The Trauma of the Jew of Conscience

(originally published in Jewschool)

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The Jew of conscience is in pain.

We are in pain when we are told by family, friends, peers and Jewish communal leaders that we are ‘bad Jews’, ‘fake Jews’, ‘self-hating Jews’ for supporting Palestinian calls for full freedom and equality, and opposing Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

We are in pain when we are told by our fellow Jews that we have no right to cast our lot with the Jewish people, because we say ‘not in our name!’ to Israel’s brutal, unceasing oppression of the Palestinian people. We are in pain when this violent denunciation- ‘self-hating Jew!’- seems to rob us of our Jewish legitimacy, deny us our right to inherit our people’s past and stake a claim in our people’s future, cast us brutally outside the bounds of peoplehood.

We are in pain when we see our own people seemingly abandon Jewish values of justice, forget the lessons of our past, and visit unceasing oppressions upon the backs of Palestinians- and upon our backs, too. In both cases, we are in pain when we see others remain silent. We are in pain when, seemingly exiled from our people, we find it hard to weave together the strands of a new Jewish identity for ourselves, when the cultural, religious and political traditions at hand have been seemingly consumed by Israel-support.

We Jews of conscience speak out to the world, denouncing the ways in which we are shut out of Jewish communities because of our support for Palestinian rights. Yet my perception is that we rarely have the space, within our own communities, to talk openly about the trauma of our excommunication. We tell ourselves that, in the urgency of the work, and with the need to bear witness to Palestinian suffering, it is indulgent to dwell too much on our own trauma. The wounds are raw, and like many pains, are easiest shared in silence. But a wound suppressed is one that festers, one that has the danger to cloud judgment, impede clarity, and distort how we relate to others, and to ourselves.

This article is an attempt to lovingly excavate some of the pain of the Jew of conscience, to explore the often fraught, tangled ways this pain structures the way we relate to our own Jewishness, and to broader Jewish communities. When we don’t work to heal from this pain, I argue, we can become estranged from our Jewish identities, and alienated from Jewish ritual and culture. We can deepen our isolation from Jews who aren’t with us politically, and relate to them in ways that do little to change hearts and minds. To build the Jewish future we need, we must work to intentionally reconnect, with full hearts, to our Jewishness, to our trauma, and to the rest of the Jewish people.

First, a note on terminology. The term ‘Jew of conscience’ was coined by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis in the 1980s, to refer to Jews who bear prophetic witness to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. I use the term ‘Jews of conscience’ here primarily to mean Jews who today publicly embrace the Palestinian call for BDS, endorse the Palestinian refugee right of return, and/or challenge Zionism. These are the ‘taboo’ positions around which Jewish communal red lines are most clearly drawn, and Jews who take these positions, therefore, face most brutally the scapegoating, excommunication and trauma I describe. Jews who publicly oppose Israel’s 50-year occupation also face plenty of opposition, and will find much to relate to in these lines. By using the term ‘Jews of conscience’ in this way, however, I do not mean to imply that pro-BDS/anti-Zionist Jews are the only Jews acting from a place of conscience around these issues- it is simply a useful term!

While my observations are formed by years organizing professionally, and as a grassroots activist, in Jews of conscience circles, I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. Some will find much, and some little, that resonates in these lines. I write because we Jews of conscience are visionary, and powerful. We are transforming the American Jewish community, and in the coming years, as Israel lurches further rightward, the views we hold will continue to gain broader acceptance. It is even more vital, then, that we think critically and fearlessly about the complexities, pitfalls and promises of how we relate to Jewishness, to other Jews and to ourselves. I write with the hope, at this pivotal and terrifying moment, not that we Jews of conscience may instantly overcome our pain, but that we may learn to dwell with it, with ourselves, and with the Jewish future which dwells in our midst, which erupts in real time from the work of our hands.

Tracing our Pain

‘Self-hating Jew’. ‘Traitor’. ‘Court Jew’. ‘Fake Jew’. ’Kapo’. 

We hear it from our Jewish peers, who treat our support for Palestinian rights with fear, suspicion and distrust. We hear it from our family, who greet our views with disappointment, betrayal, outrage and shame. We hear it from the institutional leaders of the Jewish world, who tell us, with unflinching certainty, that we are disturbed, monstrous, transgressive and illegitimate Jews.

We Jews of conscience hear day after day, from nearly all corners and crevices of the Jewish world, the same message- You don’t belong. You are an aberration, a traitor, an outsider. We reject you; you are no longer one of us. Some of us receive curses, hate mail, even death threats for taking a stand. We are mocked derisively from the bima, laughed at in the JCC, sneered at in Hillel. We are barred from jobs at Jewish day schools, synagogues, summer camps.

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A sponsored Facebook ad, shown to members of NYU’s Jewish community, portraying Jews of conscience as the ‘black sheep’, outcast from the rest of the Jewish community.

