I’m not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality.
My paralysis isn’t an analytical paralysis. It’s the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there’s no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.
The furious positions of many people on this issue leave me with the feeling that I should take a definitive side. Sometimes, you must stand up and be counted – or become irrelevant. But on this issue, I have yet to hear any passionate argument that is convincing. The best arguments are microarguments, winning some small points. The best writers on this issue are reflective and nuanced, avoiding becoming apologists for either side. I have entered into arguments in which I have felt myself being alternately tugged to justify the worst actions of either Israel or the Palestinians – which I don’t want to do. Neither side has clean hands – but it is also not fair to create some kind of moral equivalence. What is needed is that rarely appreciated virtue, nuance.
In that spirit, here’s a selection of reflective takes on the current situation:
By somewhat the same token, I do read in the comments section what I would regard as a disproportionate level of shock and appalledness from some quarters about Israeli activities as if this action is some kind of unprecedented outrage in human history. The real outrage is how common and banal, how unsurprising and thoroughly precedented it is.
In the history of the West, the laws of war are clear enough. You do not launch a just war if it leads to greater evils than the status quo ante. There must be a reasonable proportion between means and ends. Both sides should be able to acknowledge common human values, even as they fight over territory or ideology. And yet Hamas has never done this; has no capacity for abiding by even minimal moral norms, believes it has a moral responsibility to eradicate the Jewish state, and certainly finds the universalist and liberal moral law embedded in Western and largely Christian culture meaningless outside Islamic hegemony. Israel, for its part, is on a different moral plane than Hamas. Its internal critics write op-eds; they are not taken out and shot. But, in the face of what is, essentially, a 60 year war against enemies on all sides and within, it has long since disappeared down the self-reflecting mirrors of survivalist logic and existential panic. It looks to me like a society in danger of losing its sense of restraint to the logic of violence. It is lashing out because it feels it can do no other and senses its long-term survival at stake. Even if violence does not solve the problem and may make it worse, war can seem a better option now than disappearing passively in the next couple of decades. The stunning near-unanimity of Israelis behind the Gaza attack is proof of this. In Israel, it seems, it is always America in 2002.
I have been a very outspoken critic of Israeli policies for many years. Nevertheless, those who…go into endless diatribes to ascribe sole responsibility to Israel for the current situation are hypocritical at worst and ignorant at best. In this age of political correctness it is always sexy to support the underdog. But political correctness does not always yield wise political judgment
[digg-reddit-me]Hostilities between a small government on the border of a regional power turn into full-fledged war after the smaller power lobs a few military weapons endangering civilians and escalating the conflict into open warfare and violations of territorial sovereignty by the regional power. Both sides are generally considered responsible for increasing tensions with proactive actions in the extensive lead-up to the war. Both sides are accused of committing atrocities and killing or harming civilians during the war.
This description in broad strokes describes both the most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and August war between Russia and Georgia.
Yet those on the left have tended to favor the regional power in the case of the Russian-Georgian conflict and to oppose the regional power in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. My impression is that while a majority of those on the left have no strong opinion on these issues, seeing each as complicated and unfortunate, a very prominent minority on the left have strongly favored Russia and opposed Israel. Looking at the conflicts and the issues themselves, it’s hard for me to find a single convincing reason that is not America-centric.
The American political establishment has tended to favor Georgia – as it is a liberal democracy on the border of a major competing power. Similarly, the American political establishment has tended to favor Israel as it is a liberal democracy in the midst of a region full of autocracies (as well as for domestic political reasons.) Both countries have been considered strong allies of America and have strong military support from America.
Yet aside from these facts, the circumstances surrounding their most recent wars and their history with their neighbors are very different:
Few would dispute that Hamas is a terrorist organization with a political branch that was elected in a relatively free election. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of it’s neighboring state to exist, accusing the Israel of driving it’s people from their homes over fifty years ago in the mass migration that resulted from the 1948 war for Palestine in which nearly 950 thousand Jews were expelled from or fled neighboring Arab countries and in which 750 thousand Palestinians were pushed out of areas controlled by Israel.
