According to classical political theory, human beings enter into a social contract and renounce their right to exercising unlimited violence in order not to fall prey to the violence of others. In Thomas Hobbes’s vision of the Leviathan, they invest the sovereign with that right, so as to be better protected from arbitrary force in a hostile “dog eat dog” world. Only in this manner do the emerging political subjects leave the state of nature behind them and enter the realm of civil society.
In the State of Israel, the social contract has been flawed beginning with the very formation of the polity in 1948. The Jewish citizens relinquished the possibility of unbridled violence toward each other, but not toward the Palestinian other. Since 1967, the occupied nation was situated in the collective Israeli psyche somewhere in a position between an internal and external enemy, who, in any event, had to be suppressed in order to guarantee the peace, order, and stability of the Israeli society. An implicit reason for the failure of peace negotiations was that the Israeli authorities refused to revise that damaging conception of their neighbors even in a hypothetical attainment of the “final status”.
What is going on today in Israel/Palestine is the unraveling of the original social contract, given that the Israeli Leviathan can no longer fulfill its task of maintaining internal stability through the denial of human rights and through unlimited violence channeled outwards in the direction of Palestinian people.
Everything is unfolding following the scenario foreseen by Hobbes in early modernity: each citizen reclaims for her- or himself the right to exercise force, which has previously been entrusted to the political state. Nir Barkat’s appeal to the Jewish residents of Jerusalem to carry firearms with them at all times; the simplification of Israeli gun licensing laws; the rush by civilians to purchase new weapons—all of these are telltale signs of a return to the Hobbesian state of nature, where no one is safe. (Think of the Jewish Israeli recently stabbed by his fellow citizen, who confused him for a Palestinian enemy.) The crowds chanting on a daily basis “Death to the Arabs!” and the lynch mob that, yesterday, executed an Eritrean migrant on the suspicion that he was involved in an attack on the central bus station in Beer Sheva are still more obvious expressions of the state of nature uncovered beneath the thin veneer of political state.
Above all, the narrative of democratic Israel as an orderly exception amidst the chaos of the Middle East has been exposed for what it is, namely a relatively short-lived fiction. That fantasy was plausible to the extent that a violent repression of Palestinian people produced the desired calm within the Israeli polity. However, once a small portion of that violence ricocheted and the sense of security was lost, sovereignty passed from the militarized state apparatus to the increasingly militarized civil society, less and less distinguishable from the a-civil state of nature.
As a post-scriptum to these brief reflections, I would like to add the idea that occupation and violence inflicted on others cannot be sequestered indefinitely; sooner or later, they affect and consume the occupying and violent self. An exception to the general state of emergency is bound for dilution in the prevailing chaos that surrounds it. The occupying mind cannot help but become an occupied mentality, which, in concrete (also in the literal sense of the word) terms, means that separation from the neighboring other is the segregation, enclosure, and ghettoization of the self. The construction of separation barriers is happening at an alarmingly fast pace not only in Israel/Palestine, where Jerusalem is effectively being divided by the Israeli authorities, but also in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as between the United States and Mexico. Yet, it is in Israel alone that this process is accompanied by an equally speedy collapse of civil society. Pity that the Israelis have not understood a simple fact: the biggest threat hurled in their direction comes from themselves.
This article originally appeared at Mondoweiss.