Thursday, June 3, 2010

Synecdoche Gaza

We’ve now learned that an American citizen was killed on the Turkish ship boarded by Israeli commandos.  Furkan Dogan was shot four times in the head and once in the chest at close range.

Everyone from the Pope to the Secretary General of the UN has criticized the forcible boarding of a humanitarian aid ship in international waters. But many, particularly in the United States (even those critical of Israel’s actions) wonder why the criticism is so one-sided. After all, although those on all but one of the ships used non-violent, passive resistance, the commandos did face physical resistance on the ship where the shootings happened.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First, all of the dead were members of the flotilla. While some commandos were wounded, none were killed. Then there’s the obvious David/Goliath issue, with the well-trained and well-armed Israeli commandos playing Goliath (ironically enough) to the David of a crew of unarmed men and women trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza. And then there was the fact that the boarding took place in international waters. While it would have been ideal for all members of the flotilla to practice nonviolence, it isn’t surprising that some would have tried to defend their ship when armed men dropped from the sky to take it over.

If any of these variables weren’t in place, I suspect the reaction would be a bit more nuanced and conflicted.

But there’s also a symbolic—even rhetorical—part of the answer as well. The vision of armed Israelis seizing control of a ship and shooting civilians serves as a synecdoche of the situation in Gaza.

Synecdoche” is just a fancy-schmantzy rhetorical term meaning when you use a small part to stand for the whole. Examples are the phrases “all hands on deck” and “let’s put some butts in the seats!” Presumably in both cases, you want more than just the hands or posteriors—you’re interested in whole people being in a certain place. You’re just figuratively referring to one part of the body to stand in for the whole person.

In this case, the boarding of the ship and killing of civilians on board, while only part of the squalid drama playing out in Gaza, stands in for the whole all too well. The Israeli military, in the name of security, takes control of a space that doesn’t belong to it, and in the process kills civilians. Then, despite widespread criticism, Israel refuses to admit culpability and in fact blames the victims for “forcing” both taking control and the resulting violence. (Despite claims that Gaza is not under its control, Isreal exercises de facto economic control over Gaza through its blockade.)

Given the parallels between this incident and the blockade of Gaza as a whole, it’s not surprising that the reactions to the boarding of the ship also closely mirror the attitudes toward the Israeli occupation of Gaza (i.e., the world community’s condemnation, Israel’s self-righteous defiance, and the U.S.’s uncomfortable waffling).

Taking the part for the whole, of course, can lead to problems. Until we know exactly what happened on the ship (and what happened leading up to the decision to board it), it’s impossible to tell with certainty exactly how and where blame should be laid. But the details that are available so obviously invite a symbolic reading of the incident as a stand-in for the larger issue of the suffering in Gaza, it’s inevitable that it will be read that way.

I was interested to see that, without using the term, Juan Cole (professor of Middle East studies and one of the most erudite commentators on current events in the region) describes the situation in Gaza itself as a result of synecdoche. Pointing out that half of the population of Gaza are children and that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza don’t support Hamas, Cole notes how the Israeli government sees Hamas as a synecdoche for all of Gaza and everyone living in it. The understandable animosity of the Israeli government toward Hamas allows it to justify (at least to itself) actions that lead to the suffering of innocent women, men, and children. This is accomplished by (either sincerely or maliciously) equating Hamas with all of Gaza.

Synecdoche, like all symbolic and rhetorical devices, is a tool that helps us understand the world. In fact, symbolic understanding is often the only way we can come to grips with complex and abstract issues. But it also carries risks of misunderstanding and distortion. To what extent, in the final analysis, the Israel’s boarding of an unarmed ship stands in for its occupation of Gaza will have to wait until a full investigation is conducted (if/when Israel allows one to go forward). As Cole notes, however, taking a synecdochic relationship literally—mistakenly or willfully erasing its figurative aspect—can lead to tragic consequences.


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