The Finkielkraut Debate: Jeff B vs. alia

While I was gone, an excellent and sustained debate occurred around my last posting, an essay by Alain Finkielkraut on the Left’s “Chosen People,” the Palestinians. Most of the comments found the article interesting and even compelling; one, Jeff B found it, or at least parts, offensive. In the process a number of commenters — Eliyahu, Lynne T., Michael B., Sophie, Cynic, Joanne, Chevalier de St. George, Abu Nudnik — tried to respond the Jeff B’s arguments. The result was an extensive discussion of a number of topics, primary among them, the question of imperialism — Zionist and Arab. I was both pleased and impressed by the level of the discussion, and thank all the participants for their patience, erudition, serious thought, and endurance. This is the kind of discusssion I’m proud to have at my blog.

I offer below some responses, largely to Jeff B, whose comments are most at variance with my own interpretations of the problem.

Finkielkraut remarks:

To today’s humanists, this definition is gratifying. For if the extermination of the Jews is perpetuated through the Jewish oppression of Palestinians, then the inveterate blamers turn out to be blameworthy themselves. And if those toward whom we behaved shamefully are now behaving shamefully themselves, then there is no more need to feel ashamed. Put differently, if the eye watching Cain is also the eye of Cain, then Cain has no more need of a bad conscience. He can rest easy. In short, the Palestinian cause has provided a humanity weary of apologizing for having abandoned six million Jews to their deaths the unhoped-for opportunity to relieve itself of the burden of repentance. The malicious indignation, the enthusiastic contempt, and the hardly surprising use of economic terminology certainly lend credence to this explanation.

To which Jeff B responds:

According to Finkelkraut, progressive condemnation of Israel revolves around guilt over the Jewish Holocaust. Perhaps. But perhaps there is another source of guilt that drives progressives, particularly progressives in former colonial powers. For centuries the European nations held a large fraction of the earth’s population in virtual serfdom, ruthlessly exploiting their resources and denying them the most basic of human rights and freedoms. Tens of millions died, hundreds of millions suffered to keep Europeans prosperous and powerful decade after decade. From Mexico to Morocco to South Africa to India to Vietnam the Europeans actively and cruelly suppressed the desire of the colonial peoples for self-determination. Perhaps a less arrogant, less self-absorbed person than Finkelkraut could look beyond his own group’s recent tragedy and see that progressives are motivated by a much older, much more universal guilt. Perhaps he would see that colonialism in the twentieth century, no matter how democratic, no matter how much the colonizers have suffered, can not be accepted.

Now I think this gets at the core of a variety of issues. Language aside (“arrogant… self-absorbed…”) Jeff’s rejection of Finkielkraut articulates the standard “progressive” justification for their hostility to Israel, the imperialist, colonialist aggressor. As a numerous comments pointed out, comparing European and Israeli “imperialism” is counter-factual to the point of absurdity. While European colonialism was indeed brutal, and led to the deaths of tens of millions of natives, sacrificed to the economic advantage of the conquerors — presumably the reason for Jeff B and others’ moral indignation — those characteristics contrast dramatically with the Zionist presence in the Middle East which occurred not through conquest followed by settlement but, on the contrary, occurred through purchase of property, reclaiming of wasteland, and led to a rapid growth of the indigenous population, a widespread rise in the economic well-being of everyone involved, and, until the declaration of war on the nascent Jewish state, neither violence nor dispossession of Jews against Arabs. Jeff responded to the critique with a reiteration of his position. (I’m sticking here with the subject of Holocaust guilt vs. anti-imperialism as a motivator for progressive support for the Palestinians.)

