Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2011

Existential Threat

Filed under: language,middle east — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

There are 2244 articles in LexisNexis that contain both “existential threat” and “Israel”. The first time that this combination occurred was not surprisingly in a Jerusalem Post article dated March 7, 1989 with reporter Jay Rothman stating:

LET US IMAGINE, instead, that an adequate definition about the underlying causes of the Taba conflict had been derived, privately and beyond the fray of high politics (perhaps in a hidden “peace suite” at the Taba Sonesta). During such pre-negotiations, a diagnosis would be made of the existential threat a dishonourable “retreat” from Taba represented to Israelis.

So what was this “Taba conflict” that posed an existential threat to Israel? Was Taba a PLO-controlled city in the West Bank that was launching missiles at Tel Aviv? Actually it had something to do with a topless beach that had become a problem between Israel and Egypt according to Time Magazine:

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat promised his countrymen that “every inch” of Egyptian territory seized by the Israelis in 1967 would eventually be recovered, but when the Israelis withdrew from the rest of the Sinai in April 1982 under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, they held on to Taba. The coastal strip, five miles southwest of the Israeli town of Eilat, already boasted a Tahitian-style resort village, complete with topless beach, which had been built by a businessman with a 98-year lease from the Israeli government. Seven months later, in November 1982, another entrepreneur completed a 326-room, $20 million hotel at Taba. The builder, Eli Papouchado, knew that ownership of the land was disputed, but says he went ahead with government approval. Israel bases its claim to Taba on a 1906 Turkish map that delineated the border between Egypt and Palestine, which was then a province of the Ottoman empire. According to that document, the line ran close to three palm trees that still exist. The Egyptian counterclaim hinges on a 1915 map drawn up by British military surveyors, including T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. This map places the border on a hilltop more than half a mile east of the 1906 line — and, as it turns out, in or near the present hotel.

So if Israel could view this squalid dispute over real estate in terms of an “existential threat”, you can imagine how it would view Hamas’s empty bombast.

All in all, this business about an “existential threat” is just a new formulation for what I used to hear all the time when I joined the SWP in 1967. Back then it was stated in terms of the Arabs wanting to “drive Israel into the sea”.

One of the earliest references to driving Israel into the sea was a NY Times op-ed piece dated September 8, 1957 where Syria is described as having such a goal. By the mid-60s, it had become such a stock phrase that Nixon decided to use it in a September 9, 1968 speech. Not surprisingly, he joined it to an appeal to supply Israel with Phantom jets in a pattern that has been repeated for the past 50 years at least.

If Nixon was capable of such bald-faced demagogy, it is not surprising that the current occupant of the White House who shares many of his predecessor’s worst traits (a desire for secrecy, lawlessness, deference to corporate America) takes pretty much the same tack using the buzzwords “existential threat”:

In a 2009 interview with Newsweek occasioned by the last visit of Netanyahu to Washington, the president opined:

I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They’re right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.

I find the use of the term “existential” quite troubling. Perhaps I would feel less revulsion if the bourgeois media used the term “threat to Israel’s existence”. By putting it this way, more people would realize how absurd such a claim was. Here is Israel raining phosphorus bombs on Gaza while claiming that the occasional rocket attack on Israel that usually lands harmlessly is the real threat to its existence. One wonders if Israel has been studying the propaganda system of Nazi Germany. In trying to justify his brutal expansion into the Sudetenland, Hitler claimed that he was simply defending Germany from an “existential threat”. Unless the Sudetenland came under Nazi control, the Germans were in danger of being driven into the sea.

Beyond the politics, I cringe every time I hear the term “existential” which for me—a philosophy major who took his Sartre quite seriously—has a completely different meaning from the one that Zionist apologists intend. Existential referred to the living reality of humanity that defied categorization or essentializing. It was a term that overlapped to some extent with Marxism in so far as it understood that being preceded ideas. It was not surprising that some of the principal exponents of existentialism were leftists, such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

Coming out of the mouths of an AIPAC official, the term “existential threat” has a particularly sleazy character. Not only does it mask the reality of Middle East politics, it also robs the word of its benign meaning.

I will leave you with a Boston Globe article that sees this verbal sleight-of-hand in comical terms. (It found the use of “existential threat” five years prior to its combination with “Israel”, for what it is worth.) I get the joke but that doesn’t assuage my feelings of disgust with how it came about:

Existentially speaking

By Jan Freeman  |  February 4, 2007

“THIS IS AN existential conflict,” Dick Cheney told Fox News on Jan. 14, describing the war on terror as a fight the West must win. The following week, in an interview with Newsweek, the vice president used the phrase again: “It’s an existential conflict.” And his daughter Liz spread the word in a Washington Post op-ed: “America faces an existential threat.”

Existential isn’t just a Cheney buzzword, though. Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, called bioterrorism “the greatest existential threat we have in the world” in a 2005 commencement address. Tony Blair assured Britons in 2004 that “the global threat…is real and existential.” Condoleezza Rice warned of the “existential threat” in 2002.

And what is this existential of which they speak? “They’re using the word in a straightforward way to mean ‘our existence is at stake,”‘ e-mailed Christopher Shea, my fellow Ideas writer, last week. “But is that what you think of when you hear existential?” No, it’s not. Like him, I think of Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist’s couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe. But that can’t be what the Bush people mean by existential, even if the president did read Camus on his summer vacation.

No, they’re harking back to the existential coined centuries ago — an adjective meaning merely “pertaining to existence” — and putting it to use in what looks like shorthand for “a threat to our very existence.”

