As a brief, introductory writing assignment, I asked my European History students to formulate an argument—perhaps aimed at skeptical parents or friends—about why the study of history is important and/or relevant. They came up with a variety of creative and thoughtful responses, and a few of them suggested that understanding both specific historical precedents and general historical trends could be a useful addition to policymaking in the United States today.
This struck me as a particularly useful thought coming as it did at the end of several weeks during which defenders of Israeli colonialism threw all the dirt they could at their critics, particularly the charge of anti-Semitism. Critics of Israel’s disproportionate violence in Gaza, they argued, were anti-Jewish, didn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist, and were defending Hamas.
It turns out, Hamas hardly needs any of its supposed “supporters” in the international community—most of whom were criticizing Israeli terrorism and colonialism rather than defending Hamas’ own violence—when it has the Israel Defence Force as its public relations agent.
Current polling suggests that Israel’s ill-advised decision to bombard its colony, displace a quarter of its colonial subjects in Gaza, and shell United Nations facilities has had precisely the opposite effect that it ostensibly intended: Hamas is buoyant in polls, and has secured even greater support from Palestinians in Gaza.
This should be no surprise, and is part of the reason why most of the Israeli regime’s critics argue that its violence and colonialism are self-defeating as well as fundamentally unjust.
Many anti-colonial and nationalist movements struggle to gain traction, whether because elements of their programs and ideologies are out of step with their potential constituents; because their target audience is focused on elementary matters of economic survival; because they are in competition with other nationalists; or because they are unable to make the case that their behavior is a good match for the problems faced by colonial subjects.
The more violent, indiscriminate, and generally unhinged Israel’s response to anti-colonial activity in Gaza becomes, the more credibility Hamas gains, as an organization able and willing to meet fire with fire. The more oppressive life becomes under a colonial regime which denies people self-determination, the more non-violence looks like a luxury, and the more likely people become to turn to those who practice a different kind of anti-colonial politics. And the more hapless Israel’s violence makes other, more “moderate” anti-colonial groups look, the more dependable Hamas becomes.
If Hamas and the IDF were working hand-in-glove they could hardly come up with a better strategy to boost the popularity of the organization. And in its own bizarre way, the Israeli regime benefits from Hamas’ popularity. Run as it is by swivel-eyed fundamentalists, the regime is in bad need of an enemy to indulge its penchant for ongoing war. It’s back-to-the-wall mentality requires a constant state of insecurity and legal exception. It needs to provoke and stoke violence in its colony to rationalize its continued rule.
Anyone who has studied colonialism could tell you that although the specifics differ from case to case, these are features of the colonial relationship—particularly at the moment when colonial rule comes under sustained challenge—that are broadly applicable. Such conclusions are logical, well-supported, and would probably be readily-drawn by many history students. The same could not be said, unfortunately, for many of the commentators who sought to derail the debate with accusations of anti-Semitism, or for the public officials whose mulishness makes them accessories to such unnecessary and tragic cycles of violence.