warsaw, pedestrians cross the road whenever there's a gap in the traffic; in Wrocław they wait patiently until the little green man appears, even if there's absolutely nothing on the road. Just like Germans. There's a minor rivalry between the two cities; one bone of contention is that after the war, rubble from the ruins of Wrocław was shipped over to rebuild Warsaw's centre. You stole our stones! But surely they weren't your stones, not back then; they were captured Nazi stones. Whose heirs, exactly, are you?
There are Nazis in Wrocław. Not many, but enough to pose a threat to the city's small, quiet population of Jews. Many of those Jews barely know anything about their past: during the socialist period, if you were Jewish, it was more convenient not to mention it, even to your own children. There are memorials to Katyń in every church and by the river, but nothing to record what happened to the large, prosperous German Jewish community of Breslau. Just the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the headstones record deaths from the 1800s to the 1930s but the stones themselves are all suspiciously new. The official state position is that it has nothing to apologise for, since none of its citizens ever participated in the Holocaust; it was just another case of Germans murdering Poles. I wonder where that leaves the Polish Nazis. Being a Polish Nazi feels like a uniquely miserable and pathetic experience. Do they believe that Hitler was right about everything, except the need to eventually exterminate the entire Polish population? Or are they true masochists? Come back, come back to this city, rule me, conquer me, shoot me in your charming baroque square...
Of course, the Germans have come back. They stream over the border, hordes of them, every year, to visit Wrocław's Christkindlesmarkt, which has apparently been named the best traditional German Christmas market in the world. And maybe there's something deeper and uglier at play. One ethnic cleansing seems to conjure another. Doesn't Wrocław now look more like the fantasy of Germany—the one on the chocolate box, the one with lederhosen and carols and children with ruddy cheeks, the one that drowned this continent in blood—than Germany itself? Look at the lovely lights in this lovely city. Without any migrants, without any Muslims...
Wrocław is a weird city. It has ghosts. The expulsion of the Germans after 1945 was maybe the most understandable of the great exterminations that convulsed Europe in the twentieth century, but it was still an extermination. Estimates of the number of people who starved or froze or were worked to death or mobbed or shot vary wildly. Maybe half a million. Maybe two million or more. Their crimes mght have been multiple, but the only crime they were actually punished for was simply being German. Sometimes atrocities are inflicted on the wrong type of people, people we don’t want to acknowledge as victims. You’re not supposed to think about it too much. (It’s always puzzled me: why is it seen as mildly dodgy to mourn the people who were massacred in the firebombing of Dresden, but perfectly acceptable to mourn their Axis allies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?) Those Germans died in silence for the neat, clean borders we all enjoy today. But they left ghosts. The absence of the people that used to be there and aren't. A human world that was once tangled up in a place, and which remains in thorns and tatters even when the humans themselves are gone. I know ghosts. In a strange way, even though they got this way under very different circumstances, Wrocław reminded me of Tel Aviv. This strange playground where you can smoke weed on the beach and eat interesting things for brunch, just up the coast from Gaza, the world's largest prison camp, one of the most impoverished places on the planet, where a few of the people who used to live in Tel Aviv before the street art and the clubbing now drink polluted water, inside a cage, under a rain of Israeli bombs. And the more Tel Aviv tries to banish its ghosts, the more they teem.
You might have your problems with people. But living with people is always, always better than living among ghosts.
Over the weekend, Palestinian resistance groups led by Hamas finally broke through that cage surrounding Gaza. On land, by air, and by sea, hundreds of fighters poured into Israel. The average age in Gaza is only 18, and the strip has been under an illegal Israeli blockade since 2005: this was the first time many of these people had ever tasted anything resembling freedom. For the first time since 1948, swathes of historic Palestine were being captured by Palestinian forces. They overwhelmed the IDF posts that surrounded Gaza. Dozens of soldiers were captured, including senior officers, along with Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles. Gazan TV journalists reported live from within Israel. The forces of the occupation were reeling. The Israeli state had been humiliated. Just for a moment, the playing field had been levelled. And all of this was entirely within the bounds of international law; more importantly, it was in accord with the sacred right of an oppressed people to resist their oppression.
