Sunday, December 28, 2008

Illegitimate "pro-Israel" arguments: a compendium

As Israel has again been the focus of criticism for killing innocent people, there has been the usual outpouring of bad logic, accusations of anti-Semitism, and misleading or outright dishonest claims. I decided to come up with a list of the common tropes involved in this discussion, and some ready rebuttals.

It's long been my experience that people are most aggressive when they feel the most defensive; so, here. It's a sad fact of the debate that the aggressive hawks have co-opted the term "pro-Israel"; I am, myself, on the pro-Israel side. I simply don't think that it benefits Israel practically or as an ethical nation to continue a campaign of near-constant violence and aggression, or to continue to enact harsh measures against a group of people who are the living definition of "dispossessed". I look forward to a time when "pro-Israel" is no longer code for the most savage militarism and apologetics for wanton violence, and instead comes to mean those who like me want Israel to be as safe, prosperous and moral a country as it can be.

1. Frivolous Accusations of Anti-Semitism
Accusations of anti-Semitism, of course, flow from the extremist hawks like water. Whenever Israel becomes the subject of any criticism, for any reason, in any context or discussion, from any quarter, someone will allege anti-Semitism. The thinking, I guess, is that Israel is the home of the Jews, and so criticizing Israel means you're "really" criticizing Jews, and criticizing Jews must be anti-Semitism. In America accusations of anti-Semitism are a panacea for whatever ails those who consider themselves the pro-Israel hardline; it has become their impenetrable shield. Accusations of bigotry are the nuclear bomb of American discourse. They don't merely defeat the opposition but remove them from the conversation entirely. This is a pretty neat trick, in political debate. All that principled opponents of Israeli behavior can do is point out again that Israel is a political, governmental entity, and that it must therefore be subject to criticism when appropriate. We can assert our continued support for the safety and prosperity of the Israeli people. And we can say-- all we can do is say-- that, in fact, we harbor no anti-Jewish animus.

As time has gone on, the accusations of anti-Semitism have grown more sophisticated, more sly. So people are less often simply told they must hate Jews because they criticize Israel, and more often told that they "give aid and comfort" to anti-Semites with their opinions. We are told we are "anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent". Rhetorical questions and asides abound-- "who but an anti-Semite!" There is one purpose and one effect, to silence those who would criticize Israel, with the one charge that is more powerful than any other criticism in American life: that you are a hateful bigot.

2. Appeals to Relative Morality
This is a common trope in foreign policy discussions of all types, and is often used to defend the actions of the United States, as well. In this argument, suddenly the relative merits of Israel compared to various bad actors is completely dispositive of Israel's character. So we are regaled with the fact that Israel has superior moral nature to Hamas, the Syrian regime, the Iranian theocracy, Hezbollah.... These assertions are no doubt true. They are also sublimely irrelevant to the central question: are Israel's actions in the world moral? Children on a playground know that the response "He did something worse" is no excuse for bad actions. Whether or not one country is more moral than another is no answer to the basic questions of the morality of their actions; and saying "Israel is better than Hamas" is truly damning with faint praise. Enlightened democracies are supposed to be better actors than terrorist organizations and rogue states. Being better than various bad actors, meanwhile, does nothing for the victims of aggression against civilians. The fact that Israeli victims of vile terrorism call out for justice does not silence the similar need for justice for innocent Palestinians, who, I must point out, outnumber their Israeli counterparts by several times. Only when discussing Israel could so many be convinced that murdered children somehow deserved it.

3. Conflation of Criticism of Israel with Support for Israel's Enemies
This kind of pure strawmanning happens with surprising frequency. Simple, lame assertions that moral revulsion at the widespread killing of civilians by Israel-- and, let us be clear, Israel has killed many more civilians in recent years than their enemies-- is equated with support for whatever despicable acts the other side has committed. You'd think this sort of thing would be pretty easily undone, by saying "My disgust with Israel's killing civilians is in no way support for Hamas, or their vile and inexcusable rocket attacks." But, no-- many will continue to act as though, ipso facto, criticism of Israel means support for its enemies. You know, like how criticizing the Colombian government means the same thing as supporting FARC. Or something.

4. The "Why do you only criticize Israel?" Dodge
In this bit of empty rhetoric, the fact that critics of Israel actually spend time criticizing Israel's actions demonstrates their lack of a moral compass, and is commonly used with implications of anti-Semitism: why do you criticize Israel so often? I'm not saying anything, it just makes me wonder.... This argument is ultimately connected with number 2 above. Why do we criticize Israel when there are other political agents worthy of criticism? There are several reasons.

