The Café and the Colony

One of the basic truths of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that there are no acts within it that can accord with universal human rights: the conflict itself is the trespass. Let me be clearer: the colonization, itself, is the trespass. It is the original sin against human rights. It is the disease.

You can replace a people with yourselves: genocide. Or you can replace two peoples with new peoples: decolonization.

Still from The Battle of Algiers.

The Café

When Zohra enters the Milk Bar on September 30, 1956 and sits at the counter, she makes a mistake: she looks around the room. There are tables of women and men enjoying refreshments, chatting, existing. A child, likely having come from the nearby Saint-Eugène beach with his mother, licks an ice cream cone. Zohra looks at the clock and has a moment of regret, of realization—of morality.

She reaches into her handbag and switches off the bomb that is ticking away. A French man, a pied-noir, sees her. “Let us join forces,” he says, “and we can find a better future for Algeria, without violence, without coercion or domination. We can live in a better world.” Zohra agrees, tears in her eyes at the violence nearly unleashed. The two leave the café together and unite the masses to work for the peaceful end to French colonization of Algeria. Some French leave, and some stay to support the Algerians who are now free, who now labor for themselves and their nation, restoring the dignity, land, and resources that were for a hundred years stolen by another place.

No, this doesn’t happen. Neither in history nor in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 docudrama The Battle of Algiers. There is a part of me that wants it to happen, each time I watch the film! The scan of the room, the close-up of the child’s face. Isn’t there another way?

Instead, Zohra places her bag on the floor and nudges it beneath her neighbor’s stool with her foot. She glances at the clock again. It is 5:35 PM. She disregards a man’s (weak) attempt to flirt. She leaves. Across town Samia is at the Cafétéria, a loud bar full of dancing young men and women. She sways with the music. She places her bag behind a potted plant. She leaves. And elsewhere, at the airport, Djamila sits on a bench in the terminal for flights to Paris. She too has a bag, she too places it on the floor, moves it beneath the bench. It is 5:40 PM.

At 5:45 PM we see Milk Bar, full, the time passing, the people peopling. The bomb explodes. A man, bleeding, walks, stunned, out of the blast; another is prone with eyes closed, certainly dead. The explosion draws the crowd from Cafétéria, who heard something, who watch the ambulances, but then they return inside—no!—and the next bomb goes off. Bodies and rubble, indistinguishable.

Three people died in the two explosions (the third, in the airport terminal, failed), with over fifty injured, some grievously, and this including children. How to explain the feelings of this scene, the shock of watching it unfold? Or rewatching, noting the calculations of women chosen for their French appearance—lighter skin, attractive features—dressed in contemporary clothing, makeup applied, the bombs placed beneath clothing? They chose non-military targets, popular and packed with civilians, families. In the film it is dramatic; in reality it is grotesque.

I am beginning with this infamous story from the Algerian Revolution because of how strange it would be, some 65-plus years later, to say that Algerian resistance was wrong, how hard it would be to judge Algerian National Front (FLN) tactics given the tragedies endured and endured again by the people they rose up to free, the people beaten down, oppressed for a century, fighting an asymmetric war with a far stronger power whose tremendous ability in combatting guerilla warfare is still studied today by major powers (such as the US). And yet the FLN killed, intended to kill, planned to kill civilians. The aim was terror: the French enjoying their lives in a place they had colonized had to feel less secure, less safe, more targeted (before the bombings, Abane Ramdane, a key FLN figure, had directed indiscriminate killing of “any European between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four. But no women, no children, no old people”). And the aim was revenge—for guillotined FLN members, for the 1945 Sétif massacre, for the bombing, a month before the Milk Bar incident, of four houses that lead to seventy deaths, including women and children (an event that changed Ramdane’s directive to include anyone), for the years and years and years of devastating colonial rule.

