To let suffering speak: a response to our critics

Since the attacks committed by Hamas on the seventh of last month, we have received considerable criticism, offered in good faith and otherwise, for publishing a number of collective statements in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and for our staff-members’ presence at marches in protest of Israel’s ongoing war-crimes. Given the sclerotic condition of Australian political discourse, this isn’t surprising. Our predecessors at Overland have had to make the same arguments against the same bad faith actors to defend support for Palestine many times. But I have been shocked by the doggedly misdirective persistence of these arguments as the bombs continued to fall.

To first concede what’s worth conceding: one of the statements we published included a regrettably imprecise ‘if’, which allowed it to read as broadly ironising or conditionalising the moral status of crimes committed against civilians. Neither we nor the authors intended this reading: their stipulation was directed at the luridly propagandistic and wholly unsubstantiated claims which were then being uncritically disseminated regarding the beheading of babies. The statement was amended to clarify their authors’ intention that crimes should be demonstrated and punished as crimes, rather than with indiscriminately asymmetrical violence against a civilian population. This was unfortunate, and it has been corrected in dialogue with the writers of the letter, as well as those who raised this concern with us in good faith.

The same statement was, and less creditably continues to be, criticised for blaming the IDF for the explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital, as though it were deliberately misrepresenting an otherwise settled matter. I am not a munitions expert, but from the opinions of those who are, the issue remains contested. While the different news sources we follow consider the cause of the explosion ambiguous, however, they are emphatic in their disproof of the dubious videos and recordings presented as evidence of Palestinian culpability by Israeli spokesmen. If their description of this media strategy as one of deliberately deceptive misinformation is correct, then it is congruent with a well-established IDF modus operandi, which has indisputably merited a suspicious hermeneutic over many years. In a wider sense—though this point is academic in the worst sense of the word—despite their vociferous protestations regarding Al-Ahli, Israel had prior to and since bombed several hospitals, refugee camps, and residential buildings with impunity, and rendered many others incapable of medical care by depriving them of power, even to the vicious extent of destroying solar panels.

For the rest, the criticisms we continue to receive multiply, even as the State of Israel denies food, water, and power to two million fucking people, and drops an explosive tonnage exceeding Hiroshima on the most densely populated region on earth, targeting schools, hospitals, universities, bakeries, fishing-boats, water-towers, and refugee camps — including those in which Gazans have been explicitly instructed to seek refuge; even as ever more historians and human-rights lawyers explicitly call Israel’s response the genocide it is; even as the Australian media maintains its cowardly passivised lock-step; even as the powers of the Western world refuse to endorse even the most anodyne limit to Israel’s violence, has merely demonstrated the appalling pervasion of the manufactured consent to Palestinian death. Further, that we continue to be accused of making Jewish people ‘unsafe’ by the mere act of allowing Palestinian voices to be heard at all, while one of the most sophisticated armed forces in the world unleashes horrors of escalating scale on a captive civilian population is, to put it mildly, staggering. It is as though Israel has arrogated all available languages of suffering to itself, and even our fractional dissent from that prerogative, solitary in the Australian media ecology, somehow calls into question the legitimacy of all Jewish pain. Clearly, the Western mind possesses no thinkable limit to Israel’s right to violence.

To address once and for all the asinine and dishonest complaint that we have voided some categorical duty by failing to condemn Hamas while daring to assert the value of any other Middle Eastern life— I, we, Overland, unambiguously consider the civilian murders perpetrated by Hamas atrocities. Of course they are; what else would they be? But they are also obviously contiguous with legion others committed by the IDF in Gaza and the West Bank; and it is dialectically inevitable, not to say obvious, that oppressed people resist their oppression. Sometimes that resistance is non-violent, as 2018-2019’s Great March of the Return in which unarmed civilians were massacred by the IDF overwhelmingly was, and sometimes resistance involves means that are brutal, ugly, atrocious, and yes, if the word does possess some alchemical tonic for those with infantile versions of history, condemnable. The stultifying insistence that any comment on any aspect of this catastrophe unilaterally condemn foremost one part of it precludes accuracy, honesty and integrity. With this puerile rhetorical circumscription of moral responsibility Israel is effectively refusing to allow Hamas to be historicised, and those who yield to this insidious tactic — to paraphrase the judgement of a famous passage from CLR James’ The Black Jacobins (1938) — condemn the violence of the rebel slave but not that of the master.

