Hyperbole, Zizek and Israeli Politics

UPDATE: As Hjalmar notes below, this is from the Guardian website referring to the original op-ed: This article was amended on 20 August 2009. The online version originally referred to “Palestinian-frei”, while the print version had been edited to say “Palestinian-free”. This editing change should have been applied to the online version.  [As I’ve been thinking about it, I’m not sure how much difference this actually makes, however.-SO]

The level of discourse about Israel is sinking lower and lower. While I hesitate to even post this given the often unproductive discussions I’ve engaged in online and in-person with people about these issues, I’m just kind of annoyed. An idiotic op-ed from Zizek appeared in the Guardian the other day. I will say this; when Zizek writes:

When peace-loving Israeli liberals present their conflict with Palestinians in neutral, symmetrical terms – admitting that there are extremists on both sides who reject peace – one should ask a simple question: what goes on in the Middle East when nothing is happening there at the direct politico-military level (ie, when there are no tensions, attacks or negotiations)? What goes on is the slow work of taking the land from the Palestinians on the West Bank: the gradual strangling of the Palestinian economy, the parcelling up of their land, the building of new settlements, the pressure on Palestinian farmers to make them abandon their land (which goes from crop-burning and religious desecration to targeted killings) – all this supported by a Kafkaesque network of legal regulations.

there is some element of truth to this. Yes, the “occupation” does not stop. It won’t stop until, if we take Zizek seriously, there will be no possibility for a Palestinian state. I’m not so sure about that at all, however, the issue is that I don’t think it’s possible for Israelis to merely dismiss the occupation as the major problem in this conflict today. For any progress on that front we need to wait for a new administration, but the manner in which Zizek procedes throughout the article is shameless. Here are two absolutely idiotic statements from Slavoj Zizek:

Palestinians often use the problematic cliché of the Gaza strip as “the greatest concentration camp in the world”. However, in the past year, this designation has come dangerously close to truth. This is the fundamental reality that makes all abstract “prayers for peace” obscene and hypocritical. The state of Israel is clearly engaged in a slow, invisible process, ignored by the media; one day, the world will awake and discover that there is no more Palestinian West Bank, that the land is Palestinian-frei, and that we must accept the fact. The map of the Palestinian West Bank already looks like a fragmented archipelago.

The conclusion is obvious: while paying lip-service to the two-state solution, Israel is busy creating a situation on the ground that will render such a solution impossible. The dream underlying Israel’s plans is encapsulated by a wall that separates a settler’s town from the Palestinian town on a nearby West Bank hill. The Israeli side of the wall is painted with the image of the countryside beyond the wall – but without the Palestinian town, depicting just nature, grass and trees. Is this not ethnic cleansing at its purest, imagining the outside beyond the wall as empty, virginal and waiting to be settled?

Now, let me first say that I am not a supporter of the settlements, nor am I pleased with the most recent election results that placed “Bibi” back in office. However, the latter quotation is really Zizek at his worst. Bluntly, it’s a a pathetic projection and at best idiotic pop psychology. There is absolutely zero nuance in Zizek’s analysis throughout the article (even when rather broadly I agree with him, e.g. tacit government support of the settlements must stop and is detrimental etc). For one, throughout the article he continually conflates Gaza and the West Bank. I wonder if Zizek actually thinks that Qassam rockets from Hamas controlled Gaza are actually correlated to the situation on the Fatah dominated West Bank. Regardless, in the first quote above Zizek makes use of a technique of “Nazifying” Israel in order to denigrate it. Obviously, the term “Palestinian-frei” is an inversion of the Nazi term Judenfrei (literally, “free of Jews”). Besides the purposeful hyberbole here, is Zizek really suggesting that Israel is planning to –at some point–remove all Palestinians from the West Bank in a viscious act of ethnic cleansing? The notion is, I think, without any reasonable foundation and patently false. Not to mention counter-productive…

This op-ed is far better:  http://bit.ly/1j0zWe


17 thoughts on “Hyperbole, Zizek and Israeli Politics

  1. Thanks Shahar, I think this is right on. I suppose Edward Said left a void that was bound to suck someone in, so Zizek sucked.

    The only sense I can make of Zizek’s position is as a hyperbolic (as you say) synecdoche based on maximalists like Bibi who really would like to directly annex the West Bank as part of greater historical Israel, and believe that Palestinians already have a state, namely Jordan. None of which requires any sort of ethnic cleansing as long as Jews maintain their demographic majority.

