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On Zadie Smith and Palestine: A Moral Vacuum

by in World on 10th May, 2024

On the same day we received news of The New York Times being awarded the 2024 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, we were fortunate enough to be bequeathed an essay by celebrated novelist Zadie Smith, on the conflict in Gaza. Greeted with much fanfare from liberal literary, media and political figures, it is a zeitgeist of legacy media, and its aged values.

Smith’s verbose piece opens with the ostensibly sage assertion of the danger of politics without philosophy. Smith’s faux self-deprecating comment that novelists such as herself can be accused of the inverse – of having a philosophy without politics – is a soft launch of what emerges in the essay to be a toothless position. Pro Palestinian, anti-genocide movements do not betray a lack of philosophy, their philosophy is to end the senseless loss of lives and the sentiment that underlies it. But the point remains that the fight to honour the lives and freedoms of some two million Gazans supersedes the dirty word of politics as it is referenced in the essay. The web of language spun only acts as a signpost for the self-indulgent, empty pontificating that follows. 

Smith’s detached and faux-intellectual tone, common in the endless genre of two-sidesing an unfolding genocide, is tempered by her supposedly endearing admission of being unable to sacrifice a clean criminal record for her own pet cause – environmentalism – obviously. The irony being, of course, that Smith is able to assume this venerated clinical tone because she herself is both detached and seemingly entirely uninformed on one of the most critical geopolitical issues of our generation.

Which begs the question of why we are so culturally beholden to an elite class of intelligentsia both when it comes to matters of political concern? Particularly when they appear unable to discern the triangulation of evil – ethnic cleansing, apartheid and settler colonialism. 

In fact, Smiths’ signalling her devotion to environmentalism is a white flag to liberal readers, a humbly and charmingly framed request to lay down their critical weapons, an attempt to cement her role as the darling of progressive liberals. Instrumentally, it serves only to further morally obscure Palestinian activism and advocacy, and appears to be weaponising one progressive cause to sacrifice a less populist one. For Smith’s milieu, there is something unglamorous and grittily proletariat about standing in favour of Gaza. It is too real a cause, with too material and immediate a consequence to be of concern. It doesn’t carry the same worldly glamour and is tainted by the perceived ethical ambiguity that comes from the fact that morally negligible Muslims are on the receiving end of corrective military power – with all the racial implications of what we constitute as ‘aggressor’ and ‘victim.’ 

Students protesting the war on Gaza undoubtedly lay claim to the legacy of those historic student movements of the 60, 70 and 80s, which have found themselves unequivocally on the right side of history. Smith’s disdainful references to the ‘privileged’, ‘spectacle’ of those student protests, amongst some obvious hagiography, is an attempt to smear today’s protesters, and their cause, by association. She identifies those feelings of discomfort by some Jewish students as the cause for her concern over student encampments in America, wilfully ignoring the continuing vilification of Jewish student groups who are themselves driving and supporting the Palestinian cause, and furthering racist sentiments concerning the ‘right’ and ‘legitimate’ kind of Jews that we see echo across the transatlantic political landscape. 

Smith conflates ‘comfort’ with ‘safety’ and reinforces the moral asymmetry that claims that a person’s sense of comfort, on well tended campus lawns for example, is equally important as the blood, life and limb of two million Gazans that some of the most senior Israeli politicians have articulated, in precise terms, their intention to kill, starve and displace.

In this context, she also makes a glaring omission over the safety of those in the student encampments, who have faced not just police brutality and violence. Indeed, the only racist sentiment recorded on campus comes from the morally discordant counter-protests who are seen making racist slurs, gestures and advocating violence. And of course those Muslim students whose Islamophobic abuse is well documented. That the Zionist cause is fully dependent upon anti-Muslim sentiment is not even a footnote in a wordy essay, which perpetuates hackneyed claims that associate a multi-faith, multi-racial movement for liberation with anti-Semitism. In effect, Smith is asking students to tread carefully, to speak in hushed tones as they demand the liberation of a people that have endured countless October 7ths, as they live through worse than this today. She asks us to shift our concern to something other than the heinous crime of countless amputee children. That this piece is adding to the countless column inches that foreground a perceived racism, while minimising the actual harm and loss of life to Gazan life is saddening.  