We worry we will be ostracized from social groups, passed over for Jewish leadership roles, and denied B’nai Mitzvah, burial in a Jewish cemetery, or even a warm Shabbat dinner, for being one of those ‘self-hating Jews’. The fear runs deep, and nestles into every little crevice of our Jewish lives. It is no secret that we are the scapegoat of the American Jewish community, and it hurts.

On the surface, of course, we reject that we are deficient Jews in any way. We assert our Jewishness with pride, and in many cases,  we respond to the abuse we face not by shrinking from but by stepping up our Jewish engagement. We build vibrant Jewish communities, inside and outside the mainstream. Our Judaism is fierce and powerful, and we know it.

And yet, under the weight of abuse, it is easy to internalize, on some level, the message that there is something other-than, something broken about our Jewishness. That somewhere, deep down, we must be missing ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, if we are so eager to criticize Israel so loudly. The pain runs deep, and can grip our Jewish identity-formation at its innermost point, clouding our pintele yid– that indestructible spark of Jewishness within us- with confusion and self-doubt. We might feel this pain even if we don’t seek legitimacy from, or desire to join, mainstream Jewish communities. For on the deepest level, we still yearn to recognize ourselves, and to be recognized, as a legitimate part of the Jewish people, and that is precisely what is denied to us- that is precisely where it hurts.

Our pain is magnified because we know that, when we break with Israel, we break hearts- the hearts of our elders, our family members, those in our communities for whom Israel is anchor of their Jewish identities, refuge in their time of distress, living symbol of the concrete assurance that, so soon after the traumas of the 20th century, the Jewish people will endure. We wish we could take our elders’ hands, meet their eyes, and plead to them, “I am proud and grateful to be Jewish, I promise you, please don’t worry! Even though you don’t understand why I do what I do, please understand- I am committed to the Jewish people, to inheriting the covenant you worked so hard to pass on to me- please believe me!” We cannot help but feel guilt that we have triggered these fears- and anger that history itself has put us, and them, in such an impossible position.

Owning our Jewishness

After being told, in no uncertain terms, that we will never be accepted as Jews, some of us scornfully turn away from most aspects of Jewish identity or practice entirely. The attempts we make to connect with the Jewishness of our upbringing- to inhabit the traditions, cultures, communities in which we dwelt comfortably before awakening to the truth of Palestinian dispossession- are laced with the bitterness of betrayal, the sting of anger.

If we didn’t grow up with strong Jewish identity or community, it can be very difficult to develop that identity anew for oneself, while grappling at the same time with the truth of Israel/Palestine. How fraught it can be for many of us, to feel drawn to the simple beauty of Jewish texts and traditions, while we are repelled so brutally by Israel’s occupation and our community’s support of it- and to be attacked so viciously by other Jews, for speaking out!

We are warmed by the fire of Jewish identity, drawn- as evinced by our very proclamation that we are ‘Jews for Palestinian rights’- to cleave proudly to our Jewishness, despite the trials of these times. And yet, we are repulsed by our community’s support for Israel’s crimes; pushed away by their slandering us as ‘fake Jews’; and convulsed with shame, for the oppressive stance our people is taking on the world stage. Some of us find it near impossible, at least for the time being, to fully own and embrace our Jewishness outside of circumscribed displays of solidarity. It is simply too painful.

Perhaps we fear that Jewishness itself, like the Jewish elders from whom we learned it, may lash out at us if we get too close. On a deeper level, perhaps we don’t fully trust that we, the ‘bad Jews’, are entitled to sing our peoples’ songs, light Shabbat candles, and otherwise be just like other Jews. We are so used to being told we have rejected the covenant, that it can be difficult to see ourselves up there on the bima, reciting words of Torah just like other Jews, without feeling guilty, subversive, out-of-place.

We find community in the Palestine solidarity movement- but our non-Jewish comrades often don’t know how to talk about antisemitism, and lack nuanced understanding of Jewish history and identity. We build small communities of Jews of conscience, and begin the work of healing together. But caught between a mainstream Jewish community which has abandoned us, and a Palestine movement in which we often do not feel fully at home, our isolation is magnified. 

How difficult it can be, to stumble upon this terrifying juncture in Jewish history, and, with little roadmap to guide us, to have to parse out the false from the true, the sacred from the profane, that which we must inherit from that which we must transform or cast away! How difficult, to be called a ‘fake Jew’ just as we are discovering, for the first time or anew, how to be a real Jew! Faced with this impossibly weighty task, our Judaism is for us both a source of healing and an open wound, a place of refuge and a restless question.

For many of us, healing starts with finding and building progressive Jewish spaces that welcome our whole selves, where in laughter, song, ritual, culture and simply being Jewish together, we share the pain of our condition. We quickly find that the journey to rebuild an honest, compassionate and accountable Jewishness of conscience is a beautiful struggle- one that befits a people for whom being klal Yisrael itself is a struggle, a wrestling with G-d!