    Otherwise, the settlements are pretty clearly a number of things that have nothing to do with even this soft ethnic politics, including the hostaging of parliamentary coalition to splinter extremists and building up strategic depth and a buffer of negotiable land outside the ’67 borders. To neglect these and other considerations in the analysis in favor of hysterical holocaust-baiting is at best incompetent.

  2. Carl, “Zizek sucked” could (in my limited experience with reading the guy) be said of just about everything he’s done.

    Shahar, great post. Zizek’s rhetoric sounds like it could be in the same neighborhood as some far right stuff.

    This is only partly relevant – I’m not as familiar as I often feel I ought to be with the conflicts around Israel and Palestine, but I’ve heard a few people make what sound to me like really good arguments for instead of a seperate Palestinian state instead having greater (really, equal) rights extended to Palestinians as Israeli citizens.

  3. Shahar,

    Great post. I find it indescribably stupid how informed these debates are by massive ignorance of the Ottoman Empire and situation concerning it’s breakup during and after WWI. I’m also appalled by the ignorance of the history of all of the relevant wars Israel has been in as well as the complete lack of compassion for victims of terrorism and unbelievably horrible wars forced on Israel.

    The position of many on the academic left really does come down to the proposition that Israel sucks because all the Jewish people living there don’t have the decency to commit suicide.

    As far as this kind of Zizeckian (it’s really Chomskian too) toolery-

    Israel has it doubly bad because on the one hand they are interpreted in the reductive way that the left interprets all post-colonial history, which weirdly critiques “orientalism” while engaging in it by not attributing any causal powers to the non-Westerners. So the Israelis are responsible for everything that happens in the middle east and with regard to the Palestinians, which is both false and infantilizing towards Palestianians.

    On the other hand, especially in Europe, the Jew is still thought of as the sinister other. This of course contradicts viewing Israel as an instance of Western colonization, but these are psychological tendencies, not mathematical proofs. It gives tools like Zizeck a great chance to flagellate themselves (against “colonialism”) while not really flagellating themselves (because it’s the Jews).


    Israeli Arabs (descendants of those who didn’t leave during the 1948 war) are Israeli citizens.

    Unfortunately, the example of the Lebanese civil war next door makes the prospects of a one state solution hopeless.

    A note- I should not have to explain this but, posting on this topic before teaches me that I do.

    I think the settlements are morally atrocious and in nobody’s interests. I think that Jimmy Carter is correct in saying that we are perilously close to accepting apartheid, which is unacceptable.

    This, however needs to be qualified. Most Israelis are against the settlements too. There equal blame between an Israeli minority (that wields parliamentary power brilliantly) and a Palestinian minority (and their Arab and Persian puppet masters) for the continued existence of the settlements. Israel did pull out of the Gaza settlements, and they would have been able to pull out of the West Bank settlements if the Palestinians were able to follow Martin Luther King instead of the Irish Republican Army. The Arab and Persian actors knew this, and did not want the settlements abandoned because they don’t want peace with Israel. So they launched rockets and blew up wedding parties and buses.

    Nothing any of us say is going to change any of this. But we still do have a duty to call out people when they say things that (in the words of Adorno) implicate genocide, as Zizeck’s article does.

  4. Thanks for the comments Carl, Nate and Jon.

    Jon, I think you’re right. Israel is routinely subjected to a plethora of double standards, in particular, from the standpoint of the “left.” The instantiation of the state of Israel –at least from my vantage point– illustrates the success of a national liberation movement. And I shouldn’t have to apologize for this. Now, plenty of people will jump on me for making this claim, but recognition of Israel as a Jewish state does not by necessity consist in acknowledging some sort of originary Jewish birthright or trying to counter a narrative according to which the Palestinians have suffered a historical injustice. Rather, I think it means accepting only that, as far as things are today on the ground so to speak, both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to national self-determination, and let me qualify, within the relevant territory. Moreover, the problem facing the region now is to find a political solution to competing national claims within that territory rather than uncritically accepting, or better, validating the Palestinian narrative (which as you note often ends up infantilazing the Palestinians anyway and there may be more world symbpathy if they adopted the techniques of MLK). Look, none of this is to de-legitimate many of the Palestinian complaints and I think that they absolutely need to be addressed head on, but from a moral perspective I think it’s only half the story.

