The Battle for the Middle Ground

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As our commitment to our shared humanity wavers, the middle ground upon which compromise, and co-existence are possible vanishes.  

 

A couple of weeks ago, the editor of Shuddhashar’s special ‘War’ issue asked if I would like to contribute an article on a topic which is of current interest to me. I gladly agreed and was considering two options.

On the one hand, as someone born and raised in Israel, I could have offered a personal perspective on the never-ending war in Israel/Palestine and the broader region. I could have written on how external and internal scars, which wars always leave behind, damage people’s bodies and souls, how these scars become nodes of condensed anxiety that are subsequently manipulated by the warmongers of the world in agitating the next escalation; how dismantling these tense nodes of anxiety is a key to any better future; and how education must be at the core of any pacifying operation.

On the other hand, as a professional anthropologist who lives in the Netherlands and investigates the securitization of human mobility for many years, I could have shared a critical take on the so-called ‘war on illegal immigration.’ I could have written on the billions of Euros that are poured into Frontex and various national police units that purportedly protect the EU from unarmed yet allegedly dangerous people who seek shelter and a better future, on the lot of millions of migrants and asylum seekers who have been illegalized by European countries and, while trying to earn a decent living, face at any given moment the risk of being snatched by the police from their work, their family, their life, detained for up to 18 months in horrific facilities, and aggressively deported to life-threatening destinations like Afghanistan or Sudan.

But that was all a couple of weeks ago.

As I set down to write this article, still undecided about these two options, all hell broke loose again in Israel/Palestine. Instead of this decisively tilting my choice, in the most expected way, to write about this war in which I grew up, I got completely paralyzed. For more than 10 days, I was obsessively glued to news programs on the TV screen, to social media on my laptop, to numerous Telegram and WhatsApp groups on my mobile phone, and endless talks with family and friends.

While writing an article about the ‘war on illegal immigration’ all of a sudden seemed so immaterial, writing on the war in Israel/Palestine became frighteningly material. For days, it felt like I was losing my voice altogether, literally and figuratively. Grief and tears choked my throat. Images of the perpetrated atrocities and anxiety for the inevitable horrors yet to come shut down my brain. As the old saying goes, “When the cannons are rumbling, the muses fall silent.” Or, as Theodor Adorno bitterly proclaimed, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism.”

Words seem to lose their meaning in the face of inhumane mayhems.

This war has made it nearly impossible for me to think critically and speak up, but one thing persistingly pushed me to overcome this paralysis:  it is the realization that we are losing the middle ground. The war in Israel/Palestine might be a forerunner in this respect, but it is undoubtedly part of a much wider phenomenon whereby inflexible polarization has been taking the front seat in politics and public opinion-making.

The war in Israel/Palestine is cast as a war between Jews and Arabs, between antisemitism and Islamophobia, between modernity and barbarism, between evil and good, between legitimate armies and despicable terrorists, between democracy and tyranny, between colonialism and liberation, and so on and so forth.

Discussing the war in Israel/Palestine with my colleagues at the university and with friends and family near and far, reading the news, and listening to politicians and public intellectuals, it is bitterly clear that people are pushed to take one of the two diagonally opposed sides. There is no room for complexity, no space for nuance, no ground for negotiation, and no meeting point. Taking one side or another must be done uncompromisingly, with complete devotion and without any consideration for the feelings, views, and experiences of those who stand on the other side. The war in Israel/Palestine is cast as a war between Jews and Arabs, between antisemitism and Islamophobia, between modernity and barbarism, between evil and good, between legitimate armies and despicable terrorists, between democracy and tyranny, between colonialism and liberation, and so on and so forth.

The middle ground has vanished.

It is buried deep under the rubbles of dividing rhetoric and polarizing discourses. You see it happening in the internal politics of the US under Trumpism, or in the ‘war on illegal immigration’ all across ‘fortress Europe,’ or in the fight between military juntas and Nobel peace prize winners like in Myanmar. Declaring that you understand one side in any of these conflicts unequivocally demands that you also utterly deplore the other side.

It is crucial that we understand how we reached this point where finding a middle ground is no longer a viable possibility. It is even more important to think up ways to recover it. Many different dynamics have played a role in the consistent destruction of the middle ground. Let me name here but three key ones.

Firstly, we live in an unprecedented moment of economic and political concentration of power by very few moguls who run private and state-backed companies. A combination of runaway capitalism and rapid technological advancement, specifically in the fields of surveillance and policing, has meant that the accumulation of capital can be amassed by very few actors with complete protection and little accountability. The ‘occupy movement’ was violently crushed precisely because it attempted to put the spotlight on the 1% who leads this world by sheer power and only pocket-sized respect for the needs and wants of most of the world population. Power blinds, they say. Under the conditions of an immense concentration of power, billions of people are not seen; they are rendered disposable.

