The Shifting Israel Debate, Ctd.

Jul 31 2014 @ 1:17pm

Joe Scarborough – a former Republican member of Congress who has “always been a 100 percent supporter of Israel” - turns sharply against Netanyahu’s government:

Like Chait and many other American Jews on the left, Ezra Klein, who cares about Israel “personally, rather than abstractly”, has become more pessimistic about the Jewish state:

There’s an … argument that’s made by Israel’s supporters: that people like me, who write about our disappointment with Israeli policy, are “blaming Israel first.” But it’s not about blame. If interest in geopolitics was driven by outrage and horror Israel and Palestine would spend less time on the front page. The suffering there is immense, but the death toll is dwarfed by the slaughter in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Syria. I pay unusual attention to what Israel does because, for family and cultural reasons, I am unusually invested in Israel. Focusing on Israeli policy is a byproduct of focusing on Israel itself.

For these reasons, I used to write about Israel often. It felt, even a few years ago, that peace was a live possibility, that Israel had choices — and that some of them might even turn out well. But Israel seems to have made its choice, at least for now, and the results are painful to watch. I haven’t become less pro-Israel. But I’ve become much more pessimistic about its prospects, and more confused and occasionally horrified by its policies. My sense is that’s happened to Chait, too. I notice he writes about Israel less these days, also. My sense is it’s happened to a lot of us.

I’m sorry but I find this position pretty lame. What Ezra is suggesting is that when Israel does things you cannot really countenance, the correct response is silence or avoidance, because it just gets too personal, when you have family etc. But that’s been the whole problem with the American discourse about this for a while, what Peter Beinart called “an epidemic of not watching.” American Jewish liberals have been intimidated or censored themselves into silence, which has only made matters worse. The reason is the need to somehow credentialize yourself as “pro-Israel”, and any criticism is immediately interpreted as being “anti-Israel”. That’s essentially a loyalty test that impedes reasonable debate – and is designed to. Waldman rightly encourages everyone to step out of this credentializing and posturing:

Once you stop worrying about whether you’re pro-Israel or anti-Israel, you can judge the Israeli government’s decisions, developments within Israeli society, and other questions related to the country each on their own terms.

You can also make judgments about the conflict that are freed from the necessity so many feel to continually compare the Israeli government’s actions to Hamas’ actions, or the opinions of the Israeli public to the opinions of the Palestinian public, with the only important question being which side comes out ahead. Those comparisons end up dulling your moral senses, because they encourage you to only think in relative terms.

If you’re still stuck being pro-Israel or anti-Israel, you end up asking questions like, “Which is worse: for Hamas to put rockets in a school in the hopes that Israel will bomb it and kill a bunch of kids, therefore granting Hamas a momentary PR victory; or for Israel to bomb the school anyway, knowing they’re going to kill a bunch of kids?” If you’re pro-Israel, you’ll answer that Hamas’ action is worse, while if you’re anti-Israel, you’ll answer that Israel’s action is worse. But if you’re neither, then you’ll give the only moral answer, which is: who the hell cares which is worse? They’re both wrong. Questions like that end up only being used to excuse one side’s indefensible decisions.

Which is an apt description of some of the themes in Sam Harris’ recent post. Max Fisher also despairs of such comparisons, particularly when they fuel the desire to pin blame for civilian deaths exclusively on one party to the conflict:

The argument over moral responsibility for civilian Palestinians often makes a fundamental mistake by assuming that culpability is zero-sum: that either Israel is responsible because it uses unnecessarily overwhelming force in civilian areas or Hamas is responsible because it attacks Israel from within civilian communities. This fundamentally misses the point; both sides independently bear responsibility for the degree to which their tactics lead to civilian deaths. If one side abdicates that responsibility then this does not absolve the other. Both sides, by treating moral responsibility as zero-sum, are giving themselves permission to overlook their own role in driving up the civilian casualty rate, and thus continuing the killing.

Amen. Israel is responsible for these civilian deaths, but Hamas is deeply complicit. Noah Efron considers Israel a victim, as it were, of “moral bad luck”:

The very notion of moral luck seems paradoxical, because we are used to thinking that we are only morally accountable for things that we control. But that is not quite true. Like well-meaning American whites who never questioned segregation, sometimes we end up culpable for choices we never made.

Hamas is a factory of moral bad luck. Its leaders aim to trap Israel in situations from which only bad can come, either dead Israelis or dead Palestinians or both. They began their barrage of rockets on Israel because they knew Israel would respond, killing innocent Gazans, including kids, along the way. They unleashed their evil because they knew that Israel would, in response, unleash evil of its own. …

[W]e can conclude that there is no place for righteousness in the conflict. When we fight this war, as I think we have to, we must do so with grim knowledge that every violence done to civilians, and their homes and schools, is a tragedy in which we have a hand. Equally, those who piously condemn Israel should know that, were they in our position, they could scarcely act differently than we do.

I disagree with that, for reasons I’ve articulated for quite some time on the blog. And besides, Israel and Hamas are not sold separately. As Ishaan Tharoor reminds us, before it became a security threat, Israel helped the Islamist group grow:

To a certain degree, the Islamist organization whose militant wing has rained rockets on Israel the past few weeks has the Jewish state to thank for its existence. Hamas launched in 1988 in Gaza at the time of the first intifada, or uprising, with a charter now infamous for its anti-Semitism and its refusal to accept the existence of the Israeli state. But for more than a decade prior, Israeli authorities actively enabled its rise.

At the time, Israel’s main enemy was the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, which formed the heart of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Fatah was secular and cast in the mold of other revolutionary, leftist guerrilla movements waging insurgencies elsewhere in the world during the Cold War. The PLO carried out assassinations and kidnappings and, although recognized by neighboring Arab states, was considered a terrorist organization by Israel; PLO operatives in the occupied territories faced brutal repression at the hands of the Israeli security state. Meanwhile, the activities of Islamists affiliated with Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood were allowed in the open in Gaza — a radical departure from when the Strip was administered by the secular-nationalist Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

And the beat goes on …