The United National Movement Party is a somewhat nationalist political party elected in a free election which refused to recognize the right of nearby disputed territories to be independent or to join neighboring Russia. Many ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes in Abhkazia and South Ossetia nearly twenty years ago in ethnic hostilities. For example less than twenty years ago, nearly half of the residents of Abhkazia were ethnic Georgians. Over 80% of that population was driven out of Abhkazia or killed in ethnic hostilities in the early 1990s. After this ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and ethnic Georgians were not blameless in this – a majority of the remaining inhabitants of these two traditional parts of Georgia sought protection from an international peacekeeping force and eventually, to ally themselves with and perhaps join the Russian Federation.
Israel is the strongest single power in the region but has been attacked by many of it’s neighbors since it’s existence. It is a democracy in an autocratic region. The descendants of the former occupants of Israel’s land demand the right to return to the homeland of their parents or grandparents, and the official government of the Palestinians has often embraced suicide terrorism and attacks on civilians in order to achieve it’s goals. Israel has been granting the Palestinians some measures of autonomy but is still very wary of the security threat that exists.
Russia is a regional power with great power aspirations that has turned away from an open democracy in recent years in favor of some form of either tyranny or oligopoly. It has long supported the separatists in the disputed regions of Georgia in their bid to win independence. There has been growing concern in Russia that America’s support for Georgia was an attempt to check Russia’s regional influence. Georgia’s push to join NATO only deepened their concern – especially as Abhkazia has strategic importance to Russia due to an oil pipeline being constructed there.
So what am I missing here? Both Russia’s and Israel’s offenses hurt civilians as well as more legitimate targets. Both over-matched their opponents significantly. Both were in measure provoked (although both Georgians and Hamas believe they were the ones provoked.)
If anything, Hamas’ explicit embrace of terrorism should count against it. The fact that Israel is a democracy that faces an imminent security threat from the Palestinians – and especially Hamas, which is officially dedicated to Israel’s destruction – and has been attacked by Hamas and other Palestinian forces in the recent past would seem to partially explicate Israel’s actions, even if one considers them overreactions.
At the same time, Russia violated an international boundary when it was not facing an imminent threat. It has not been attacked by Georgia in the recent past if ever.
I think it’s probably true that most political convictions are based more on intuition than reason – but can anyone enlighten me as to a good reason to oppose Israel’s attacks on Hamas and to support Russia’s attacks on Georgia?
Tim Shipman, writing in the London Telegraph, reports on the intense foreign policy briefings being given to Sarah Palin. The crowd assigned to brief her consists exclusively of neoconservatives – as was evident in the answers she gave in the Charlie Gibson interview on Russia, Israel, and national security. Most especially was her thrice-repeated formulation about Israel’s defense: “We cannot second guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself.”
She is being groomed to be a female George W. Bush – but even Bush has realist foreign policy voices around him – from Condoleeza Rice to Colin Powell.
As one former White House official working at the American Enterprise Institute put it: “She’s a blank page.”
Think of that – “A blank page.”
They see her as the vessel which will give them influence and will keep them in power. They see her as the best agent to sell their ideas, to accomplish their goals.
“She’s a blank page.”
Lest it be called sexism, let’s remember that George W. Bush was a blank page as well – one that neoconservatives filled with their ideas as well.
And let’s remember that even the Bush administration has turned away from the neoconservative project in the past few years, embracing a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy. And understanding that Sarah Palin has become a political figure in her own right, in many ways, more influential than John McCain, and certainly someone who is seen as the Future of the Republican party. This is an individual who, when asked about the surge explained that she wasn’t really paying attention to such things. She was thrust into the spotlight having formed few opinions of the world, having thought about foreign policy very little, and being ill-informed. Those who directed our disasterous foreign policy see her as a fresh face who can sell their ideas – and as someone who has not studied the matters herself needs a tutor: “She’s a blank page.”
For a writer, there is great possibility in a blank page. As we all look to Sarah Palin – with her combative but warm personality; her shameless ability to sell her lines, to make them her own (like an actress or a car salesman); her unique cultural blend of femininity and feminism – we project onto her our dreams and fears, and it takes quite a lot to dislodge these dreams or fears once they have settled in. This is the essence of politics. It is the core of McCain strength. It is the core of the sense of possibility around Palin. It was what led voters to choose Clinton over Dole, Bush over Gore, and Bush over Kerry. Each side sought to shape the projection of the other, but the essential decision as to who would win was made in a blink. Stubborn facts only gradually affect our projections – as we can see in Bush’s gradual decline in popularity.