Secondly, and closely related to the first point, the rise to power of the 1% has much to do with the erosion of democracy. As a political system, democracy has failed to translate people’s desires into tangible realities. Instead, democracy seems to increasingly serve those already in power. As a result, we see a persistent deterioration in people’s faith in democratic processes and the politicians who run them to solve essential issues like the global environmental crisis, extreme poverty, or international conflicts and civil wars. Support for one side or another in wars around the world is done on the basis of cold materialist calculations masked by a shallow veil of high values like saving or establishing democracy. We live in a world where selling arms is a more important value than bringing peace to people.

 Finally, perhaps paradoxically, the explosion in access to information has nurtured closemindedness and parochialism. There are hundreds of traditional news channels in the world that cover the current violence in Israel/Palestine. To that, we can add the rise of social media ‘content’ on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and thousands of special groups on Telegram, Discord, and WhatsApp. Yet, we increasingly live in echo chambers that amplify for/in us a particular viewpoint and guard us from exposure to other stances.

Similarly, the ability not to consume news passively but to ‘talkback’ and engage in discussions about the news has often been celebrated as the furnishing of new democratic public spaces. In reality, however, it too often leads those who can hide behind their computer screens to voice the most outrageous opinions or to be insensitive and offensive. Unfortunately, in this new public space, where the game is to get the most ‘likes,’ extreme views win the day.

For lack of space, I must bracket here a longer discussion on the multiple ways in which the concentration of power in the hands of the 1% helps cultivate these damaging trends in the production and consumption of (fake) news and, with it, the erosion of functional democratic spaces and processes. The three dynamics I depicted above, and many others, intersect in a feedback loop that viciously reinforces a move away from the middle ground. Extremism of all sorts insidiously stands to further benefit the interests of the 1%, by feeding the military industrial complex, promoting the securitization of mobility, exacerbating accumulation by dispossession, and so on. While the 1% on all sides rub their hands in stomach-turning joy and zealous greed, the 99% pay with their well-being at best and with their lives at worst.

Let me go back then to the Israel/Palestine war and provide some tangible indications of how the middle ground is vanishing under our feet. In the past two weeks, I followed the news on platforms from both sides of the conflict. In some Palestinian outlets, you could find shared videos of the cold-blooded killing of entire Israeli families, taken by the body cameras of Hamas soldiers. These videos often received not only thousands of ‘likes’ but also hundreds of emojis of ‘love’ and even ‘laughter.’ Comments called for ‘death to all Israelis.’ On some Israeli outlets, you could find shared videos of the massive bombing of entire neighborhoods in Gaza taken from the bird-eye view of combat jets. Here again, these videos received thousands of ‘likes,’ ‘love’ and even ‘laughter.’ Endless comments called to ‘erase Gaza from the map.’ The massive celebration of killing on such a scale is sickening. Rather than being an esoteric trend in dark corners of social media, these are increasingly the terms on which this war is reported everywhere.

On a more personal level, in the university where I work, like in many universities and other organizations around the world, a heated debate erupted around showing support to one side or another in the Israel/Palestine war. Two camps have quickly consolidated, and it has been painful to see how little middle ground there is between them. Yet much more painful for me is that in the immediate aftermath of the atrocities committed in Israel on October 7, only a handful of colleagues wrote to ask how I was doing and whether my loved ones were safe. Even this basic gesture of care in the face of the horror someone you know might be going through has been sacrificed for the — unconscious? uncontrolled? — desire to pick a side.

Consequently, someone like me, whose entire adult life fought against the Israeli apartheid-like occupation of Palestine, who systematically condemned endless acts of military and civilian brutalities by Israelis against Palestinians, who demonstrated for peace on every occasion, is now feeling abandoned. Yet this is not about me, for what is being abandoned here is not a person but our shared commitment to humanity. If in the face of horrors, close colleagues and friends fail to simply ask: ‘how are you?’, ‘is your family safe?’, then it is clear that polarization is winning over the battle for the middle ground. The only hope we have to one day live in peace is if we let nothing come between our steadfast commitment to humanity. Condemning the slaughtering of Israeli civilians should never be seen by anyone as a compromising act in the fight for justice for Palestinians. Showing compassion towards those who experienced the horror of atrocities is not about choosing a side or being loyal to a cause.

The middle ground is not a compromise. It is the ground we can never afford to give up.

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