Guilt as a motivating force seems highly overrated in these discussions. Guilt about the Holocaust did motivate westerners to ignore their ethical qualms about Israel in the early years, but that era has ended. I don’t think guilt is much of a driving force for me or most Americans. Maybe we don’t feel guilty about slavery because our ancestors fought against it in the civil war. Maybe we don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust because our parents fought Hitler. I support civil rights for blacks because it’s the right thing to do, not to salve my concience. I support justice for Palestinians because it’s right, not because I feel guilt over the actions of the Germans 60 years ago or the discrimination Jews experienced two generations ago. I do feel guilt for wrongs done by my country in my lifetime – the wars waged to support oppressive regimes because they were strategically valuable. I am resolved to oppose such ethical compromises in the future. Many see Palestine as the last European colony, an ongoing, in-your-face exhibit of might-makes-right injustice. Attributing opposition to Israel to anti-semitism or displaced guilt and scapegoating seems merely an attempt to evade the core issue involved. It is not a productive way to understand or confront the criticisms leveled at Israel.

Jeff B’s perspective, as an American, notes one of the Eurocentric aspects of Finkielkraut’s analysis. The American left does not have the same burden of guilt as the European for what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. This is also true of the English left, whose nation was not conquered and who didn’t — as did France — hand their Jews over to the death machines (although as Eliyahu, Joanne, and Sophie comment, they did their own dirty work in the Middle East). So how can we account for the hostility of the Anglophone left to Israel? And doesn’t that seriously diminish Finkielkraut’s argument?

Let me begin an answer with an interlinear critique of Jeff B’s next comment specifically on the Finkielkraut argument:

I have said before that this thesis doesn’t hold water as an explanation for Leftist sympathy for Palestinians. The Holocaust-guilt of the WWII generation is dying with them, and certainly can’t be carried by those who opposed the Nazis from the start. If guilt, rather than justice, is the driving force for the Left, it is guilt over crimes that we have been complicit in (e.g. colonization). And if there is Holocaust-guilt, why evade it with self-delusion and ethical sleight-of-hand? Why not relieve ourselves of the “burden of repentence” by simply repenting? We did wrong, we’re sorry, we’re doing our best to make amends and keep it from happening again.

That gets to one key issue. Jeff, you seem to think that repentence is simple, with a straightforward apology and efforts not to let it happen again. Finkielkraut’s argument tries to address one of the dilemmas faced by people who should/must confront a past moral failing but prefer “a self-delusion and ethical sleight-of-hand.” It turns out that real repentence is very difficult, primarily because it means dealing not merely with the deed, but the driving forces behind the deed. It’s one thing to say, “I’m sorry I (or my parents or ancestors) abandoned/betrayed the Jews to the Nazis; it’s a much harder thing to look into why so dastardly a deed happened… what are the causes of the hatred of the Jews which, as Robert Wistrich argues, constitutes the Longest Hatred? This is especially true for Christians, whose legacy of anti-semitism and apocalyptic paranoia so profoundly informed the Nazi millennial dream. Indeed, some Christians, have engaged in a laudable and fundamental re-evaluation of their legacy of hatred.

Here I think we begin to get at why the Left — which in principle doesn’t even have to take a position of responsibility for the Holocaust since they fought the Nazis (with the exception of the Communist parties following orders from above after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) — has so much of a problem with the state of Israel. It’s not direct Holocaust guilt; it’s moral competitiveness. The progressive left — and here I think Jeff B’s comments illustrate the point nicely — consider themselves to be the moral cutting edge of the universe. Imperialism is bad, slavery is bad, oppression, robbing people of their possessions, dignity, self determination… all bad. We oppose it. And we oppose anyone we see doing that.

The problem Finkielkraut addresses, and Jeff B, as far as I can make out, has yet to do (despite repeated requests by the other participants in the discussion) is to discuss why he does not oppose Arab imperialism? And the single-mindedness with which the progressives — again Jeff B illustrates the point well — focus on Israeli imperialism/colonialism and ignore Arab imperialism/colonialism suggests that being able to heap moral opprobrium on the Jews offers far greater emotional gratification than heaping it on the Arabs. Granted, getting morally indignant about the Arabs is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s too easy. And there is a certain thrill in being able to hoist a group that pretends to represent morality on their own petard. But the racism of low expectations on the one hand, and the moral Schadenfreude of being able to say to the Jews — 2000 of oppression and no sooner do you become independent than you turn around and do it to someone else — on the other, do not explain how insistent, perverse, and self-destructive the progressive’s combination of blindness to Arab/Muslim imperialism of the most brutal sort and their corresponding obsession with every flaw of Israel’s “imperialist” deeds.

