Thursday, January 1, 2009

final thoughts on Gaza for now

This post is meant, for the near future, to bring my blogging about this situation in Gaza to a close; at some point, the conversation becomes about your own sizzle, not the geopolitical steak. I've said near enough what I want to say, and now like many people I am left with yet more grim moments of head-shaking and feelings of futility. There are few issues that can leave me feeling such a sense of helplessness.

I would add onto this post by Daniel Larison a simple point. I don't go around proclaiming the moral superiority of the Israeli leadership to Hamas because, as I have often repeated, I find one of our central problems in rationally discussing foreign policy the fact that we spend so much time talking about the superiority of one agent over another, we lose sight of a pretty well-agreed upon standard of moral dialogue: the notion that actions and agents have moral standing of their own, irrespective of their relative standing. I have tried to say, again and again, that Israel's actions have their own moral content, whatever the respective moral content of the actions of Hamas. Too much argument in this debate is wasted establishing the relative moral bona fides of one side or another. See, for example, Jon Chait, for a bright and principled person whose argument seems to me to be crippled by his inability to ask questions about the absolute moral standing of Israel's actions, rather than focusing on the superior morality of Israel. This is part of why I find Joe Carter's position so baffling; I thought I was arguing for the opposite of moral relativism.

Yes, if you insist on knowing, I find the actions and attitudes of Israel's leadership to be superior to those of Hamas. It's not close. How could it be? Israel is a flawed but functioning liberal democracy. It has a robust system of human rights protections, and though I would desperately like those protections to be more equitably applied to those living in the territories, they are a damn sight better than anything that Hamas would dream up if you gave them a thousand years. I do not cotton to the constantly asserted, never proven notion that the Palestinians would all choose at a moments notice to drive every Israeli into the sea; but do I believe Hamas has anything else on their mind? No, I don't. Yes, indeed, Israel's government is on a different moral plain entirely from Hamas. What, exactly, is that supposed to mean for our purposes? Why is that dispositive of anything at all? This is another moment in the weird phenomenon where those who claim to love a country most hold it to the lowest possible standards. Israel should be a vastly more moral agent in the world. I expect it to be, and I want it to be. If the most we can expect from the most vibrant and free democracy of the Middle East is "better than Hamas", then those nihilists you sometimes encounter who want to nuke the entire Middle East may have a point after all. Morality asks the most of those who are most capable of moral action; you and I have known that since our days on the playground. I expect more from Israel so I'm harder on Israel. That may not be fair. It's life.

I am sure that the accusation of naivete or idealism is applicable to my views on just warfare. All I can say in my defense is that, first, I think the unique nature of this particular debate pushes all of us into philosophical extremism. I find myself so quick to attack the killing of innocents in Palestine or Lebanon because I find the situation so strange, so daft, where so many otherwise principled people seem so quick to justify the killings of people they know to have committed no crime. In what other situation can you expect such rancor in favor of collateral damage, but in the discussion of Israel? When American troops kill innocents, as sadly happens, many argue for the necessity of the kind of combat that kills civilians. Very few, that I encounter, argue passionately for the righteousness of those killings, as they do with Israel/Palestine. Very few seem so preoccupied with absolving any responsibility whatsoever from the United States or its military. That is what people are saying, though, when they say that only Hamas is to be blamed for innocent death. I find myself reacting in such full throat against this killing not because I find the innocent dead somehow worse in Palestine than in Iraq or elsewhere, but because there are so many contrary voices concerning Israel and only Israel.

At the end of the day we must trust to the opinions of the people we argue with as they are expressed. There's a weird phenomenon whereby I or others like me post about Israel and Palestine, spending equal time or near to it decrying the insane behavior of Hamas as the counterproductive behavior of Israel; and yet our criticism is almost universally a product of the notion that we are showing unequal anger towards Israel, that we are being overly critical of Israel. I've talked already about some of the reasons I find it necessary to criticize Israel as I do. What I find underpins the criticism, rarely explicitly stated but seemingly assumed, is the idea that I don't really think what I'm saying when I condemn Hamas and their actions. To which I can only say, I do; there's little else that I can do. There is no referent for my intentions, just as there is no evidentiary way to disprove the idea that no Palestinian wants or could want anything else than to destroy Israelis. We have only the basic assumption that the Palestinians, like all people, ultimately want peace and prosperity. I have only the basic assumption of good faith behind my assertion that I want Hamas to stop firing rockets, and for the Palestinians to once and for all learn the patently fucking obvious lesson that Hamas has nothing of value to offer them.

