Do you condemn Žižek?

Amid the genocide in Gaza, the incoherence of western philosophers has come to the fore. By Jamil Khader.


Over the past two months, as Israel has waged a genocidal war in Gaza, killing more than 19,000 people, more than a third of them children, Western philosophers have come under criticism for their positions on the matter. These self-proclaimed beacons of morality and ethics have either condoned war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and forcible evacuations or taken ambivalent positions on them.

For example, on November 13, German philosophers Jürgen Habermas, Nicole Deitelhoff, Rainer Forst, and Klaus Guenther issued a statement in support of Israel, rejecting the term genocide in reference to its actions in Gaza and claiming that Hamas’s October 7 attack intended to “eliminate Jewish life in general”.

Habermas subsequently became the subject of a social media meme that asked “do you condemn Habermas?” mocking the repeated insistence on condemning Hamas that Palestinians interviewed by Western media outlets face.

While Habermas’s position is hardly surprising, the writings of another European philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, have been disappointing given his previous statements on Israel-Palestine. So here I ask, do we condemn Žižek?

It is important to recognise that the Slovenian philosopher has been put in a difficult position. After giving a speech at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 17, he was viciously attacked and even accused of antisemitism. He was even heckled at the event for pointing out that “Palestinians are strictly treated as a problem. The state of Israel doesn’t offer them any hope, positively outlining their role in the state they live.” Since then, he has spent considerable effort trying to defend himself against being falsely identified as an antisemite.

But in trying to navigate the genocidally charged environment of Germany and the rest of Europe, Žižek has inadvertently betrayed his radical leftist aspirations.

Most of what he said in the speech first appeared in an article he published with Project Syndicate on October 13 under the title “The Real Dividing Line in Israel-Palestine”.

In the piece, he writes “the situation demands historical context” but then goes on to reduce “the situation” to a confrontation between “fundamentalists on both sides”; he talks about the Israeli occupation and the “truly desperate and hopeless conditions faced by Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories”, but reaffirms Israel’s “right to defend itself”.

Much of what he says in the piece is disconnected from and contradicts his previous writings about state terrorism, Zionism, peace, “hamatzav”, the two-state solution, or even the critique of the American invasion of Iraq.

While he links the war in Gaza to “the mass of Palestinian Arabs who have been living in a state of limbo for decades”, Žižek fails to bring up the history of the ongoing Nakba and its significance for understanding the extremist Zionist messianic ideology.

He also repeats a major talking point from the Israeli hasbara repertoire about Hamas’s role in undermining any possibility for peace, despite previously identifying Israel as the main actor that is undermining peace. Just two years ago, he wrote in an op-ed published by RT that the protraction of the occupation “is in Israel’s interest: they want the West Bank, but they don’t want to annex it because they don’t want to grant Israeli citizenship to West Bank Palestinians.”

He then dished out his pizza analogy to show how Israel consistently undermines the peace process: “So the situation drags on and is occasionally interrupted by negotiations which a Palestinian participant perfectly described. Both sides sit at opposite ends of a table with a pie of pizza in the middle, and while negotiating over how to split the pie, one side constantly eats “its” parts.”

These contradictions in Žižek’s present analysis of Israel-Palestine are compounded by his inadequate analytical framework. In his article and the speech, he insists on reducing this genocidal war to a conflict between the two sides of the same fundamentalist logic, epitomised by what Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh and Israeli government minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have said.

However, Ben-Gvir’s ideology is not fringe in Israel; it just does not dress its intentions in the rhetoric of “democracy” and human rights as the Israeli liberals do. It reflects the whole fabric of the settler colonial Jewish apartheid ethnocratic state. Official statements about the intent to “nuke” Palestinians, to destroy “the human animals”, and to carry out a second Nakba are mirrored by children’s songs about the “annihilation” of Palestinians and ordinary Israelis saying they want “Gaza gone”.

Even Israeli liberal intellectuals like Yuval Harari – whom Žižek quotes in his speech and writings and seems to regard as someone discerning of the dangerous “fundamentalism” of the likes of Ben-Gvir – are openly endorsing the ethnic cleansing of Gaza under the guise of “protecting civilians”. In fact, this is the only difference between the Israeli “fundamentalists” – as Žižek calls them – and the Israeli liberals: the latter would just wrap the same policies in the language of humanism to make them more palatable to the world.

Žižek also insists that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself against Hamas. In a November 20 op-ed published in The Philosophical Salon, he even states that he “gave Israel the full right to destroy [Hamas]”. A few lines down, he writes that he stands in complete solidarity with the victims of Hamas’s attack and with the Jewish community, but does not extend his support to the actions of the State of Israel and its current administration. It is not clear how he can endorse Israel’s “right to self-defence” while refusing to support it.

More importantly, such a position is completely disconnected from his previous analyses of Zionist settler colonialism and occupation. Just back in March 2023, he wrote a piece for Project Syndicate in which he argued that condemning Russia properly makes it imperative to “be consistent and also condemn other examples, not least Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians in the occupied territories”.

As many commentators have pointed out, according to international law, an occupier cannot claim self-defence against the people it occupies. In fact, the use of this word in a settler-colonial context is code for ethnic cleansing and land grab.

Žižek’s Hobbesian equivocations on Israel’s “right to self-defence” cannot be excused as a defensive reaction.

Even more incomprehensible is his insistence to cling in his writings to some liberal politics of hope in this catastrophic context. In a December 12 op-ed he published with the Israeli outlet Haaretz, he sees change coming through “the slow rise of solidarity between the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Jews opposing the all-destructive war”.

But this lofty aspirational vision is completely disconnected from the realities on the ground. Palestinian citizens of Israel have been subjected to a brutal McCarthyist campaign of arrest, surveillance, intimidation and exclusion even for calling for the end of the war. Any statement or activity that is not in favour of this genocidal war is deemed as hostile and anti-Israel.

Undoubtedly, the fear of being painted with the demonising brush of antisemitism is very real and cannot be overstated. It is being weaponised even against Jewish people, as the controversy over Masha Gessen’s reception of the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought sadly illustrates. Gessen was attacked for writing in a piece for the New Yorker, that Gaza is “like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany”.

Despite his ambivalent position on the Palestinian genocide, Žižek should not be dismissed as an irrelevant thinker. After all, the core truths of many philosophies exist beyond the biographies of their authors.

I think Žižek is aware of his failings and can revise his position in future writings. As he may well know, it is never too late to awaken.


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Jamil Khader is professor of English and dean of research at Bethlehem University, Palestine. His numerous articles on postcolonial women writers, fantastic literature and cosmopolitanism have appeared in various national and international journals.

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