The Compass of Mourning: Judith Butler writes about violence and the condemnation of violence

19 October 2023// London Review of Books

The matters most in need of public discussion, the ones that most urgently need to be discussed, are those that are difficult to discuss within the frameworks now available to us. Although one wishes to go directly to the matter at hand, one bumps up against the limits of a framework that makes it nearly impossible to say what one has to say. I want to speak about the violence, the present violence, the history of violence and its many forms. But if one wishes to document violence, which means understanding the massive bombardment and killings in Israel by Hamas as part of that history, one can be accused of ‘relativising’ or ‘contextualisation’. We are to condemn or approve, and that makes sense, but is that all that is ethically required of us? In fact, I do condemn without qualification the violence committed by Hamas. This was a terrifying and revolting massacre. That was my primary reaction, and it endures. But there are other reactions as well.

Almost immediately, people want to know what ‘side’ you are on, and clearly the only possible response to such killings is unequivocal condemnation. But why is it we sometimes think that asking whether we are using the right language or if we have a good understanding of the historical situation would stand in the way of strong moral condemnation? Is it really relativising to ask what precisely we are condemning, what the reach of that condemnation should be, and how best to describe the political formation, or formations, we oppose? It would be odd to oppose something without understanding it or without describing it well. It would be especially odd to believe that condemnation requires a refusal to understand, for fear that knowledge can only serve a relativising function and undermine our capacity to judge. And what if it is morally imperative to extend our condemnation to crimes just as appalling as the ones repeatedly foregrounded by the media? When and where does our condemnation begin and end? Do we not need a critical and informed assessment of the situation to accompany moral and political condemnation, without fearing that to become knowledgeable will turn us, in the eyes of others, into moral failures complicitous in hideous crimes?

There are those who do use the history of Israeli violence in the region to exonerate Hamas, but they use a corrupt form of moral reasoning to accomplish that goal. Let’s be clear, Israeli violence against Palestinians is overwhelming: relentless bombing, the killing of people of every age in their homes and on the streets, torture in their prisons, techniques of starvation in Gaza and the dispossession of homes. And this violence, in its many forms, is waged against a people who are subject to apartheid rules, colonial rule and statelessness. When, however, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee issues a statement claiming that ‘the apartheid regime is the only one to blame’ for the deadly attacks by Hamas on Israeli targets, it makes an error. It is wrong to apportion responsibility in that way, and nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated. At the same time, this group and its members do not deserve to be blacklisted or threatened. They are surely right to point to the history of violence in the region: ‘From systematised land seizures to routine airstrikes, arbitrary detentions to military checkpoints, and enforced family separations to targeted killings, Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death, both slow and sudden.’ 

This is an accurate description, and it must be said, but it does not mean that Hamas’s violence is only Israeli violence by another name. It is true that we should develop some understanding of why groups like Hamas gained strength in light of the broken promises of Oslo and the ‘state of death, both slow and sudden’ that describes the lived existence of many Palestinians living under occupation, whether the constant surveillance and threat of administrative detention without due process, or the intensifying siege that denies Gazans medication, food and water.