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On Being Complicit


Israel-Palestine Abroad

In mid-November 2023, Ellen Groves, an employee of the tourist authority for the island of Guernsey, dramatically resigned.

The trouble starts at the top. Antiwar protest, London.

Groves, who had been responsible for promoting the island to potential French tourists, gave her reasons as follows:

It is no longer possible for me to continue my role defending Guernsey’s culture in France, as Guernsey continues to be complicit in the destruction of the people and culture of Palestine.

Guernsey is a British Crown Dependency with its own government – known as the States of Guernsey – and a high degree of autonomy from the British state.

Groves seems to have been angry that there had only been one comment from the States since the Gaza war had begun, a joint statement by the Chief Ministers of Guernsey and Jersey on 10 October, condemning Hamas’s attack and ordering local flags to fly at half-mast.

What was the ‘complicity’ that Ellen Groves was referring to?

It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Guernsey’s reputation as a tax haven. However, it wouldn’t be surprising that some wealthy Israeli (and Palestinian) individuals have money stashed on the island.

No one would think that Guernsey has the power to influence the reality of the war in Gaza. Instead, complicity, in this sense, is defined as a failure to speak out or, more precisely, a failure to speak out for the right side.

Complicity discourse of this kind has been omnipresent since 7 October, particularly online. It is not confined to Guernsey or Britain or limited to pro-Palestinian activists.

The discourse interprets silence as a kind of collusion; concomitantly, there is an obligation to speak.

One of the striking aspects of how the discourse has developed over the last weeks is the back seat that Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) calls have taken at British solidarity demonstrations.

The demand for a ceasefire hasn’t even been focused explicitly on demanding that the UK government should pressure Israel, either.

While some activists favour direct action, for example, at arms companies that sell to Israel, only a minority of campaigners are involved in it.

In contrast, while there have been vigils and other demonstrations of solidarity, pro-Israel activism is often tied into demands for specific actions: Law enforcement action against protestors, ‘unbiased’ coverage on the BBC, fundraising for Israeli NGOs and so on.

Even so, it’s not always clear what such campaigning ‘over here’ can do to change the situation on the ground ‘over there’.

Still, given that many supporters of Israel wish for military action to continue, it is difficult to formulate a coherent ask for some kind of change.

It is true that Palestinians and Israelis might take strength from those demonstrating throughout the world and that the other side will be intimidated by the massed ranks against them. Popular opinion matters. 

Palestinians and Israelis may well receive these messages as intended, but wars are never completely reliant on morale. Israeli and Palestinian confidence is likely more dependent on local conditions than global ones.

Where did complicity discourse – so passionate yet vague in its demands – emerge from? It certainly isn’t novel to treat silence as an existential threat.

One thinks, for example, of the Silence=Death posters created by the 1980s AIDS advocacy group ACT UP.

Perhaps we who grew up in the post-war period are haunted by silence.

We have been confronted again and again by revelations of horrors that took place quietly and secretly: the virtual enslavement of unwed mothers in Ireland, sexual predators in the entertainment industry, the Holocaust and all sorts of other half-forgotten atrocities.

The costs of not speaking out seem painfully clear; the demand for justice requires giving a voice to the silenced.

And yet…While silence often implies complicity, its noisy opposite does not guarantee justice. In the case of Israel-Palestine today, there is little silence to break.

This a cacophonous conflict where almost every fraction of Israeli and Palestinian society has passionate foreign advocates.

So profoundly has Israel-Palestine embedded itself in the consciousness of much of the world that it becomes harder and harder to identify the genuinely culpable.

This anarchic situation means that activists on both sides of the conflict often focus on what is closest to them. The States of Guernsey become the world.

The war in Gaza is not a titanic struggle between two equally-matched enemies or a war whose outcome hinges on the attrition of resources, armed forces and civilians.

This is an asymmetric conflict whose course and aftermath will be determined in small rooms and on phone calls.

The more catastrophic the situation becomes, the more key individuals – belligerents and mediators – become pivotal.

Complicity discourse is, therefore, an attempt to assign blame more broadly and intimately, thereby allowing some sense of agency to activists who might otherwise fall into despair.

Yet, in another respect, complicity discourse does correctly assign a particular kind of responsibility.

In an age of ubiquitous media, we are constantly confronted by unbearable sights that leave us powerless.

That confrontation is made even less tolerable when we see others ignoring suffering or condoning it.

This is a kind of complicity not in what happens in Israel-Palestine but in our ability to cope with it abroad.

In Britain and many other Western countries, the Gaza war has revealed just how divided we are, and just how little confidence we can have that our pain will be recognised.

Not just our personal suffering but that of our communities. Particularly those of us with religious and physical ties to the conflict, like Muslims and, Jews, and Palestinians.

That search for people who will share the burden of our suffering – and the reverse, disgust at those who cannot help us – can also intensify a retreat into walled camps, from which the struggle continues.

And in that ubiquitous struggle, the suffering of Gaza can be laid at the door of our closest neighbours, including the government of Guernsey.

Photograph courtesy of Alisdare Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.