Thursday, June 03, 2010

How Not To Criticize Israel

A commentator on my previous post just left the following comment; I quote it in its entirety:
Israeli Sociopaths

no compassion
no conscience
no character
no chivalry
Now, the commentator signed him/herself "nader paul kucinich gravel mckinney," so it's possible this was meant as satire. But let's take it straight, for now.

Because this is a textbook example of a really, really bad way to criticize Israel. This is true even if your only concern is for the Palestinians -- which, of course, shouldn't be your only concern; every human being in Israel/Palestine is equally morally important, and ought to be equally valued and taken into account (which is, of course, the fundamental moral basis on which Israel's treatment of the Palestinians ought to be criticized). But even if all you care about are the Palestinians, you ought to work to convince the Israelis that they won't be victimized if the Palestinians are (as they ought to be) given their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to say nothing of a government which operates with the consent of all those it governs. Which is to say: caring about the Palestinians requires that which is morally obligatory anyway: caring about the Israelis too.

Why is this comment so bad?

Well, because one oughtn't to generalize about a people, and say bad things about a collective on the based of actions by individuals -- or, even, by popularly elected governments, although that's a harder thing to prove (although I believe it to be true, too). Let's take the first pint for now.

My commentator is clearly not referring simply to those Israelis who are, technically, sociopaths: since all sociopaths by definition have neither compassion nor conscience, the point would be utterly moot. No, my commentator is saying that Israelis in general are sociopaths who lack compassion and conscience.

Which is precisely parallel to what Israelis say about Palestinians: since some have (indisputably) committed hideous acts of terror, they must be in general sociopaths who lack compassion and conscience.

Either way, directed to either side, it's a bigoted statement which ought not to be made.

Not least because it blinds you to the good people on the other side. And not least because it can cause people on the other side to react without compassion, since lack of compassion begets lack of compassion.

To say any group lacks compassion is to demonstrate one's own lack of it.

And since this conflict will ultimately end when the stronger party -- Israel -- is convinced that they can, safely, do what they morally ought (and after they are convinced that it is, in fact, their moral duty) then we must show them that they will not themselves be stereotyped or mistreated -- which we can only do when it's true.

To say that Israelis, as a people* are bad is to hurt the cause of the Palestinians.

(The reverse is also true, although for a different reason: to say that Palestinians are, as a people, bad is to contribute to the moral denigration of Israel by lending support to their holding of untrue and immoral racist beliefs, which, by definition, is bad for the Israelis (albeit in a less practical way than generalizing about Israelis is bad for the Palestinian cause.))

So it's not only incorrect and immoral, but counterproductive and dumb.

None of this is to excuse the individual act of murder that my previous post was about. Such people should be punished for their actions... through a legal process, with due process and a presumption of innocence, and with a justice that bears in mind the context (a context which does not excuse, but which does explain) of the actions.

Precisely the way that Palestinians accused of terrorism should be treated.

And while we're on the topic of compassion, let's note that that Israeli soldier who shot an American kid of 19 years four times in the head at close range is most likely not a sociopath him-or-her-self. Oh, the soldier's probably a murderer. But murders, particularly political murders, are committed for all sorts of reasons: people are in the grip of a momentary fear, or a malevolent ideology, or are simply twisted by a history involving brutality on both sides ("I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn:/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return" as Auden put it). Murder is an evil; but it is done -- often -- f or reasons. So yes, we should insist that the murderer be brought to justice. But even that doesn't forbid the exercise of compassion.

(Which, again, is just as true for Palestinian terrorists as it is for Israeli soldiers.)

Even those who voluntarily support the system -- ideological, political and military -- which ultimately drives evil acts do so for reasons that are understandable: reasons that themselves have a systematic component and complex history. (Nor do supporters of a popular government necessarily support or intend every action it commits.) So while we should try to talk supporters of the hard-line Israeli government into a new approach, and can even (ultimately, in history) blame them for its actions, we should not dismiss them as evil people simply because they have supported an evil system -- or, rather, a government which does (some) evil things.

(And what is true for Israeli supporters of Netanyahu is true for Palestinian supporters of Hamas.)

Israeli soldiers do evil things, and the Israeli government has evil policies. Those who vote for the Israeli government supported a regime with blood on its hands. Which does not differentiate them from those who have supported the government of the United States, or the United Kingdom, or China, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia... or the Gaza strip.

None of us would want to be judged by the actions of our governments, or by the worst actions of groups to which we might belong. And none of us should be.

Which does not change the fact that all of us have a moral obligation to call injustice and evil by its name -- wherever they rear their head; and an obligation to try to change those governments which carry them out -- in particular, and above all, those governments which we are complicit in: for Americans, the American government, but also the Israeli government, given the financial and diplomatic support the U.S. gives to Israel.

So yes, let us have compassion, and conscience, and character.

A good place to start is not by generalizing about people based on the actions of groups they belong to.

Israelis. Or Palestinians. Or anyone else.

Update, Monday, June 7: To take another example, these remarks from Helen Thomas are not only disgusting and inexcusable, they are specifically harmful to those who wish to see peace in the Middle East and justice and freedom for all the residents of Israel/Palestine. The only way peace and justice will come -- whether you believe in a one (secular, democratic) state solution or a two-state solution -- is if Israelis, who are the stronger party, feel safe in acquiescing in such a solution. (If they don't, they will -- understandably -- fight to the bitter end.) They'll only feel safe if people don't say shit like that. And the best and easiest and truest way not to say shit like that is not to believe shit like that.

(And, yes, the reverse is true for Israelis who think that Palestinians should just be resettled in countries outside Palestine. All proponents of ethnic cleansing are expressing vile beliefs, and all are harming the chances of justice and peace.)

She shouldn't have said it because she oughtn't to believe it. (She oughtn't to believe because it's immoral.) That's primary. But it's also true that it's incredibly fucking counter-productive for anyone seeking justice, freedom and peace for the entire region.

Shame on Helen Thomas.

* A statement which, as phrased, also includes the 20% of Israelis who are not Jews -- who are largely themselves Palestinians.

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