If Finkielkraut’s thesis has any application, it is to the Israelis and their supporters. Their guilt is not recalled once a year at a Holocaust service, it is hammered home daily in newspaper and TV reports around the world. Theirs is not the shared guilt of those who viewed the Nazis from afar or fought against them. It is the guilt of people who directly participate in and benefit from the subjugation of the Palestinians. Their guilt is not diluted by time, it is here and now, passed from generation to generation of settlers and conscript soldiers. Repentance is not an option for them, because it would require admitting the illegitimacy of the initial occupation of Palestine (and all its fruits), and threaten the existence of the Jewish state in its current form. It would require concessions and reparations that are unacceptable.

I guess I couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the working of Pallywood than this paragraph. Jeff B assumes that what the news reports is a) what happened, and b) happened the way the reporters have presented it. Thus the MSM daily hammering home the guilt of the Israelis is a fact. That Finkielkraut’s position problematizes such daily hammering — his allusion to the primacy of Muhammad al Durah — seems to have escaped Jeff B, who takes the news at face value, and then makes the clear, if stunning leap from that news to the only appropriate repentence that faces Israel for such guilt — a suicide it cannot embrace.

Hence, in Jeff B’s analysis, Israel is not only born in sin, it is in a state of perpetual sin by the nature of its very existence. Augustine’s “original sin” redivivus! — only, not for all mankind, just for Jews who take arms in their own defense and self-preservation. How ironic that this is precisely the Arab strategy: deligitimize Israel both with an “anti-colonial” discourse on the one hand, and a constant stream of news reports focusing on her barbaric behavior, and let the progressives of the world call for her dismantling.

For Israelis and their supporters, Finkielkraut’s logic works: “…if those toward whom we behaved shamefully are now behaving shamefully themselves, then there is no more need to feel ashamed. ” . The world has rejected the Zionist mythology of underdog idealists settling a “land without a people”. The world has rejected the notion of unending occupation to preserve the “security” of a nation with tanks, planes and nuclear weapons facing gangs armed with rocks and rifles. A new justification for Israeli actions must be created, and the only basis it can have is the wrongdoing of the Palestinians (or Muslims in general). Catalog their crimes and let the “… malicious indignation, the enthusiastic contempt …” sweep away the guilt.

This sounds a great deal like the language of Jostein Gaarder. “The world has…” It reminds me of the classic comment, “can the whole world be wrong and the Jews be right?” that Ahad Ha’am cited in 1892 in reference to the blood libel (where the whole world agreed to attack the Jews because they were ritually killing Christian children), and that Kofi Anan echoed unconsciously when he referred to the claims and counter-claims around the Jenin “Massacre” by saying, “can the whole world be wrong and Israel be right?” The layers of misunderstanding of the conflict and its nature involved in this “Israeli-Goliath vs. Palestinian-David” formulation are too lengthy to unpack here. I’ve tried in many places, as have others.

What strikes me as particularly problematic in Jeff B’s remarks here concern his assumption that this “take” of his (and “the world”) is that it’s really not up for question. It’s the proper, factually and morally correct take. The real problem, of course, is that if it’s not correct, the consequences may be devastating for those who think they’re doing some good in the world. If the “endless occupation” of which the world wearies is not the product of “successful” Israeli imperialism but of frustrated Arab imperialism, then attacking the Israelis in order to end it may well be a disastrous move. Jeff B, do you have the intellectual modesty to consider that possibility?

I’m very leery of psychoanalyzing from afar to attribute motive. I not sure what motivates my own feelings and actions, so how can I presume to understand those of others? But if there is a ring of truth to Finkielkraut’s thesis, it resonates far more strongly with the the detractors of the Palestinians than with their supporters.

