From An Historian’s Notebook: A Very Bloodthirsty Tribe of Armchair Warriors

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Protestors in support of Israel and Palestine clash in the United States. Source: Ted Eytan, CC License

There’s another war on, and Ivy League university professors are baying for blood: what a fine decolonial pickle we’re in. And they’re not alone: they share their bloodthirsty warrior-status with various Global South post and decolonial thinkers, from academics to cartoonists. These great intellectuals, or public intellectuals, who were always quick to take on the mantles of the moral consciences of our times, appear to have failed us. But there was no reason to assume that they had a duty to serve a collective sense of rationality at all.

The arguments they use are not very sophisticated, for persons who are academically so very qualified, and morally so very upright. They are, here, like those watching a football match and cheering on their own teams, convinced that the referee, whoever that is (a distant personification of themselves, perhaps an abstraction of their own vicarious identifications, or a really-existing affective manifestation of their ethnic origins), is applying the rules wrongly. And as most things on mass media platforms, from television to social media, transmute into aspects of the entertainment industry, with the qualities of an arcade or a computer game (only with better animation), the comparison is not too far-fetched: as the writer JB Priestley pointed out in the 1950s: ‘No sooner is any subject under review and discussion on the screen than it is drained of all reality’[1]. The current game involves that old rivalry, Israel vs Palestine, in a new match-up with some extraordinary dimensions. And the intellectuals appear to be confused: they are not sure what sort of games they are playing or watching: a Global Southistan version of the old Roman gladiatorial games, perhaps, with better weapons and many more visual effects, where the spectators get to participate by deciding upon the nature and extent of the deaths they get to see.

A Palestinian protestor

There’s a new player, who has improved tremendously while no one was paying attention: Hamas. It has done extremely well to breach Israel’s supposedly impenetrable security system – the low-tech nature of the action took everyone by surprise. Its unconventional, some would say unfair, tactics have outraged those on the other side. That other side calls for no restrictions on Israel’s right to retaliate, regardless of the fact that Israel, like Hamas, is relentlessly targeting civilians who are largely defenceless, and infrastructure, without which survival would eventually be impossible. Humanitarian supplies, according to this view, must not be delivered to non-combatants, otherwise they might just find their way into the hands of Hamas, who would of course misuse them. Meanwhile, social media is subjected to the daily highlights packages, including visuals of a demolished hospital, or a bombed-out refugee shelter, with both sides showing dead children and mourners at the deaths of dead children. Some show the dead children of the other side, as a sort of triumphalist gesture to indicate that they’re winning. There are more dead people by far, adults and children, in Gaza. But those who are following the scorecard say that Gaza will catch up with the Israeli score, if not proportionately (Israel is bigger than Gaza, and there’s not much that Israel is bigger than), at least in absolute numbers: it’s a series, you see, not a one-off match.

Some people are worried about rules of eligibility: can Hamas play for the whole of Gaza, or for Palestinians in general? Should all Palestinians, or everyone in Gaza, suffer the fallout of one terrorist attack, even if it was a rather successful one that killed 1400 people and still holds upward of 200 hostages? Should Israel be held to the rules of international law, as a state that at least formally claims to be democratic? Should it be held to the same rules as a terrorist organisation, self-confessedly genocidal and anti-Semitic? Should Israel be allowed to openly practice the forms of genocide that its lunatic right-wing ‘fringe’, now ensconced in its more-than-usually-right-wing government, shouts about supporting to its supporters? Is Israeli fascism, with its generic enemy, ‘the Arab’, more than usually powerful as a result of the success of Hamas’s intervention? Are the conspiracy theorists who suggest that Hamas was encouraged to stage an ‘event’ in order to strengthen the hands of Israel’s right, but then were a little too good at their ‘event’, right in any way? Are the Israeli government and Hamas playing the same game? And if they are, do they get to play for all Palestinians or all Israelis?