Crafting our Ritual

We are eager to create new ritual and culture, and alter existing practices, to reflect our convictions as Jews of conscience. We design Palestine solidarity Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders and more, using ritual as a tool to uplift the anguish of our tears, the gnawing of our fears, the fervency of our hopes as an offering to the fraught moment of Jewish history in which we live. 

Our resolve to bear witness, through ritual and culture, to the reality facing our people, is admirable. And yet, sometimes these ritual spaces revolve around the urge to condemn Israel, express shame for its crimes, distance ourselves from its actions, signal our disgust- and little else. The ritual we create can feel like window dressing for an exercise in apologetics, a public confession of guilt, betraying a relentless quest to purify our traditions by rooting out anything deemed remotely suspicious, leaving little besides alienation in its place.

We fixate on Israel as the original sin of our people; we condemn the fallenness of our tribe. Far from a prophetic call for justice, the single-mindedness of our shame brings to mind a Christian impulse of perpetual self-flagellation, rather than a Jewish ethos of finding the spark of redemption, the wholeness within a broken heart. 

It is not a mystery why, in this moment, our liturgy takes this tormented tone. We feel so betrayed and confused that our people have emblazoned such a beautiful menorah upon such ugly weapons of war, that we dig into tradition itself, anxious to locate where we went wrong, desperate to purge the original sin. With Israeli flags adorning most bimas– with Israel-support playing such a central role in the normative sense of Jewish peoplehood- we are living in unprecedented times, wading into uncharted territory, with little to guide us. Faced with this weighty contradiction, we resolve that our task is to strenuously assert the antithesis, to craft a Judaism which, at every twist and turn, uproots that which corrupts, calls out a warning, condemns the dangerous path our people are taking.

But a spirit of negation won’t, by itself, carry us through to the Jewish future. ‘The sea will not open that way’ (Aurora Levins Morales, ‘The Red Sea’). We need also to actively cultivate love of Jewishness, for its own sake; joy for our ritual and cultural traditions, in all their beauty and wisdom; gratitude that our people have survived to see these times, vexing though they be; and a vulnerable mourning fueled at root, not by guilt and shame, but by compassion. The door to the Jewish future will be unlocked, not by the cleverness of our hot takes, nor by the burning of our anger or the fervor of our guilt, but by the positivity of our Jewish love and joy.

When we turn to our traditions, our trauma can guide us to see them as our pursuer and opponent- ‘what here leads to problematic support of Israel, what must be purged and disavowed?’- or to use them as a defensive shield, or an attacking spear- ‘how can we use this to critique the Jewish establishment, and bolster our self-certainty as Jews of conscience?’ Instead, our spirit of innovation must be grounded in a radical amazement and gratitude. We must seek to dwell open-hearted and empty-handed with our traditions, to bring them closer, for their own sake, into the beating hearts of our lives. When we pray- or express ourselves Jewishly in other ways- our sorrowful anger for Israel’s crimes must mingle with our gratitude, our gladness at simply being Jewish. The bitter and the sweet must complement each other.

Transforming our People

Many of us resolve that our principal task, in this moment, is to build radical spaces- shuls and havurot, communities and institutions, friendship groups and networks- on the margins, for Jews of conscience. Our task at hand, we say, is to build and strengthen these counter-hegemonic institutions and communities, so that, as the contradictions of the establishment sharpen, more Jews will grow disillusioned and join us. When the establishment finally crumbles, we tell ourselves, our communities will stand redeemed, pointing the way towards the future.

There is much of merit to these positions- for many Jews of conscience, the task at hand is indeed to build, safeguard and strengthen alternative spaces where we can heal, learn and envision the future. For many of us who have been deeply abused and traumatized by the mainstream- not only because we are Jews of conscience, but because of multiple marginal identities we hold- this is deeply important. And yet, this strategy alone cannot build the Jewish future.

A small siloed movement of Jews of conscience, cordoned neatly off from the rest of the Jewish people, surfacing occasionally to yell and chant slogans of liberation outside their doors before congratulating ourselves on the correctness of our analyses, and disappearing from view- this strategy alone, too, cannot build the Jewish future. While this may be valuable in the short term, to sharpen and expose the current contradictions in the Jewish community while winning some adherents, in the long term, this strategy alone does not get anyone free. 

It does not free mainstream Jews, most of whom remain trapped under the hegemonic sway of the establishment and view us, as they have been taught and as our self-isolation confirms, as untouchable outsiders. It does not free Jews of conscience, who remain in exile from the vast majority of our people. And most importantly, it does not free Palestinians, who ultimately need Jews of conscience to plant deep, lasting roots in the mainstream Jewish communities that we need to help transform.

The Jew of conscience turns to the mainstream Jewish community which has exiled us, and with a booming voice, calls on it to change. Standing outside the doors of our establishment institutions, we detail the anti-Palestinian crimes for which they are responsible or complicit, decry their grotesque lack of accountability, and throw at their feet all manner of piercing accusations. We mark them, in the pain and anger of our betrayal, as awful Zionists, disgustingly complicit in atrocities. We tell them they are racist, Islamophobic, colonialist, privileged, violent…the list goes on. ‘Shame! Shame!’, we yell. Do they listen?