The first thing to say is that whether or not any individual critic of Israel has the proper priorities when criticizing Israel is irrelevant to the question of the righteousness of Israeli action. The second is to say that critics of Israel do, in fact, criticize countries like Iran and groups like Hamas, and very often in the very commission of the criticism of Israel in question. Next, the United States has a relationship with Israel that makes Americans like myself investors in the Israeli cause. The billions we give in direct aid are only a part of our contribution to Israel; we also have a truly unique military and intelligence relationship with Israel. That investment means that we Americans have special responsibility to Israeli conduct. Perhaps most importantly, Israel is a robust, functioning liberal democracy. Israel can be meaningfully changed by political discourse and right dialogue. That is a condition that is sadly not shared by Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran. We argue about Israel because Israel can change, and because Israael should be the agent for positive change in the Middle East that many of its supporters claim it to be.

(Incidentally, that brings up the incoherence in the arguments of many people who support Israel. When Israel acts badly, we are told that they must, because they are in a region of violence and brutality. Yet we are also told that we must defend Israel because it is a righteous democracy in a sea of totalitarianism and theocracy. You can't argue both.)

5. Guilt by association, or by ethnicity
The saddest aspect of the conflict is the way in which it seems to invite precisely the kind of guilt-by-ethnic-association that has been used against the Jews so terribly in so many sad moments of their history. The constant refrain of those who rationalize and justify the killing of Palestinian civilians is that they are only being killed because of the actions of vile Arabs. This, of course, is logically identical to the "chickens coming home to roost" argument that excuses the murder of more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11. That argument, while horrid and empty and wrong, at least has the tiny advantage of blaming Americans for the behavior of actual other Americans. Palestinians, meanwhile, it seems will forever be blamed for the bad actions of Jordanians and Syrians and Egyptians and Saudis.... It is a sublimely sad moment when a hardliner argues, with no appreciable understanding of their own absurdity, that a Palestinian twelve year old should pay for the decisions of, say, the Egyptian government 40 years ago. To these people, there are no Jordanians, no Saudis, no Syrians or Palestinians; there are only Arabs, and for some reason, every and all Arabs are responsible for the foul deeds of any Arabs. This is, of course, the twisted and terrible logic that has been at the heart of anti-Semitism for so long.

Hamas is indeed a Palestinian organization; so what? Again, there is no difference between saying that innocent Palestinians deserve to die for the actions of Hamas and saying that Americans deserve to die for the actions of the American military. Palestinians, today, are dying, despite not being members of Hamas, never holding a rocket, never targeting an Israeli citizen, having nothing whatsoever to do with attacks on Israeli civilians. They are killed, we are told, because of and only because of the failings of other Palestinians; Israel can take no blame. This is the kind of moral calculus we have long been saying we would not participate in and would not stand for. Who among you would be soothed, if a family member or loved one was killed, if you were told merely that they have the wrong ethnicity and the wrong neighbors, and so they had it coming to them? Who would abandon moral outrage in the face of such a thing?


This is the truth: the modern state of Israel is a country that has been placed in harm's way, by the Western powers that established it in 1947. It has been pushed to the breaking point by terrorist attacks, indiscriminate killing for which there is no excuse and which must be denounced with utter clarity and stridency by all principled people. There is no defense for Hamas or their actions; the sad fact that this opinion, broadly shared by many critics of Israel, is somehow seen as contradictory to their criticism is a mark only of the rhetorical skill of those who defend Israel with no respect for right dialogue or fair argument. Israel is indeed in a perilous part of the world; Israel does indeed require defending, by the West, in both peace and prosperity. But this defense is not an excuse for immorality by Israel. There is no excuse for murdering innocent people; this is a notion that came to many of us with stunning clarity following 9/11, but which sadly seems to leave so many of us when the innocent people in question are dispossessed Arabs.

That is the condition of American foreign policy discourse following 9/11: when it is convenient for us and our preconceived foreign policy benefits, we are full of high-minded principles and utter moral infallibility. When it is not, we are a realist nation that recognizes shades of gray, and that, well, sometimes innocent blood must be spilled, and better them than us. Our morality is as long as our ambition will allow. Everything done by the United States, or by Israel, is permissible; everything done by those we consider enemies is to be condemned. Firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel is a putrid crime. Shelling Palestinian civilians is no less. What's the difference, for our purposes?

