The Flotilla and the Necessity of the Public Critique
By: Michael D. English June 17, 2010
Judith Bulter’s (2004) Precarious Life, in particular the essay “The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and the risk of public critique,” is worthy of reflection in the wake of the flotilla crisis. Throughout the work Butler attempts to illustrate the vulnerability we face as social creatures dependent upon one another for the maintenance of our health and safety. Our fear of violence drives us to place a premium on safety while failing to critically investigate the very causes of violence. Butler focuses in a number of sections on the the anti-intellectualism plaguing the public sphere in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and the essay is a response to Lawrence Summers (now Obama’s chief economic advisor) on the ease at which being charged as anti-Semitic can lobbed against those who reject Israel’s use of violence. The comments of Helen Thomas and her subsequent retirement are a not so subtle reminder of the potential costs to a person chooses to vent their frustration over this particular conflict. Thomas’ comments were of little critical or factual value, yet they somehow garnered a more harsh response from the Whitehouse than the actual killing of nine Turkish citizens. While the substance of her statements was surely poor, her frustration with the situation is certainly justified. What are we to do when faced with the continued use state violence perpetrated in the name of freedom and security?
In the weeks following the flotilla debacle, I’ve found myself searching for an apt critical conflict response to the events. I have spoken with many people, all of whom share the same frustration, but seem unable to articulate what the role of the conflict professional should play in addressing this issue. The safe response proclaims that all sides involved in the situation (Israeli, Turkish, Palestinian, and so forth) share some degree of responsibility for the tragedy and should work toward a peaceful solution to the situation in Gaza. While this statement is true, it offers little in terms of a critical or even a humane response to the events that cost nine people on a humanitarian mission their lives.
When confronted with abhorrent use of state power, one can either remain silent as a collaborator of illegitimate power or one can speak out as a response to the illegitimate use of violence. Butler’s charge does not devalue the safety concerns of Israelis, but it does expose the weak argument that the state of Israel or any state for that matter needs conflict and peace practitioners and scholars to defend its actions. Israel could have chosen a number of different non-violent methods to prevent the flotilla from achieving its goal and instead, choose to use commandos as spectacle to make a point. We should not ignore this. While more attention is certainly on Gaza and the plight of the Palestinian people living in sub-human conditions, we must make sure that matters based on improving the quality of human life are not drowned out by discussions on state sovereignty and unilateral military action. The public critique is one of the few channels ordinary people have in addressing the misuse and abuse of state power. A critical conflict response must be driven by a single-minded focus to expose the human costs of violence, which means holding the state accountable when it abuses its power.