From ashes of failure

Julia Steinberger
8 min readDec 29, 2023


In science, failure is not failing at our job: arguably, failure is our job. We make mistakes, and learn from them. We have rules about our failures: they should be new, as fast as possible, and interesting. We wake up in the morning, get to work, make a bunch of mistakes, learn about reality. It’s a sweet gig.

Some failures, however, we don’t learn from. We can’t. They are too fundamental, too hurtful, too destructive to our previous foundational understanding of reality. And when we can’t learn, we really fail. When there is no learning, there is no path forward: no work, no hope, no future. Nothingness.

That’s where I am today. The ongoing, full-throttle, full-throated genocide ongoing in Palestine is destroying me. And of course it’s not about me: it’s about the dead, the dying, the surviving, the doctors, parents, orphans, family, friends, those on/under the ground, still, the diaspora. I know that. But if I can’t learn, I can’t help. So I am using this page to try to understand why this genocide is so overwhelming, paralysing my ability to make enough sense of the world to put my energy into helping stop it. Why?

Gazan photographer Motaz Azaiza, on Day 80, Christmas day, of the Israeli genocide on Palestine.

Dreams of my father

Last night, I dreamt of my father. He died just 3 years ago, in his 99th year. He was a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, a brilliant physicist, a strong advocate for human rights (including Palestinian rights) and nuclear disarmament, fierce friend & fierce foe, irreverent & full of humour, constantly looking for dogmas to challenge. I have been thinking, these past months of relentless mass deadly violence on Palestinians, supported by almost all Western powers, that I am glad he is not alive to see it. That it would have destroyed him to see everything he believed in and fought for so thoroughly obliterated. That he would have died devastated and desperate. We were glad he lived long enough that we could tell him Trump had been voted out, even though he was already too far gone, it didn’t mean much to him any more.

I still haven’t been able to write about my father, what it was like to grow up in both his shadow and his sunlight, but, from time to time, I get to spend moments with him in my dreams. In last night’s dream, we were sitting next to each other on a stage. Someone asked us about Palestine and human rights. Even in the dream I remembered I had been “uninvited” from an event in Austria, because they didn’t want me to speak about Palestine. Only climate justice and activism. Not human rights or ongoing genocide. I looked over at my father, and he reached out, smiled and gave me one of his dreaded-beloved crushing bear hugs, and answered for and with me, that Palestinian human rights were not negotiable. Not the subject of questions. So perhaps that imaginary moment of comfort and support is giving me some courage to ask the questions I haven’t faced all of these weeks. What is this failure made of? What do I, or we, make of it?

Foundational betrayal

I hate to put things in such oversimple political terms, but in this case they are helpful to me. I think one huge problem that I don’t know how to face is that I was raised as a political liberal. This requires defining liberalism, which is a weak and slippery concept, but at its most basic, liberalism believes in the power of ideas and communication. For a family of scientists, who wanted to carry on the work of Enlightenment, where science leads to emancipatory knowledge for humanity, believing in the power of ideas is very comforting, and we didn’t question it. And right now, it’s very obvious that some of the ideas we believed to be rock solid, as strong and unshakable as the fundamental forces in physics, have crumbled overnight, with hardly a murmur.

What are these ideas? Lists are easier for me.