Smith applies her cool, steely analysis to these supposed foundational principles of the student movement, dissecting it with the precision of a surgeon lobotomising what’s left of the moral conscience of liberalism. This rids it of the context of genocide which brings the moral clarity these students have exercised and which the chattering classes are unable to conceive of. The student movement and its underlying assertions are lazily dismissed here as an idealistic, head-in-the-cloud position, when in reality it is the only one that is so acutely aware of what is at stake ethically and politically. 

Furthermore, in framing the concept of ‘the weakest’ as contingent upon change, she ignores the materiality of racism, colonial and post-colonial ideology and the very real structures and systems upon which they’re based, and from which they continue to propagate such disparity. Indeed, those very systems are what has facilitated this New Yorker platformed exchange – her position as the exception to the white, upper middle class literary-world rule is what grants her the apparent legitimacy to speak on the issue of Gaza, and ignores that, actually contingency in the reverse is more commonly damaging. That is; those that use their perceived weakness to advocate for the strong, is a greater danger to social equality and cohesion.  

Smith doesn’t stumble over her carefully balanced words which unwittingly expose the disproportionate loss of life on both sides of this seemingly equal conflict. Standard editorial referencing, which puts the loss of Gazan life as accurate ‘at the time of reporting’, unearths the tipping of those wildly unequal sides of the scale. She seems impervious to what the cold, hard facts of those numbers expose. And of course, in Smith’s retelling, this history of violence, hostage taking and imprisonment is truncated from October 7th, and her perennial quest for nuance does not apply as heavily to Palestinian liberation movements who are exonerated under international law.   

Smith drops her own proverbial bomb in the middle of this essay –

The objection may be raised at this point that I am behaving like a novelist, expressing a philosophy without a politics, or making some rarefied point about language and rhetoric while people commit bloody murder. This would normally be my own view, but, in the case of Israel/Palestine, language and rhetoric are and always have been weapons of mass destruction.

It is in fact perhaps the most acute example in the world of the use of words to justify bloody murder, to flatten and erase unbelievably labyrinthine histories, and to deliver the atavistic pleasure of violent simplicity to the many people who seem to believe that merely by saying something they make it so.

Betraying the ultimate privilege of world view – for someone not on the receiving end of weapons of mass destruction. Smith’s insistence – here and now – that words are weapons, forms part of the relentless machine that insists on disarming Palestinians and their supporters with the only defence that we have – the truth. Some might argue that the use of such language is insulting to a besieged population who are literally on the receiving end of those weapons, and for whom our spoken and written solidarity provides solace and comfort amongst a global abandonment of humanity. We can of course embellish meaning, with three thousand words that endeavour to stretch, bend and warp reality, but ultimately words are reflective of a beyond dire truth of 37,000 dead (at the time of writing, of course..) amongst the war cry of more death, more blood. There is more to lose than this fallacy that to be morally righteous is to stalk the well policed parameters of nuance – to render things grey when it suits military industrial needs.

In reducing the issue of Palestine and Israel to identity politics, as she does tediously throughout the essay, she is revealing more about her own worldview than ours; ironically cautioning against the dangers of ‘picking your side’ based on identity, and identerianism more broadly. For most of us, the issue of Gaza is not based on personal affiliation or tribalism – it is an issue of right and wrong. There is no grey when children are being slaughtered en masse. Indeed, extending Smith’s logic – this applies to the contingently-weak Gazan women and men too.

In one way, Smith is right, words can indeed be used as weapons. In this way, ironically, Smith is guilty of the crimes she lays out in her essay – she herself appears to want to use the weaponry of pen to advocate for one side, while asking us to surrender ours. In particular, the words she uses that dress the liberal fallacy of impartiality, where impartiality means to be on the side of the powerful, and therefore to shamefully lubricate the machine of genocide. In fact, Kim said it with more brevity.

Gaza has indeed illuminated the fabric of language for us, and exposed the fact that the same liberal, cultural and political edifice that Smith and Pulitzer Prize winning The New York Times uphold is now untenable and beyond redemption. Indeed the former subscribes to Smith’s skewed logic to such a degree, that their censorship of reality defining, material terms such as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ has since been farcically revealed. This amongst a sea of surreal headlines which provide a shameful cover for the colossal loss of civilian life in Gaza – a fact which unbelievably goes unmentioned in this love letter to language in a time of abhorrent war.

Despite Smith’s closing metaphor, it is evident that those who choose moral obfuscation, despite their claims to the contrary, have already staked their flag in the blood soaked sand.

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks