A Palestinian youth sits next to his bicycle amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza City on 24 November 2023. Image: Omar El-Qattaa / AFP

The Negative Dialectics of Selective Memory


Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?

Mahmoud Darwish, ‘The Earth is Closing on Us’ (1984).

I want to think about Palestine and its history by drawing attention to questions of ideology, representation, and political memory. In so doing, I propose the importance of both cultural theory and nuanced historical analyses when it comes to understanding an asymmetrical conflict, in which the reversal of victim and perpetrator governs much of what is being reported in Western media and beyond. Confining one’s understanding to grand narratives, as Felicity A. Nussbaum explains, ‘may commit a disservice to local epistemologies worldwide.’

This applies especially to human suffering in Palestine as a result of both military aggression and the refusal of Western powers to recognize their complicity in it. Accordingly, this article attempts to analyze the extent to which Eurocentric perspectives rest on ideological constructs at the same time as they dehumanize a people whose lives have been determined by decades of colonization and dispossession.

The present Israeli onslaught on Gaza begs the question: How did we get here (once again)? Since the inception of the blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the ongoing Israeli invasion has been both the deadliest and most extensive to date. After Operations Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defence (2012), and Protective Edge (2014), the current military campaign that started in October 2023 has not only killed more than 37,000 Gazans as of June 2024, most of whom were civilians, it has also laid waste to their territory’s infrastructure.

Palestinians walk through a ravaged street following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, on 10 October 2023. Image: Mahmud Hams/AFP

Reports have estimated that it might take up to 14 years to remove the rubble in what is one of the most densely-populated areas of the world. This rough calculation can serve to illustrate the rate and scale of destruction in the Gaza Strip.

But even if Israeli military operations were to cease immediately, the people of Gaza would need all sorts of outside aid in order to survive and restructure their lives. For Gazans, then, the proverbial return to normal would merely be tantamount to a hazardous existence that is conjunctionally framed by military aggression, a dearth of supplies, and a lack of both individual and collective freedoms in the world’s biggest open-air prison. This is as untenable in the long run as Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians is in violation of international law, especially when it comes to cutting them off from commercial and cultural traffic with the outside world. Yet, Israel’s major allies, especially the US and Germany, choose to make themselves blind to continuous Palestinian suffering both in Gaza and in the West Bank.

This dire situation should give the world pause in order to reflect on the biased political dynamics that have engendered it in the first place. Implicit in it is a lopsided epistemological grid, as it were, in which Western narratives about Israel’s right to defend itself override, and even cancel, local Palestinian experiences of occupation, coercion, and imprisonment. Viewed in this way, Palestine is being reified by an ideology that allows at best for collective representations of Palestinians in order to strip away their autonomy and dignity. The resulting dehumanization, then, is not subject to a rigorous intellectual critique; rather, it becomes the vantage point from which right-wing Zionism can confidently claim that Palestinians do not, in fact, exist.

But whilst this reductive logic determines Palestinian lives in the present, there is also a historical dimension to their suffering. In his essay ‘The Meaning of Working Through the Past’ (1959), Theodor W. Adorno writes that ‘[one] wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow,’ and ‘wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive’ (89). Referring to national socialism and the industrialized murder of millions of European Jews in Auschwitz and other death camps during World War Two, Adorno ascertains ‘that the objective conditions of society that engendered fascism continue to exist’ (98).

Amongst these societal conditions are ‘the effacement of memory’ (91) and a right-wing revolt against an alleged ‘guilt complex’ (92). The German nation, so the (neo) Nazi argument goes, is ridden by guilt and mistakenly dominated by the past. As a response to this twin challenge of genocidal barbarism as a historical burden and right-wing attempts to erase it from memory, unconditional support for Israel has become the centrepiece of German foreign policy in the Middle East. 

However, the Palestinians have never been factored into this precarious equation, which ultimately means that successive Israeli governments have had carte blanche to inflict arbitrary violence on them. On American university campuses, for example, protesting against Israeli military operations in Gaza or a careful dissection of the settlement expansions in the West Bank on legal grounds are routinely denounced as anti-Semitic.

