One of the terms frequently appearing on the news regarding the Palestinian genocide is “humanitarian crisis.” In my head, the imagery of humanitarianism raises memories of the old UNICEF commercials with the exploitative spectacle of starving African or third-world children and women staring at the camera. Humanitarianism depends on a currency of sympathy and innocence, framing your donation as a way to combat the evil and suffering of the world.

My argument against the humanitarian perspective is that it reduces genocide into a moralized logic rather than one confronting Palestine’s material social relations. My critique draws on Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, and how the logic of capital mystifies social relations as naturalized and ahistorical. Lastly, I argue that Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS)’s decolonial praxis delegitimizes the Zionist mystification and provides possibilities for constructing decolonial realities.

Marx and Humanitarianism

In Poverty of Philosophy, Marx critiques the bourgeois humanitarians of his time who sought to alleviate the injustices of capital while retaining the material class dynamics. The paradox of the humanitarian is to save the people they continually oppress.

One of the contemporary humanitarian organizations is the The International Rescue Committee (IRC). While the organization is doing valuable work providing resources and aid to Gaza, even rightfully referring to it as an “occupied territory,” it remains part of a broader humanitarian logic that reinforces the genocidal conditions it attempts to counter.

One of the IRC’s primary missions is “empowerment”: “The International Rescue Committee helps those who are recovering from conflict and disaster understand their rights and make informed choices for their futures.” The IRC’s solution to Western genocide is for Westerners to tell Palestinians their rights.

What are “informed choices for their futures?” To exemplify their mission, the IRC refers to resettling a Congolese man from his imperialism-ravaged country. From the organization’s efforts, the IRC describes him joining the US Air Force with a portrait of him and Obama shaking hands. Because humanitarianism cannot challenge material antagonisms, the only solution is inverting the colonized into the colonizer.

Fetishism

Marx’s work on the commodity fetish can help understand the mystification of genocide. The roots of the word “fetish” come from Portuguese colonization. Colonizers would use the word to infantilize African religious practices as absurd and demonstrative of their incapacity for a rational will.

In Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel describes the fetish as “the first object [Africans] encounter which they imagine has power over them – whether it be an animal, a tree, a stone, or a wooden image – is given the status of a genius.”

Fetishism is when there is an external object that has power over the subject. Hegel’s critique of the fetish is the subject’s inability to recognize the object not as a distant power, but a reflection of the subject’s will. For Hegel, fetishism refers to the mystification of the subject’s relationship to the external world, irrationally deifying themselves.

Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism inverts Hegel’s colonial critique of the African onto the European. When the worker creates a coat from linen, the worker’s labour creates the value of the coat. However, when one looks at the value of the coat, the value appears to exist in a supply and demand relationship with other commodities independent of the worker. Fetishism refers to how the commodity, as an embodiment of the worker’s labour, takes a mystical form that becomes detached from the worker’s social role in production.

The commodity’s value does not come from the heavens but from the workers on the earth. Fetishism describes the mystifying practice where the capitalist appropriates the worker’s surplus as natural and ahistorical.

Humanitarianism does not challenge the structure of exploiting workers’ surplus values but ameliorates the exploitative conditions. The philanthropists can only fund the workers to get a cup of coffee when they are working a twelve hour shift. Fetishism is crucial for humanitarianism’s imperialist burden.

Fetishizing Israel

Israel relies on a fetishism that views the Zionist project as a naturalized ahistorical nation-state. This depends on a mystification of the continual dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land. The nation-state becomes removed from material, social relations and into a theological entity outside of space and time.

Genocide does not happen from the heavens. It is inextricably connected with the history of British/European Imperialism’s expansion of capital. America’s funding and solidification of the Israeli state is, as Joe Biden said in 1988: “the best 3 billion dollar investment we could make. If there were not an Israel, we would have to invent an Israel to protect [America’s] interest in the region.” Israel is the embodiment of the West’s capital.

The decolonial task is to understand the production of the nation-state as an active process that subjects collectively produce. The Israeli state depends on the globalized production and reproduction of capital, as well as ideological support for the Zionist project.

The subject is necessarily inscribed within the genocidal network through taxation or consumption of Middle Eastern extraction.  Decolonial praxis, for the Western subject, is realizing this inscription, but using one’s position in realizing capital to disrupt the violent accumulation.

Humanitarianism necessitates the fetish of genocide as outside the subject’s control with bureaucratic reform as the only solution. However, decolonial praxis confronts the fetish from its exteriorized position as a social relation people can collectively undo and construct anew.

BDS and Academic Boycott

Boycott, Divest, Sanction(BDS) is a Palestinian-led international movement to end Israel’s apartheid occupation. BDS promotes organizations and individuals throughout civil society to boycott, divest, and sanction tactically selected targets. The move against fetishism lies in seeing the power that subjects’ collectively hold in disrupting these institutions.

Given that the likely readership is in academia, it is important to emphasize the role of the intellectual in the production of colonial mythology. BDS calls for an academic boycott of Israeli universities due to their role in manufacturing consent and producing knowledge crucial for Israel’s apartheid.

One of the frequent criticisms that BDS encounters is that the organization violates an essential “academic freedom.” The notion of academic freedom fetishizes the university’s role in the capitalist superstructure as a free contemplation of a priori truths.

Tel Aviv University-affiliated think tank Institute for National Security Studies contributed to Israel’s use of the Dahiya Doctrine, a state terrorist program to target civilian infrastructure. Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa develops technology essential for locating Palestinian tunnels and destroying homes.

These universities’ efforts have caused the death of over 4000 students and bombings of schools. Abstract academic freedom is the reproduction of colonial relations. The university is a crucial site of coloniality, and praxis must be linked with moving against it.

The Israeli academic institution is not alone; throughout American departments, there are theorists and scientists whose academic freedom constructs colonial weapons that not only prevent Palestinians’ freedom to learn but also the freedom to exist.

BDS’s project delegitimizes the university’s abstract position by practically mobilizing against it. The increasing protests against universities, commonly associated with BDS, increasingly reveal the connections between academic institutions and their role in the reproduction of violence.

BDS’s call is for individuals and organizations to economically and politically challenge institutions such as universities and arms manufacturers. This challenge allows people to grasp the abstract neocolonial machine as a tangible structure that is not inevitable. Praxis reflects the alienated fetish out of its removed position and onto direct social relations.

While humanitarianism can only reform and reproduce through their challenge, BDS can strike at the material relations underlying Israel’s occupation and genocide.

Conclusion

As mentioned, humanitarianism can provide valuable resources to colonized communities, and its existence is far from monolithic. As Srila Roy’s work in West Bengal points to, both NGO members and subaltern subjects can creatively interact with the violent humanitarian frameworks for liberatory projects. Barghouti’s own work on BDS relies on the reified notions of human rights, but to show how its application to Palestinians produces contradictions. Humanitarianism as a discourse has an ambiguity that cannot be entirely dismissed.

While boycotting itself can easily be engulfed into a reformist position, it also has the possibility to, as Fanon says, “discover reality and transform it through praxis.” Defetishizing is not a colonial rational move to seeing reality as it truly is, but a sociogenic project of realizing that people hold the power to construct alternative decolonial realities. For those in academia, academic boycotting is a small step toward this arduous task, but one that is imperative at the current moment.

Pritish Das is a fourth-year undergraduate at Kenyon College. His research interests are on Black Social Movements and Sylvia Wynter’s theory of the human. 

Image: A logo of BDS movement available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boycott_divestment_sanctions_560.jpg