A retenir : In the Middle East, as in Greek tragedy, justice must prevail over moral absolutism | Kenan Malik

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Watching the tragedy unfold in Israel and Palestine has sometimes felt like reading the Oresteia backwards. A trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, written in the fifth century BC, the Oresteia tells of the transformation of ancient Greece from a society rooted in blood and revenge into one shaped by justice.

The Oresteia begins with the return home from the Trojan war of Agamemnon, the leader of the triumphant Greeks. He is brutally murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in furious revenge for his having ritually sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia on the eve of conflict to placate the gods.

To avenge his father, Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, kills Clytemnestra. Pursued by the Furies, ancient deities whose role is to exact vengeance for major sins, he seeks refuge in Athens. The goddess of wisdom, Athena, convenes a jury to try Orestes. With the jury split, Athena votes in favour of acquittal, and in so doing opens up the possibilities of a world beyond that governed by the Furies.

The Oresteia is a complex work engaging in issues from patriarchy to democracy. The human condition, for Aeschylus, was tragic, with Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes all facing impossible choices. Part of the process by which humans civilise themselves and learn to live with the tragedy of their condition is, he suggests, in forging the distinction between vengeance and justice. Justice brings us into the sphere of politics and allows for the possibility of reasoned change and redemption.

The irony today is that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians seems to be moving in the opposite direction, into a world defined more by the Furies than by Athena. A world in which the erosion of political solutions to the conflict has led to the pursuit of vengeance dominating the search for justice.

This is most clearly visible in Hamas’s savagery. The organisation is not, as some on the left view it, an expression of Palestinian resistance but of the degeneration of that resistance, of “lost hope that moral strategies can succeed”, in the words of the American writer Peter Beinart.

Under Hamas’s rule, opponents are brutally dispatched, women’s rights denied, gay people tortured and murdered. Even given the impact of the Israeli blockade, Gaza’s rulers have done little to advance the lives of Gazans. The Hamas imagination is sustained less by a vision of Palestinian freedom than by a hatred of Israel and of Jews.

Those who celebrate Hamas’s actions as “resistance”, and imagine that butchering Israeli civilians is what “decolonisation” looks like, have a wretched view of Palestinian rights. It is also a perspective that, in diminishing the value of Israeli lives, only encourages the growth of antisemitism.

The dehumanisation of the “other”, and the desire for revenge over justice, is a feature not simply of Hamas policy. It is woven into Israeli perspectives, too, and from the very top.

The “entire nation” of Palestine, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog claimed, “is responsible” for Hamas’s crimes. Israel’s heritage minister, Amichai Eliyahu, has written of Gaza, approvingly quoting a soldier: “Blow up and flatten everything. Simply a delight for the eyes.” Galit Distal Atbaryan, Likud MP and, until two weeks ago, Israel’s minister for public diplomacy, demanded the “erasing of Gaza”, adding: “Revengeful and vicious IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] is needed here. Anything less than that is immoral.”

This is the language of the Furies, not of Athena, and backed by immense military hardware. It is the language, too, of many western supporters of Israel. US congressman Brian Mast, speaking during a debate on his attempt to slow down humanitarian aid to Gaza, dismissed the idea of “innocent Palestinian civilians”, claiming, “I don’t think we would so lightly throw around the term innocent Nazi civilians”.

Not just Israeli rhetoric, but also military strategy has shifted. Beginning with bombing campaigns on Lebanon in the 1990s, Wendy Pearlman and Boaz Atzili observe in their book Triadic Coercion, Israeli leaders came to see military action as possessing “inherent rather than instrumental utility”, with the use of “indiscriminate and brute force” justified on “moral as much as strategic” grounds. This is what Gazans now face.

Israel has sought not to find political solutions to the Palestinian conflict but to contain and manage it. It has cynically helped nurture Hamas, Benjamin Netanyahu in particular propping it up as an obstacle to an independent Palestine. “To prevent the option of two states,” Israeli general turned academic researcher Gershon Hacohen has observed, “he is turning Hamas into his closest partner. Openly Hamas is an enemy. Covertly, it’s an ally.” Israel is wreaking devastation in Gaza in pursuit of a monster it helped spawn.

While there has rightly been much criticism of leftwing voices celebrating the Hamas attack, far less has been said about the immensely more powerful political figures promoting incendiary, dehumanising rhetoric in the name of defending Israel, and the role of such rhetoric in justifying atrocities in Gaza. Instead, in Europe and America there is a concerted effort to marginalise pro-Palestinian sentiments.

In France, demonstrations supporting Palestinians have been banned, while a proposed new law would make it a criminal offence to insult Israel. In Germany, as an open letter from Jewish writers, artists and academics observes, in areas with large Turkish and Arab communities, “armoured vans and squads of armed riot police patrol the streets searching for any spontaneous showing of Palestinian support or symbols of Palestinian identity”. In America, those expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments have faced the sack.

In Britain, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, has suggested that waving a Palestinian flag could be seen as a criminal offence, and that “not just explicit pro-Hamas symbols and chants … are cause for concern”. The science minister, Michelle Donelan, a self-proclaimed champion of free speech in universities, has singled out two academics for censure for their views on Israel and the Gaza conflict.

There is more here than simply hypocrisy about free speech. It is an attempt to reframe the Gazan conflict as a moral, rather than political, issue, and to delegitimise Palestinian perspectives, an approach that can only make political engagement on a difficult terrain even more intractible.

“Where will it end? Where will it sink to sleep and rest, this murderous hate, this Fury?”, the Chorus asks at the end of The Choephori, the second play in the Oresteia trilogy, after Orestes kills Clytemnestra. Today, the answer depends on whether we, and political leaders in Israel, Palestine and the west, wish to listen to the Furies or to Athena.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk

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