It is on balance both an unfair thing to ask Israel to be better than her opponents and at the same time the only thing we can ask. I find that a fact of life on earth; the better you are, the more that is expected of you. Israel has enough of the conditions necessary to be the kind of nation we have imagined, in the last several hundred years, a nation could be-- peaceful, free, respectful of other people and cultures, even-handed, and strong. I want Israel to live up to that potential. Palestine is not yet there. That excuses none of their behavior, but it perhaps explains it. I look forward to a time when Palestine is ready to reject terrorism or cultural war. But it will take infrastructure, stability, freedom and a rise from poverty for it ever to be so. Israel alone can truly be partners with Palestine in that project.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why feel helpless if you aren't expected to be any help in the first place?

Damn, man, you really have taken these events as an excuse to engage in Sullivanesque moral grandstanding and gratuitous shows of your vast kindliness?

Melodrama is predictably self-serving.

Go back to the van Buren correspondences!

Phil P

Freddie said...

I am a member of a democratic polity. My country is invested in a particular country to an incredible degree, a truly unique relationship. I therefore have a responsibility to the conflicts involved in said country, particularly when my country has created the diplomatic cover that perpetuates the status quo.

I won't bother to ask, by the way, if you troll along on the blogs of people who support the assault on Gaza, and criticize them for weighing in on a situation where "they aren't expected to be any help."

Observer said...

Freddie:

This post was as complex and thoughtful as 'Collateral Damage' was simplistic. Of course, that's not to say that I'm entirely in agreement - merely that I respect the integrity of your argument here, and the plainly tortured vein in which it's offered. Anyone who approaches this conflict with smug confidence clearly isn't looking hard enough; your evident anguish seems to me an indication of deep engagement.

I take issue, though, with your division of the actors on the Gazan side of this conflict into 'the Palestinians' and Hamas. You assert that the former "ultimately want peace and prosperity," whereas the latter wishes to destroy Israel and has nothing of value to offer its own people. Isn't the reality a tad more complicated?

If it's absurd to think that every Gazan wishes nothing more than the destruction of Israel, it's naive to think that the view is confined to a few thousand active members of Hamas. A majority of Gazans voted Hamas into office, and I don't know of any credible evidence that the results of that election didn't reflect the popular will. Disgust with Fatah and gratitude for social services certainly played a role, but then, so did Hamas' militant stance. Ultimately, we all want peace and prosperity - the reason that the world has been wracked by conflict since time immemorial is that we also want other things along the way. Hamas, for example, would like to destroy the Zionist entity, and then enjoy peace.

So when you write that you "look forward to a time when Palestine is ready to reject terrorism or cultural war. But it will take infrastructure, stability, freedom and a rise from poverty for it ever to be so," I can only shake my head. You're absolutely right to hold Israel to a high standard. What if I were to write that although I look forward to a time when Israel can indulge in respecting human rights and avoiding the deaths of innocents, it will take peace, security, the respect of its neighbors for it ever to be so? You'd be justifiably outraged.

If terrorism is wrong, it's wrong even when you're poor. Even when you suffer decaying infrastructure. Moreover, as recent events have illustrated, it tends rather to worsen affairs than to improve them. It is the responsibility of the people of Gaza to support leaders who will find a way forward; nothing can excuse their embrace of a party that has led them in the wrong direction.

I expect very little of Hamas. But I expect much more from Gazans.

Dave Hunter said...

Observer:
"What if I were to write that although I look forward to a time when Israel can indulge in respecting human rights and avoiding the deaths of innocents, it will take peace, security, the respect of its neighbors for it ever to be so? You'd be justifiably outraged."

But in fact this is a common, mainstream thing to say. And when Freddie got "justifiably outraged" about that, you were a pissy anklebiter about it. So what gives?

Max said...

I invite you to keep reading about the issue, to get out there and see the good things that continue to go on here in Israel, and that will expand to the territories soon, Inshallah. I hope you'll buck the sad trend on Israel/Palestine and continue to write about it once our little country has left the headlines again.

Roque Nuevo said...

Kant--I mean Freddie:

This post is meant, for the near future, to bring my blogging about this situation in Gaza to a close;at some point, the conversation becomes about your own sizzle, not the geopolitical steak.

Thank god you finally saw the light. Keep up the good work of not blogging about Gaza or Israel/Palestine at all. It was always about "your own sizzle," i.e., your own feelings. Save that for impressing the girls at bars or whatever.

You accuse people who defend Israel of placing less value on Palestinian life without so much as a nod in the direction of evidence or reason; you pontificate about "just war" without even considering the fact that Israel is acting in legitimate self-defense or that Hamas's use of human shields places innocent lives at risk for the purpose of generating rage against Israel. You ignore the proven fact that Hamas and Palestinians in general fabricate Israeli atrocities and if not distort events to generate propaganda. There are no foreign journalists in Gaza today. Everything you know is through Palestinian sources. One would think that you'd have enough natural skepticism to at least hold off judgement until it's over, but the urge to put your moral superiority on display is overwhelming for you. This disgusts me.