What, we are called to wonder, in the face of the Western world’s nigh-ubiquitous condemnation of Hamas, and nigh-unconditional support for Israeli retribution, could a further syllable of acrimony echoed by us possibly achieve? Nothing at all, of course, except shore up a paranoiacally brittle Manichaean narrative structured by what Christopher Bollas calls violent innocence, rationalising an utterly unconscionable human inequity. What, moreover, is the calamitous effect of our particular dissent from this universal narrative, small as it is? Of that I am unsure, but like the rest of you over the last month I’ve watched scene after scene of bloodied and brutalised children interspersed with those of winsome IDF soldiers and triumphant Knesset ministers. Even to an indoctrinated mind, the cognitive dissonance must be immense. It’s conceivable that this ritual of mandatory condemnation concentrates and cathects the burden of all past and future violence into a demonic parody of Hamas, registered not as a contingent and conditional object like all other political forces, however ugly — but a transhistorical absolute of evil embodied.

Mythological conceptions of history have their consolations. Here, I suspect that one of them is a kind of desperate catharsis, absolving of the damning obligation to even witness the escalating feats of cruelty being practised in Gaza, and not just for Israelis. What could they, we, I, anyone have done in the face of such condemnable unadulterated, unhistorical, inhuman evil. This tragedy was surely inevitable. But we know, with all schoolchildren, as Auden puts it, that evil has a perfectly human aetiology. We know how it festers in the hearts of the damaged and metastasises in the minds of their children. We know how it rots sympathy and warps principle, and today we clearly know how it monsters language itself such that suffering can no longer be heard in it. This is, among other things, one of the stories of the modern State of Israel. To consent to this mythifying fiction is to commit an infantilising philosophical dishonesty; as though we could not all imagine ourselves wreaking acts of bloody horror if, immiserated, scorned, and humiliated for generations, we suddenly caught the whip-hand, and as though that were not perfectly human. Of course not, because we in the West are truly better, rather than merely luckier.

Prior to the assault on Gaza, some of our critics articulated reasonable, good-faith concerns for the semantic drift of the uniquely abhorrent crime of genocide. At which point the October attacks were directly proximate, and Israel’s reprisals largely speculative, although that speculation had seventy-five years of precedent. Now, however, the fact that educated academics and artists are capable of reiterating that concern in a signed letter devoid of any call to action or even acknowledgement of Israel’s continuing and escalating violence — while the bodies heap high and the IDF flagrantly indulge in a national sadism — is merely eloquent of the bone-deep dehumanisations that led us here.

The brazen statements of the Israeli leadership amply and unambiguously fulfil the dolus specialis aspect of the UN’s bipartite definition: the intent to destroy. Future history books will tally these evasive prevarications next to Yoav Gallant’s remark about ‘human animals’, Netanyahu’s citation of the divine injunction to the utter destruction of Amalek in Samuel, and the remarks of the platformed IDF motivational speaker and Deir Yassin massacre veteran Ezra Yachin: ‘Erase them, their families, mothers and children. These animals can no longer live.’ The intent is indisputable, and as Palestinian civilians begin to die of dehydration and starvation, the act itself indisputably unfolds.

Evelyn encouraged me to end this with a conciliatory gesture towards hope in the surging solidarity evinced by the unprecedented protest-marches we’ve seen in every major city in the country, and all around the world. In the humbling courage and eloquence of the many progressive Jewish activists who refuse to let Israel act in their name, which has truly exemplified the greatest of human moral potential. But in the width between the millions verging on starvation in the ‘children’s graveyard of Gaza,’ and those comfortable of Melbourne with the blasphemous temerity to claim themselves made ‘unsafe’ by a slogan or a poster, I’m less capable of reparative feeling.

Beautiful words written by Palestinian poets like Mahmoud Darwish are circulating like flowers among mourners, but the funeral hasn’t started yet, and behaving as though it were inevitable makes its cruelty inscrutable like that of God, rather than a creature of our own shameful collusions. So I’d rather end with words from the true poet of capitalism’s complicity and despair and abject bad faith, the late Sean Bonney:

In the meantime, let none of us wipe the blood from our faces. 


Image: Times of Gaza


Jonathan Dunk

Jonathan Dunk is the co-editor of Overland and a widely published poet and scholar. He lives on Wurundjeri country.

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  1. THANK YOU for your voice, Jonathan and Overland. We see you. We feel your integrity. The humanity, the solidarity, the bravery. It is so important, and we see you and thank you for your fierce and unwavering efforts

      1. I didn’t say it as a type of polemic. Why do you feel, as a white man living on stolen land (and presumably not leaving), qualified to hector the Israelis for the very thing you are doing? If this is about senseless slaughter, which I agree with wholly, why does this kind of reaction from whities never occur when Syria murders 500,000 muslims? It’s almost as if there’s some other factor at play…

  2. How would you feel if a bunch of indigenous people did to YOU and your family what Hamas did to Israeli Jews? But that would be different amirite

      1. So you are in fact conceding that the Israeli population’s reaction is reasonable? And who should be in charge of administering justice?