    Zizek is just adding to the idiotic parade of voices that insist Israel is to blame for everything. I would have hoped that Zizek would know better to add to the facile “anti-imperialism” and language of genocide that can’t get past platitudes and buffoonery…

    As for the anti-Semitism, I would not want to claim that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, clearly it’s not, and I myself am often critical of the government. However, at best, much of the criticism (like we see from Zizek) is dangerous and cliche. Here’s the real question: What is it about Israel that Zizek (and others) find so threatening?

    I hope it’s not the answer I’m thinking of…

  5. Well Dejan for one has been calling Zizek on being a fascist and a racist from way back. These labels need the usual unpacking but it’s not a loony hypothesis.

    Jon, that’s a great point about the Ottoman antecedents and reciprocal violences, but at this point histories are being deployed strategically and what’s going to end up mattering are facts on the ground, including whatever fantasies pass for history in various stakeholders’ noggins.

  6. Of course, Israel would like it if the Palestinians would just turn the other cheek. It would make evicting them less risky.

    Look, I sympathize with the predicament. And I agree that the left generally doesn’t understand (or ignores) the real plights of Israel. At the same time, I think that the fact that “Most Israelis are against the settlements too” is a real problem. Why then elect a government that supports them? And why sit idly by while a “minority” uses the peace process to expand them? The fact of the matter is that regardless of the ideological convictions of “most israelis” (if you are correct), israeli bureaucracy is indirectly and directly doing just exactly what Zizek is writing about. It may be hard to swallow, but whatever you or “most israelis” really believe matters little as long as your government and bureaucracy keeps on doing what they’re doing. If they do that, Zizek’s predicitions of a Palestinian-frei West Bank may become reality.

    This is, of course, said without any sentimentality towards palestinians, arabs or iranians. Their policy towards Israel is more than clear. If you guys are correct, you shouldn’t be too thrilled by it. That just means that there is no option: you have to cleanse them and keep your guard up. That’s a sad predicament to be in. Is there an alternative? Maybe. But that would take courage and faith from both sides. It’s not my place to demand this from you (or them, as said, you couldn’t do it alone of course). God knows I don’t trust my own countrymen to have either. I’m just a little bit sad to see something this muddled on this otherwise excellent blog.

    Zizek a facist and a racist? Like Avigdor Lieberman, then?

  7. Hjalmar,

    Somebody is not muddled just because they disagree with you.

    The decision theory for governments where the constitution is too parliamentary always works so that a small minority dedicated strongly to one issue has disproportionate power. If two sides each have 48 votes and you have 4 votes, then decision theoretically you are just as powerful as the other two sides. Each player just needs one other player’s votes.

    This is why, for example, in Israel religious students don’t get drafted, even though most of the country thinks they should. There are small parliamentary minorities dedicated to that one issue. And the same has happened with the settlements.

    In spite of this, the Gaza settlements were dismantled. And the West Bank ones would have been except that the prime minister had a stroke (and it strong executives overcome the parliamentary paralysis, which is exactly De Gaulle’s consitution passed in France) and Palestenians launched hundreds of rockets in to Israel and blew up lots of people.

    How am I muddling “an otherwise excellent blog”? You are just defining excellence in terms of maintaining hypocritical and historically ignorant double standards towards Israel (in this regards it is interesting that the leader of the West Bank has spent the past week in Sudan as a guest of their government, to no international outcry).

    Finally, yes (1) the Palestenians should follow Tolstoy, Gandhi, and MLK. This is both moral and prudential for the Palestinian people, and lots of Palestinians feel this way too. [It won’t happen because: (a) too many outside actors with guns and money gain too much from the conflict giving them recourse to blaming all of their problems on Israel, and hence turning justifiable anger away from decades of hideously corrupt government that used to justify itself in terms of pan-Arabist socialism, (b) and responding to humiliation and failure with violence is just a hard thing for humans to resist.] and (2) the Israelis should kick over the settlements, again for moral and prudential reasons.

    What is being muddled here? Passive resistance worked in India and gave birth to the world’s largest democracy. It worked to defeat Apartheid in the United States. The second intifada has been a miserable failure, leading to death, suicidal corruption in the Palestinian authority, and a complete loss of moral authority for those who support the national aspirations of the Palestinian people (among whom I count myself).