You "thought you were arguing for the opposite of moral relativism" but it turns out that your argument is a showcase for it.

You "do not cotton to the constantly asserted, never proven notion that the Palestinians would all choose at a moments notice to drive every Israeli into the sea." That's great! You have come out foursquare and unequivocally against genocide! Brave and uncompromising! But this "notion" is not lacking evidence since it's in the Hamas charter. Otherwise, the majority of Palestinians support this goal, one way or another. Another way to support it is to reject the two-state solution and support the intransigent demand for the "irrestricted right of return."

You can pontificate about morality all you want to but the fact is that Israel's existence is at stake. Try to factor this into your moral calculus as you like to call it.

James said...

It is the responsibility of the people of Gaza to support leaders who will find a way forward; nothing can excuse their embrace of a party that has led them in the wrong direction.

To which all I can say is:

It is the responsibility of the people of Israel to support leaders who will find a way forward; nothing can excuse their embrace of parties that have led them in the wrong direction.

Count the dead.

James said...

Otherwise, the majority of Palestinians support this goal, one way or another. Another way to support it is to reject the two-state solution and support the intransigent demand for the "irrestricted right of return."

Continue. Carry on. Please do, I really would find nothing more satisfying that you finishing off that line of reasoning, reaching explicitly the quarry you are clearly pursuing.

Because I have a fierce suspicion that you are trying to make the case for Palestinian death not mattering that much and I'd love to be wrong.

Roque Nuevo said...

James,

To set your mind at rest, I do not advocate death and destruction for anyone, especially for Palestinians.

I do advocate their defeat, however. This does not necessarily mean a bloodbath. It just means that they have to know that Israel is there to stay and that they have to make peace. This can be accomplished in a lot of ways short of warfare, let alone genocide.

My purpose here is not to put lives in the balance and say which "matters more." This is a discussion that leads nowhere. I think that both sides are justified in using violence to achieve an independent state and not justified in exterminating the other. All four "schools of thought" are found in Israel/Palestine today. The fact that Israelis who advocate genocide, or ethnic cleansing, for the Palestinians are a small minority with little to no political power and that the equivalent side amongst the Palestinians is the majority should enter into any fair and balanced assessment of the situation. This is the meaning of the words you quoted from my post. It is also notable that this fact receives little to no attention in the media, which is supposed to be controlled by the International Jewry/Zionists/Israel/Jews.

James said...

Roque,

Glad to hear it.

Hamas has offered a decade of peace should Israel retreat to the 1967 borders. That isn't an extremist demand, it's about as much as Palestine would need to become a viable state.

Although I disagree with much of it this article outlines why that is unlikely to happen, no matter how much it needs to:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200805/israel

The Israeli Right simply do not want a Palestinian state. The very idea of it is detestable to them, and has been since they bought into the entire "There are no Palestinians save us" line and started talking about Yasser Arafat being Egyptian a lot.

It must be understood that to the hard-core Zionists, Palestine is such a grand problem that it must be deemed not to exist.

I am afraid that despite Hamas being a foul bunch it takes nationalists to make a nation. If you imagine the corrupt embezzlers of Fatah could achieve as much you clearly no less than the average Palestinian.

So there we have it: the two state solution is kept out of reach by the Israeli right. The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are no end of help to them, there is no doubt about that, but Hamas is ultimately a group which wishes for the establishment of a separate and distinct state. There is no other organisation in a fit state for pulling off so vast a feat as creating a contemporary nation-state out of the material available.

And there are severe doubts about them, but they're the best we have.

Unfortunately nasty characters are often all we have when it comes to such a nasty environment (see also: the only honest Zionists around, http://samsonblinded.com/ , being raging sociopath Machiavellians). I can't pretend to like it, but if you imagine that bombing the Gaza Strip until its inhabitants are thoroughly brutalised is going to trigger a resurgence in liberal nationalism then I would ask you for a historical precedent for that sort of a transformation.

Otherwise, the empirical data before us suggests that Hamas' grip around Gaza will only be tightened. The embittered and grieving will become further footsoldiers, rockets will continue to fly and our delightful cycle shall continue.

Israel has to do quite a lot to prevent this, but such is the burden of power.

(Incidentally, I would argue that the reason the media never covers this properly is that covering it thoroughly is a history lesson and a half. The news is a present-based environment, distortingly so.)

James said...

An expansion upon that last comment can be found here:

http://www.scriboergosum.org.uk/revamp/2088

This matter presents some severe difficulties for part of me (my internationalist) and none all for the rest (my utilitarian). I've been emphasising the latter over the former a lot lately. A firm foot forwards, I suppose, but that could do with some balancing.

individualfrog said...

"Moral relativism" just means "Anything that doesn't say We are always right and They are always wrong."