In a recent Holocaust memorial speech, Joe Biden claimed that ‘[w]e’ve seen a ferocious surge of anti-Semitism in America and around the world.’ This simplistic conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli military violence is also prevalent in German public discourse. After more than 300 lecturers from Berlin universities signed an open letter that supports the students’ right to protest, Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger told the right-wing BILD tabloid that ‘[t]his statement from teachers at Berlin universities is shocking.’ As a consequence of such one-sided statements, any criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, no matter how nuanced it may be, is rendered impossible from the outset. 

And what is more, the Holocaust is often referenced as a reason for the West’s unconditional support for Israel, and the media outcry in the wake of the deadly Hamas attack was no exception. According to Joe Biden, for instance, 7 October was the  ‘deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.’ But rather than using the indelible and well-documented crimes of Nazi Germany as a moral sledgehammer to shut down debate, a nuanced analysis of the flawed dialectic between mass extermination in the past and selective memory in the present illustrates that, according to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, ‘[p]erennial suffering [in the concentration camps] has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.’

Theodor W. Adorno was a German philosopher, social theorist, and a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

In the contemporary Middle East, then, the Palestinians resemble Adorno’s tortured man, whose screams, however, must remain unheard because of the suffering that preceded him and in the origin of which he played no part. 

This paradoxical situation becomes even more absurd in light of the aid that is being airdropped into Gaza. Unsurprisingly, the US and Germany are the biggest suppliers of military equipment to Israel, accounting for around 68% and 30% of Israel’s foreign-sourced weapons, respectively. Accordingly, both nations bear indirect responsibility for Palestinian casualties, since extended military campaigns rely first and foremost on stable logistics and steady flows of ammunition.

Yet, the US plans on constructing an artificial pier to bring more aid into Gaza (to the tune of about 320 million USD) at the same time as the German Air Force has been participating in airborne relief efforts since early March. Instead of tying their military aid to international human rights standards, or cutting it altogether in the light of Palestinian suffering, both nations attempt to alleviate the very suffering that their weapons create in the first place.

Adorno’s notion of the ‘administered world’ can shed some light on such apparently contradictory behavior patterns in the political arena. Applied to explicate a wide range of social phenomena, the ‘administered world’ describes ‘a fully manipulated, calculated, and integrated society.’ In such a world, so Adorno’s argument continues, ‘[a]ll phenomena rigidify, become insignias of the absolute of that which is.’ In other words, questioning the status quo and challenging the powers that be can be a futile, or even hazardous, venture, since critical voices are either being stifled or, eventually, integrated into the societal whole.

Sooner or later, critical thinking loses its force and becomes complicit in the circumstances it originally strove to change. In similar fashion to critical thinking, meaningful political action is being incorporated into society’s false consciousness and reduced to inconsequential exertions: ‘The administered world has the tendency to strangle all spontaneity, or at least to channel it into pseudo-activities.’

Rather than showing empathy for Palestinians and ameliorating their plight by cutting military aid to Israel, Western politicians are content with the ineffectual ‘pseudo-activity’ of airdropping a few pallets of goods into Gaza, which does not change the dire political situation on the ground (in addition to running the risk of hitting the locals and killing them).

Whilst cultural theory and historical analyses cannot directly impact the appalling humanitarian situation in such war zones as Gaza, they can nonetheless help us to understand the geneses of the political constellations and ideological constructs behind them. Amongst these, the flawed dialectic between historical mass extermination and selective memory in the present plays a pivotal political role— equating criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians with anti-Semitism, it buttresses the dominant Western paradigm that tends to shut down debate at critical junctures in times of conflict when rigorous critiques and productive exchanges are needed most.

If neither the Palestinians nor their supporters are being heard, the humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate even further. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the world’s biggest open-air prison are suffering because they have no way out as the IDF continues its unconscionable bombing campaign. As a consequence of this indefensible situation, the questions in the epigraph of this article – taken from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish – must remain unanswered for the time being.

Dr Sascha R Klement

Born in Germany, Sascha studied English literature at the Universities of Kent at Canterbury and Exeter, eventually writing a thesis on English travellers in the Ottoman Empire. In April 2021, he published his first monograph: Representations of Global Civility: English Travellers in the Ottoman Empire and the South Pacific, 1636 -1863. Sascha's research interests include 18th-century literature and philosophy, travel writing, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, as well as political activism and social change. He is currently working on his second book, which will tell the story of Nubia and the Nubians during the twentieth century. Sascha currently lives in Egypt, where he teaches English and history at an international school.

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