I’ve been thinking about collective punishment lately. The idea that collective punishment is illegitimate, illegal, beyond the pale is international law and international common sense, something you can take for granted. It’s wrong. You can punish individuals for the acts they are individually responsible for; you cannot punish categories of people for the actions of individual members. Obviously. We all know this (or at least most of the collective first-persons that I belong to).
Meanwhile, Israel routinely bulldozes the homes of people suspected of terrorism forces us to do this,, to say nothing of individual Palestinian youths being lynched is important ,(it is important to say nothing of the air-strikes that somehow magically spare the pure of hea.rt))Because collective punishment is integral to the Israeli state what it is..
After all, if the Israeli occupation of Palestine is justified in any way, it is justified on the basis of collective punishment: because of what Hamas has done, the occupation continues to be necessary. Why must Palestinians suffer the daily abuses and humiliations of what anyone with a sense of history would regard as too similar to Apartheid to deny the resemblance? Well, rockets were fired at Israel, or were promised. Palestinians die because Israelis have died or to prevent them from dying in the future, always a clash between past and future. There even exists, in certain Zionist quarters, the somewhat strained argument that the creation of Israel, itself, represents a kind of collective punishment for the Holocaust: since “the Arabs” were/have been/are anti-semites—and in some cases, there was active collaboration between Arab nationalists and the Axis powers—the Israeli state has been can therefore be was justified in creating itself out of the land once inhabited by Arabs. Palestinians, today, have no country, because of Hitler. Or something along those lines (it’s an argument too stupid to make explicitly, mostly, but it’s so often latent that it’s worth making manifest).
One response to this kind of argument would be to demand consistency of Israel, to demand an end to the occupation and that Israel comply with international law and begin to make reparations for the many decades of violence and dispossession. Collective punishment is illegitimate, we might say, and should therefore be ended, and reparations made. I’m fine with that response. Israel is in continuous violation of a whole raft of international laws and norms, and if we’re serious about those laws and norms—if we think, for example, that it should be illegal for a state to seize territory by military force, expel the people that live there, and settle different people on that land—then the state of Israel has a lot of work to do to make things right. If we think air-strikes on civilian populations are wrong, then Israel has to stop doing it. If we think perpetual colonial rule is about as defensible as slavery, then we should demand that Israeli colonial rule end. They should get on that.
Meanwhile—with the exception of what the BDS movement has managed to accomplish—Israel’s illegality just does not actually quite seem to make it particularly illegitimate, any more than the invasion of Iraq made the US culpable for what has happened since. Rockets falling on Israel must be harshly and uniformly condemned (and are), while air-strikes that have now killed over a hundred people get euphemistically justified as “Israel’s tough response,” by no less than Ban Ki-Fucking-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. Sometimes infractions of international law carry grave consequences; here, they do not seem to.
What do we do with this double standard? One thing we can do is ask the question of whether we really think that collective punishment is illegal. We often say so; it’s written down in various places. But as a great Jewish philosopher once put it, by their fruits ye shall know them. Legality is not simply a function of what the law says; it’s also a function of what the law does. And “international law”—to the extent such a thing is more than a mythological creature—does not actually seem to regard Israel’s occupation as illegal. Why would we pretend that it is?
More to the point, what do we do with the fact that the pretense is impossible? I’m so far from having an answer to that question, that all I can do is ask it. But that’s part of what “Israel” does to us when it flouts what we like to think is international law, or what we do to ourselves when we watch it happen. We like to think that we are a nation of laws, as the old presidential proverb has it; we like to imagine that international criminality is an exception to the rule, that we can tremble for our country when we reflect that the international community is just, because its justice cannot sleep forever. But that’s such bullshit, isn’t it? The kind of bullshit most of us don’t even really believe, but which we all habitually pretend to believe, all the more so when we act outraged or surprised at the scandal of something so glaringly illegal as the Israeli occupation or biannual re-invasion of Gaza. These are habits that are very easy to fall into.
Another word for “collective punishment” might be reparations, with a key difference: reparations build something. When Germany paid reparations to Israel—a historical episode which Ta-Nehisi Coates recently used as part of his case for reparations to African-Americans—it was a kind of collective punishment, legitimized by the fact that so many Germans were so very deeply complicit in the Holocaust. I wonder if the only times reparations ever happen are when they can also be understood as punishment for the guilty, collective responsibility for what was collectively done. I suspect so.
My point, then, is that when we think of collective punishment as illegitimate, illegal, beyond the pale—when you can punish individuals for the acts they are individually responsible for and you cannot punish categories of people for the actions of individual members—what we really also can’t help but mean is this: it is wrong for the collectively guilty to repair the damage that has been done in their name by individuals. Isn’t it this that makes us tremble? Isn’t this what we are reassuring ourselves can never happen?
We might say that collective punishment is illegal, after all, and we might wish that it was. But that’s not the real norm. In a world where impunity for the powerful is the real norm, the practical consequence of such statements is to object to the possibility that flagrant violations of international law by the powerful—the invasion of Iraq, say, or the occupation of Palestine—might in some way redound upon us, in whose names these things are being done. These are the only kinds of collective punishments that are ever actually rejected, after all, the only moments when individuals are actually shielded from collective responsibility. When we habitually think—a habit we like to fall into—that we are not responsible, or that we can so simply declare “Not in my name” and have it be true, what we are also asserting is our own irresponsibility, our own pale beyondness from the guilt of what is being done. But in a world where anyone in Gaza can pay in blood for the fact that someone in Gaza fired a rocket at Israel, what makes this immunity anything but a inherited privilege? At the very least—and it is the very least—we should acknowledge that it has nothing to do with anything that might be called “justice.”