The first is that the former is condemned by all sides with full voice, including, yes, those most critical of Israel, including me. I defy you to find a mainstream voice that supports Hamas sending rockets into Israel. I defy you. Find me a writer at a mainstream magazine or major website. Find me a blogger on a magazine's masthead. Find me an American politician in national office who would breath any such support. You can't find it. Only the most pitiful and idiotic extreme, in this country, justifies Hamas's killing innocent civilians. Who, meanwhile, justifies and rationalizes the killing of innocent civilians, of innocent children, in Palestine? They are all over. Not just in the pages of Commentary or the Weekly Standard, but in Newsweek, the Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Slate, the Huffington Post. People like Rod Dreher, a respected and perfectly mainstream blogger, can riff on the slaughter of dozens or hundreds of innocent people with aplomb, without hint of apology or care. Can you imagine the response, if I were to speak of Israeli dead with such casual disdain? I can't; because unlike Rod Dreher and the Palestinians, I recognize no enemies in innocent Israelis. I don't think, actually, that the murder of innocent people is ever justified. I am not in the business of excusing casual slaughter. I'm not one to talk of chickens coming home to roost.

This is the Israeli discussion in American mainstream media. One side speaks cautiously, quietly, with constant provisos and caveats. That side takes pains to distance themselves from the enemies of Israel, makes no bones about their moral condemnation of the terrible actions of Hamas and Hezbollah. One side takes all necessary care in discussing with nuance, with discrimination. The other unapologetically and openly justifies the killing of people they admit are innocent. And yet it is the latter group who is the mainstream, the latter group who holds the benefit of the conventional wisdom, the latter group who demands apology and retreat from the former. It's a strange place, for our national conversation, and a sad one.

Sadder still, these same policies of aggression and overreaction actually endanger Israel and ensure that Israeli safety will be even harder to ensure. Israel has acted in accordance with the hard line for decades; it is no safer for it. An equitable and fair resolution to the Palestinian problem is the only real long-term solution for an end to these hostilities. But those who have appointed themselves the protectorate of Israel in America have at every turn insisted on preventing such a solution from happening. They are endangering Israel; they are undermining its central mission; and they are delegitimizing a righteous project: a homeland where Jews can live in safety and abundance. Despite all of their faulty arguments, we have to continue to expose them, and to disagree with them in full voice.


Anonymous said...

"But those who have appointed themselves the protectorate of Israel in America have at every turn insisted on preventing such a solution from happening."

Because there is a symbiotic relationship between AIPAC and our defense companies and our political class and none of these entities give a damn about anything but themselves.


Wellsy said...

It seems that media lets the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fade from the limelight for a few weeks before another event forces the whole situation back into our living rooms once more.

I think the events that make the news are terrible. Both sides play the victim and that is terrible. Both sides share a burden in committing horrible atrocities against the other.

But more than that, what about the things the media doesn't report on? I'd like to know about that because I think it'd open my eyes even more. What's it like to walk down the street in Israel as a Palestinian? As an Israeli? Do Israelis and Palestinians ever regularly see each other on a peaceful basis? What's it like to send your kids to school? To eat a meal? To shop for groceries? What's the water taste like and do they have abundant access? Just random things like that.

America could be an integral cog in the machine that brings peace to this war-torn territory. Or it could just maintain status quo. Does the burden rest in America's shoulders? No. Ultimately, it's up to the Palestinian and Israeli governments. Which is sad, because I'm sure this conflict may be resolved more swiftly if it were up to the Palestinian and Israeli mothers and fathers.

Anonymous said...

Always remember Einstein's definition of insanity.


E.D. Kain said...

How on earth do you follow a post that goes "I'm tired of fighting" with a post on Israel???

More later...

Freddie said...


E.D. Kain said...

I have to call a little bullshit on this piece, Freddie. There aren't merely two sides, one blustering away and one full of nuance and caveats. There are both those sides, true, but there are at least two others. There's one rather vocal group who are actually so anti-Israel as to wish their destruction altogether. There are actual anti-Semites that hate Israel, believe it or not. And there are some people whose notion of how a country ought to operate (i.e. all countries save Israel should protect themselves) is just skewed beyond comprehension.

Then, too, there are those of us who are pro-Israel but don't believe they shit gold. I, for one, believe that Israel needs to end settlement expansion; but I also believe that sometimes force is the only way to stop this endless cycle of reprisal and half-measures.

In any case, do you suppose there is a better way to handle 70 rockets a day? I imagine there is no way to peace save a brokering of two states, but how will the moderates ever gain the political capital to stop settlement expansion if Hamas keeps bombing Israel? Can you imagine who would be in charge here, basically permanently, if the same were happening to us?

