One of the privileges of being civilized is that it gives you the right to do very uncivilized things to the barbarians. In his public address to Joe Biden in Tel Aviv on October 18, Benjamin Netanyahu remarked, “You’ve rightly drawn a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism.” History suggests that the clearer that line is said to be, the easier it is to justify large-scale violence. This is the secular equivalent of the absolute divide between believers and infidels that allowed Hamas to massacre Jews without restraint. In its mentality, there could be no such thing as Jewish civilians. Now, in Gaza, there are no civilians, only barbarians.
In 1859 the great English liberal John Stuart Mill suggested that “a civilized government” that has “barbarous neighbours” finds itself obliged either to conquer them outright or to “assert so much authority over them” as to “break their spirit”—an injunction that seems to have shaped Israel’s thinking about Gaza since the Hamas atrocities of October 7. In this process, Mill insisted, the enlightened government need not play by the moral or legal rules. “To suppose,” he wrote, “that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error, and one which no statesman can fall into.”
This was the most important doctrine of the polity from which Israel itself emerged, the British Empire. Civilized nations (of which Britain was the supreme example) did not have to grant their subject peoples the same rights and protections they claimed for themselves. Governments in London, writes Caroline Elkins in Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (2022), “constructed an alternative moral universe for populations it perceived to be off civilization’s scale of humanity, in an otherworldly order distinctly their own.” If there are some respects in which the Israel-Palestine conflict can be seen as the most dangerously unfinished business of that empire, the question of whether the people of Gaza exist in an alternative moral universe is a living legacy of the British Empire’s governing mentality.
Israel’s own pre-statehood history should be a reminder of how treacherous these colonial categories really are. The problem the British had in the twenty-five years (1923–1948) they ruled Palestine was that they could never quite decide who the barbarians were. Arabs generally fit the bill, though there were times when they were to be flattered as friends and allies or swathed in Lawrence of Arabia romanticism. But what about the Jews? Were they civilized?
The commander of the British forces in Egypt and Palestine, General Sir Walter Norris Congreve, confessed after deadly intercommunal riots in Jerusalem in 1920 that “I dislike them all equally. Arabs and Jews and Christians, in Syria and Palestine, they are all alike, a beastly people.” When, in 1943 and 1944, Menachem Begin’s Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi (the two militant Zionist groups who hoped to gain all of Palestine as a Jewish state by violent means) began terror campaigns against the British, the Jews as a whole, not just in Palestine but in the diaspora, could, in some enraged British responses, be cast as barbarians, which is to say people who can be subjected to collective punishment without legal restraint. The official Jewish Agency, the proto-government headed by David Ben-Gurion (soon to become Israel’s first prime minister), was warned by Winston Churchill’s government in London that, as Elkins puts it, if it “did not actively cooperate with Britain to stamp out the terrorists, then Britain would bring the full force of its punitive measures to bear against the Jewish community in Palestine.” In the context of the ongoing Holocaust such a threat seems incredible, but it was long established as the imperial modus operandi.
Once the Jewish community as a whole had been identified with terrorism, and thus with the forces of barbarism, it was fair game for armed raids on kibbutzim by British soldiers and police, in which civilians were terrorized, beaten, and in some cases killed. Elkins recalls, “One policeman claimed that he and others had been provoked into beating women and children who had formed human shields; these Jewish civilians had ‘behaved like demented wild beasts’ and engaged in ‘vicious attacks’ against the police and army, according to official reports.” Demented wild beasts, “human animals,” deserve what they get—including the children.
One senior British officer wrote that it was no longer possible to “differentiate between passive onlookers and active armed members of the Jewish population, and the word ‘terrorist’ is no longer being applied to differentiate one from the other.” In 1947, after the Irgun displayed the hanged bodies of two British sergeants it had kidnapped, this refusal to differentiate engulfed Jews in Britain itself. Antisemitic riots raged for five days in England and Scotland, and synagogues, shops, and gravestones were vandalized. Some were defiled with slogans such as “Hang all Jews,” “Hitler was right,” and “Destroy Judah.”
The Manchester Guardian commented, “The man who condemns the Zionists in Palestine on account of the crimes of the Irgun gangsters is only a degree better than the youth who expresses his hatred by mobbing the innocent men and women of Cheetham Hill or Wavertree. There is no political fault so common or so dangerous as this primitive confusion between many and few.” The Jewish Chronicle editorialized, “The anti-Jewish riots which have occurred in several towns, on the pretext of the Palestine murders, are shameful in the extreme, both for themselves and for the fact that they represent the newest extension of the evil principle of holding the innocent to blame for the guilty.”
Both newspapers were right, of course. But the primitive confusion between the many and the few, and the evil principle of holding the innocent to blame for the guilty, were not aberrations. They were, and are, functions of the colonial idea that the barbarian peoples are guilty of crimes precisely as peoples. Individual atrocities are to be understood as expressions of a collective lack of civilization and may therefore be punished collectively. The guilty race must, as Mill had it, either be conquered outright or be subjected to such a display of domination that its spirit is broken once and for all.
This long-established logic continues to play out in Israel now. Those who commit terrorist crimes are identified (as they wish to be) with the people they claim to represent. That people is then reduced to the atrocities committed in its name and must pay the price for these outrages. It is a logic that simultaneously inflates the standing of the terrorists and shrinks almost to invisibility the individuality of the civilians who belong to the criminalized group. It is a logic that has been used, time and again throughout history, against the Jewish people.
Can Israel—and by extension the US—transcend this colonial mindset? In his televised address to the American people on October 19, Biden explicitly disowned the idea of collective Palestinian guilt: “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.” He also said, “President Netanyahu and I discussed again, yesterday, the critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war. That means protecting civilians in combat as best as they can. The people of Gaza urgently need food, water, and medicine.” He did not say, however, that Netanyahu had accepted this repudiation of collective guilt or the need to obey international law. Nor did he say what the US will do if Israel does not obey the laws of war or facilitate the provision of food, water, and medicine to civilians in Gaza. Are the principles Biden laid down exhortations or conditions, entreaties or imperatives?
The fate of the Middle East may turn on the answer. Biden began his address by saying, “We’re facing an inflection point in history. One of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come.” In this at least he may well be right. There is either, in the crucible of this unfolding catastrophe, a definitive return to the colonial principle that humanity is fundamentally divided between those who deserve the protection of morality and law and those who do not, or there is a recognition that the line between civilization and barbarism runs not between different societies but within them.