Students and staff in a number of Irish universities have demanded their institutions speak out against genocidal attacks by Israel on Palestinian people. The response exposes the hypocrisy that often lies behind ‘Western liberal values’.
Take UCD, as an example. In a response to a letter signed by the student union leader and myself, Orla Feeley, the UCD President refused to issue any condemnation of Israel. She explained that ‘Were it to be our practice to take an institutional position on geopolitical matters, we would be inhibiting the freedom of members of our community to express their individual positions and suppressing our ability to sustain and respect a diversity of views.’
Now this is simply untrue because in February 2022, UCD issued the following statement. ‘UCD deplores and condemns the actions of Russia in invading and attacking Ukraine. This act of military aggression is a violation of international law and is completely unjustified’.
Why would a university condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine but refuse to say anything about Israel?
To unravel this conundrum , we need to switch focus to a Dáil resolution on 23 November. Here the government moved a counter resolution to a People Before Profit proposal to close Shannon airport to the US military. Their resolution condemned
‘the barbaric attack by Hamas on Israel on 7th October, in which 1,200 people were killed and at least 243 people were kidnapped…. Also condemns the killing of children and civilians’
You will, of course, notice the precise number of children killed and kidnapped by Hamas and the more general and vague condemnation of the killings of other children. More importantly, no agent is held responsible for their killing.
Sinn Féin spotted this sleight of hand and moved a two-word amendment so that the resolution would now read, ‘Also condemns the killing of children and civilians by Israel’. Incredibly government TDs, including the erstwhile pacifists of the Greens, lined up to vote down the Sinn Féin amendment.
This seemingly trivial incident, which was unreported in the mainstream press, tells us a lot about how official Ireland behaves. Like other Western countries, it formally embraces the concept of human rights. It also asserts that ‘international law’ contains a subset of rules over how wars are to be conducted. Civilians, it is asserted, are not to be willfully targeted and wars must be fought between combatants. Screeds are reports are produced each year by both governments and NGO that are written from this framework,
But the two incidents we have just cited ignore this discourse. In all capitalist societies there are contradictions between form and content. Formally, we are all equal before the law. Formally, workers and employers engage in equal and free contracts. Formally, since the Enlightenment, western societies talk the language of ‘inalienable human rights’.
But the content that lies behind these formal injunctions stands in contradiction. A cursory glance at who is imprisoned shows that the poor are far more likely to be found in breach of the law. Behind the formal equality of a labour contract, lies a deeply unequal exchange between capital and labour. And behind the formal discourse of human rights, lies the ugly reality of imperialism.
Empires have always operated on a hierarchy of human life. White, Western people or those who appear like ‘us’ have a higher value than others. This is why, for example, our media gives detailed reports on human tragedies that occur in America rather than, say, Bangladesh. Or why we are told in some detail about the suffering of Israeli ‘hostages’ but know little about the young teenage ‘prisoners’ who are held in Israeli jails.
The brutal logic of imperialism means that it is permissible to kill colonised subjects on a vast scale when they refuse to accept its order. The machine gun, for example, was originally invented to murder thousands of colonised people before returning with a vengeance to the heartland of the system. The US was responsible for nearly a million deaths in Iraq but yet its leaders proclaim their sadness about ‘ the loss of human life’.
Let us now return to our universities. Despite their pretense of being free zones of inquiry, they are bound by restrictions of state policy and state interest and this becomes particularly acute at moments of crisis. In normal times, they are, of course, given a degree of freedom. But in moments of crisis, this changes.
Ukraine became the battle cry of Western liberalism when it was subject to a brutal invasion by the rival imperialists in Russia. Western leaders proclaimed its right to defend itself and supplied millions in weaponry. And Ireland, as a good camp follower of Western imperialism, followed suit. It did so by mobilising its institutional infrastructure – including universities – to assert its defence of Western values of tolerance, respect for international law, etc. Hence UCD’s forthright condemnation of the Russian invasion.
But when it came to Palestine it was different. Israel is regarded as a fully card carrying member of the Western alliance. So virtually every Western leader, including Micheal Martin, travels to Israel to be pictured with Netanyahu as an expression of ruling class solidarity. Israel, after all, is the largest recipient for US military aid and functions as its watchdog in the Middle East. In brief, it is presented as a country that is ’just like us’.
When the UCD President falls into the trap of ‘double standards’, therefore, it is only because she is caught in the wider contradictions of the system.