The bloody hawks, the hardest of hard-liners. That's what terror does. And it breeds this stupid cycle.

Obviously one can be critical of Israel and Islamic radicalism at the same time. But what's the point of the critique unless it actually helps address the problem?

I think what you also miss in your post is this idea that Israel has acted in accordance with the "hard-line" for decades. True, to some extent, but then again, it was Likud that withdrew from Gaza--and for what? I just don't see anything constructive in your post, save for a criticism of pro-Israel arguments, and a generalization of those arguments as though none had, at any time, for any occasion, any merit.

Freddie said...

One of my near-constant frustrations in blogging is when people assert that no one is making an argument that I am countering when, in fact, I hear that argument all the time. I think it's just a function of the fact that different people don't read as many blogs or engage in as many arguments as I do on this issue. I would read Glenn Greenwald for another person who knows very well what I'm talking about. In the piece, he links to a write up for the American Prospect by Matt Yglesias that demonstrates that Yglesias has many of my same complaints. Or you can just read the piece linked to by me from Rod Dreher, or, well, read your own argument. You can disagree with my opinion or anyone elses, but I am incredibly tired of people asserting to me that "no one is making X argument" when, in fact, I encounter said argument over and over again.

Simple question for you, ED: if another country shelled Americans and killed hundreds of people that country admitted were innocent-- say, in the commission of fighting the war on drugs-- do you think you would say, "Hey, how else are they going to fight it?" No, I don't imagine you would. There is a very, very basic calculus that goes on here: a Palestinian life is simply worth less, to many, many people, than an Israeli life, and so any "collateral damage" that kills dozens of Palestinians is fine, but killing far smaller numbers of innocent Israelis is beyond the pale. The truth is, it's wrong to kill innocent people, period. Now you can disagree with that as idealism, but you can't disagree with it inconsistently, so that it's cool when one side does it and not when another does it. And if your only support for that discrepancy is the canard of intentionality, you can find my thoughts on that here:

Freddie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Freddie said...

I imagine there is no way to peace save a brokering of two states, but how will the moderates ever gain the political capital to stop settlement expansion if Hamas keeps bombing Israel?

How can the moderates in Palestine take over, if Israel keeps killing hundreds of civilians?

Should a 5 year old Palestinian girl be responsible for that? And does that responsibility, forced on her, carry a death sentence? That's what you're arguing, if you are indeed justifying these attacks. To be clear, that's the mainstream position; most people believe collateral damage is a sad but necessary aspect of war. And, indeed, the same argument cuts against the Palestinians-- even if I thought military aggression against Israel by the Palestinians was wise, beneficial or justified (and I think none of these things), I wouldn't allow it to justify killing innocent Israelis. That's, I know, an idealists take. But I can't stomach the moral consequences of collateral damage otherwise; I think it's as stark a question as I put it above.

The Palestinians need to stop rocketing. But I simply don't believe that a) Israel is trying as desperately to avoid civilian casualties as some are claiming; air power is always incredibly destructive to civilians, and b) that there is no other options for going in and rooting out the rockets. What is particularly depressing is that this is, by all lights, partly a political maneuver, a show of force not just to the Palestinians but to Israeli voters. Which makes it worse.

I haven't got many good solutions, ED, and I don't mean to minimize the heartache or very real grievance of the Israelis. My best solution is actually an international consensus opinion: a real, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with real self-determination.

E.D. Kain said...

Well, Freddie...I don't mean to say that you aren't addressing a very real problem in the pro-Israel camp or that people aren't actually making these arguments--they are, certainly --and in your follow up piece I see what you're saying about the mainstream conversation, and I plan on writing up a post about that very soon.

Of course you encounter these hard-liner, strawmen arguments all the time. Then again, I think it is the actual extremists, coupled with the reality of terrorism, however much in the minority they may be that make this such a hard conversation to have. I mean the extremists on both sides. The mainstream conversation is muddied by the very real anti-Semites on the one side, and the uber-hawks on the other. Normal people with legitimate criticism of Israel are unfairly associated with the cranks, and then people like me who are certainly pro-Israel (in that I believe they should exist) have to walk on thin ice both when defending Israel and when wagging the proverbial finger at it.

I also understand the problem with asymmetrical response--but I'm not sure how one responds at all to terrorist attacks... There isn't really symmetry in combating such tactics (I suppose firing back rockets quid pro quo into Gaza might be, but that's just silly) which is why the entire notion of a "war on terror" is such utter, inexcusable nonsense, and why this debate is so difficult.