And still the shadow of some naïve but hopeful alternate reality haunts the scene. Was it necessary? Weren’t there better ways? More humane actions? The questions live, for a moment, during the scene, but then are submerged by the consistent, overbearing, repetitive context of dread and horror levied against the Algerian people. The death tolls, so wholly uneven. The bombings. The live burials, the electrocutions, the rapes, the drownings—so many tortures in the repertoire. The Algerian Revolution is the story of French domination being met by heroic resistance, and the histories and theories that were catalyzed by the revolution are today just as   meaningful and inspiring as they were in the immediate decolonial period. We read and watch and do not in the same instance apologize for the terrors, for terror is a part of oppression and a part of resistance. Terror and violence. We do not moralize the FLN’s use of weapons instead of slogans and marches, because we know that many Algerians did the latter and were killed for it, such as the bodies thrown into the Seine on October 17, 1961, killed in the flagrant center of the flagrant capital, in Paris.

We know that for all the power of peaceful resistance, violent resistance has accompanied—and strengthened—its peaceful counterparts. Rebellions, uprisings, assassinations, and covert operations over multiple decades fill the context Mohandas Gandhi appeared within. As recounted by Elizabeth Hinton in America on Fire, the many instances of localized, violent resistance by Black Americans joined Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the sit-ins that take starring roles in the Civil Rights era. uMkhonto we Sizwe and armed resistance in South Africa, at times deliberately targeting state functionaries and complicit Black South Africans, buttressed and empowered the unified uprising of civilians to end apartheid.

There is no moral justification for violence or threat against civilians, and when one tries, the conversation becomes loopy, rhetorical, impossible—and too often ends with attempts at universal claims that fail in astounding manners, the same absurd and brittle arguments that justify, say, dropping nuclear bombs on innocents in order to prevent greater death, but deny the same logic to taking a hostage in order to safeguard from more violence. We have laws about just and unjust wartime practices, but they are neither coherently applied nor actually upheld. Worse, they distract from a reality that is far baser: within a violent frame, there is no act of resistance that is not violent, that is not a citation or re-staging of violence from the state. This even, and sometimes especially, includes the heralded “nonviolent” practices: watch documentary footage of sit-ins and freedom rides to see the attacks by white citizens, or listen to any critic describe marches as riots, hunger strikes as blackmail, or BDS as antisemitism. The violence was, is, and will be there, it is systemic—is symptomatic of the greater disease. This greater disease can take many forms: colonialism in India, violent racism in the US, apartheid in South Africa, or all of them at once, as colonial, racial apartheid, in Israel-Palestine.

After the bombings, French sympathizers of the FLN were shocked, and confused, and wavering in their allegiances. Alistair Horne recounts the story of a French doctor who was hiding Ramdane, recently released from prison. The doctor disapproved of the bombing, and Ramdane retorted, “I see hardly any difference between the girl who places a bomb in the Milk-Bar and the French aviator who bombards a mechta [Muslim village] or who drops napalm on a zone interdite [forbidden zone].”

The Colony

How could Ramdane not see the difference? Is there one? So many in the last week have said yes, yes there is a difference between paramilitary violence (or “terrorism”), on one side, and state violence (or “legitimate use of force”), on the other. There might be many reasons for why this difference feels like difference—mass media that parrots the state in its barbaric attempt to dress its realpolitik as ethics, a nearly joyful embrace of acceptable racism, a cynical means of “owning the libs”—but I think a large part of it reflects a weedlike human rights discourse that has grown and blossomed in the space where we would otherwise cultivate real justice.

As Samuel Moyn explains, human rights first developed in the 1970s—after the period of decolonization—as a “neutral” alternative to political utopias that had failed, that had left in their wake a “loss of faith” in internationalist visions that could transcend the nation-state. Human rights became “a moral utopia when political utopias died,” but since that time, the expansion of the human rights purview has given it political force: it is woven into programs and policies. At times a positive—Moyn explains that initially, human rights provided “a potent antitotalitarian weapon for the first time”—the path to political relevance has made human rights inevitably “bound up with the power of the powerful.” It is, so often, state policy parading as moral universalism.

