7 October: The Campus ‘18th Brumaire’

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The campus crusade directed at Israel’s war against Hamas mirrors the performative politics captured by Marx in his 18th Brumaire. The New York Times submerges the adulation for rape and torture in a tide of articles on college social life or as a matter of high-fashion design. But the students and faculty joining the chants to erase Israel from the map cannot avoid being trapped by the words they are embracing and held responsible for the actions they are condoning. Moreover, they have achieved something Marx did not imagine: the capacity to combine the two stages mixing tragedy together with farce. The tragedy is academic; the farce is thinking that disruptive tactics can take down Israel, and that its annihilation actually bends the arc of the global order toward justice.


Let me begin by addressing the ignorance on full display in these protests. From the moment the image of dead Israelis ‘exhilarated’ Hamas supporters at Cornell and was declared the prelude to ‘liberation’ at Columbia, universities have become the staging ground for holding butchered Israelis responsible for the horrors perpetuated on them.

To suppose that turning southern Israel into an abattoir can deliver Palestinians from defeat and displacement and reset a history presumably gone wrong in 1948 propels a fantasy, not a historical analysis. The past several months of bloodshed follow a formulaic pattern of Gaza-Israel hostilities. Hamas fires missiles: Israel responds to end the murderous assaults, blunting them with the Iron Dome, bombing rocket launchers, and sending troops over but not too far over the border. Israel is typically stopped short of achieving its strategic goals by American demands for a ceasefire that leaves Hamas in power with sufficient capacity to continue trying to turn the Jewish state into Arab Palestine.

Remaking Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’ is not an achievable political aim. Pursuing it has brought Palestinians material devastation and human suffering even if it has sustained their image as the innocent victims of a historic injustice. That 1948 is now associated less with a military defeat than with a first cause of suffering has indelibly stamped Palestinian identity as a metaphor for displacement, alienation, and indignity. It has also instilled in Palestinians the belief they are fighting for pure and sacred goals. But that very same national narrative prevents Palestinians from acknowledging that what is promised in the struggle can never be attained.

The unacknowledged problem with the  narrative is that it banishes Palestinians from their past while immersing them in its historical distortions: namely, that Palestinians have been denied the possibility of engaging in any ordinary peaceful political process. Such a perspective has closed off access to the real options available for advancing Palestinian political interests by ruling out of consideration whether total opposition to Zionism became a self-fulfilling strategy for failure and subordination. Engendering fatalism about politics as the art of the possible while making an icon of the impossible may satisfy the conceit of leaders but does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people.

A set of sacred but undeliverable goals produces the notion that Palestinians have no choice but violence, stoking an energy for endless rounds of fighting no matter the devastation or death toll. It gives resilience to the current expectation that this Gaza War, like so many others in the past, will spur international pressure on Israel to stop the bloodletting from going too far and permit the customary payoffs to Hamas leaders in return for burying their rocket launchers until exhumed before the next round.

Injecting Israel with the lexical poisonous toxins of apartheid and genocide delivers up a Jewish state in which neither political leaders nor policies matter. Such an approach not only runs counter to the idea of a negotiated arrangement so two peoples can share the land, provide open access to holy sites, and show a flexibility nourishing peace rather than inciting violence; it also repudiates the Oslo Accords, an agreement that not incidentally won the backing of Israel and of the officially recognized representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. Here it is important to remember that for as long as there has been an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most proposals for ways to end it have focused on a geographic division of Palestine and on granting both Jews and Palestinians national homelands.


Not only part of the ‘wretched of the earth’ across the globe but now also conscripted via intersectionality into a community marked as subordinate because of their skin color, Palestinians have transitioned their combat from the ethno-national into one whose touchstone is race and whose allies can be found across the progressive spectrum. Thus do Palestinians insist they, like their oppressed allies, have no choice except to wage war against Israel. For when the idea of Palestine as a territory for two states for two peoples threatens to dissolve the very notion of Palestinian identity, it becomes not only unjust but also unimaginable.