Nice illustration of the way in which we can turn things upside down and inside out, depending on what paradigm we operate from. Jeff B operates from the PCP — the Israelis are the cuplable imperialists — and has no difficulty turning Finkielkraut’s HJP perspective — the Israelis are defending themselves from genocidal hatreds — against itself. What motivates Jeff’s feelings? He doesn’t know for sure and I won’t psychoanalyze him. But what I will repeat is: however aesthetically, morally, and exegetically pleasing it may be to reinterpret as he does, and as hermeneutically sealed as his reinterpretation might be (look at all the unavailing efforts of the the other participants in the debate), if Jeff is wrong, and he and the world operate from that approach, the consequences may be devastating not just for the Jews and the Palestinians, but everyone.

I already expressed some of this in a comment from Guilin (#64), suggesting that Jeff B — whose analysis struck me as pervaded with projections of his own attitudes onto the Palestinians — read my paradigm analysis. He responded as follows:

I have read the section in which you define the nominal western anti-Zionist paradigm (PCP**) and the nominal Palestinian/Muslim paradigm (HJP) (and find flaws). Where is the pro-Zionist paradigm defined? It’s impossible to compare/contrast the available paradigms without it.

I don’t understand. If one insists on interpreting paradigms (which are supposed to be about how one analyzes data, not about which side one takes), as pro- or anti- something (which may be an inevitable part of political or social paradigms), then the pro-Zionist paradigm is HJP, not so much in that it argues in favor of Zionism, but insofar as it lays the responsibility for the perdurance of the conflict at the feet of Islamic imperialism and Arab honor culture. According to the PCP, successful Israeli colonialism and aggression represent the core problem, and matters will be successfully resolved by getting them to back off. In the other — HJP — frustrated Palestinian/Arab/Muslim imperialism lies as the core of the problem, and not only will any concession to their “grievances” fuel the problem, but until that imperialism is addressed — and should be by the “Left” above all — the problem will not be solved in any viable or just manner. We’re concerned with paradigmatic analysis: what is the source of motion? Do we follow Aristotle’s approach, or Galileo’s? Idem, planetary motion — Ptolomey’s or Copernicus’? And you as a scientist should understand more than most that if you misidentify the nature of the forces at work, you will not successfully devise techniques for harnassing or directing those forces. If you want to solve the problem, you have to understand the causes correctly. There’s no “pro-Zionist” paradigm that needs elaboration as far as I can make out. Have I misunderstood you?

I avoid projecting my own sensibilities, or pretending to know what other’s motivations are. My moral universe is very simple. I make judgments based on what I would do in the same situation.

That is precisely what I mean about projecting your own sensibilities. Your denial defines the problem. You make judgments based on what you would do in the same situation. So when you look at the response of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine during the first half of the 20th century, you think in terms of how you (a liberal in an advanced civil society) would feel. As you wrote in comment #38:

“you are clearly of the opinion that the rancour is about the loss of a homeland.” [Lynne T. #37]
Isn’t that enough? If I take your wallet, should I wonder that you are angry at me? Would it make sense to insist that you hate me because I’m Christian? Would it make sense to insist that you must be anti-Christian because I’ve offered to give half your money back and you won’t accept?

In addition to the astoundingly simplistic analogy — Palestine for a wallet — with all its accompanying misconceptions — the Arab inhabitants “owned” the land the way we “own” our wallets, this statement illustrates precisely the problem. This conflict is immensely complex; the situation for the inhabitants in 1900 bears no relationship to a “homeland.” The claims of both sides have validity in terms of any system of values, whether it be the local “might makes right” or the liberal “oppression is bad, freedom is good.” Compromise in good faith is the obvious way to go, yet a self-styled liberal/progressive like Jeff B, using a crude and inaccurate analogy, dismisses “sharing the land” as an obviously bad-faith move by a crook.

On the contrary, the insolubility of the conflict — worse than any inherited from WW II even though among the less bloody — demands explanation. For you, Jeff B, that insolubility is quite simple and based on a projection of your own instincts fitted into a misleading analogy: you took what was rightfully mine; I am understandably angry with you for doing so. Any discussion of hostility coming from another (deeper) place — religiously motivated, for example — is swept away, again with an extension of the analogy replacing Christian for Jew. Again, can you have the intellectual flexibility to consider the following: the rights and wrongs here are not simple; the grievances of the Palestinians may be way out of proportion to the wrongs done them (especially by Israel as opposed to the wrongs done by the Arabs); the depths of their anger and irredentism of their demands may have little to do with the “stolen land” and much to do with stolen honor.

