See all suffering

02 Nov 2023

Life can get quite complicated - and sometimes, you need help from the world's greatest philosophers to figure it out. In her blog, Jara Majerus looks at life through the philosophical monocle, employing the help of some of history's brightest thinkers. This week, Jara is grappling with the war in the Middle East, Austria's response – and seeks help from Judith Butler.

Last month was different. With rockets and bombs destroying homes and neighbourhoods, and with heartbreaking and terrifying videos of families mourning their loved ones, I felt there was little room for my individual struggles. The magnitude of the war in the Middle East cannot be explained in 441 words but remaining silent is not an option either. And I am certain that a lot of students share this feeling.

I still remember the video of a woman on my feed. She is kneeling quietly on the floor. Her eyes are closed. Carefully, she presses her head against her child that she is holding in her arms. Her arms are wrapped around the small body gently, lovingly. The mother kisses her child’s face through a thin, white sheet. She is whispering. It is a tender moment. It is haunting. It is unbearable.

It seems that in times of war, one can only stand by the side of one people. It seems that we must distinguish between villain and victim. In war there are no grey zones, it is only black or white. The stance that my home country Austria took shows this very clearly. Last week, Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer argued against a ceasefire in the war in the Middle East because – due to historical responsibility dating back to WWII – he sees Austria as a non-negotiable advocate of Israel. No compromise, no differentiation, no nuance between the Israeli state, the oppression of Jewish people, between Hamas and the oppression of Palestinians.

‘It is a tender moment. It is haunting. It is unbearable’

According to Jewish philosopher Judith Butler, this lack of nuance displayed by several heads of state who consider standing by Israel as non-negotiable has serious consequences – especially for the lives of Palestinians: ‘When you’ve accomplished – rhetorically and through the media – the identification of Palestine with terrorism and all Palestinians with terrorism, barbarism and animality, then there are no civilians in the imaginary of those who are doing violence to them. And that’s false and it has to be opposed.’ In other words, Palestinian civilians are not recognized as human beings and their lives are not seen as worthy.

So, what for instance the Austrian chancellor is neglecting in his firm support for Israel is that the essence of this goes beyond Hamas attacking Israel. This war is part of a long-standing violent conflict characterized by the systematic oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli state. And while this does not legitimize the killing of innocent Israeli people, it should open our eyes to the ongoing suffering that the people in Gaza have been put through. And it should open our hearts to all people suffering on any side of the Gaza Strip.

Read Jara Majerus's blogs here

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