But William Kristol, Randy Scheunemann, and other neoconservatives have the opportunity to fill in this blank page with their own dreams and fears – to make their projections reality. “She’s a blank page,” they say, which must terrify the rest of us.
Even Obama’s supposed private moments on his world tour ended up generating positive headlines.
There was this supposedly private exchange between Obama and Conservative party leader, David Cameron, in London caught by ABC News:
“These guys just chalk your diary up,” said Cameron, referring to a packed schedule.
“Right,” Obama said. “In 15 minute increments …”
“We call it the dentist’s waiting room,” Cameron said. “You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.”
“And, well, and you start making mistakes,” Obama said, “or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel- ”
“Your feeling,” interrupted Cameron. “And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.”
And then there was the prayer note Obama placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem which was taken out by a student and published on the front page of the Israeli paper Maariv:
Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair.
Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just.
And make me an instrument of your will.
Meanwhile, after McCain make Obama’s trip more and more newsworthy by challenging him to go to Iraq and around the world, he was left in America whining about the media’s “love affair” with Obama – even as a new survey came out showing that though Obama received more coverage than McCain, a larger percentage of the stories were critical of Obama.
Despite this overwhelming media bias in favor of McCain, Obama is leading in virtually every poll. And if – as has traditionally happened – the media closes ranks with the Democrats come late October, this bodes well for Obama.
After the past seven years, would you put it past this administration?
Andrew Sullivan is on the case:
Could Bush bomb Iran before the next election and create a sense of international crisis that could cause voters to swing back to McCain? From everything we know and Bush and Cheney, the answer, surely, is yes
Bill Kristol suggested on Fox New Sunday yesterday that Bush might attack Iran if it “looks like Barack Obama is going to win.”
John Bolton, also on Fox New yesterday suggests that Israel might decide to strike Iran before a President Obama took office.
Earlier this month, Israel conducted a massive war games exercise that American sources suggest was a test for an attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
The drumbeats of war are growing louder.
[digg-reddit-me]The #2 Digg link at the moment is a lie worthy of Karl Rove: “Obama to eliminate Iran.”
Given the gap between what the article itself and the Digg description of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Karl Rove or some Republican agent trying to sow dissatisfaction with Obama now that he has the nomination in the bag.
But what is worse is that so many people are accepting the premise of the link as true without even following the link. Isn’t that just as bad as those idiots who read that Obama is a secret Muslim in an email and that:
We checked this out on ‘snopes.com‘. It is factual. Check for yourself.
Any intelligent person who follows the link finds that Snopes has declared the story “False.”
Now, from the other side of the political spectrum, someone – whether a cynic who saw no difference between Gore and Bush and sees no difference between Obama and McCain – or a Republican operative posts an extremely misleading headline for a link that – if you follow it, leads you to a very different conclusion. And the link becomes popular and lies are spread.
Some people even had time to post comments but not to follow the link!
As for the facts of what Obama said: He certainly is more pro-Israel than many would like. But he is also for talking with Iran. I have only seen excerpts of Obama’s speech – and I’m not sure the full text is posted anywhere yet – but given that Obama’s critique of McCain is that McCain is vowing to continue the Bush policy of refusing to engage in diplomacy with Iran, I’d have to imagine Obama’s remark was part of a message that went something like this – extrapolated from his previous statements:
I won’t stand here and pretend that there are many good options left in Iraq, but what’s not an option is leaving our troops in that country for the next hundred years – especially at a time when our military is overstretched, our nation is isolated, and nearly every other threat to America is being ignored.
One of those threats is the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the country that has gained the most influence and strength from the McCain-Bush foreign policy of waging war first and trying to pick up the pieces later. Iran is stronger now than it was eight years ago.
On September 11, 2001 there were vigils in Tehran as thousands of men and women crowded the streets in solidarity with the citizens of New York City and Washington, D.C. As our nation prepared to invade Afghanistan to go after the terrorists who attacked us, Iran offered us substantial assistance. As a result of these positive encounters, the Iranian leadership sent President Bush a letter offering to resolve all of the outstanding issues between our countries. The letter went unanswered.