The resort to human rights can be seen as part of what Ashis Nandy refers to as the “subtler and more sophisticated means of acculturation” that Westernization has taken on. Such means “produce not merely models of conformity but also models of ‘official’ dissent. It is possible today to be anti-colonial in a way which is specified and promoted by the modern world view as ‘proper,’ ‘sane’ and ‘rational.’ Even when in opposition, that dissent remains predictable and controlled.” That is: the colonizing West has determined the language, the concepts, the very tenor of resistance against itself. (Only recently have Zionist scholars tried to distance Zionism from being a Western, intentionally colonizing effort—see Esmat Elhalaby’s month-old and sadly foreshadowing essay “A Dying Postcolonialism.”1) Or in Nandy’s words, “the West has not merely produced modern colonialism, it informs most interpretations of colonialism. It colours even this interpretation of interpretation.”

This is not simply an admonition to rethink the ways in which violent resistance is deemed acceptable or not, but also a disavowal of systems that invoke human rights so partially, and apparently stop thinking of them at all once a state military is the one meting out the violence. (Of course, much depends on which state is doing the meting out, given the calls for international justice against Russian authoritarianism and the simultaneous acceptance of Israeli militarization, of Saudi operations against Houthis, of Azerbaijani attacks against Armenia, of Ethiopian intranational combat against the Tigray.) For one of the basic truths of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that there are no acts within it that can accord with universal human rights: the conflict itself is the trespass. Let me be clearer: the colonization, itself, is the trespass. It is the original sin against human rights. It is the disease.

I keep coming back to the “disease” of colonization, and that is because of Albert Memmi, who uses the same term in his analysis, viewing colonization as an untenable process of degrading both the colonizer and the colonized. Each are affected, each are changed. It is clear enough how colonization changes the colonized, the oppressed group, and Memmi and Nandy and Frantz Fanon and others recount how the psychological, material, cultural changes that occur. But it must be recognized as well that its effects run the other way, transforming those who have become colonizers. “Colonization can only disfigure the colonizer,” writes Memmi, because in front of the colonizer is placed an impossible choice: he must live with the “daily injustice accepted for his bene­fit” or he must leave (and he never leaves). As long as colonialism exists, violence exists. As long as colonialism and violence exist, human rights do not. Eventually the impossible choice resolves into two possibilities for the colonized: assimilation or extermination. In the current Gaza crisis, these possibilities seem diminished to only one.

I won’t attempt a comprehensive history of non-violent protest that the Palestinians have developed and engaged in for decades upon decades, as these practices have been well recounted elsewhere, as has the consistent, unabating pressure in the West to criminalize them. (Daniel Finn summarizes these attacks in a recent Jacobin essay.2) The Great March of Return in 2018­–19 stands out, however, for the extremity of its nonviolence, the brazenness of the violent response by the IDF, and the confirmation of the disease. Each Friday, especially in March-May of 2018, thousands, tens of thousands, of Palestinians marched to fence separating Gaza from Israel. Over 200 Gazans were killed by IDF forces, with thousands injured3—and all of this after Jasbir Puar’s moving critique in 2017 of Israel’s “right to maim” Palestinians.

It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that no occupied people has been as inventive with nonviolent protest as the Palestinians, or for so long. One remarkable tactic is called Sumūd. The word means resilience, or persistence, or steadfastness, and refers to simply the ability to survive and continue making a home. Women are the most prominent practitioners, and Raja Shehadeh writes that sumūd is an intentional and agential, but also necessary, practice, where one resolves to “watch your home turned into a prison. You, Sāmid, choose to stay in that prison, because it is your home, and because you fear that if you leave, your jailer will not allow you to return.” We are hearing now, right now, the last breaths and messages of the Sāmid and Sāmdeh as they stay in houses that will be demolished or overrun by soldiers. As they stay until death.

Nonviolence is violence. Like sit-ins and freedom rides, marches and the practice of Sumūd are the enactments of a people as they are physically destroyed. They are representations, demonstrations, of the violence of colonialism as carried out by the IDF. This month’s attacks on innocent Israelis were, too, representations and demonstrations of the violence of colonialism, this time carried out by Hamas. And the IDF’s appalling response to level a people: that, too, is the violence of colonialism. Of course, that these terrors by Hamas and by the IDF are both explained by colonization does not equate them, and in this, Ramdane was wrong to say there is no difference: there is a difference between guerilla attacks on civilians and military operations against civilian populations. The number of deaths and casualties, the destruction of homes, schools, cities, hospitals. The great drawn breath as the world waits for a new referent for Never Again.