When you protest an abusive boss’s complicity in exploitation at his workplace, the primary task is not to unlock his heart, but to build a consensus that he is an exploiter, and to force him, through sheer pressure, to change. But when you protest the American Jewish community’s complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you’re dealing with a traumatized people, a people still struggling, only two or so generations after surviving the most terrible genocide, and most shocking series of expulsions, in its history, to learn to trust others, to handle fears of imagined powerlessness, and to recognize and accountably deploy its actual power.

When a boss talks about his workplace, he’s talking about his greed; when mainstream American Jews talk about Israel/Palestine, they’re talking about their fear. When American Jews protest American Jews, we are negotiating our communal trauma. Without diluting the substance of our critique- which is usually correct- and without wholly stifling our rage- which is legitimate- we also need to lead with love, and deliver rebuke in a way that will unlock hearts. What would it look like to cultivate accountable compassion, in our own hearts, towards our Jewish community, and to hold them, in turn, to compassionate accountability for their complicity in Israel’s crimes? (I am grateful to Dove Kent, Cherie Brown and Helen Bennett, who in their ‘Understanding the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism’ trainings, develop further this concept of ‘compassionate accountability and accountable compassion’.)

How can we even take the first step, and extend our hand in compassion, when many mainstream Jews are likely to swat it away, and call us ‘self-hating Jews’? A vicious cycle is at play here- they demonize us and push us away; we become traumatized, and our hearts harden; we scornfully lash out at them in the rage of protest, and their hearts harden. To interrupt this cycle, it is incumbent upon allies of Jews of conscience- progressive Jews who are still accepted in mainstream Jewish spaces- to demand an end to the abuse we face.

And yet, while we are not to blame for our wounds, we Jews of conscience must resist the temptation to set ourselves apart. We must not be afraid to show up, again and again, in the institutions and communal spaces of our people, to get involved and demand to be counted. We must not leave our politics at the door- but we also must not come primarily to proselytize or to do battle. We must show up, first and foremost, simply because we want to connect, open up, share traumas, and build, upon the very fissures which separate us, the indissoluble ties which reaffirm that, in truth, we are one people. We can hope to change them not by ceaselessly distancing ourselves from them, but by diving deeper with them, really claiming them as our own.

It starts with getting in touch with our own pain, helping each other heal from it. It also starts with overcoming the knee-jerk impulse to treat fellow Jewish people or Jewish communities who support Israel with fear, scorn or condescension. Forgiving them for what they have done to us- and forgiving ourselves, embracing the powerful, embodied, joyous Jews of conscience we are- are in truth, two sides of the same coin. 

Conclusion

The mainstream Jewish community abuses us because they are afraid. In the wake of the immense traumas of the 20th century, they clutch Israel close as the only safe space they know, and frantically push away any Jews, like us, whose dissent threatens the stability of their unsustainable solution to the Jewish question. In this way, their abusive behavior towards us- that peculiar panic and rage that wells up in the hearts of our accusers, as they denounce us as traitors- is, quite literally, the displaced pain of antisemitism, traveling, like so many pains for so many peoples, below the surface across generations, deeply felt and dimly comprehended.

Thus, in a supreme historical irony, the outcasts of the world have created, within their own ranks, a new class of outcasts. As the Jews were scapegoated by the world as traitors, disloyal, pathologically rotten, idealists and cosmopolitans- we Jews of conscience are scapegoated today, by the mainstream of our own community, with these very same tropes. Our excommunication is, in a sense, the internalized antisemitism of the Jewish people writ large, the Jewish question played out anew within the body politic of the Jews themselves, taking us as its target, rendering us the outcasts of the outcast, the Jew among the Jews.

Future historians will look upon this excommunication as a tragedy of epic proportions for the Jewish people. Under the cry of ‘self-hating Jew!’, untold thousands of Jews have been slandered and banished with a sweeping vigor unparalleled in modern Jewish history. One day, our people will look back upon this self-inflicted wound upon the body of am Yisrael with shame. And they will see it, correctly, as a lynchpin of the very structure that keeps American Jewish support for Israel’s occupation in place.

We Jews of conscience are in pain, flung out at the raw edge of the turbulent trial into which history has flung our traumatized people. We have learned many lessons from this liminal space we are forced to inhabit. In our exile, we bear witness to the prophetic voice of critique, we teach to the world the supreme importance of principled moral dissent. But in order to most effectively speak to our own people- which, after all, is our mandate and task at hand- we need to lead from a place of love, cultivating accountable compassion and holding others to compassionate accountability. And to do this, we need to work on our own trauma.

It takes deep bravery, strength, and conviction to stand bravely and speak loudly, as Jews of conscience, in these tormented times. We Jews of conscience are very good Jews, despite what our detractors say about us. It is hard work to forgive them- to forgive ourselves- indeed, to forgive history itself for putting our entire people, and we Jews of conscience in particular, in such a tormented position. Cultivating self-love as Jews of conscience- this, too, is hard work, is a practice, in these times. This, too, is the work of building the Jewish future. “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

The Army and the People are NOT One Hand: Neoliberal Hegemony and the Armed Forces in the Arab Spring

(paper delivered at DePaul University’s ‘Revolution: Past and Present’ conference, March 31, 2012)

In 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent England’s national military overseas to wrest from Argentina ownership over the largely insignificant Falkland Islands, and, with her population distracted by wartime nationalist sentiment, imposed drastic neo-liberal structural adjustments upon England’s economy. Two years later, when the miners’ trade union called a widespread strike to protest the disastrous effects of market deregulation upon the working class, Thatcher’s response combined strike breakers, informants, infiltrators and police brutality with all the gusto of a military operation, and she justified her crackdown with the now-infamous saying- “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty” (Wilenius).

In every country touched by the Arab Spring, the national military is called away from its traditional defense of the country’s borders against the ‘enemy without’, and deployed on the streets, alongside the national police force, to crush the ‘enemy within’. This peculiar contradiction- that an armed body, whose supposed purpose is to protect the freedoms of its people, is suddenly pitted against the democratic will of the people in a life-or-death struggle- exposes, behind its veil of patriotic nationalism, the true function of the army as an instrument of class warfare, integral to the solidity of the hegemonic fabric of the nation-state. This torsion in the body of the armed forces- from national borders to city streets, from national bodyguard to public enemy- echoes and reflects the trembling fault lines of a more fundamental political confrontation between the entrenched authority of the State and a popular uprising which asserts a new political voice, and confirms the assertion of Mao Zedong, found in the Little Red Book, that “according to the Marxist theory of the State, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.”

The army’s authority over the general public, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, is ultimately autonomous of the whims or commands of the executive sovereign. Whether it decides to suppress or to support the popular uprising- whether it stands beside, or turns against, the country’s dictator- the national military in each case yields an exceptional monopoly of force, extending, under the banner of martial law, above and beyond the executive sovereign, to seize and determine the articulated contours of the balance of power that popular protest seeks to re-negotiate. Thus on November 19, 2011, a day when more than 400 military troops defected from Yemen’s Republican Guard, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, anxious, in the face of fragmenting national loyalties, to ward off a military coup, visited, along with senior government officials, thousands of stationed Republican Guard troops, assuring the soldiers that the country’s leaders are “willing to sacrifice [themselves] for the sake of the country, but you will stay. You will remain here even if we let go of authority because you are the authority…Yemen will not collapse. Yemen is steadfast due to its people and military” (Almasmari).

Faced with variegated torrents of popular unrest, the national military, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, is entrusted, as much by the particular commands of their dictator as by the general interests of the international community, with the stabilizing role of maintaining order in the midst of chaos, protecting citizens from the security vacuum, and preserving public and private property relations within their country. Should the dictator’s regime crumble, a transitional military government is then charged, in the November 2011 words of Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, with the crucial task of “‘holding the stick in the middle’” so as to “balance emerging political currents and social forces”, and assuring, through the gradual withering away of military rule, an “orderly transition” into a secure, democratic process. However, as the Second Egyptian Revolution demonstrates, behind the transitional military regime’s facade of disinterested, democratic preservation of the functions of administrative governmentality, there often lurk the familiar puppet-strings of the old regime, which mask in turn the imperial interests of global capital.

In the final instance, the success or failure of each Arab Spring revolution hinges on the political mood of the army. In Tunisia, it was not the widespread strikes and demonstrations that ultimately forced 24-year dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign on January 14, but the refusal, a day earlier, of Army Chief Rachid Ammar to obey Ben Ali’s orders to shoot civilian protesters. In Egypt, when dictator Hosni Mubarak, amidst mounting tensions and rumours of a military coup, left without comment for his home by the Red Sea in Sharm el Sheik on February 11, appointing military leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as prime minister in his place, protesters, who throughout much of the 18-day revolution were protected from riot police violence by army forces, celebrated side by side with military soldiers on the streets of Cairo, chanting ‘The Army and the People are One Hand’. As long as he has the backing of the armed forces, the dictator’s seat is secure. Without the strong arm of the military, he finds himself powerless and empty-handed.

In his history of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, who led the insurrectionist Bolshevik Red Army through both its overthrow of Tsarist dictatorship and its establishment of a post-revolutionary military regime, speaks of this centrality of the political mood of the army to the revolutionary process, calling it

that great unknown of every revolution…[which] can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people…the mass of the army will be swayed in favor of the revolutionary class only when it is convinced that this class is not merely demonstrating or protesting, but is actually fighting for power and has a chance of winning…only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle- not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it- does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over’ to the side of the people.

