THR Web Features   /   April 23, 2024

Inside Out and Outside In

What Camus can teach us about the conflict between Palestine and Israel.

David Stromberg

( THR illustration/Albert Camus, Shutterstock; broken windows photograph, Christian Gafenesch via Unsplash.)

A friend said to me recently, “Wars function in different ways. They’re strategic. They’re diplomatic. But they also expose things about what was already happening before we knew it happened.” One of those things, which has become a core element of the Jewish experience both in Israel and abroad since Hamas’s attack on October 7 and Israel’s response, is the extreme gap that has grown between how Israelis, Jews, and many non-Jews, too, see this war from the inside and how it has been seen from the outside. This gap has left many Israelis confounded by what they see as the hypocrisy of the Jewish state being judged—specifically, being brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of genocide—for its response to an attack that many consider one of the most intentionally evil acts ever perpetrated on Israeli soil.

What drives outrage is the combination of human and material destruction in Gaza resulting from Israel’s campaign against the Hamas terrorist organization. Many people see Hamas as a group that is focused on the liberation of its people—the Palestinians—from the repressive realities of Israeli occupation. Seen this way, Hamas is undertaking a decolonization project, contesting foreign rule, and providing self-determination for its people. But this interpretation ignores the much longer story of the conflict between Palestine and Israel, a story that itself depends on how one understands Israeli and Jewish history as well as the history of Arabs in Palestine both during and after the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, and later the establishment of the State of Israel. But even those longer and opposing interpretations become, at moments like this one, hopelessly ideological and emotional, obscuring what should be the main concern to all sides of the debate: the dire loss of civilian life.

I keep thinking about the ICJ’s ruling, which ordered that Israel “take all measures within its power to prevent genocidal acts,” and how, in a way, despite the inescapable and perilous political dimensions of the case, it tried to balance politics with a focus on civilians—something that Albert Camus tried to do during the Algerian War in his 1956 “Appeal for a Civilian Truce in Algeria.” It’s notable that, as he presented his appeal at a Muslim cultural center in Algiers, a crowd of French Algerians outside the center was trying to push its way inside while yelling, “Hang Camus!” I wonder what about his proposal seemed so outrageous and heretical to his fellow pieds-noirs (Algerian-born French people)—and whether there is something in the text of his speech that can shed light on the situation unfolding here today.

Delivered two years into the Algerians’ eight-year struggle for independence from France, the public appeal placed Camus in the political, cultural, and historical crosshairs of what is considered a harbinger of armed revolt and liberation movements across Africa and the Middle East. The importance of the event was not lost on Camus, who by 1955 had already been criticized for seeking a path toward a negotiated agreement that would see an independent Algeria where citizens of French origin would be able to continue living. And yet—despite his caution and measured critique of Cold War ideologies—he decided to wade into this conflict for the sake of the place where he had spent his childhood and where his mother still lived.

In his characteristically understated manner, Camus begins his speech by framing it as “a purely human appeal…to accept a truce that would affect innocent civilians alone.” Camus’s aims, as he clarifies, are rooted in an attitude that’s “unable to feel joy over any death whatsoever,” even while he acknowledges that he sees the two sides “locked together only in an identical mortal rage.” And yet one immediately detects a gap, not so much in his ideas about justice, but in the assumptions of values with which he approaches both the conflict and his appeal. That gap emerges from the stark reality of death resulting from the conflict—and the idea that there’s nothing more precious than life. This assumption, it seems, is not necessarily true when people feel they are fighting for the life of their nation.

Camus is disturbed by the prospect of a prolonged period of fighting—and the inevitable suffering it will bring to Algeria’s population as a whole. He speaks of feeling “anguish before a future that closes in a little more every day; before the threat of a deteriorating conflict,” and issues one of his most widely quoted edicts: “no cause justifies the death of innocents.” It sounds so right in black and white, and yet it is so categorical that it evinces no humility in the face of reality—or any recognition of how power and politics work in real life. It ignores the fact that innocents can die not on account of a cause but in the heat of a conflict that is itself illogical and irrational. When innocents die without anyone’s immediate intent, as in the case of aerial bombings, it makes their deaths no less horrible. When they occur as a result of an ideologically inspired action, as on October 7, they are horrible in a different way. And yet, as soon as you engage with how horrors are rationalized, you are back in the political realm of the conflict rather than dealing with the unacceptability of the deaths of innocents. Any explanation for any violent action necessarily requires minimizing human considerations for the sake of one or another side of the conflict. The only way to penetrate to the human element is to try to understand the illogic and irrationality of the conflict itself.

