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The Violence of the Victims: What Decolonization Has to Do with Israel?

May 8, 2012

When Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from Martinique, wrote the Wretched of the Earth he set out to dissect the colonial society and to point the finger on the means to get rid of such system. He explained how the colonial society was built upon an irreconcilable polarity : on one side the colonizer on the other side the colonized. The only interaction between the two part had one name: violence. The colonizers’ goal was to maintain the order and to repress the colonized while extracting an economic surplus at their expenses; to do so they resorted to a systematic and all pervasive system of violence. For this reason, Fanon argued, in the process of decolonization there was no room for negotiation or peaceful agreement:  decolonization could only happen through the violent dispossession of the power by the victim at the expenses of the perpetrator. In that context violence served two specific functions.

Violence as proof of humanity. Violence is fundamentally a redeeming process in which the colonized becomes human by killing the oppressor who denied his humanity. By so doing the victims becomes the subject, the actor of his destiny. As Sartre in the preface of the Wretched of the Earth puts it

Fanon (..) shows clearly that this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself. (..) The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self.

We have sown the wind; he is the whirlwind. The child of violence, at every moment he draws from it his humanity. We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; of higher quality.

The violence of others. More subtly the violence of the colonized is not their own violence: it is the colonizers’ violence turned against them. Before decolonization, the colonized were killing each other to annihilate the dehumanized image of themselves they see in the other. The decolonization is the moment when this internalized and repressed violence is unleashed against the oppressor. To use  Sartre’s words “It is the moment of the boomerang; it is the third phase of violence; it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realize any more than we did the other times that it’s we that have launched it.”  Fundamentally it is never their violence, the colonized are not the subject of this violence.

Fanon aimed at supporting the colonized to get rid of the colonizer. What he did not expected is that  the victim could turn into perpetrator, yet his violence be still legitimated. This, according to Adam Shatz on the LBR, is what happened to Jewish people. In reviewing the biography of Claude Lanzmann, one of the champion of the Jewish cause and of the Israel state, Shatz highlights Lanzamann’s credo and shows how both the ideas of violence are today integral in Israel’s discourse of occupation: violence as cathartic moment to know and create itself out of the image of victim; and violence as violence of the perpetrator turned against himself.

Proof of Humanity: By taking up arms, Jewish were reborn as new men: from victim they became responsible and authors of their destiny. The fact of having an army in the new state of Israel represents for example a victory over themselves, as Lazmann puts it. Their newly acquired power to inflict rather than to be submitted to violence prevent them from becoming victim again. More poignantly, the perpetuation of violence is necessary to continuously reaffirming the self: the Jew acts and does not submit anymore. The discourse crafted today by Israel resonates the decolonization discourse, when the victim becomes man at the expense of the perpetuator.

The Violence of Others: Yet, the violence of Israel is fundamentally not its own. It is the violence of their perpetrators turned against them. For they essentially remain victims, their violence is purely defensive; the “violence is not in their blood” and its only goal is one of ensuring the survival.

The reproduction of both senses of violence poses a dilemma today:  if the essence of being Jewish is one being victim and perpetually exposed to the risk of extinction, when can one say if their violence is one of the victim or of the perpetrator? When does the violence of the victim become no longer acceptable? Rooted in Fanon’s argument, the answer to the question is that there is no limit to the violence of “victims” and so their violence becomes always acceptable: it remains in fact always the violence of the colonized, the victims who fight against the colonizers.

As Shatz brilliantly points out Israel is locked into a totalitarian ideology of victimhood whereby its possibility of becoming victim excludes the definition of other as victims. To recognize that the victim can turn into perpetrator in some circumstances is to set a limit to the acceptability of the violence of the “victims”.

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