Régis Debray and Israel: Act II

By Professor Bichara Khader
Scientific Advisor of the MEDEA Institute
CERMAC, Catholic University of Louvain


In my last column, I told you about a fascinating and sharp book, entitled « To an Israeli friend » by Régis Debray. I liked the style, appreciated the writing, and admired the outspoken approach of the author. Many other authors would put gloves on before criticizing Israel’s policies, as they fear being accused of antisemitism. Remember the case against Edgar Morin and Sami Nair and the considerable pressures on Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies of Paris, pilloried for criticizing Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Instead of being intimidated, Boniface, as we know, went even further by writing a remarkable book entitled « Is it forbidden to criticize Israel? »

Régis Debray is that caliber of a man who does not revel in sanitized and politically correct language. Without mincing words, he discusses the colonial character of Israel. Without blinking, he muffles the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liebermann ingloriously qualified as « Israeli Le Pen ». And he is offended by the double weight and double-action of French diplomacy « The Israeli Le Pen, he writes, is received without eddies or cases of conscience in Paris, while the Austrian Le Pen is sent back to Vienna. Debray here refers to the famous Haider, who was leader of the Austrian far right.

But is there not a form of anti-Semitism that exists in most anti-Zionism in the Arab communities, located in Europe? Debray provides an answer full of nuances: « Yes, we could detect anti-Semitism now and then, but « this anti-Semitism by proxy, consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is as much a culture of unemployment…than that of a parable effect ». One must therefore « not take the foam for the wave » because it would take to his fears for the reality.

However, the reality is that there today more Islamophobia than anti-Semitism. Debray says bluntly: « The only phobia… rooted tolerated, even encouraged is not the one that stigmatizes the minarets but the synagogues. »

The chapter which Debray devotes to the Holocaust and its use is a compendium of striking humanity and sincerity. The Holocaust, he wrote, was « the crime of crimes » (p.52) and, to Jews, a « structural memory ». But beware, warns Debray, of « the abuse of memory » (p.60). And he adds this meaningful sentence: « The tragedy of the Middle East is the Arab street is blind to the Holocaust while the Jewish street is blinded by the Holocaust » (p.60). I flatter myself to have made a similar remark, but Debray put it more beautifully.

This blindness by the Holocaust can have unfortunate consequences, as, writes Debray, « open indefinitely the period of remorse … is not without risks » and « … no adverse effects. » He identifies three:

1. The freezing of history: it means that the past suffering of Jews discourages political thinking and staring at history in the face, and he adds that the nazification process of Arab leaders (ex: to call Nasser, Saddam Hussein or Arafat a Hitler), « is a routine procedure in Israel » and makes the coexistence between Israel and the Arabs not only impossible but also unthinkable. And Debray quotes Begin: « if we do not attack Lebanon, it will be Auschwitz. » With this kind of antiphons, says Debray, « an invader may dig his grave to avoid death. »

2. The second perverse effect of victimization is self-absolution. In trying to prevent at all costs a second Auschwitz, Israel issued a « license to kill and plunder. » And Regis Debray asks this fundamental question: « Why call Palestinians to atone, instead of Europe, a package they did not commit?”

3. The third adverse effect of victimization is self-confinement, with, in turn, the glorification of force and the deification of the army. Debray is relentless in his observation: « Regrouped inside a fortress-victimhood, rights holders have no other eyes and ears than for their own suffering. »

Better yet, European countries are called, summoned a few times, to commemorate the Holocaust, organize ceremonies of remembrance, send kids to visit concentration camps.

Thus, according to Debray, the perpetuation of the memory of suffering is not without danger: it immobilizes the story, gives Israel an automatic impunity, and is blind to the suffering of its victims. However, as noted by another lucid writer, Vidal-Naquet, « memory only exists in the background of neglect, this threatening oversight and yet necessary. » I tell myself the same thing, but differently: « Those who forget the past do not have memory, but those who never forget it have no brain. » I mean that the living should not become hostages of the dead and the past should not sequester the present but simply illuminate the paths of the future.

Continuing his reflections on the Holocaust, Debray questioned the link between the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. For him, the Holocaust did not create the State of Israel, but « it founded its fear that is increasingly scaring its neighbors. » It is a lucid thought because the Zionist project predates the Holocaust and precedes by half a century at least. But it is clear, and it is my contention, that if the Holocaust did not base the State of Israel, it is no less hastened its creation and facilitated its acceptance by the Western states, which since then have continued to provide support of all kinds to Israel.

Nothing surprising then that with such strong support, Israel does not hold back and for Debray to recall: the use of unusual and prohibited, from dart shells, beads, to carbon cluster munitions; « the violation of about all the various clauses of the Geneva Conventions « … and the Vienna Conventions, which stipulate the inviolability of the diplomatic briefcase, vehicles and personnel. How then can one not feel, comments Regis Debray, a great sadness here and there, to « see the sword of Israel deny Jewish thought » (p.117).

I have just summarized, dear listeners, a book of rare courage. Elie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador to France and to whom Debray addresses his book, is full of praise for the author: « I know, » he said, of few people in France able to understand the tragedy that takes place (in the Middle East) with as much finesse and acuity « (p.130). It is true that Barnavi represents the Other Israel, that, he says, of « a Zionism with a human face », which is the opposite of what he calls « the neo-Zionist messianism of Fools of God » (p.137 ). Maybe, but we would like to know what is meant by the term « Zionism with a human face » from a Palestinian point of view … I leave the question open. Future developments will provide the answer.