        I’m not trying to be a dick, I promise. Is your argument that Israel should not exist at all; or not exist in its current form?

        1. No, that’s not what the words I wrote mean in any possible inflection. I mean that whatever typology of Israel’s future existence we calculate from killing civilians by their thousands is an evil.

    1. I might just jump in over here with my own 2c – Israel should not exist in its current form. Zionism is colonialism and the state must decolonise in order to achieve sustained peace.

      A military response will never and has never achieved anything. We must have a ceasefire now and begin to create a democracy for all, not just Jewish people.

  3. As an anti-zionist Jew I agree – the Zionist pushback is relentless and you’ve detailed that so well. Thank you.

    The complaints that people called to look at the context of the Hamas attacks shows how fragile the Zionist project is – when should it ever be a problem to add more context?

    People tried to have me and my friends sign that disgusting “Jewish creatives” letter and you’re right, the attempt to reframe people’s discomfort in this current moment as some kind of issue of Jewish safety is absolutely abhorrent.
    If other Jews are uncomfortable with people’s disgust at Israel and it’s violence, let that be their prompt to listen to Palestinan voices and join us in the solidarity struggle. There are many of us here, unlearning and learning and fighting for an end to the genocide being committed allegedly in our name.

    1. Don’t forget – you too live on stolen land. And if some indigenous people tortured, raped and killed your family, I doubt you’d have much time for people who claim it as ‘resistance.’ “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

      1. “And if some indigenous people tortured, raped and killed your family, I doubt you’d have much time for people who claim it as ‘resistance.’”

        Thank you for exemplifying the incandescent racism that grounds the current reprisal against the Palestinian population of Gaza I guess? This comment might as well be incorporated into Jonathan’s piece with the label “Figure 1”.

        1. Not quite sure about the logic of your argument here. I’m horrified by the Israeli bombing. I am only pointing out that you and your ilk are no different from a settler yourself.

          1. You don’t sound all that horrified I must say. But also, you’re directing your asinine whataboutism at a magazine historically committed to Indigenous rights and whose co-editor is Aboriginal. We collectively don’t know what to tell you.

      2. If I were in that situation I would hope that anyone who sees themselves as worth anything to me would tell me to pursue justice, not wipe out a city of civilians thatbare so densely populated that there are 6.5 people per M2.

        If you do support Israel, then you should support the call to stop the genocide. It will do nothing good for Israelis.

  4. I am reading over these comments, and I too share the confusion as to why this essay did not bring up the obvious similarities between White Australians and Israeli citizens. It is very easy, in essay form, to speak in solidarity with Palestinians, however, I found this to be a pretty self-congratulatory read while also displaying that false victimhood inner-city writers love to project, where they gain clout by pretending they are being unduly criticized or silenced. As anyone who grew up privileged in Australia should know, even with Kevin Rudd officially saying sorry to Indigenous Australians, the results of the recent referendum show how deeply biased most Australians are against giving a voice or any kind of help to marginalized people. There is something to be said about this attitude and the perception of Israelis being worse, because, how are any two colonizers different? I am very disappointed to see these comments were met with dismissive replies, when this is actually the discussion Australians should be having. Hypotheticals of ‘well, if I were attacked by Indigenous people I would hope I would not retaliate by killing x amount more’…seriously? Attacks are never going to happen, and you know it won’t happen because of how effective the continuing racism towards Indigenous Australians is. The fact that anyone meets a comment to question their privilege with nothing but dismissive remarks and hypotheticals proves how deep the privilege is in your bones, that you do not think you have to sit and think on it at all and give a serious response. That is how much your privilege protects you.
    Back to the similarities between Australians and Israelis though, I have to point out one key difference. Because by similarities I do mean growing up in a bubble, unaware of your privileges, but also a healthy anti-government sentiment, there are of course many in Tel Aviv with left-wing political views, just like Austin in Texas, or how Melbourne and Sydney think of themselves compared to Brisbane. Can you imagine then, having left-wing views but being forced into the army at a young age? Can you imagine that in your town there is a cemetery dedicated solely to soldiers under the age of 25? You can probably imagine then that someone much like yourself probably lives in Israel, but that person is so much angrier at their government because most likely they know someone who has had to die for it. Israeli citizens are just like White Australians, but they are not so privileged that the genocide on their land happened just a few hundred years earlier, and happened at a time when the oppressed people could not retaliate with rockets.
    I promise this comment is not meant to just be a dig at Overland, or deliberately antagonizing, it is really very frustrating to see a supposedly progressive journal just pat themselves on the back for expressing a view they deep down know no one is going to actually attack them for. This essay is not brave, or even well-written, it reminds me only that when marginalized people in Australia should be speaking on a topic, some White writer stands up just to be applauded.

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