Powerful and well-known phrases lifted from The Wretched of the Earth are said to account for the 7 October massacres as the beginning of liberation. But the references overlook the warnings Fanon, himself, issues in the book’s later chapters about whether violence can bring genuine redemption. The rage transubstantiating rapists, kidnappers, and mutilators into role models for liberation may delude campus activists into believing that the same people who are proud of their atrocities can forge a genuine, let alone, a humane liberation. But the masses consigned to live within the premises ruled by these so-called emancipators must already be able to sense vibes of corruption if not of moral degradation.

October 7 may have been at once a massacre, a celebration of savagery, a blood libel, and a terrifying rupture of the Jewish state’s fundamental commitment to its citizens. But what the barbarism showed Israelis—young and old, rich, and poor, religious, and secular, Arab, Muslim and Jew—is the critical importance of the state and of its armies charged with protecting lives. For Israel, the scale of the 7 October carnage, as well as the pride of Hamas in displaying its savagery, meant there was no way to constrain the murderous intentions of the terrorist organization without military action.

Tales of horror and of uncommon acts of bravery have leached into popular discourse and will endure as stories laced with a bitter twenty-first century irony but shaded with the dread of 1948 looming in the background. For the first time since Israel’s War of Independence, battles raged on land within the borders mapped, however tentatively, in 1949. A titanic struggle for safety and security is no longer behind Israelis who had to evacuate homes and communities in the country’s north and south and can still not return.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis who were traveling or working in other countries made their way back to their homeland to put themselves directly in the line of fire. Every video of volunteers packing food or clothing or toys for the tens of thousands of people forced out of towns and villages in the north and south shows religious Muslims and Jews working together. Every survey counts more Israeli Arabs supporting the war, increasingly identifying firmly as citizens of Israel. Every public demonstration draws Arabs and Jews. Israeli Arab citizens who were supposed to be released from prison in exchange for hostages preferred having their day in an Israeli court even at the expense of an instant release. Walking into the assembly of people calling for the hostages to be freed, several leaders of the Druze community received a prolonged standing ovation.

Divisions between the secular community and ultra-orthodox triggering clashes in Tel Aviv against Yom Kippur gender-segregated prayers were instantly tempered as a number of the city’s restaurants sought Rabbinic authorization for transforming their kitchens to conform with religious dietary regulations so they could send food to soldiers. For all of Israel, this is a war to restore the authority of the state as the structure ensuring their future.


Accounts of the pre-state human past should be familiar to Columbia students from the university’s famous core curriculum. In Israel’s military response, there are, of course, echoes of Thomas Hobbes’ description of life without the state as without “arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  Even John Locke’s famous ‘appeal to heaven’ cannot be stretched far enough to justify Hamas massacres because alternatives to war are available.  The Oslo Accords may be as close to a social contract as can possibly be struck by Palestinians and Israel given the violent milieu they inhabit. But in signing the Oslo Accords, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israeli Government committed to resolving their disputes through peaceful negotiations and embrace the norm of ‘two states for two peoples’. For Palestinians, sharing the land offers not only the most effective pathway to independence, it also avoids the risks of bloody confrontations that all wars entail, an argument Locke would undoubtedly find compelling. Still, more arguments opposed to campus praise for Hamas can be drawn from Rousseau, who described the state of nature as a model of freedom but not one that could be replicated in the modern world. Instead, the freedom in that original age of humanity would generate criteria for measuring the marks of success of one or another modern state. According to The Social Contract [Chapter 9 of Book 3], these ‘marks’ of success are population increase and economic growth and prosperity.

Measured by these criteria, Israel can claim enormous achievements: a population of under one million in 1948 is now approaching ten million and lives at a standard of living that the country’s founders could never have envisioned. The economy has opened up opportunities for education and professional gains to all sectors, including those once the targets of discrimination: Jews from Middle Eastern countries and Arab citizens. All Israelis are mourning relatives or friends who were murdered on 7 October or in the months of fighting in Gaza. The many disputes that may divide citizens over policies and priorities have not shaken an absolute commitment to preserving a state that has given their lives meaning and hope for a future better than the past.

7 October: The Campus ‘18th Brumaire’

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