This last point is particularly understandable when one thinks of the conflict not in simplistic black and white. The reason the wallet analogy is poor is precisely because the Arab residents of the land didn’t own it in any sense the way we own our wallets. All of Jeff B’s analogies whereby he morally reasons his way into accusing the Israelis of colonialism fail here. For example, he distinguishes (comment #27) between legitimate immigration and illegitimate colonialism:

I am moving to the US with the intention of becoming a citizen, fully participating in the social, legal, educational, economic and political life of this country. We will speak arabic in our home and practice Islam, but my children will learn english and be encouraged to integrate into our new culture and society. We will use our talents and resources for the betterment of all.

Of course, the USA is a fully articulated civic polity with citizens. Palestine was a backwater of the Turkish empire with subjects. The Turkish (later British) polity was not offering “full participation” in the social, legal, educational, economic and political life of the country. This was not an option. And only when you perceive the political evolution of the country towards a civic polity as a violation of the earlier prime-divider society as somehow a violation of some sacred status can you come up with the kind of analogies we’re talking about. (By this logic, how dare the North invade the South and put an end to slavery!) The very chance Palestinians had to have their own self-determined nation appeared within the context of Zionism and its efforts. If the Jews had “integrated into the new culture” of “Palestine,” and played by the extant rules, they would have played by the zero-sum rules that made subjection of others the standard mode of interaction.

The point is that your simplistic comparison of immigration to the USA and to Palestine violates almost every canon of your progressive moral values (not to mention historical data). Palestine in 1900 was an oppressive place to live, politically, economically, and socially: hierarchies, poverty, absentee landlords, dhimma… The idea that this structure was somehow sacred and to violate it by coming in, playing by the most positive-sum rules, and gradually moving the area into a position to become a self-determining civic entity (a move the Palestinian Arabs could have made in 1947 were it not for a zero-sum authoritarian leadership) somehow constitutes robbery seems like a strange way to go. On the other hand — and here I’ll gently prod you about your scientific tendencies — if you want to simplify everything so you get a clear answer, then go for faulty, simplistic analogies.

While I’m on the subject… If I found that land I had purchased from an absentee colonial landlord was occupied by people who had lived on it for generations, would I drive them from their homes and crops? No. Would I prevent civilians who had sought refuge during war from returning to their homes? No. Would I move from a safe home in the US to a settlement that caused the daily deprivation and suffering of other human beings? No. These decisions do not depend on guilt or bias or projection – just a simple sense of decency and justice.

And if you paid the people who occupied the land for it and did not “drive them from their homes and crops… if the refugees who fled did so because they hoped that you would be wiped out by their armies so they could seize your land and their return meant that they would continue to militate for that outcome… if your settlement on the land did not cause the daily deprivation and suffering of other human beings…? Your whole “moral calculus” is based on a series of premises that a) take the Palestinian narrative as articulated by the very people who oppress the Palestinians (their own people) as honest and accurate, and b) systematically discount any Jewish narrative because having accepted the Palestinian narrative, you disqualify the Jews as colonists. Are you afraid of complexity? Do you need to reduce everything to simple morality plays?

I think you have the politically-correct part ass-backwards. There is virtually no limit to the breadth and depth to which it is admissible to defame Muslims in current discourse. Every form of opprobrium is acceptable, and the norm is to take the words or actions of a few individuals and impute them every Muslim on the planet. Rather than take up space with examples, just take any pejorative phrase or statement from your site, replace Palestinian/Arab/Muslim with Jew, and count the nanoseconds until Abe Foxman is screaming for your head. In contrast, the range of discourse permissible to the critic of Israel is greatly, and inappropriately, constrained.