After seven years of McCain-Bush aggression, Iran has moved away from the United States, but it’s people still maintain an affection for this country if not for our recent actions towards them. I have committed myself to engage in diplomatic relations with Iran without preconditions. I believe it is a sign of strength to sit down with our enemies rather than ignoring them. I do not pretend that this will be easy. But it is essential that we try.
We must eliminate the threat from Iran and protect the state of Israel. We must stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. The McCain-Bush policy of war and aggression is not the answer. But I must warn anyone who would test my resolve on this issue: I am not opposed to all wars; just to dumb wars, and I will not hesitate to respond forcefully if Israel’s or America’s existence is threatened.
But it’s easier just to post some sensationalist headline.
[digg-reddit-me]On April 22, 1979 a seventeen year old boy, who we will call Charlie for now, was part of a group of four men that raided a small coastal city. A policemen came across Charlie’s group as they approached their target, a large apartment building. They killed him.
Around midnight, the four men stormed the apartment building throwing grenades and firing weapons at anything that moved. In the chaos, Charlie and the one of the other men saw a woman closing the door to her apartment in a panic – they charged after her as she slammed the door shut. The woman was a young mother – with two daughters, aged two and four, and a husband. The husband helped his wife and his youngest daughter hide in a crawl space and was trying to get his older daughter to another space when Charlie broke through the door.
The police began to arrive at the apartment building as Charlie and his accomplice searched the apartment for the woman they had seen. Charlie’s accomplice kept a gun trained on the husband and his daughter as Charlie searched the apartment, shooting at random targets, hoping to scare the woman he had seen out of her hiding place. The woman, fearing her baby daughter would scream or give away their position, kept her hand tightly placed over her baby’s mouth. Knowing that they did not have much time before the police surrounded them, Charlie forced the husband and daughter down to the beach. As Charlie left, the wife noticed her daughter limp in her arms. She had accidentally smothered her to death.
The other men stood keeping watch for the police who were still searching the apartment building, as Charlie prodded the husband and his daughter towards the ocean water. Charlie shot the husband at close range in front of the daughter, and then held the man’s head under the gently breaking waves to make sure he was dead. He grabbed the four year old and threw her on a rock while raising his rifle butt to smash her head. She covered her head, screaming, “Mommy, Daddy, help me!”, thrashing about, hysterical. Charlie managed to pry the girl’s hands away from her head long enough to get in a few blows. Her cries became weak, and he kept pounding her head between the rock and his rifle butt until her skull was completely crushed.
Two of Charlie’s accomplices were killed in a shootout with the police shortly after this. Charlie and another man were captured and put on trial. Charlie was sentenced to life imprisonment. He later admitted to the murders, and expressed pride in them. In his infamy, Charlie became a celebrity. The leader of his cult claimed that this attack was justified in retaliation for a peace treaty signed between the family’s country and a country that was allied with Charlie’s.
Today, almost thirty years later, Charlie has a number of supporters, including some who maintain he is innocent, and others who insist that the murders were justified. His friends and associates are agitating for his release, insisting he be treated as a political prisoner.
I maintain that there is something deeply rotten in any state and in any society that would enable and support behavior like Charlie’s. I don’t think I am going out on a limb here. This is solid ground.
Nothing could justify what Charlie did. Absolutely nothing. If he was a psychopath, one might be able to summon some distant sympathy for his derangement. As a solider, his actions were beyond the pale.
For those reading closely, the sheer irrationality of the response to this situation probably gives away where these events took place. Charlie’s name was Samir Kuntar; he was Lebanese and belonged to the Palestine Liberation Front. His victims, Danny, Einat, and Yael Haran, were Israeli. The wife and mother was named Smadar Haran. She wrote this opinion piece in 2003 in response to a proposed deal in which Samir Kuntar, or Charlie, would be freed. The leader who called for this attack and defended it afterwards was Abu Abbas. The peace treaty the attack was responding to was the Camp David Accords in which Jimmy Carter presided over the cessation of hostilities between Egypt and Israel. Samir Kuntar recently promised to return to jihad, as he described the murders, if he was freed. The current Israeli government has apparently agreed in principle to release him in return for the bodies, or perhaps the lives, of three soldiers who were abducted by Hezbollah last year.