At a certain tipping point in the ‘clash between the soldiers and the people’, when the latter made irrevocably clear their demand, not for reform, but for fundamental regime change, the military commanders of Egypt and Tunisia, inspired by a mixture of sympathetic identification with the protesters and their own desire for power, decided to facilitate this regime change, to complete rather than to resist, to co-opt rather than to combat, to translate and transubstantiate the passions of the uprising into the foundation of their own military regime. On the other hand, the uprisings in countries such as  Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain split the army’s allegiance along tribal, religious and economic fault lines, plunging the country, torn between the preservation of the old and the destructive creation of the new regime, into total civil war.

While many troops, officers and entire regiments of each country’s armed forces deserted their dictator and created organizations, such as the Free Syrian Army or Libya’s National Liberation Army, dedicated to revolutionary regime change, many other segments of national armies remained loyal to their ruler, anxious to preserve their favored position in long-entrenched relations of economic, political or tribal dominance. In these cases, the tension between those forces that seek to perpetuate, and those that seek to supersede, the old regime’s monopoly on power, degenerates into a struggle over power itself, where the fission of the once-unitary armed forces replicates, and re-articulates itself over, the battle contours of  the greater societal rupture. Trotsky outlines this chaotic process-

The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army…Guerrilla fighting on the basis of a revolutionary strike cannot in itself lead to victory. But it creates the possibility of sounding the mood of the army, and after a first important victory- that is, once a part of the garrison has joined the insurrection- the guerrilla struggle can be transformed into a mass struggle in which a part of the troops, supported by the armed and unarmed population, will fight another part, which will find itself in a ring of universal hatred…when the class, moral, and political heterogeneity of the army causes troops to cross over to the side of the people, this must, in the first instance, mean a struggle between two opposing camps within the army….thus an insurrection is, in essence, not so much a struggle against the army as a struggle for the army.

If, in these cases, the fabric of society is further rent by a national army fallen short of a complete ‘crossing over to the camp of the revolution’ and unable to effect a full upheaval of the old regime, then surely the ripping-away of dictatorial rule, and the restitution of social cohesiveness by a transitional military regime, in early-2011 Egypt and Tunisia represents the successful fulfillment of this process. The Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011, in contrast, offers the unique and paradoxical instance of a popular revolutionary impulse that, after first toppling a dictator, re-turns against the transitional military regime that stepped in to fill the power vacuum, raising its fist anew against the very army with which it used to declare itself united as ‘one hand’. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, realized those protesters who returned to Tahrir Square, did not ‘cross over to the camp of the revolution’ as part of any ‘moral process’, but to maintain the oppressive structures of the old regime. Here, the enemy is no mere dictator; rather, long-entrenched dictatorial rule is peeled away, to reveal a teeming underbelly of long-cultivated, institutionalized hegemony atop which such dictatorial rule was mere surface puppetry. The revolutionary impulse thereby re-articulates itself in a purer and finer expression, directed not merely against the Master-Signifier who sits as sovereign atop the chain of power, but against the hegemonic system in its entirety, a system in which the national army shows itself to be intrinsically embedded.

To understand that military-political hegemonic nexus against which the  Second Egyptian Revolution struggles- a timely task of vital importance for any revolutionary praxis seeking to trace the contemporary contours of global Empire- we must examine the historical genesis of the Egyptian Army in the context of the power structures of the Egyptian nation-state. Like most post-imperial Third World nation-states, Egypt won its freedom of self-determination through military struggle. Since 1952, when the nationalist, pan-Arabic, anti-imperialist Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Free Officer’s Movement in a military coup against King Farouk’s Britain-backed regime, the Egyptian army has been firmly inscribed in the pride of the origin, indissolubly wed to the fabric of the body politic, secure in its national role as founder and guarantor of the independent, modern Egypt. Until the mid-1970s, the Egyptian military was the strongest institution in a nation that, up to the present day, has seen all its presidents, and many cabinet and senior governmental representatives, descend from military officer ranks.

LTC Stephen H. Gotowicki of the U.S. Army, in his 1994 paper ‘The Role of the Egyptian Military in Domestic Society’, explains that “as Egypt has democratized, the Egyptian military’s involvement in matters of national politics has declined, as has its direct involvement in matters of state”, while “at the same time, its involvement in Egypt’s national life and economy has expanded.” Beginning in the late 1970s, the Egyptian military, descending from the political into the civic sector, gained control of anywhere from 10 to 40% of the economy through heavy investments in burgeoning security, defense and civilian industries,  national infrastructure, and agricultural production, and proved itself to epitomize what MIT Comparative Politics professor Lucian Pye, in his 1961 essay ‘Armies in the Process of Political Modernization’, called the natural role of a modern military establishment- to come “as close as any human organization can to the ideal type for an industrialized and secularized enterprise”.