This statement, as a number of commentators noted, flies in the face of all the evidence, and perhaps more than any of your many remarks, suggests that you have swallowed a party “line” about “Islamophobes.” Abe Foxman’s threshhold of criticism before he cries “anti-semitism” is rather high (he wouldn’t even call Mel Gibson and anti-Semite), and he doesn’t call for anyone’s “head.” Compare that with the degree to which any criticism of Islam brings cried of “Islamophobia” from CAIR and similar organizations. And compare the violence that Muslims threaten for that criticism in comparison with what Jewish organizations “threaten.” The virulence of anti-Israeli cartoons in the media is staggering, the protests all civil; anodine Muhammad cartoons, or citations from a medieval Byzantine emperor about Islam’s proclivity for violence, and you get not only threats of violence, but real violence.

You say “no limit to the breadth and depth to which it is admissible to defame Muslims in current discourse…” Are you serious? Where have you seen people compare the Palestinians to the Nazis, a comparison that people — especially on the “Left” make freely with Israel? Why do you think PBS cancelled the film “Islam vs. Islamists”? There’s a very low threshhold to what people can say in public about Islam right now.

Just to make the point more explicit in terms of the levels of criticism Jews are willing to tolerate, and the complete failure to absorb criticism among the Arabs, do a thought experiment: Jimmy Carter, the example you gave of how if you are critical of Israel you get dehumanized by the Jews, nonetheless got invited to speak at Brandeis, and did not even have to share the podium with a critic. The criticism aimed at Carter was not ad hominem, it was substantive and addressed the multiple “errors” (to be generous) that pervade his book. Now imagine any Arab or Muslim public institution (or even a group within campus) that would invite a speaker who had published criticism of the Palestinians even half as biting as Carter’s… Can you? Can you name anyone in the Arab/Muslim world as self-critical as the likes of Michael Lerner or — even more extreme — the group criticized by Rosenfeld? Can you seriously argue that criticizing Israel is harder than criticizing the Palestinians or Islam?

Jeff B reveals something of the problem with his answer to Lynne (#54):

I understand you perfectly. Ottoman landlords and the British Colonial Authorities were the rightful owners of the land, and the Europeans who bought land from them to create a Jewish state were settlers. The people who had lived on the land for generations were “squatters”, who could be “transferred” for a fee. It was outrageous that poor Jewish settlers had to pay twice because those ungrateful sandmonkeys wouldn’t abandon their crops, orchards and wells and move on!

I’m not sure you’ve understood Joanne at all, much less perfectly, but let’s go with your comment. In other words, paying both the legal owner (in a colonial, hierarchical system), the landlords, and the local occupant/worker of the land becomes, for you, “transferring for a fee.” And if the local occupant of the land, living at subsistence, constantly in danger of starvation and Bedouin raids, prisoner of a system that systematically crushes him body and soul, sees in this opportunity to sell his occupancy to Jews who, because they prize this land so, will pay him far more for his (non-legal) right than any Turk, Muslim or Arab will pay him, decides to sell and move, you consider this “being transferred”? What do you do with such a farmer who, seeing an opportunity, sells “his” land, takes the money, moves to Jaffa, sets up a business in which he works comfortably with Jews, becomes prosperous, and then gets killed by the rioters in 1936 for being a collaborationist? Is that the fault of the invading Jewish colonialists? The very sarcastic language you use betrays an ideological commitment that belies your claims to scientific “truth” seeking. This permits you to continue:

You couldn’t provide a better example of the colonial nature of the Zionist enterprise and the utter disregard of the settlers for the rights of the natives. Colonial powers have always viewed the native populations of their colonies as “wogs” or “squatters” with no rights to the land that the colonizers want to settle or modernize. Their actions have always been utterly legal and often utterly immoral.

Well isn’t that just the point: the Zionists did view the occupants of the land as natives with rights. They paid them, and you can be sure that had the “squatters” not wanted to move, the Zionists had no mechanisms with which to force them to move (e.g., the government, the recourse to raiding and violence), since that would have immediately aroused violent opposition to their presence. How does that become “utter disregard”? Somehow you manage to frame it that way, and it permits you then to take this exceptional — perhaps unique — anomaly in the history of “colonialism,” that is, non-violent, consensual immigration and cram it all — details be damned — into the simplistic paradigm that permits you to heap sarcasm on the Zionists.

