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Specific and Human, or Categories and Abstractions?

June 13, 2011

One of the various things I”m reading simultaneously these days is a book about Israel’s policies of demolishing homes in East Jerusalem. It’s an important subject and much more complex than the propagandists make it out to be, and eventually I hope to be able to unravel it clearly. Not yet, though, not by a long shot. I’m not even ready to analyze the particular book, which I’ve so far read only part of . (Irus Braverman, Powers of “Illegality”: House Demolitions and Resistance in East Jerusalem – in Hebrew).

Braverman starts with a poignant 1988 poem by S. Yizhar, an important Israeli poet (of the Left, of course). I won’t try to translate it, but it contains sentiments such as

How long does it take to demolish a home?

Less than the time it takes to think about it.

How long does it take to think about demolishing a home?

Less than the phone call announcing the demolition…

The thought didn’t focus on the people, rather on categories: inciters, igniters, transgressors…

At night no-one sees where the demolished family has gone…

As I said, a poignant and powerful poem. A poem which contains its own contradictions within itself: The victims must be seen as individuals, specific humans to whom abstract principles are unthinkingly or uncaringly applied by powers. Yet the people applying the abstract principles are also people, aren’t they? If you demand that actors in events be seen as individuals, don’t you need to apply that to all the actors? And conversely, the fact that the owners of a demolished home are individuals, need not mean they’re not also consciously striving to achieve some goal or apply their own abstract principle, does it? Wouldn’t the same demand to recognize humans also need to apply to the people doing the demolishing, and the implied acceptance that some actors are primarily striving for a political goal mean that the builders of the home might have been acting politically?

Braverman then goes on to demonstrate this logical fallacy, when on the next page she tells how her intention is to show the connection between the specific demolitions and strategic Israeli policies, analyzed through the filter of Focaultian principles. Talk about dehumanizing theories. “Ultimately”, she writes, “the legal specifics of the demolitions may be subordinate to the Israeli motivation to remove the ‘Palestinian Home’ to make room for the ‘Israeli Home’ “.

I’ve often remarked that people who glibly talk about dividing Jerusalem are thinking in abstractions, not concrete reality. This is a theme that needs to be monitored whenever anyone describes their perspective of Jerusalem: are they talking about the real city and its real people, or are they talking in abstractions. The funny thing about Braverman’s introduction is the swiftness with which she starts by demanding we remember individual people before discarding them for the abstractions.



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