The West Bank barrier

But the intellectual pretensions of the arguments used to justify violence, terrorism, and genocidal aspirations, are a wondrous thing to behold. Israelis, one claim suggests, are never to be considered civilians, because there is compulsory military service for all persons over 18. All Israelis are therefore to be considered combatants. That this is not in accordance with any legal definition of a non-combatant – the Geneva Conventions that are so often cited by those who do not support Israel’s right to indiscriminate violence against Palestinians that they might forget the Convention also applies to Israelis – is an inconvenient detail that a number of these intellectuals have chosen to forget. After all, this is a time of affect, and of ineffective anguish. On the other side, the argument goes as follows: since Gaza overwhelmingly supports Hamas, there is no such thing as an innocent civilian: just as German support for Nazism apparently made acts like the Allied firebombing of Dresden acceptable, ordinary Gazans’ acquiescence in their own rule, or subordination, under Hamas’s control, makes them legitimate targets for indiscriminate Israeli use of disproportionate violence. And the children? Those who perhaps will be future members of Israel’s defence forces or Hamas’s al-Qassam brigades, are they by that account also legitimate targets, or are they merely unfortunate victims of a logic of collateral damage?

That other side calls for no restrictions on Israel’s right to retaliate, regardless of the fact that Israel, like Hamas, is relentlessly targeting civilians who are largely defenceless, and infrastructure, without which survival would eventually be impossible. Humanitarian supplies, according to this view, must not be delivered to non-combatants, otherwise they might just find their way into the hands of Hamas, who would of course misuse them.

Once upon a time, in a different set of conflicts, the German word Schreibtischtäter was coined to describe a particular kind of perpetrator of atrocities: one whose participation involved working out, from the banal everydayness of his writing desk, the logistics and petty details of the crimes against humanity that would lead to millions of deaths. What should we make of those intellectuals who provide the moral justification for the current set of murders and murderers? They are not even charged with duties emanating from reasons of state, within which logic an Adolf Eichmann could attempt a defence that he was merely doing his job – a justification that, it should be pointed out, was neither true, nor adequate to exonerate him in legal terms[1]. What jobs do they think they are doing, these creatures of Ivy League armchairs and liberal arts living rooms? Is the job of a decolonial or postcolonial literary theorist the justification of gruesome acts of terror? Or is the justification of a state’s wiping out of the population of a little enclave that doesn’t properly qualify even as a quasi-state the job of the professoriate?

Children are the worst victims of the conflict

The justification of Hamas’s terrorism has been more common than we might have thought among the vocal section of the academic population. The justification of the current Israeli government’s genocidal ambitions has also been conspicuously present. These academics might be – and it is hoped they are – a minority, if a very loud one. Many who have pronounced a less than positive verdict on Hamas’s escapade into Israel have not found it necessary to justify the resultant indiscriminate Israeli state violence inflicted on Gaza. Many ‘postcolonial’, or ‘decolonial’ intellectuals, by contrast, have invoked a peculiar misreading of Frantz Fanon[3], which apparently finds in violence a cleansing act against settler colonialism, and have therefore celebrated Hamas’s successful breaching of Israel’s renowned ultra-safe borders as the ultimate act of anticolonial resistance. (Fanon, by contrast, described violence as an endemic part of a colonial order; and he claimed that colonialism dehumanised and reduced to acts of violence both a coloniser and the colonised people s/he sought to dominate – but that’s another story: of the illiteracy of many ‘readings’ of Fanon, which we need not concern ourselves with here: after all, an affective reading is a subjective one that must conform to those that ‘our’ team feels.)

Postcolonialists and decolonialists have a simple set of worldviews. Whoever is less powerful is always right: in this case, Palestinians in general, and if in this case they must be represented by Hamas, that’s all right. For about a generation now, the only question that academic training seems to require an answer to is one that asks ‘who has the power?’ This cartoon version of Foucauldianism has led to very simplistic answers: we must be on the side of the subaltern, the victim, the disempowered. That there are seldom really-existing historical situations that render pure and absolute victims is inconvenient. Meanwhile, regardless of what happens in Israel or Palestine, the vicarious enthusiasm for shedding someone else’s blood distinguishes the postdecolonial Global Southistanists – those who cannot bring themselves to risk their comforts for a conflict closer to their doorsteps – from those of us who will not undertake the social-media-post equivalents of throwing Molotov cocktails at synagogues or stones at random Hijabi women. The struggle is a longer one.

Images courtesy: Stop the War Coalition, flickr, LSE

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of or its editorial team members.


  1.  JB Priestley, ‘Televiewing’, Thoughts in the Wilderness (London: Heinemann, 1957), pp. 194-201.

  2. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1964); Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Knopf, 2014).
  3. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963) [1961].
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