In many ways it is stunning that the Palestinian people have not responded with more violence, given the years of peaceful protest that did not stop the occupation. That did not stop the murders, the lockdown of Gaza, the creation of a people without a passport, the creation of a people without a future, and in a place where more than half of the population is under 18, the creation of a children without a future. You can find the violence distasteful, wrong, horrible—how can one not? It is, after all, violence. But to withdraw support because of it, to justify the hammer raised above the small, impoverished strip of land, is to mistake the symptom for the disease. Per Fanon: “Whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon,” because decolonization involves “the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men.” You can replace a people with yourselves: genocide. Or you can replace two peoples with new peoples: decolonization.

The Master’s House

The conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth is a manifesto. Fanon is using that great word of all manifestos, “we,” “us,” as he explains the need for us to change, to encounter a new day, to make a new human. Fanon’s “we” cannot remake the world of the colonizer—which is, for Fanon, “Europe”—writing, “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.” He is talking to Algerians. But the language is of another way, another future, and that is a language for all of us. Fanon’s call is to become “innovators” and “pioneers,” and in proper manifesto form, to “make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and en­deavor to create a new man.”

All this newness—can we talk about new humanity in 2023? So far from the ’60s spirit of alterity? I think we can, and we have to, and that places like Israel and Palestine are where we must look for this newness, as backwards as that might seem to say, for it is where the breakdown of an order is happening. Whatever happens in the next days, the next weeks, the next months, a status quo is about to change. It has already. Gaza will not exist as it was, and perhaps it will not exist at all, the remaining Gazans strewn among refugee camps, the land a great big military checkpoint, an even more literal prison than it already was. Israel and Israelis will have to reckon with crimes committed in their name that they cannot overlook, deeper and more indelible crimes than before. There will be the usual efforts to deny, deflect, reorient—There are human shields! It was their own rocket!—but these cannot endure, not this time. When the colonized are exterminated, colonization no longer exists—genocide takes its place.

When I read about Fanon’s call for the new, and his refusal to base this newness on Europe, I think again of Audre Lorde’s compact, poignant line that we cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change,” she says. The violence employed by Hamas is part of the master’s tools, a stateless people fighting back against one of the most militarized states through guerilla, surprise, makeshift, and, yes, brutal tactics. But what is a hostage if not a mirror of the illegally detained in Israel’s prisons? What is an innocent death at a dance party if not an innocent death under the rubble of a schoolhouse? What is being shot at a bus station if not being shot at a checkpoint, beach, fence?

But Fanon’s new day may still break, when the tools of violence are no longer useful, no longer even available. When the dismantling can truly begin. When that day comes, a new Gazan, a new Israeli, may exist, unbound by the terrible logic of colonialism. What process must occur, for how long—I don’t know, and it is frightening to consider, more impossible to imagine everyday. I take heart from Mahmood Mamdani’s study of South Africa, and his admission that “I am an incorrigible optimist, given to privileging the future over the past. . . . Perhaps that is why I believe that perpetrators and victims can live together as survivors.” Of course, our present is not one of thinking about the past or the future, not with the bombs and the destruction and the extinction. And it’s not like we have so many models—Mamdani claims South Africa as the history that teaches us about possible utopias, but it never really happened in Algeria, this new man, this leap out of the cycle (that’s another story, one Fanon also predicted in his warning against the cooptation of the revolution by the elite). But it could have. Zohra and Samia and Djamila could have met in a new café again, after the violence, and wept at the things they did and the things done to them, with the French who stayed to work and build together. There could have been, there can be, reconciliation, a new people, one day. One day, after the work and danger and horror of resistance and counter-resistance. One day, after the asymmetry, after the violence that creates violence, and the nonviolence that too creates violence. On that day, if it comes, then, then we can speak about violence morally. Then we can speak of human rights.

But then is not now.

  1. https://www.radicalhistoryreview.org/abusablepast/a-dying-postcolonialism/ 

  2. https://jacobin.com/2023/10/israel-western-allies-bds-palestine-nonviolent-resistance-opposition 

  3. https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-37/essays/take-me-with-you-2

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