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What The Left Can Learn From Camus After Hamas' Attack on Israel
Pro-Palestinian protestors can detest the Israeli government while resisting the temptation to justify violence in the pursuit of justice.
I was 20 or 21 years old when I started reading the existentialists, studying abroad in Paris and filling my backpack with Sartre, de Beauvoir, Genet, Camus. These writers represented something far away to me. Albert Camus, celebrated author of The Stranger, articulated it best in a speech he gave at Columbia during his only trip to the US, in 1946. Only 33 at the time, he called his generation in France “an interesting generation”: born just before WWI, adolescents during the Great Depression, 20 when Hitler came to power, their early adulthood spent within the total catastrophe of WWII. “We believed in nothing,” he said. Nor was that the last of it. Eight years later would bring the onset of the war for independence in Algeria, Camus’ home country. By then, this generation would have had plenty of time to attune their thoughts on violence, death, torture, compromise, sacrifice, loss, ideology, and power, all at close proximity.
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At 20, it was “interesting” for me to read about what ultimately split the interesting generation apart—Jean-Paul Sartre believed that violence could be justified in service of overturning an unjust social order. This had led him to continue to support Stalinism, while Camus did not. For Camus there were limits in the real world beyond abstract theories, and he questioned things taken to the extreme, including whether justice taken to its extreme might actually not be justice. When the Algerian War broke out, which was fought to overthrow French rule, Sartre supported the cruel and bloody FLN, the Algerian revolutionary force (though it must be said that facing them was the French army which was also exceptionally brutal and criminal). Meanwhile, Camus—the son of an illiterate woman who cleaned homes in colonial Algeria—though supportive of decolonization was horrified by atrocities on both sides and stayed largely mum.
Out of this context comes the quip from Camus that been misquoted into a cliché, though it is kind of perfect in its moral simplicity. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers,” he said. “My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." Sartre was the daring, passionate radical, Camus the more mundane moderate attached to the supposedly bourgeois value of order.
I think this branding of the two writers does a disservice, or at least, it perpetuates the notion that the purity of ideas is a strength. In the last weeks, I have come to appreciate how Camus might have felt aghast or even betrayed by Sartre’s position. It is one thing to be a 20-year-old reading about violence 70 years ago, stripped of context, immediacy, and emotion. It’s quite another, indeed it is clarifying to watch a “Free Palestine” rally in New York two weekends ago promoted by the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in which one of the speakers called on the crowd “to celebrate the glorious victory of the resistance.” The “victory” she was referring to involved summary executions, massacres, rapes, kidnappings, arson, and other unspeakable things were being carried out across Isrfael by Hamas. In the weeks since then, many student groups across the country have released statements supporting “resistance” by “any means necessary.” While students may be young and impressionable, it has been eye-opening to watch some faculty enthusiastically sign on.
It is possible to despise the far-right fundamentalist government of Netanyahu, abhor the illegal settlements in the West Bank and the evictions of Palestinians from their homes, the arbitrary killings, the deaths of Palestinian children in the territories, while also condemning the gruesome executions of Israeli families and teenagers we have all watched over the last few days, without the semi-justification of a “but.”
At some point, abstract academic structural arguments don’t match reality. What has perhaps been most disheartening and disillusioning for me is to watch the supposed foundational beliefs of the left, of universal dignity and the absolute of human rights, fall away so quickly, and to discover beneath the veneer the kind of factionalism that the left is supposed to be fundamentally against.
I was in France when the violence broke out, reporting on the French left, which started to exhibit some of the old divides. François Ruffin, one of the most popular leaders in the left coalition, rapidly and unequivocally condemned the Hamas attacks, while decrying that Israel’s retaliation would lie in the hands of the most brutal Israeli government of the last 30 years. That has turned out to be tragically and devastatingly accurate.
But Ruffin also criticized the dominant group in his own leftist coalition, that its public response, which declined to condemn Hamas, had not met the gravity of the moment, failed to offer justice. The analogy with the Algerian war is imperfect, not least because the state of Israel was established under specific historical circumstances in the aftermath of genocide, while colonial Algeria was a conquest of 19th century France. Yet the very public falling out between Sartre and Camus is instructive. Supposedly they stopped speaking to each other. Some things are impardonnable – unforgivable.
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