International Law and Israeli Resentment

By Erica Weiss

“Um-Shmum” is a term invented and made into a household expression by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. “Um” is the acronym for United Nations in Hebrew, and Shmum uses “Shm-reduplication,” a linguistic construction from Yiddish that migrated to Northeastern American English and Hebrew (e.g. fancy-shmancy). It implies contempt and distain. So essentially “U.N.-ShmU.N.” Who cares what they think?

How did this term come into being? If it were a piece of fiction, we would call it lazy writing.

In 1955, after terrorists crossed from Gaza and attacked Israelis living in the small communities on its borders, the Israeli government held a meeting to strategize. Ben Gurion, serving then as Defense Minister proposed that Israel had no choice but to occupy the Gaza strip. Israel’s Prime Minister Moshe Sharett was less convinced, and expressed concerns that the international community and the United Nations would object to the Israeli occupation of Gaza. Ben Gurion’s response: “Um-Shmum,” followed later by a quote that has likewise seen frequent quotation ever since, especially today: “It is not in the global arena but rather from within that Israel will be strengthened and stand…these are the things that will determine our destiny more than any external factor in the world. Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles will say but rather what the Jews will do!”

Without the historical details, this is a conversation that could have taken place between Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his right-wing coalition members who have recently been advocating reoccupying Gaza, such as Ben Gvir, because in the Middle East, history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as …. an even greater tragedy. In the terrorist attack of 1955, one Israeli was killed, and Israel did not occupy the Gaza strip. This time 35,000 Palestinians (and counting) as well as 1,200 Israelis have been killed. The reoccupation of Gaza is on the table and the scale of the pain is staggering.

In 1948 Hannah Arendt critically articulated the mood of Israel in a way that is eerily identical to the dominant mood of the country today: “The Jewish experience in the last decades—or over the last centuries, or over the last two thousand years—has finally awakened us and taught us to look out for ourselves; this alone is reality, everything else is stupid sentimentality; everybody is against us…  in the final analysis we count upon nobody except ourselves; in sum—we are ready to go down fighting, and we will consider anybody who stands in our way a traitor, and anything done to hinder us a stab in the back.”

The announcement that the ICC prosecutor would be seeking indictments for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was received by the vast majority of Jewish Israelis in this resentful spirit. The same is true of the ICJ decision that Israel should end its offensive in Rafah. It is fair to say that these decisions did not result in a response of moral accounting for the war or collective soul-searching, but rather added fuel to the extremely widely held sentiment that the world, a priori, stands against Israel, regardless of Israeli actions, and is in constant search for opportunity to find fault and weaken Israeli standing.

This does not mean there are no critical Israelis. Many people want Netanyahu, a politician known for corruption and gauche decadence, behind bars. There are also a small, but I believe growing community of those who oppose the assault on Gaza, but who are still skeptical of the idea of “international law,” which is often seen to be differentially applied and also frequently performative. Despite my own pacifism and opposition to the Zionist dispossession of Palestine, my research points to similar skepticism towards these bastions of the international order. In his book, Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant advocated universal governance to guarantee world peace, transforming Pauline universalism into a political philosophy in which the political, legal/juridical, moral, and religious cosmopolitanisms work together in harmony. Anthropologists and others have repeatedly shown how international law was critical to the emergence of empire and colonial projects, in part by creating hegemonic legal frameworks and conventions resistant to decolonization. Furthermore, they tend to target figures in the global South while leaving leaders in the global North insulated by the liberal legal conventions.

I too am exasperated by Israel’s recalcitrance and indifference to the moral call to live up to its claims that above all else it values life, an attribute not currently visible in its actions. I am, like many observers, desperate for effective tools that will actually have an impact on Israeli policy when the leadership and the populace seem completely impervious to pleas or persuasion. If I thought that the ICC or the ICJ had any chance of success, I would gladly sacrifice principle for efficacy given the stakes. But I do not believe that to be the case.

Erica Weiss is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, Tel Aviv University