But that's not all they did. Instead, everywhere they went, the resistance fighters committed indiscriminate massacre. They killed people in their homes. They killed drivers on the roads. They mowed down old women waiting at a bus stop. They exterminated entire families, including their children. They set houses on fire to smoke the residents out of their safe rooms, and then they killed them. They took phones from the people they’d killed and texted their neighbours in Hebrew, saying it was safe to come outside, and when people did come outside they killed them. They found a bunch of kids having a psytrance rave in the woods and killed them too: hundreds of them. The naked body of a German national was paraded around Gaza as people beat her with sticks. Wherever they went, they wiped out as many human lives as they could. As I’m writing, the official death toll is over 900, the vast majority of them civilians, but more bodies are still being found.
Here’s the question. What is the relation between these two things, the fence being torn down and the massacre that followed? Does the one always imply the other? Is an instant of freedom for Palestinians just another name for Israelis being slaughtered in their homes? A lot of Zionists would, I think, say yes. Maybe it’s not nice that the Gazans have to be locked in a cage, but look, this is what happens when they get out: they kill everyone they get their hands on. These murders are inseparable from the Palestinian cause; freedom for Palestine is a euphemism for another six million murdered Jews, and the only way to prevent that happening is to keep the Palestinians under occupation forever, or maybe just quietly get rid of them. For what it’s worth, I oppose this notion with every fibre of my being. But maybe I’m wrong, because a lot of people seem to agree with the Zionists on this one. Like, for some reason, basically all of my friends and comrades in the Palestine solidarity movement.
Because people, including a few people I ordinarily respect, who I know to be capable of being non-stupid, are being incredibly fucking stupid about this. You could observe that this nightmare is the culmination of decades of Israeli cruelty. You could point out that the IDF was caught off guard because so many of its soldiers were busy in the West Bank, guarding settlers as they rampaged through Palestinian villages. But that’s not enough; you psychos are actually endorsing this. You are directly identifying resistance and liberation with a slaughter of unarmed civilians. I know why you’re doing this, of course. You are trapped in a little game of meaningless discursive gestures, in which you have to constantly affirm the eternal righteousness of whatever side you’ve chosen, or else people online will make fun of you. And so you end up saying that atrocity is resistance, this is what it will always look like, and anyone who has any reservations about it does not belong to the cause. You end up aligning yourselves with the ugliest, most eliminationist strands of Israeli fascism, and you don’t even realise it! I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t ever use this thing to have one-sided arguments with cretins on Twitter, but as far as I can tell nobody’s attempted to express this cretinism in prose so I don’t have much choice. Look; look at this stupid, stupid shit:
I know the lines, obviously. I’ve used plenty of them myself. The things you’re supposed to say when the side you support does something monstrous, the rhetorical flourishes you bring out in the face of mass murder. The small acts of intellectual blackmail you carry out against yourself. Lines like this:
This is the most basic, brute-force gesture: for everything monstrous that has been done here, remember that Israel does the same stuff too. Resistance fighters kill children in their homes: well, what do you think an Israeli missile does? Resistance fighters kidnap dozens of civilians: do you know how many ordinary Palestinians are trapped in Israeli jails, convicted by the farcical military courts? And you’re right: for everything that was done over the weekend, Israel really has done worse, and it will probably continue to do worse in the future. There is nothing Hamas could do that would be equivalent to seventy-five years of violent dispossession and occupation and apartheid. But for a few golden days, the famously lopsided ratio between Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties went the other way. Is that enough for you? Does that satisfy? Is that justice? Is that all you were really after, all this time?
The worst is when they point out that one of the targets was the Israeli town of Ashdod, and in 2014 the New York Times reported on Ashdod residents dragging sofas up hills so they could gawp and cheer at the IDF bombing Gaza. Which is repulsive. To sit in safety and watch people suffer as a form of entertainment is an utter moral atrocity. But that’s you! What have you been doing these past few days? Do you really think it’s somehow better if you’re watching the massacre on your phone?