  1. “We learn from history, we avoid repeating past mistakes, we follow an arc of overall progress.”
    This is possibly the most devastating idea to give up on, because it means our work does not necessarily matter. We could work for our whole lives, expecting that we are somehow contributing to a greater purpose of building better human conditions, and it could all be for nothing or worse. But it’s also true that this liberal-enlightenment idea had more to do with a religious dogma than with hard-nosed understanding of reality. It required glossing over the very real mass crimes of past centuries, and the very real mass struggles for emancipation and freedom. I wrote about coming to terms with this at some level here, in “Learning from other (non-white) struggles”.
  2. “Victims of past crimes against humanity will learn from them, and share that learning, to prevent future crimes against humanity.”
    Seeing the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors (not all, of course, but some) proudly and openly engage in wholesale genocide is a crushing blow to that idea. What about the learnings and teachings of Hannah Arendt? Why did so much of the Jewish international community, including dear friends, fall lock, stock and barrel for far-right Zionism? This is something I am still coming to terms with. I have been asked to stop sharing evidence of Israeli war crimes so that I don’t incite anti-Jewish hatred. I have been asked to stop using the word “genocide” lest it lead to violence against Jews. But if we learn anything from science and history, surely it is that a full understanding of reality is the only hope of emancipation we have? Hiding crimes only insures they are repeated. The writings of Masha Gessen have been helping me think through this time, but somehow we are not there yet. How do we understand how the descendants of the victims of the gas chambers and the ghettos are now bombing cities, sniping children, running over old women with tanks, denying food, water, medicine, pain killers to a population of millions? How do we understand how effectively and ruthlessly they have organised, for decades, a ‘new’ (it’s not new) kind of nationalism and racist ideology, lobbying for the US and Western countries to follow Israel down the path of crimes against humanity, even redefining antisemitism to mean “insufficiently enthusiastic about Israeli crimes”? And how asleep were the rest of us, how ineffective, since we failed to recognise and stop them?
  3. “Human rights are one of the most beloved and recognised ideas throughout history. So many people instinctively recognise that we are stronger when we all agree on each other’s rights.”
    I honestly still believe this, fundamentally. I have stopped believing it is automatic, though. The current genocide in Gaza has showed us all, quite clearly, that human rights stop easily within people’s minds, and don’t cross the boundaries of acceptable discrimination. Islamophobic, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian prejudice are so very strong, so very prevalent in our cultures and media, that even dead children are not recognisable as our kin that we failed to save, but can take on the appearance of rightfully murdered terrorists-in-the-making. And this for people who believe themselves to be highly civilised, highly moral, highly reasonable. Of course, arguably, the title of “civilisation” is the mantle many of the worst crimes against humanity wore, the great crimes of colonisation. The “civilising” mission of death and devastation, where the educated and enlightened Westerners knew better than the ungrateful savages they were murdering what was good for those savages. Indeed, Churchill himself put it most perfectly when talking about Palestinians: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” But still. Seeing people who nominally believe in human rights, grew up aware of them and for them, so easily put them aside to advocate the ongoing mass murder of Palestinians is massively chilling. A superficial belief in human rights or justice is nothing at all, if it is possible to so easily make a category of people, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians — or trans people, like Masha Gessen themselves, for that matter — unhuman. Because then the rules don’t apply any more, so bombs away.
  4. “Communication of ideas, real information, emotion, evidence: this is enough to turn the tides of history. This is our work.”
    Should be cited without comment, just hollow laughter, but as a scientist coming from a family of scientists, this is a bedrock belief. We research, we learn, we communicate. This is our work. Why is it not enough? Why was it never enough? I already wrote about a partial coming to terms with this in terms of the climate crisis here, “A Postmortem for Survival: on science, failure, action and climate change”, but this is a whole new level. People refusing to see dead children, shrieking parents, neighbours digging desperately in the rubble, as reasons to change course? What other evidence do you need? What could appeal more strongly to emotion than the entirely preventable despair, injury and death of our fellow humans? If that primal, basic, human level of communication is insufficient, what hope can we ever have of facing any of our other major human crises, climate & biodiversity devastation, these next crucial years? What is the point of any of my work, of our work? Information without organisation is nothing. Information without struggle is nothing. So as usual, we are back to our forebears: Joe Hill, who admonished us “Don’t mourn: Organise!”, Mother Jones, who exhorted us with a bit more kindness to “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”, Peter Kropotkin who saw human emancipation in the ability to create organisations of mutual aid. And an admission of personal failure: I might be tolerable at doing research, and decent at communicating, but I am terrible at organising or even mildly putting up with organisations.

No neat ending

That’s all I have for today. I am not okay, we will never be okay. But facing failure, even in the basic bedrock of our understanding of humanity and history, is a better place to revive from our ashes than looking away. I hope, if you have read this far, that you are also inspired to revisit some of your unfounded assumptions, and think more bravely about how to come to terms with this new moment. In terms of my own failings, I will have to follow Alcoholics Anonymous, inspired by Kropotkin, and still a shining example of human Mutual Aid. So how is this for a New Year’s resolution?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over the present — that our ways of life and belief systems had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. This Power is not religious: it is the fearless examination of history and ideas, and the ability to come together in organisation of mutual aid.
  4. We committed to joining and supporting such organisations with all of the energy at our disposal, as the central mission of our lives.

PS: This text is a personal reflection, and does not in any way diminish or criticize the great work of Palestinian solidarity and resistance in Palestine and across the world, which is one of the great movements of our time, and honestly the only reason to wake up in the morning. It is about wondering what more I personally can do to join it and strengthen it effectively. Thanks for reading, and thanks for any comments.



Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American-UK ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.