Oscar van Heerden | The Israel-Gaza conflict and the 'banality of evil'

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Palestinians inspect the rubble of a collapsed building that was destroyed during an Israeli air strike, west of Gaza City.
Palestinians inspect the rubble of a collapsed building that was destroyed during an Israeli air strike, west of Gaza City.
Mohammed Talatene/picture alliance via Getty Image

Our collective guilt over the merciless genocide of Jews make us turn a blind eye to the second genocide currently underway in Gaza and all other occupied territories, writes Oscar van Heerden.


When philosopher, author and Holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt, came up with the concept of the "banality of evil", she was referring to the Nazis, in particular one Nazi - Adolf Eichmann.

She intimated that he was not a fanatic nor a sociopath, but instead an extremely average and mundane person who relied on cliched defences rather than think for himself; that he was motivated by a sort of complacency which was wholly unexceptional.  When observing the current violence being meted out against the Palestinians in Gaza, one must ask the question, can the same be said about Israelis and the manner they engage with the Palestinians?  

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Can we say they are not fanatics nor sociopaths, but instead extremely average and mundane persons who rely on cliched defences rather than think for themselves? These cliched defences are what Israeli journalist and author Gideon Levy talks about and why the Israelis think it's justified to kill, maim, imprison and systematically exterminate the Palestinians.

He provides three reasons (cliched defences).

  • We (Jews) are the chosen people;
  • We are the victims; and
  • They (Palestinians) are not humans.

Levy explains that the Jewish people have a deeply-held belief that they are the chosen people, chosen by God himself. And as a "holy people", and having a covenant with God, they can do no wrong in proclaiming his name and providing a light to others. After all, according to Levy, it was Israeli politician Golda Meir who said: "After the Holocaust, the Jews have the right to do whatever they want."

Levy goes further to state that there have indeed been many occupations in the world, but that the Israeli occupation is the only one where the occupier (Israel) makes the bold statement that they are, in fact, the victims. Never before have we had a situation where a foreign people come and occupy the territorial integrity of another people, oppress the latter people, and then claim that they, the occupier, are the victims here.  

Strong and difficult words

And finally, Levy says that, if you just scratch the surface of every Jewish person in Israel, you will find that they do not see Palestinians as human beings and hence any argument put forward about respecting the human rights of the Palestinians does not apply here because they are not human beings and hence must be treated as such.

Strong and difficult words spoken by a fellow Israeli. 

Levy, who defines himself as a "patriotic Israeli", criticises what he sees as Israeli society's moral blindness to the effects of its acts of war and occupation. Like me, he supports unilateral withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories without concessions.

Levy states that "Israel is not being asked to give anything to the Palestinians, it is only being asked to return – to return their stolen land and restore their trampled self-respect, along with their fundamental human rights and humanity". He too, like me, has abandoned a two-state solution because it has become untenable and not viable any longer and hence we now advocate for a one-state solution.  

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I can hear some of you already saying, but what of the rockets being fired into Israel by Hamas and other groupings in Gaza and elsewhere? Well, these must be condemned in the strongest terms. No violence directed at civilians must ever be justified, but the question we must ask is what precipitated the launching of such rockets? Also, the disproportional response by the Israeli military forces must be questioned.

Innocent civilians are at the receiving end of such violence, and the fact that news reports talk about the current Israeli prime minister wanting to demonstrate his political resolve through such actions is also regrettable. Wanting to push up one's approval ratings by killing these Palestinian 'animals' is disgusting and immoral to say the least.     

It is commonly known that there are two ways you can colonise and/or occupy a foreign territory with some measure of success. The South African example of Colonialism of a Special Type (where the occupier and the occupied live side by side in the same territory and they work out the differences as they go) or the Australia and US are examples of where the systematic extermination of the local indigenous people are orchestrated and facilitated. Which would you argue is the best one and has the least concomitant problems? I once asked an innocent question about why Australia is so much more successful than South Africa, to which the obvious answer was because they don't have to continually contend with local indigenous peoples around issues of land, freedoms, entitlements, etc. 

Turning a blind eye

The extermination (over time) of the Palestinians continues unabated in full view of the world. Our collective guilt over the merciless genocide of Jews make us turn a blind eye to the second genocide currently underway in Gaza and all other occupied territories. The targeting of innocent children, especially boy children, where they are maimed, assassinated and imprisoned is not by accident, but design. They are, after all, the future that will resist and continue the fight for freedom and liberty; hence, their spirits must be broken at a very young age. 

I'm not sure when we, the world, would want to intervene meaningfully? Like in the case of Rwanda, will it be when there is no Palestinian left to kill? After all, 50 years from now we won't even remember that there was the largest open-air prison in the region, Israel would be writing the history books and telling future generations their narrative. 

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The banality of evil exists in the hearts and minds of most Israelis, who cannot or will not acknowledge that what they are doing is no different from those very Nazis so aptly represented by Eichman.

Now, there will be those that state correctly that I have chosen to make such a comparison in order to want to shock people, and to that I say I concur that this is indeed my intention because if not shock and horror to this senseless violence and war meted out against the Palestinians, what of their plight then? I am also acutely aware that the old reliable retort from certain quarters will, of course, be flung upon me, that of being an antisemitic. Let it be so, for I know that I'm not.

I read somewhere that "the working definition of antisemitism, which was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the US Department of State, and other organisations, has offered several examples in which criticism of Israel may be antisemitic, including "drawing comparison of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis".

This definition, it states, "is controversial because of concerns that it could be seen as defining legitimate criticisms of Israel as antisemitic and has been used to censor pro-Palestinian activism. Alternative definitions, such as the Jerusalem Declaration on antisemitism, have been proposed.

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In an official statement, the Anti-Defamation League, an American social activist organisation involved with the US Jewish community, has declared that "absolutely no comparison can be made between the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews", given that "while one can criticise Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, in contrast to the Holocaust, there is not now, nor has there been, a significant Israeli ideology, movement, policy or plan to exterminate the Palestinian population". It concludes that, "the statement also labelled comparisons inherently antisemitic".  

To which I respond and say that, when confronted with the question, what is there to write about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict that has not already been said? For as long as the US unequivocally supports the holy state of Israel, there is nothing anyone can do to change the status quo.   

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Well, my answer is I will continue to write about the wrongs and evils of Israel for as long as it continues because the world must know what is going on in the Middle East and stop turning a blind eye to what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories. The call for sanctions and actions towards ending this siege and occupation of Palestinians must continue unabated, and if I can play my small part in doing so, I must, and so should you.

- Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He is currently the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Fort Hare.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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