Of course, sometimes the mask slips, and the real content shines through:
Frankly, if all you have to offer is this grubby, scummy cynicism—no clean hands in a dirty world, sometimes innocent people will die, war is violent and in the end there’s nothing wrong with that—then to be honest, I struggle to understand why you even bother to align yourself with Palestine at all. If this is how you talk, how can you possibly adopt any stance of moral outrage when Israel commits its own crimes? Why not drop the act and throw your lot in with the IDF, since they already speak your language?
But most of the time, if you’re looking for something a bit more sophisticated than but the Israelis do it too, you end up falling back on the most universal and repulsive form of apologia, which is argument by media analysis. So you issue your denunciations of the liberals on the TV and in the newspapers, the false humanitarians, the selective, one-sided weepers, who are apolitically appalled by the loss of life when it’s Israelis being killed, but who said absolutely nothing as Palestinians were routinely murdered every single week. Two hundred people were killed in the West Bank this year, by soldiers and police and settler pogroms: where was your outrage then? Where were your calls for peace and nonviolence? Where were your public buildings lit up in the Palestinian colours? Where were your tears?
And it’s true, these people exist, and they are hypocrites. But so what? Who gives a shit? How does it even remotely justify an atrocity to point out that some people in the West didn’t care about other, nearby atrocities? Why are you even talking about that? More to the point, who, exactly, are you talking to? Look at the exchange below:
Rachel Shabi is a journalist who has reported on the conflict for nearly two decades. She has not been silent. She has loudly and consistently opposed Israeli atrocities. Obviously these people had no idea at all who they were talking to: they saw someone upset at civilians being murdered, and automatically assumed that this person must be a hypocrite. Which might say more about them than it does about her. Really, this line is barely any kind of line at all. It’s not thought. It’s not an idea. It’s a defensive reflex, a cowardly dodge, a way of throwing up your hands over your face: that’s all.
But sometimes people are brave enough to tackle things head on. Like so:
I’m certainly not denying that the murderous ferocity of what happened over the weekend might have something to do with the inhuman treatment of Gaza. Everything that happens has a cause. But since everything that happens has a cause, this is an incredibly futile line of argument: after all, you could equally say that if you detonate suicide bombs in buses and restaurants, eventually people will want to put up a wall around you and just make it stop. I’d suggest that any argument in defence of Palestinians that could also be used in defence of Israel is not fit for purpose. But more to the point, this is an outrageously condescending approach, one that amounts to the wholesale denial of Palestinian ethical subjecthood. Do you really not see who you are helping when you position Palestinians as mindless savages who can’t be held responsible for their own actions? I have not, it’s true, lived under siege for eighteen years; maybe my perspective is limited. But I still think it’s possible to drive past some old people waiting at a bus stop and not kill them on sight. I think it’s possible to not execute parents in front of their children. In fact, I know it’s possible, because there were plenty of Hamas fighters who didn’t do it. Some filmed themselves with women or disabled or elderly people in their homes, promising not to harm them. They insisted that the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades do not murder children, which is completely untrue, but it’s hopeful. Afterwards, an Israeli woman told the TV news that the Hamas fighters in her home had told her ‘don’t be afraid, we are Muslims,’ and asked permission before eating one of her bananas. How do you explain these people? They lived in the same city under the same siege; they lived through the same Israeli bombings as the ones who happily took their revenge. Could it be that whatever our condition, and whatever evils are visited on us, we are all answerable for the deeds of our hands?
Maybe the biggest, most sophisticated, most convoluted blackmail is this: don’t tell Palestinians how to resist the occupation. Who am I, safe and secure in this creepy city in Poland with only a very few Nazis, to tell Palestinians what they should or shouldn’t do? How far is too far? Which are the good and the bad ways to struggle? How dare I? By what right?
