Israel conducts an air raid on the border area with Gaza on Nov. 2, 2023. (AFP/Yonhap)
By Slavoj Žižek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University
For most of us, telling the truth means making a statement that fits the facts. Me saying, “I am now on St Helena Island observing Napoleon’s residence,” is true if I am now really there observing Napoleon’s residence. The so-called postmodernists proceed in a different way. They reduce truth to a discursive “truth-effect.” For example, Michel Foucault’s notion of truth can be summed up in the claim that truth/untruth is not a direct property of our statements but that, in different historical conditions, different discourses produce each its own specific truth-effect, i.e., it implies its own criteria of what values as “true.”
“The problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in discourse which falls under the category of scientificity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses which are neither true nor false,” he writes.
Science defines truth in its own terms: the truth of a proposition (which should be formulated in clear explicit and preferably formalized terms) is established by experimental procedures which could be repeated by anyone. Religious discourse operates in a different way: its “truth” is established through complex rhetorical ways that generate the experience of inhabiting a meaningful world benevolently controlled by a higher power.
Is there a third way between the common view and the postmodern historicist relativism?
Psychoanalysis provides one. While fully accepting the importance of factual truth — or, in this case, not a physical fact but his interpretation that explains the patient’s symptoms — a psychoanalyst has to tell this to the patient at the right moment, when (based upon his analytic experience) he is convinced that his statement will deeply affect the patient’s subjectivity, pushing him towards accepting some repressed truths about his subjectivity and desires. If the psychoanalyst tells this to his patient too early, the patient will dismiss it as irrelevant. For the truth to have an effect on those to whom it is told, it matters when it is told to them — and, obviously, the same goes for political statements, especially with regard to the ongoing Gaza war.
Soon after Oct. 7, 2023, we were bombarded by the photos of the bodies of Jews burnt in the course of the Hamas attack. A month or so later, Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, admitted the bodies we saw were the bodies of Hamas attackers burned by IDF: “We’ve made a mistake. They are actually bodies which were so badly burned we thought they were ours. In the end, apparently, they were Hamas terrorists.”
There was another similar case: Israel had to admit there are no photos of beheaded children. While one has to praise Israel to admit its mistakes, a suspicion remains. When these two “facts” were first proclaimed, they circulated all around the world, and all big media mentioned them. But when the mistake was admitted, it drew much less attention, so the rumors about burned bodies and beheaded children continue to circulate.
In short, Israel told a lie at the moment when this had a big worldwide effect, and it then told the truth when it was clear that it would be received as a minor correction with no great effect.
Something quite similar happened to me after the “scandal” I caused with my speech at the Frankfurt book fair on Oct. 17, 2023, where I drew attention also to the long history of Palestinian suffering. Many Germans who publicly attacked me for my stance approached me later in private, telling me that they agree with me, but that now is not the moment to say this publicly. My interpretation of their act is: Yes, now is not the moment to say it publicly because doing this may have some real effect — we will be allowed to say it when it will mean nothing to do it.
Freedom to say something problematic is given to us when it doesn’t matter; when the effect of saying something is null and makes no difference, we are free to say it.
Ami Ayalon, a former leader of Shin Bet, said on Jan. 14, 2023: “We Israelis will have security only when they, Palestinians, will have hope. This is the equation.” Israel will not have security until Palestinians have their own state, and Israeli authorities should release Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader of the second intifada, to direct negotiations to create one. “Look into the Palestinian polls,” Ayalon says. “He is the only leader who can lead Palestinians to a state alongside Israel. First of all because he believes in the concept of two states, and secondly because he won his legitimacy by sitting in our jails.”
Barghouti, who has been imprisoned for over 20 years, is effectively perceived by millions there as the Palestinian Mandela. The only problem with such retired truth-sayers is that they say this after they’ve retired. They are free to say it because their words just cause a small bubble without serious impact. I was told by an Israeli friend that there was a case of someone who told the bitter truth after his retirement, but then he was called back to serve and was again doing exactly the same thing he criticized in his retirement.
Another aspect of such manipulations with truth is the procedure often practiced by Israel. At some point, the official spokespeople began to openly admit what they had been planning for a long time but nonetheless denied was their goal. On Jan. 18, 2024, Netanyahu rejected the project of a Palestinian state and promised that Israel would take over the entire region it currently occupies, “from the river to the sea.”
The use of the phrase “from the river to the sea” has come under particular scrutiny in the last three months. When Palestinians, or anyone on the left, has used the phrase to demand a free Palestine — as in the popular chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — those on the right have disingenuously argued that it is calling for the death of all Jewish people in Israel. Now, the same phrase which was hitherto denounced as genocidal is being used by Netanyahu. A month or so ago, I wrote about how the formula “from the river to the sea” is now de facto appropriated by Israel. I still mentioned this as an accusation of what Israel is actually doing and planning but would never admit in public. Yet now it is used by the Israeli prime minister himself, a clear case of the public obscenity of our political discourse.
However, to add a finishing touch to this dialectic of truth and fiction, there are also moments when the most efficient way to undermine a lie is not to directly announce the truth but to accept the lie and undermine it from within, bringing out its implications. When asked about whom the West Bank belongs to, many Jews (and one should bear in mind that Jews are among the most atheist nations in the world) resort to fetishist disavowal: “I know well that God doesn’t exist, but I still believe he gave us the land of Israel.”
The right atheist reply to this claim is not its direct atheist rejection (if there is no god, he cannot give you anything). It is much more efficient to accept the (false) premise and undermine it from within: OK, it says in the Old Testament that God gave you the land of Israel — but how exactly did he do it? He ordered the Israelites to wipe out the entire nation of Amalek who were living there, women and children included.
When in January 2024 Netanyahu referred the Palestinian people in the besieged Gaza Strip, he invoked the Amalek, a nation in the Hebrew Bible that the Israelites were ordered to wipe out in an act of revenge. “You must remember what Amalek has done to you,” he said in a speech announcing the start of a ground invasion in Gaza, adding that Israeli soldiers were part of a legacy that goes back 3,000 years. Genocide justified by religious fundamentalism. This direct genocidal thinking reached its lowest point when some geneticists claimed that Palestinians are the descendants of the Amalekites, and some archeologists claimed there to be proof Amalekites were a really extraordinarily cruel people who sacrificed and tortured children.
God save us from such scientists who search for a truth in order to justify a lie.
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