This domesticization and corporatization of the Egyptian military, says opinion columnist Walter Armbrust In a February 24 piece for Al-Jazeera entitled ‘A Revolution Against Neoliberalism?’, went hand in hand with the “crony capitalism of the Mubarak era”, where the “unfettering of markets and an agenda of privatization”, though considered by the developed world “to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East” and “lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success”, exacerbated Egypt’s structural and systematic inequalities, and brought to its population “stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation”, widespread unemployment, the fierce suppression of organized labor, and the gutting of “the public education and the health care system…by a combination of neglect and privatization”. As the Egyptian population suffered, military commanders were awarded lucrative positions at the head of major national corporations and important seats  in the higher echelons of government administration, occupying a central decision-making role in the corporate-political nexus.

Elizabeth Jelin, in her essay ‘Memories of State Violence: The Past in the Present’, traces a similar institutionalization of the armed forces in the developmentalist military juntas that ruled the Southern Cone countries of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina throughout the 60s and 70s. After seizing power, these transitional military regimes “stressed their ‘heroic’ role, as…eternal defenders of the fatherland…and the ultimate guarantors of the continuity of the nation”. Later, transitions into civilian governments from the 1980s onwards “involved the retreat of the military, and thus their Salvationist discourse lost ground (perhaps with the partial exception of Chile). The military receded into their own institutional spaces, to reaffirm their identities and justifications there”.

Like the post-revolutionary neoliberal dictatorships of the Southern Cone, Mubarak’s Egypt, along with its army, became a regional favorite, not only of the IMF, but of the U.S., from whom it received, second only to Israel, over $1.3 billion dollars of aid annually. In 2008, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone favorably described both dictator Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi- leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a close friend of Mubarak and Egypt’s Defense Minister since 1991- as men “focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time”, who “simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently” (CBC News). Since the 1970s, domestic corporate, military and dictatorial power structures, intermingled with global imperial interests, have come to striate the Egyptian body politic as indissoluble, metonymic links of a diffuse chain of hegemony.

Doctoral researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group Keonraad Bogaert, in an essay entitled ‘Global Dimensions of the Arab Spring and the Potential for Anti-Hegemonic Politics’,  links this trend in Egypt to the deepening neoliberal reforms of the larger Arab world.

Neoliberal politics in the Arab region meant an attack on the achievements of the developmental state that experienced its heyday in the 1950s and the 1960s…the systematic rollback of the developmental state through structural adjustments, austerity measures, and privatization meant that the middle and labor classes in the Arab region came increasingly under pressure, mainly due to the cutback of income redistribution mechanisms and rising job insecurity…these neoliberal reforms were at the basis of the motivations of ordinary people to come out into the streets en masse in 2011 and overthrow authoritarian leaders…what started in Tunisia has now created space on a global scale to question and contest neoliberal hegemony.

The evolution of the modern Egyptian nation-state, characterized by the deepening interpenetration of Egypt’s military into its civil and economic sectors, can be read as a metaphor for the modernization process of developing countries worldwide during a 20th century in which, as Paul Virilio says in Speed and Politics, “history progresse[d] at the speed of its weapons systems”. As the military-industrial complex became the driving socio-economic engine of development and self-determination for a nation-state fabric rife with military coups, the armies of developing nations, possessing an  organizational structure sufficiently capable to conduct the affairs of state, manage national projects and resolve political chaos, spurred on the process of national modernization at the political, civic and economic levels.

The army of the developing nation-state enforced and maintained sovereignty through a sometimes-deployed, but always-threatened, monopoly over the unilateral use of violence, inscribing upon the body politic the spectral fist of martial law epitomized in the dictum of Carl Schmitt- ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. This omnipresent state of emergency, effective in Egypt since 1967, served the interests of developing and developed nation-states with equal efficiency, and proved itself, as Irish scholar and human rights advocate John Reynolds says in his essay Emergency, Governmentality and The Arab Spring, to be “a constant presence through shifting contextual sands of Third World liberation movements and decolonisation, ideological Cold War totalitarianism, military dictatorships, separatist conflicts, economic shock policies and national security doctrine”.

As Woodrow Wilson said in The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics, “the authority of all governors, directly or indirectly, rests in all cases ultimately on force…government, in its last analysis, is organized force.” Throughout the modernization process of First, Second and Third World countries alike, the national army and police force, as the backbone and guarantor of the law-making and law-preserving violence proper to the state, helped guard, gird and facilitate the growth of what Michel Foucault called ‘governmentality’- a “triangle- sovereignty, discipline, government- which has as its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security”, an “ensemble…formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of [a] very specific albeit complex form of power”. The weaving of the political, economic and military web of globalized governmentality into a rosary of First, Second and Third World countries proceeded, throughout the last 150 years of the nation-state world system, not evenly and equitably, but through the dominance of the First over the Third World, a dominance exercised- first through political imperialism, and then through its surrogate, economic neoliberalism- in the name of global capital.

