LJUBLJANA – I once asked my younger son if he could pass the salt, only to be met with the response, “Of course I can!” When I repeated my request, he snapped back: “You asked me if I could do it, and I answered you. You didn’t tell me that I should do it.”
Who was freer in this situation – me or my son? If we understand freedom as freedom of choice, my son was freer, because he had an additional choice about how to interpret my question. He could take it literally, or he could interpret it in the usual sense, as a request that was formulated as a question out of politeness. By contrast, I effectively renounced this choice and automatically relied on the conventional sense.
Now, imagine a world where many more people acted in everyday life the way my son did when he was teasing me. We would never know for sure what our partners in conversation wanted to say, and we would lose an immense amount of time pursuing pointless interpretations. Is this not an apt description of political life over the last decade? Donald Trump and other alt-right populists have capitalized on the fact that democratic politics relies on certain unwritten rules and customs, which they have violated when it suits them, while avoiding accountability by not always explicitly breaking the law.
In the United States, Trump’s Republican Party lackeys are pursuing such a strategy ahead of the next presidential election. According to a fringe legal theory that they have embraced, a loophole in federal election law would permit a state’s legislature to appoint its own presidential electors if the secretary of state decides that he or she cannot certify the result of an election. Republican election deniers are now running for the offices that they will need to override the will of the voters in 2024. The GOP thus is attempting to destroy one of the basic conditions of democracy: that all political participants speak the same language and follow the same rules. Otherwise, a country will find itself on the verge of civil war – an outcome that almost one-half of Americans now expect.
The same conditions apply to global politics. For international relations to work, all parties must at least speak the same language when they talk about concepts like freedom and occupation. Russia obviously is undermining this condition by describing its war of aggression in Ukraine as a “special operation” to “liberate” the country. But Ukraine’s government has also fallen into this trap. Addressing the Israeli Knesset on March 20, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you – the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel.”
Palestinian political scientist Asad Ghanem described Zelensky’s speech as “a disgrace when it comes to global struggles for freedom and liberation, particularly of the Palestinian people.” Zelensky “reversed the roles of occupier and occupied.” I agree. And I also agree with Ghanem that, “every possible support must be given to Ukrainians as they resist [Russia’s] barbaric aggression.” Without Western military support, most of Ukraine would now be under Russian occupation, destroying a pillar of international peace and order: the integrity of borders.
Unfortunately, Zelensky’s Knesset speech was not a singular event. Ukraine regularly takes public positions in support of the Israeli occupation. In 2020, it quit the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; and just last month, its ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, declared that: “As a Ukrainian whose country is under a very brutal attack by its neighbor, I feel great sympathy towards the Israeli public.”
This parallel between Israel and Ukraine is totally misplaced. If anything, the Ukrainians’ situation is closest to that of the West Bank Palestinians’. Yes, Israelis and Palestinians at least acknowledge their adversaries’ otherness, whereas Russia claims that Ukrainians are really just Russians. But not only does Israel deny that the Palestinians are a nation (as Russia does with Ukraine); the Palestinians also have been denied a place in the Arab world (like Ukrainians vis-à-vis Europe before the war). Moreover, like Russia, Israel is a nuclear-armed military superpower that is de facto colonizing a smaller, much weaker entity. And like Russia in the occupied parts of Ukraine, Israel is practicing a politics of apartheid.
While Israel’s leaders welcome Ukraine’s support, they have not returned the favor. Instead, they have oscillated between Russia and Ukraine, because Israel needs Russia’s continuing toleration of its own military strikes on targets in Syria. But Ukraine’s full support for Israel mainly reflects its leaders’ ideological interest in presenting their struggle as a defense of Europe and European civilization against a barbaric, totalitarian East.
This framing of the fight is untenable, because it requires glossing over Europe’s own roles in slavery, colonialism, fascism, and so forth. It is crucial that Ukraine’s cause be defended in universal terms, around shared concepts and interpretations of words like “occupation” and “freedom.” To reduce Ukraine’s war to a struggle for Europe is to use the same framing as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “court philosopher” Aleksandr Dugin, who draws a line between “Russian truth” and “European truth.” Confining the conflict to Europe reinforces Russia’s own global propaganda, which presents the invasion of Ukraine as an act of decolonization – part of the struggle against Western neoliberal domination and a necessary step toward a multipolar world.
By treating Israel’s colonization of the West Bank as a defensive struggle for freedom, Ukraine is validating another power’s aggression and thus compromising its own fully justified struggle for freedom. Sooner or later, it will have to make a choice. Will it be truly European, by participating in the universal emancipatory project that defines Europe? Or will it become a part of the new right’s populist wave?
When Ukraine asked the West, “Can you pass the howitzers?” the West did not cynically quip, “Yes, we can!” and then do nothing. Western countries replied reasonably by sending weapons to fight the occupiers. Yet when Palestinians ask for support of any kind, they receive nothing but empty statements, often accompanied by declarations of solidarity with their oppressor. When they ask for the salt, it is handed to their opponent.
Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder (OR Books, 2021).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.