But that’s exactly what you are doing. If you affirm this massacre, if you claim that gunning down defenceless people is an acceptable mode of resistance, then what are you saying to the Palestinians who maintain that it is not? There are a lot of ways to resist. There are people who follow the occupation forces with cameras, who protest at checkpoints, who strike, who put themselves in front of Israeli guns and clubs, without any weapons of their own, because they’re committed to nonviolence—but you think they should have avoided all that. You know the correct way of resisting Israel, and it’s to mow down teenagers at a music festival. Even those Hamas fighters who fought the IDF but decided not to murder helpless people—as soon as you trot out your bullshit line about not telling Palestinians how to resist, you’re saying they should have pulled the trigger. Look at the tweet above: this person clearly thinks he’s honouring the dead of the Great March of Return, but he’s doing nothing of the sort, he’s traducing them. What idiots they were, to have willingly walked into live fire for the principle of freedom, when they could have murdered someone’s granny instead.
It’s true that Palestinians have been resisting nonviolently for a very long time, with very little to show for it. But there has been violent resistance for a very long time too, and that has not worked either. The last intifada was a catastrophe for Palestine and utterly ruinous for any chance of peaceful cohabitation. Do you actually believe that there is a military path to the liberation of Palestine? Do you really think Hamas will plant a black flag on Dizengoff Circus? Do you think there’s a pile of dead old women big enough that it will spontaneously turn into a free and peaceful homeland? You’re not actually as stupid as you pretend to be; of course you know it isn’t happening. You know that this is nobody’s liberation, it’s just desperate people who have been backed into a corner, lashing out. But you don’t like the implications. So you pretend.
In the end, I think all these lines are doing the same thing. They’re a series of mental tricks that allow those who know that murdering defenceless people is wrong to pretend that sometimes murdering defenceless people is fine. Your stomach turns, the way mine does, at the thought of pointing a gun on someone who poses no threat to you and suddenly ending their life. But you know that this is being done in the name of liberation, which means you have to be seen to support it. And so to smooth over the gap, you produce this bullshit. You produce evasive bullshit about the misdeeds of the other side or the priorities of other people. You produce intimidatory bullshit about how your own conscience is politically irrelevant. You produce the utterly shameful mystifying Fanonian bullshit about the violence of the oppressed, how much nobler and more defensible it is than the violence of the oppressor. And yes, there is a history and a context here, but violence is violence is violence. What actually face each other are not oppressor and oppressed, or coloniser and colonised, or even Israel and Palestine. It’s not a context or a history. It’s a person with a gun pointing it at a person without a gun, and killing them. And that’s what you’re trying to forget.
In the Mishnah it is written that Adam was created alone to teach his descendants that the entire world can be contained in a single life, and that to destroy a single life is to destroy an entire world. The same principle is repeated in surah 5 of the Qur’an, al-Ma’idah. ‘We ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever takes a life, it will be as if they killed all of humanity.’ We have always known.
I am an anti-Zionist because I believe that murder is wrong. The state of Israel was born bathed in blood, and its continued existence depends on regular slaughter. Unlike most of the people cheerfully excusing this massacre, I have seen the occupation of Palestine with my own eyes; I have met the people living under its shadow. I know that something very, very ugly might be coming. Since Saturday, Israeli jets have repeatedly bombed Gaza, levelling entire towers, killing hundreds, for essentially no reason other than to shock and demoralise and inflict suffering. There are two million people crammed together in that tiny wedge of land, and half of them are children. But this is just a kind of holding pattern; Israel lazily commits mass killings while its leaders and generals work out what they actually want to do. They were perfectly happy with the status quo in Gaza: a population kept just above starvation level, occasionally emitting rockets like an alarm clock, reminding them to mow the lawn. Hamas’ massacre has, at least, made the status quo untenable. It’s hard to imagine that what comes next won’t be worse. Whatever it is, all responsibility will belong with Israel. But the fact remains that the only just future is one in which Israelis and Palestinians live with each other, however uneasily, and not with ghosts. Every massacre of civilians makes that outcome more unlikely and the situation more hopeless. I respect the oppressed enough to acknowledge that while they might be disempowered, they are not powerless, and they have a responsibility too. THOU SHALT NOT KILL is a commandment. It is not partial. It does not admit excuses. And if you only believe that murder is wrong when it aligns with your anti-Zionism, then you are already lost.