    What is being muddled here? You are the one defending Zizeck’s equation between the shoah and Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

    How is this kind of antisemitism (and to anyone unmuddled and who has read historical accounts defending both sides concerning the history of Israel that’s what it is) supposed to help the cause of peace? It’s not. It’s another instance of Zizeck’s baby boomer leftist (and to be clear, let me state that I am a socialist) idiocy where you get a charge by identifying with third world militants who by this point have caused more harm to the third world than the original colonialists actually did.

  8. While I agree generally with the points that have been made and especially that holocaust comparisons are just as shrill and unhelpful from the left (against Israel) as from the right (against Israel’s critics), historically it seems rather clear that Israel has pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing towards the Palestinians. (Ethnic cleansing is not limited to genocide but includes expulsion and disenfranchisement.) This isn’t simply rhetoric and moralizing from the Chomsky/Finkelstein/Pappé segment of the Jewish left; more mainstream figures like Shlomo Ben-Ami, Tom Segev, and Benny Morris (certainly not a political progressive or moralist) will readily admit to the historical reality. This is not to absolve Palestinian and other Arab leaders and groups from responsibility for reprehensible actions, or to solely blame Israel for all the exigencies and vicissitudes of history, but rather to avoid obfuscating and occluding the issues behind a cloud of national myth. It is very easy to ask that Palestinians follow the Gandhian path (which I heartily agree is preferable and necessary), but when faced with the regular killing of protesters and children, economic asphyxiation, daily humiliation, settler violence and the Israeli government’s general unwillingness to abide by recognized international standards of conduct, one can understand, if not support, the resort to violent action against occupation.

    And I would simply add that the dismantling of Gaza’s settlements was only one step in effecting the legal and human rights of the Palestinian people, and largely done for political and strategic purposes, to distract attention from the other elements of a peaceful settlement. The removal of the devastating blockade that reduced 80% of Gaza’s population to aid-dependence even before the winter massacre is a much more pressing need. ‘Disengagement supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians’, as Sharon’s adviser Dov Weisglass revealingly said (Ari Shavit, ‘The big freeze’, Haaretz, 8 October 2004). Hopefully the West Bank will not see a similar fate.

  9. Jon: I’m not calling you muddled, I called the post muddled. By that I meant what I wrote before I used the perhaps muddling adjective. Given that the post is correct, how can that mean anything positive for either side? If Israelis are against the settlements, why are they expanding? And I also think that the critique of Zizek’s hyperbole is not as critically advanced as I’ve come to expect from this blog (therefore the otherwise excellent, and you are welcome, Mikhail – I’ve learned a lot here). Obviously, there is at least an extremely tragic dimension to the desire of Israel if you are correct in your belief that most israelis don’t want the settlements. What I find strange is that the author of the post basically agrees or accepts Zizek’s claims about state policy, but doesn’t like the conclusions Zizek draws from these claims. What other conclusions should one draw, given the agreement with first quote?

    Basically, I agree with point 1 and 2. That should, of course be done. But the thing is that if the settlements were to be “kicked over”, the palestinians wouldn’t have to resist by peaceful means. Given the right to a state, they would have to do more than that, namely live in peace with Israel (and here is of course the predicament: none of us can be sure that they will – I’m doubtful). Zizek is actually proven right by your comparison between palestinians and israelis, implicit in point 1 and 2. That’s just an obvious example of what the first quote from Zizek’s op-ed in the post above says. The basic moral problem of Israel is that there is no equal standing to be constructed here.

    And considering the question of the holocaust-reference: concentration camps weren’t a nazi invention, nor a privilege. The use of “Palestinian-frei” may appear tasteless, but it doesn’t add up to a full blown comparison between the idea of a slowly emerging cleansing of the West Bank and the Shoah. Honestly, it doesn’t. And for the charge of antisemitism: where does Zizek claim that the process he is describing is something inherently jewish? I guess you’ve heard this before, but here it goes anyway: critique of Israel isn’t necessarily antisemitic. But you know that, right?

  10. I also think that the critique of Zizek’s hyperbole is not as critically advanced as I’ve come to expect from this blog (therefore the otherwise excellent, and you are welcome, Mikhail – I’ve learned a lot here).

    Oh, ok. If suggesting that Zizek’s hyberbole-with regrads to the analogy between Israeli policy and the Holoaust- is way over the top is muddled than I’m fine with it. Now onto your even more condenscending comment:

    What I find strange is that the author of the post basically agrees or accepts Zizek’s claims about state policy, but doesn’t like the conclusions Zizek draws from these claims. What other conclusions should one draw, given the agreement with first quote?