I agree that much more can be done by Israel to avoid killing civilians--and we should expect that out of Israel since we obviously can't expect that out of Hamas--and you're also right that this sort of operation will only embolden Hamas further, and give less credence to the moderates...but then again, withdrawing from Gaza only emboldened Hamas and weakened the moderates, so what the hell will work?

Not half-measures, either militarily or politically I think. Israel needs to show force, but they can do so with less "shock and awe" and more simple consistency--and Israel needs to stop the settlements, not merely in Gaza, but the West Bank also.

Dave Hunter said...

"I imagine there is no way to peace save a brokering of two states, but how will the moderates ever gain the political capital to stop settlement expansion if Hamas keeps bombing Israel?"

Maybe one way for that to happen would be if American journalists, who are not subjected to rocket attacks (though neither, of course, are most Israelis) would bring up settlement expansion when this conflict was in the news.

Then, perhaps, the American people, who are also not subject to rocket attacks, might start vocally objecting to the gigantic aid packages that we give Israel.

E.D. Kain said...

Actually aid packages to Israel aren't nearly as huge as people let on. Aid to Egypt and Jordan combined is proportionate to aid to Israel. But yes, American journalists should discuss the settlement question. Absolutely.

Freddie said...

Actually aid packages to Israel aren't nearly as huge as people let on. Aid to Egypt and Jordan combined is proportionate to aid to Israel.

True, but a little misleading-- our military interoperability, espionage sharing and diplomatic backing of Israel makes the relationship between our two countries unique, although it would be correct to point out that part of this is because countries like Canada don't need military and diplomatic strengthening from America the same way Israel does.

E.D. Kain said...

Good point. Also, the intelligence we get from Israel is often as valuable to us as any intelligence we share with them. Now, whether we ought to be so in need of ME intelligence is another question. It could be argued that a more non-interventionist policy in that region would render much of that shared intelligence unnecessary...

Dave Hunter said...

"Actually aid packages to Israel aren't nearly as huge as people let on. Aid to Egypt and Jordan combined is proportionate to aid to Israel. But yes, American journalists should discuss the settlement question."

Yes, E.D., but our aid to Egypt and Jordan is contingent on their attitude toward Israel.

I don't think it's all that relevant, anyway. American aid enables Israeli aggression in this conflict. If it's your contention that Israelis cannot, by and large, be expected to act responsibly while they are subject to attack, then even more responsibility falls to Americans, who are safe.

The American media has failed to live up to this responsibility. You seem to agree with this point. So why are you quibbling with Freddie's post? I'm not even sure what your argument is, since Freddie's post is about the mainstream media, and your objections focus on the fringes of the debate.

If you agree that the American media is abandoning its responsibility to Israel by shying away from critical objections, than that agreement should be your priority. Your most public reaction to this post should be full-throated support.

Then your niggling objection that there are "four sides" to the argument wouldn't need to be voiced, as it instead would be embodied.

E.D. Kain said...

American aid to those countries creates stability. There were a number of wars in the region prior to this relatively stable period, thanks in large part to that aid, which allows Egypt and Jordan to not simply adopt "attitudes" toward Israel, but actually refrain from making war on them. Aid to Israel does not enable "aggression" either. I'm sorry, but this is a tit-for-tat fight at this point, and you can hardly call reaction to terrorism "aggression."

Why do I "quibble" with Freddie's post? Largely because I think it adds to the factional nature of the debate. It's similar to a post on the "Illegitimate pro-Palestine arguments" which does as little good.

That's my quibble. I've already expressed where I agree, and I think it's perfectly natural to agree on some points and disagree on others...

Roque Nuevo said...

Dave Hunter says, "our aid to Egypt and Jordan is contingent on their attitude toward Israel."

Yes, Dave, that's true. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel. Do you disagree that this should be a "contingency" for aid? Why do you see some nefarious motive here?

Roque Nuevo said...

Freddie says, "Firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel is a putrid crime. Shelling Palestinian civilians is no less. What's the difference, for our purposes?"

What are our purposes, Freddie? This just isn't at all clear in your post, which is a hodge-podge of opinion and cherry-picked facts.

But here's the difference for the purposes of any fair theory of just war: Israel is acting in self-defense. They target military assets, not civilians. They are not "shelling Palestinian citizens" in the same way that Hamas is. They target military assets and civilians are inevitably killed and injured because Hamas uses civilians as human shields. Using human shields is a war crime. Where's your outrage over that? Israel uses its technology and skill in part to avoid killing and injuring civilians. How does this fit into your moral calculus?

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