In his defense of civilians, Camus called “absurd” the very fact that he had “to ask merely…for a handful of innocent victims to be spared.” This word choice had special significance in his case. Years earlier, in The Myth of Sisyphus—published in the midst of World War II—he had given the term “absurd” its modern significance: The conditions he witnessed had made clear that the universe was indifferent and the human search for meaning was futile. This led him to what he called the only “really serious philosophical problem”—suicide—in the face of what he called an absurd reality. He concluded that, even in the face of absurd reality, “suicide is not legitimate,” and that “it is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will.” Life was worth more than logic, meaning, or even justice, and it was better to remain alive than to deny reality as unfit for ideal human existence. But in 1956, when he again used the word “absurd,” things had changed. World War II had ended, and the absurdity of life continued, but perhaps it wasn’t the same absurdity he had identified over a decade earlier. He was using a concept that no longer reflected the world around him. There was something else happening that he could not yet name. It might appear to be irrational or illogical, but it was not absurd. It was, in fact, methodical, even chillingly rational. So Camus’s double-bind—the specificity of his time and place in history and the lag between his thinking and the pace at which reality unfolds—began to reveal itself.

I found more gaps in his thinking as I continued to read: “Throughout history men, unable to suppress war itself, have concentrated on limiting its effects.” Yet his conception of war had little to do with the kind of conflict that was developing during the Algerian War, which deployed tactics of urban warfare later used in other conflicts. The aim of those fighting against French rule in Algeria was precisely to encourage and fuel further war—just as Hamas is doing in the current conflict—regardless of whether anyone felt this was the right or best way to achieve independence. Camus elsewhere noted that in the two world wars, “aid and solidarity organizations did nevertheless manage to pierce the darkness.” Yet that was a partial truth at best, since he knew that the millions of Jews held in the ghettos before being sent to extermination camps never benefited from the interventions of such organizations.

It’s not that I don’t understand or even share his concern for saving lives on the ground. It’s that his approach, doomed to failure from the beginning, reveals more about him—and the fault lines of being human at times of historical crisis and upheaval—than it does to provide a roadmap for actual humanitarian action.

The main reveal comes when Camus refers to “two Algerian populations”—French and Arab—which exposes him as someone with split feelings of belonging. Camus sees himself as both French and Algerian, belonging both to the land of his birth and to a colonizing society. Here, Camus’s example so clearly helps us understand more clearly the current war being fought between Israel and Hamas. It’s where Camus’s double-bind opens onto our own need to develop a new sort of double-consciousness.

A fundamental reason for the gap between how the world sees the war in Gaza and Israel and how Israelis see it is how Jews are perceived in what they call the Land of Israel. For Palestinians, Jews are a colonial power. They came from abroad, they took power in a series of violent conquests, and they oppress the indigenous people, like the Ottomans for centuries and like the British after World War I. From the Jewish perspective, Jews are themselves indigenous to the region and belong to the world’s first decolonization project: a people returning to its land of origin and demanding self-determination. The fact that some of the first Jews who returned were influenced by European colonial thinking, using its language to frame their efforts, doesn’t change the fact that Jews were never a sovereign power representing an existing collective entity in another part of the world. Without adopting the old antisemitic trope of Jews being a global cabal, it’s difficult to claim that Jews belong to the colonial project of any single empire or nation.

This brings us back to Camus. The novel that gained him recognition, The Stranger, appearing in 1942 alongside The Myth of Sisyphus, was also translated as The Outsider, a title that plays precisely on such doubling. Meursault, the main character and a settler in French Algeria who kills an Arab man, is seen by colonialist society as an insider and the man he kills is seen as an outsider. The opposite is true from the other direction, with the indigenous population seeing the Arab man as being on the inside and Meursault on the outside. This inherent mirroring in the novel made it possible for Algerian writer Kamel Daoud to flip the perspective and publish his own novel, The Meursault Investigation, seventy years later, telling the same tale from the Arab man’s viewpoint and, in the process, giving him a name: Musa. But this flipping is itself already present in this original novel. There’s a sense in The Stranger that Meursault is himself aware of being an outsider—that he knows the man he killed was on the inside looking out, whereas he, the murderer, has always been on the outside looking in. Even as early as 1942, in the middle of World War II, history was ejecting Camus from the only place he had ever called home.

A few months after the book was published, during a trip to the country mountains of southern France to convalesce from tuberculosis, he found himself exiled from Algeria, to which his wife had returned just weeks earlier, after the Allied landing in North Africa. Stuck in France, he moved to Paris, joined the Resistance, and became editor of Combat, one of the newspapers published clandestinely. In an article appearing a few weeks before the liberation of Paris, he wrote, “From this moment on there are only two parties in France: the France that has always been and those who shall soon be annihilated for attempting to annihilate it.” These words were written by someone who hadn’t set foot in France until 1937—when he was twenty-three. He had always been a stranger in the land of his birth, and his real homeland had been on the other side of the Mediterranean all along. His core identity was French first, and he identified with its history and fate. Algeria was part of that history. But it wasn’t France itself.