I remember vividly the climactic scene of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill. The novel tells the story of a racially charged case in which a young black girl is raped and beaten almost to death by two white men. The girl’s father murders the two white men. The hero of the novel, a young attorney defending the father, tells the jury in his closing remarks to close their eyes as they imagine of the rape and beating of a young girl in all of it’s disturbing and graphic details.
And then, after asking the jury to imagine each gruesome detail, he concludes: “Now, imagine that girl was white.”
Sometimes we become so focused on the politics, on the other-ness of others, on the special circumstances that we push aside our instinctive reaction. Perhaps, even, we become so desensitized that we forgot to feel anything at all. There is so much tragedy in the world; there is so much conflict. We cannot be expected to sort through it all.
Every story seems to have two sides. We assume that those committing horrific crimes have some justification. In an age where we gain most of our knowledge through the media, we often see truth as a point equidistant between the two stories competing for our attention. This is a dangerous tendency – and one that demonstrates a lack of imagination. Alternately, many become apathetic or refuse to engage in the struggle to find out the truth and make some stand. This is also dangerous.
We cannot refuse to judge the actions of our fellow beings – for all it takes for evil to succeed is for those who know better to be silent. And we cannot take this responsibility lightly. Before taking a stand, we have a moral responsibility to walk in the shoes of our fellow beings. And then we have a responsibility to take a stand.
This is often a messy business – but it is necessary.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is a thorny one – and I do not believe that there are simple answers. But it is essential when judging the issues and actions involved to see them clearly for what they are. We can and should judge what “Charlie” Kuntar did for what it was – despicable, evil murders. And we should judge the pride he takes in his actions. Finally, we must in some way incorporate the seeming widespread support for Kuntar into our view of the various groups opposing Israel.
Last of all, we should remain aware that after his actions, Kuntar was not summarily executed – but was instead given the right of a trial. He was sentenced according to a judicial procedure and not sentenced to death. He still had rights, and even married in prison. He has been able to publish opinion pieces in the Palestinian press while in prison. This says something very important about Israeli society.
There are many stories to be told on both sides of this issue. But it is important that we grapple with the hard truths rather than settling for the easy symmetry of false analogies. We must struggle to attain some understanding and then act on our best judgments.
In Israeli society, this struggle is ongoing in a way that is almost unimaginable in the mainstream American press. The Israeli newspaper Haartz has editorialized in favor of releasing Kuntar, saying, in a demonstration of just this moral struggle:
Leaders will only end war if they are convinced that their constituents demand it. They will only make peace if they are convinced that families of the living care more about the living than they do about exacting pain on the other side.
Of all the issues in the Mideast thicket, normalization of relations, determination of borders, sovereignty of holy sites, freezing of settlements, the element that receives the least world attention is that of prisoners. Yet the issue is of paramount importance to large numbers of Palestinians and Lebanese, whose families love their imprisoned sons, daughters, and fathers no less than we do ours.
The issue must be of paramount importance for us as well.
Samir Kuntar is a monster. He may never have deserved a life.
But Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser, and Eldad Regev do. So do their families.
Free the monster. Let them live.
This constant struggle is the only salve in our times to the easy answers of fundamentalisms and overcompensating confidence of certitude.
Some of my readers will be interested in his exchange, this interview of Barack Obama by Jeffrey Goldberg:
BO: My position on Hamas is indistinguishable from the position of Hillary Clinton or John McCain. I said they are a terrorist organization and I’ve repeatedly condemned them. I’ve repeatedly said, and I mean what I say: since they are a terrorist organization, we should not be dealing with them until they recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and abide by previous agreements.
JG: Were you flummoxed by it?
BO: I wasn’t flummoxed. I think what is going on there is the same reason why there are some suspicions of me in the Jewish community. Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics and especially don’t do it well on Middle East policy. We look at things as black and white, and not gray. It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, “This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,” and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security.
When I visited Ramallah, among a group of Palestinian students, one of the things that I said to those students was: “Look, I am sympathetic to you and the need for you guys to have a country that can function, but understand this: if you’re waiting for America to distance itself from Israel, you are delusional. Because my commitment, our commitment, to Israel’s security is non-negotiable.” I’ve said this in front of audiences where, if there were any doubts about my position, that’d be a place where you’d hear it.