    Not strange at all. Now, I said there is some element of truth to what Zizek suggests (again he’s being hyperbolic) and qualified my response in reference to the “occupation.” Yes, one should distinguish between opposition to the policy of a state and prejudice against that state’s majority; no, I’m not telling anyone they can’t criticize Israel without being a racist; and yes, you can by all means vigorously advocate the idea that the Israeli occupation is brutal and wrong. None of these points bears on the character, justified or unjustified, anti-Semitic or not, of a comparison between Israeli policy and Nazis.

  11. I’m sorry if I come off as condenscending, that’s not my intention at all. I sincerely apologize for my sloppy writing if that is the case. I’m not trying to be arrogant, I’m trying to raise a critical point. I have obviously failed and that is on me. For that, I apologize.

    But regarding what is the main point of contestation here, what do you have to say about this correction to Zizek’s piece: “This article was amended on 20 August 2009. The online version originally referred to “Palestinian-frei”, while the print version had been edited to say “Palestinian-free”. This editing change should have been applied to the online version. This has now been done.” Better or worse?

    The question is of course what Zizek really wrote and what his intentions were. And as I wrote, I don’t think that the original use of “-frei” warrants the outrage since i wouldn’t consider it the kind of absolute comparison you regard it to be. Zizek calls the concentration camp metaphor a “problematic cliche” but says that it “has come dangerously close to truth”. So, I see what you are saying, but I don’t agree with you.

    • Ok, Hjalmar. I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I’m glad Zizek “rescinded,” (not that it matters, really, the nuance between the German and English is slight and maybe even trivial) but honestly, I found the whole of Zizek’s article to really lack some nuance and fall into the cliche that often characterizes discourse from the left. Look, the current Israeli government appears to oppose reasonable self-determination for Palestinians, a stance interpreted by many as evidence of a racist ideology. I’m just not so sure we can make such an absoute correlation. However, an Israeli government perpetuating unfortuante policies, all while claiming to speak for the world’s Jewish population, does little to combat any of the prejudice against Jews we’ve discussed here. Rather, it plays right into the hands of Israel’s detractors. I think that, if at all possible, Israel needs to work seriously towards a solution to end the conflict and cease with some of its right wing politicians’ race-baiting/religious nationalist rhetoric, and make a broader commitment to human rights. Here’s the thing: Israel should do so because every nation should do the same. Why? Because they are the right things to do, and the best ways to ensure the security of Israel’s own citizens. All I want to say is that the concentration camp metaphor, as well as it’s qualification as “being dangerously close to being true” is at best, overwrought and unproductive. I think I’ve given adequate reasons for this above, but when Israeli occupation is likened to the wholesale Nazi extermination of Jews, this is not legitimate criticism; it is something else. Of coure, criticism of Israel has its place. Israel is not perfect nor does it claim to be. But all fair-minded people must be –I think–rather vigilant in drawing the line between legitimate criticism and unfortunately, the manifestations of what is often antisemitism now parading as such.

  12. “..Israeli occupation is likened to the wholesale Nazi extermination of Jews…”

    this is never done in the zizek piece above. there have been concentration camps not run by nazis as there have been ethnic cleansings other than the nazi holocaust. it’s not zizek’s article which lacks nuance, but your review.

    for example, unpack this passage: “Palestinians often use the problematic cliché of the Gaza strip as ‘the greatest concentration camp in the world’. However, in the past year, this designation has come dangerously close to truth.”

    (1) “palestinians” = people other than zizek.
    (2) ‘greatest concentration camp in the world’ = a quotation of some of those peoples’ statements.
    (3) “problematic” and “cliche” and “problematic cliche” are pejorative characterizations.
    (4) when something comes “dangerously close to [being true]” it means it’s not true.

    so zizek is writing something we should all agree with: when a place comes to even *resemble* a concentration camp, we have cause for alarm. what’s more, we shouldn’t merely dismiss those who tout ‘problematic cliches’ without acknowledging the grain of truth in their mistaken views.

    shahar ozeri, although zizek did not make his case exactly as you would’ve, you seem to agree with the author on all the essentials. why alienate a potential ally?

    • Honestly, Kevin. I’m bored with this discussion, but you are missing the point since you ignore the next sentence that follows the one you quoted. If you want to defend Zizek, that’s fine. If you want to accuse me of lacking nuance, that’s fine too. I think I was pretty clear in my exchanges with others above as well as in the post as far as what precisely my issue was here.

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