This doubling both inside and outside of Camus left him vulnerable to those who emphasize ideology over human experience. Olivier Gloag has published a book in French, Forgetting Camus, which, in one reviewer’s words, “portrays Camus as a colonialist writer.” There’s nothing new in the critique—Camus was blamed for his position on Algeria while he was still alive—but it returns just as the world faces increasing ideological debates that are quickly turning into political struggles and violent conflicts. Camus wanted to stop—or at least limit—the effects of violence. But he could not turn his back, at least in his heart, on the place where his mother still lived. “I have loved with passion this land in which I was born,” he wrote in his appeal, “I cannot resign myself to seeing it become for a long while the land of misfortune and hatred.” You can almost hear the response: It’s not for you to decide. Your birth in this land gives you no rights to its destiny.

The example of Camus and his relationship to Algeria and France reflects and refracts some of the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—though perhaps not in the ways that some people would hope. Reflecting on the main thrust of his appeal, which is that both sides accept a civilian truce so that Algeria’s two populations can negotiate a way of living together, Camus warned: “what will happen if this initiative should fail…is final divorce.” The irony of this naively voiced sentiment is that it expresses precisely what the National Liberation Front sought. Such a divorce, he continues, would mean that the French Algerians will “be sent back to the only living community which gives them legitimacy—that is, to France.” And this is where the difference between past decolonizing conflicts and the war being fought between Israel and Hamas today becomes clearest. No single living community in the world gives Jews legitimacy as a sovereign, independent people other than Israel.

In 2004, legendary Israeli author Amos Oz published a short booklet, Help Us to Divorce, calling on Europe “to help both sides, because both are on the verge of making the most painful decision of their history”—the implication being that peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine were on the horizon but that the two nations needed both incentives and reassurances to make the kinds of concessions needed to reach a final status agreement. It appeared in English just months after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government approved a disengagement from Gaza. This move was supposed to be the first step in the painful divorce that would finally begin the process of bringing peace to Jews and Arabs in the region. It didn’t work.

Oz had promoted his idea of divorce for decades—he first mentioned it in a New York Times interview in 1991—and, in a January 2019 memorial in The New Yorker, published just weeks after his death, Bernard Avishai explained that Oz “meant something quite radical by it: that the two peoples should get more or less entirely out of each other’s lives.” I know that Oz imagined such a divorce might allow each side to remain more or less where they were—splitting their home into two separate apartments. But Camus’s reflections on divorce suggested a different scenario, in which one group leaves the house altogether—which is usually the more likely result of a real divorce. This, in turn, makes me wonder whether it’s the conception itself that’s wrong. It’s possible that what Israelis and Palestinians need is not a divorce but a marriage. It doesn’t have to be a marriage born of love. It can be, for all intents and purposes, a marriage of convenience.

Camus’s “Appeal for a Civilian Truce” failed miserably—at least for those who read Camus politically. From a human perspective, however, it achieved something important: It laid out the contours of those values that guided the writer himself. People, he lamented, “accept too easily the idea that blood alone moves history forward, that the stronger then progresses due to the other’s weakness.” Netanyahu follows this rule, as he stated openly in Italy in March 2023. Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza who masterminded and implemented the October 7 attacks, seems to agree. They may be fighting on opposite sides of the war. But they are fighting under the same assumptions.

Blood may indeed move history, argued Camus, but “the task of people is not to accept it, nor to submit to its laws”—our task is to prove that it’s not the only force driving history. People, he insisted, had “neither to desert historic struggles nor to serve what is cruel and inhuman in them.” Rather than spill blood in order to achieve historical changes, he argued, people had “to survive in them, to help people in them against what oppresses them, to encourage their freedom against the fatalities that surround them.” Camus’s moral vision included a deep aversion to death—and this is the kind of vision that many people in Israel lamented was lost on October 7. They saw people condemning Israelis as a way of serving what was cruel and inhuman—unadulterated terror. Camus refers to those supporting his appeal as “people who refuse to either practice or be subjected to terror”—and this comprehensive rejection of terror only makes me lament the degree to which supporters from each side of this conflict judge only the terror to which they are subjected and not, at the same time, the terror they cause. The ICJ has put Israel on trial while knowing that Hamas will never find itself in the same position—and this, in itself, undermines the valid issues that the court case is meant to address. Everywhere, people speak out against terror. But they continue to subscribe to the assumption that history is driven by blood alone.

Those who judge Camus for his sentiments toward the place of his birth, or his belief that “the French of Algeria too have a right to security and dignity in our common territory,” miss altogether the utter humanity of his situation and his commitment to the human rather than the ideological or political dimensions of this thing called life. Camus is important not because his ideas were right but because he embodied an existence that was itself conflicted, caught between the vectors of history and lived experience—a human being who was always being turned outside in and inside out.