This existential formulation doesn’t show up in the Nexis news database till 1984. But once it’s launched, there are “existential threats” all over the place: to Palestinians, Jordan, the Soviet empire, all humankind, and most of all to Israel.

These are generally just “threats to the existence of,” as William Safire’s gloss in a 2001 commentary, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes clear: “Suicide hijackers and bombers do not pose what is coolly called an existential threat to — that is, a danger to the very existence of — the United States….Terror-sponsoring states use these human missiles to implant that debilitating dread in individual American minds.”

It’s possible, of course, that the current deployers of existential believe the word can be made to imply more than those earlier uses — and Safire’s translation — suggest. Maybe they’re hoping that “existential conflict” sounds more profound and meaningful, given its philosophical associations, than “death struggle” or “fight for survival.”

But will the American people buy it? I’m doubtful. Phrases like existential conflict and existential threat may sound grave and gloomy when our leaders wield them, but nothing can protect them, in this land of free speech, from casual or jokey or ironic use. “Being born is an existential threat, because it means you’re gonna die,” noted one blogger, in response to the doomsday rhetoric. “Did existential just become a fancy word for big?” demanded another.

Our version of “existential crisis” was long ago downscaled and domesticated. Hollywood makes “existential comedies” and “existential Westerns” (aren’t they all?). Google coughs up references to “existential dance music,” an “existential Stephen King nightmare,” and an “existential opinion on why people don’t have friends.”

And in California, where a dry winter has left the famously fogbound San Joaquin Valley in the clear, the Stockton Record recently assured readers that the annual fog festival would go on nonetheless: “The absence of fog doesn’t pose an existential threat.”


  1. The knuckleheads using the phrase “existential threat” wouldn’t know an existential idea if it bit them in the ass. Somehow it’s hard to imagine Dick Cheney curled up in front of the fireplace, brandy in one hand, Merlau-Ponty in another, settling in for a nice evening’s read. Not in any case when he can shoot captive birds that can’t even fly away. Real existential thinking would terrify this crew, insisting among many other things on the primacy of accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Forty years after the fact, war criminal Kissinger still will not acknowledge responsibility for Chile; two years later, Greenspan is again calling for deregulation. Their only loyalty is to corporate America, not a set of ethical ideas.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 25, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Merleau-Ponty, please.

    Comment by steve heeren — May 25, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

  3. Well said Elliot.

    Comment by dave r — May 25, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

  4. The Zionists in fact drove many Arabs into the sea. Many of the Arabs of Jaffa fled by boat. The chutzpah of hasbara is astounding.

    Comment by David G Epstein — May 26, 2011 @ 12:14 am

  5. Epstein is right. The more you learn about the history of the Mid-East the more you realize what compound crimes Israel has not only perpetrated but also the Naziesque sophistication of their propaganda machine developed to cover it up.

    Examples of justice in this modern globalized world just don’t exist. The rare exception where justice prevails — and I cannot think of any since maybe back when Sandinista street fighters crushed Somoza’s goon squads in Managua (and look what happenned to them!) — proves the rule that there’s zero justice in this world.

    That’s a pretty pathetic conclusion on the state of the world when you consider what incredible technological forces capitalism has cultivated. I mean we sent people to the moon and back safely in 1969 on cathode ray tube technology (& probably couldn’t be repeated today despite all the digital technology) when just a generation prior such a feat would be considered unthinkable.

    Like Debs said almost a century ago (sadly little has changed politically): “Prisons are built for the poor” and what’s left of Palestein is a prison, or like Chomsky said, Palestein’s like a concentration camp where the inmates have at least the luxury of deciding whose cooking which kind of gruel for dinner that night.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 26, 2011 @ 1:19 am

  6. Existential threat: “Kids, you stop that racket, or I’ll fetch you one upside the head with BEING AND TIME.”

    On being pushed into the sea: this phrase is too convenient for the Zionists to drop, like Ahmadinejad’s threat (which he never made) to wipe Israel off the map. For the history, see William James Martin, “Who is Pushing Whom into the Sea? Ben Gurion: ‘We Must Expel the Arabs and Take Their Place,” COUNTERPUNCH, 11 March 2005, http://www.counterpunch.org/martin03112005.html.

    For an amazing novella that focuses on the Palestinians of Haifa being pushed into the sea, see Ghassan Kanafani’s RETURNING TO HAIFA, available in PALESTINE’S CHILDREN. This classic has generated some literary responses by Israeli Jews, including Sami Michael.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — May 26, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  7. Pictures of Palestinians being pushed into the sea, driven at militia gunpoint, put on trucks, etc. Also, an interesting discussion on the “Prussian geist of Israel.

    Comment by BillW — May 26, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  8. Now that Ahmadinejad is being demonized and pushed out of power and with Bin Laden dead, the high-paid PR whores have to find another bogeyman to bludgeon the moron millions with: blah, blah, existential threat…blah, blah, war on terror…

    Comment by Mazdak — May 26, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  9. Karl,

    Hi hope you are well. I just figured out how you got your name.

    I use my real name because I am not ashamed or hesitant in what I believe in.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — May 26, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

  10. John: This is my real first & middle name. I’m a red diaper baby. I was named after Marx & Engels. The first word I ever spoke according to my parents was LEN-IN.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 26, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

  11. Karl,

    Hope you are well. That is very interesting! My dad despite being a scientist and agnostic named me John because that was the disciple closest to Jesus.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — May 27, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

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