For capital, the army and the state-form are inseparable, and developed of necessity alongside each other. Friedrich Engels, in his 1884 treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, emphasizes that a decaying pre-capitalist feudal social body, already striated by irreconcilable class antagonisms, could not possibly accommodate a freely self-acting, self-organized and self-armed population without such a population annihilating itself in open class warfare. The capitalist state, therefore, secures its hegemony through “the establishment of a public power which no longer directly coincides with the population organizing itself as an armed force”, a public power which “exists in every state” and “consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds, of which gentile [clan] society knew nothing”.

In his 1917 State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin develops Engels’ concept of a “special, public” state power, which through the  “development, perfection, and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus…arose from society but place[d] itself above it and alienate[d] itself more and more from it” as a surplus of striated control, an institutionalized and normalized parasite. “Two institutions most characteristic of this state machine,” says Lenin, “are the bureaucracy and the standing army”, and the bourgeoisie are connected with these institutions “by thousands of threads”.

Secured by the national army’s monopoly over lawmaking and -preserving violence, this administrative apparatus of capture was able not only to guard and expand physical territory but also to foster national pride, all the while encasing and nurturing, within the body of the State, the budding mechanisms of capital accumulation. As Opello and Rosow explain in ‘The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics’,

the organizational and technological innovations in warfare during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave a war-making advantage to the form of politico-military rule that had access to large volumes of men (for soldiers)…capital (money to pay, equip, and arm them)…[and] a coherent collective identity (i.e., a sense of nationhood) that overrode regional, class, and tribal loyalties.

Out of the soil of the economic and bureaucratic structures of capitalist accumulation and technological modernization, arose the gleaming image of a strong, proud and loyal army as sign, seal and signet of national identity, a rigidly organized, bureaucratic, hierarchical microcosm, within the State, of the ordered beauty of the State-form itself. Hans Von Seeckt, military officer and organizer of the Reichswehr-the Weimar-era German Army which, through the suppression of Spartacist Bolshevism and the fusion of the country’s military and civilian sectors into a totalitarian military state, formed, according to volume 3 of Purnell’s monumental History of the Twentieth Century, “the only consistent bedrock element on, and above all behind, the German political scene” after the devastation of the First World War- expresses this nationalist military ideal with his guiding principle that “the Army should become a State within the State, but it should be merged in the State through service; in fact it should become the purest image of the State’” (Finer). This transcendental perch befits an army which, in a revolutionary crisis, returns to the barracks when it has successfully secured public order, an army which, in the words of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, conservative Prime Minister and dictator of colonialist Portugal from 1932 to 1968, “lives apart from politics, subjected to a hierarchy and discipline, serene and firm as a guarantee of public order and national security” (Finer).

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has manipulated popular motifs of a nationalist, a-political and civically responsible standing army as a means to consolidate imperial, neoliberal and, ultimately, dictatorial hegemony over the will of the Egyptian people. For example, on February 14, two days after the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in response to a general strike held by thousands of state employees demanding better pay and conditions, re-imposed martial law and issued a statement urging all citizens, in the interests of “the legitimate demands [of the people] for a true democratic environment…[to] work together to stabilize the country” and to end strikes and protests that, blocking the “positive progress and the efforts of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to realize the ambitions and aspirations of the people”, were “harming national security by disturbing all the institutions and the agencies…[of the] production and operations” of the state. This marked the first divergence of interests between SCAF and the revolting people, and the latter would soon realize that, far from intending to facilitate a ‘civil democratic process’, the military junta, like Mubarak’s regime, would not hesitate, in the words of Egyptian-American Cairo-based activist Sarah Hawas, to “rapidly devolve” Egyptian society “into a hotbed of naked fascism” under “the deafening silence of the international ‘community’ that continues to tolerate- indeed, goes out of its way to legitimize– the status quo”.

The Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011 shows that the myth of a benevolent, politically neutral military force is shattered when the army is deployed, not on the borders of the people it is sworn to protect, but on the city streets to suppress the resistance of a broad-based, rhizomatic body of citizens united against the sovereign power of ruler and regime alike. Where once the emperor’s army stood proudly before their people in royal battle garb, here what Lenin calls “the naked class struggle” becomes clear as day, as “the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it”, and “the oppressed class strives to create a new organization…capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters”.

Against an oppressive apparatus of governmentality indistinguishable from neo-imperial hegemony; against the unilateral re-instatement of a three-decades old martial law which the military junta had promised to abolish; against, in the December 22, 2011 words of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, “a state which has looted and stolen from the poor to increase the wealth of the rich…a state for whom the power of capital is more important than the authority of the judiciary”- against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Second Egyptian Revolution is, in the final instance, a revolution against neoliberalism as such. Herein can be found the universal value of an uprising that, bringing the domestic politics of Egypt to their logical conclusion, reaches beyond national borders and challenges a global fabric of power. The international hegemonic apparatus of late capitalism, in the face of the worldwide Arab Spring and Occupy movements, takes on the variegated forms of fascist dictatorship and repressive military-police apparatus, struggling to maintain its hold on power as the human multitude awakens.

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