global politics, relationally

Comparative Grievability


We are seeing too, too many children and other non-combatants dying in Gaza. Global reaction has ranged from justification (What do you expect when Hamas intentionally places weapons in hospitals and schools?) to mobs attacking Jewish establishments and chants of “death to the Jews.” Somewhere in the middle is the reaction of many of my political science colleagues and friends on social media who are appalled and repeatedly post about this horrific situation.

To borrow Judith Butler’s term, innocents in Gaza are grievable for these colleagues and friends as well as for those who are rioting in Europe and elsewhere.

They are grievable for me, as well.  And yet, it strikes me that we are rather fickle about which non-combatants we grieve. A while  back, Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Hayat and Al-Arabiya English Columnist tweeted:

#Syria is essentially #Gaza x 320 in death toll, x30 number of refugees, but no protest in Pakistan about. Not yet at least.

And the mobs in France are not attacking or protesting outside the Syrian embassy.  It’s Jews and Israel who are the targets.  My colleagues and friends are not posting on Facebook and Twitter about Syria; only about Gaza.  Why are Gaza’s innocents more grievable than Syria’s?  Could it be that Arabs killed by Jews are more grievable than Arabs killed by Arabs?  Perhaps.  That is the conclusion that Jeffrey Goldberg comes to:

I think that the mass protests are sparked by anti-Semitism, an ugly beast that has been rising in Europe (See Kaplan & Small, 2006, in JCR doi: 10.1177/0022002706289184).  That is a different cause than the anti-Israel positions of my colleagues and friends — at least I hope so. In some cases (perhaps most), I  think my colleagues and friends are getting caught up in an emotional reaction to something they feel as hypocrisy: Israel claims to be a rights-protecting democracy that fights wars justly.  The reality on the ground appears to contradict those claims.  So Israel falls short of the higher standard to which it is held as a result of its own proclamations.  The unfortunate consequence, however, is that non-combatants in Syria and Iraq are less grievable because we expect their government to be more brutal.

I have other friends and colleagues who take a principled stance that the creation of the State of Israel was illegitimate from the start and consequently all actions by an illegitimate state are illegitimate.  For them, the tragedy in Gaza is compounded by a deep-seated sense of injustice that the Syrian case is not tainted by.

And perhaps we only have time for a limited amount of grieving.

I don’t want to apologize for Israel.  I think this war is unnecessary and the tragedy of lives lost stands out in stark relief to me.  Yet I also see the conundrum faced by the Israeli leadership: The State has a responsibility to protect its citizens and territory from attack, and this means that when rockets are flying, the State must respond.