In a response to Michael B you write:

In contrast to you, I am striving desperately to simplify issues, hopefully in a way that comports with the (T)truth. My thinking is broad and literal, not deep, and reduction via analogy with simpler examples is the only effective way for me to understand complex phenomena. I have to pare away issues that seem non-essential to stay focused. I posit that there were just a few critical points in time where Arabs and Jews had relative freedom of action, unconstrained by external forces or concerns for self-preservation, and I’d like to focus on those. I think those choices were largely driven by immediate concerns, so the impact of historical forces can initially be assessed from summarized accounts. I also believe the path of the conflict was already set by the mid-30’s, so detailed consideration of later events can be postponed. My calculus involves aiming for an approximate, first order solution by ignoring higher order effects. If you’re a lousy mathematician you have to hope that works, or at least gets you close enough to an answer that a real mathematician can help you.

Maybe you shouldn’t strive so desperately to simplify. Maybe the way you do comports not with the (T)truth, but with a stacked deck in which the Arabs/Palestinians are innocent victims of Zionist colonial aggression, so that your conclusions predetermine which simplifications you go for. Staying focused at all costs — including accuracy and nuance — may not be a good way to proceed. (Most modern scientific endeavor would never have occurred if the simplistic thinking that “seemed” to answer the problem — e.g., the geocentric universe — had not been contradicted by a close look at reliable data.)

So what’s going on Jeff B.? You claim to be of good faith; and you have been answered by many people who answered you with great patience and considerable respect. Yet you regurgitate some of the simplest and most inaccurate formulas of the anti-Zionist left; you reduce everything to simplistic analogies which are projections of your own liberal universe; you are impervious to efforts to nuance the moral problem (and thereby introduce any kind of calculus that might expand the range of “factors” involved). In your simple-minded anti-imperialism you cram the greatest anomaly into the procrustean bed of the hated imperial monster, and give a pass — or worse, encourage — the single most dangerous and obvious imperial threat to civil society on the world scene. Do you care that if you’re wrong, you’ll have helped the victory of everything you profess to despise?

Are you in good faith? Or are you just here to yank our chain? Do I have my first troll? Or are we trying to discuss with someone capable of absorbing and responding to evidence that challenges (cherished?) conclusions?

Next: Final Thoughts on the Discussion

25 Responses to The Finkielkraut Debate: Jeff B vs. alia

  1. Peter B says:

    Jeff B. made an assertion which has yet to be questioned: extensive unchallenged vilification of Islam.
    It is a typical tactic for the Left–we see it from political candidates from the Democratic Party– regard accurate quotation of their own words as an attack on them. This is an intellectual tactic which the jihadis excel at (consider some of the radical imams’ statements during the cartoon crisis which amounted to saying “if you say we are violent we will kill you.”) It is natural that the Left, which thinks similarly will have an affinity for radical Islam.

    It is worth noting the assymetry of faith claims to land (I am not speaking of secular Zionism, which drew on the energetic capital of Judaism, but of Judaism itself.)

    Judaism claims a limited amount of land as specified in the Bible; outside of Israel property rights follow local law.

    Christianity has largely given up territorial claims except for specific properties (eg, churches and the ground they stand on) held by religious institutions.

    Islam, in its current revival, which sees sharia as the only legitimate legal system, does not recognize as truly legitimate any property claims save those of Muslims living under sharia; dhimmis have subsidiary rights subject to their peculiar legal disabilities. Logically, that means that any property anywhere in Dar al Harb is by rights there for the taking by Muslims.

    It may be politic for Muslims to abide by local law, but if the goal is to establish sharia, the inevitable concomitant is to overturn all non-Muslim property claims.

    Finally, it is interesting how easily the often secular Left seems to adopt the sharia claim that once land is under Muslim rule it can never legitimately pass out from it. I guess that the Leftists are natural born dhimmis.

  2. Michael B says:

    “… I am striving desperately to simplify issues, hopefully in a way that comports with the (T)truth. My thinking is broad and literal, not deep, and reduction via analogy with simpler examples is the only effective way for me to understand complex phenomena.”

    As pertains to this comment and to put it in general terms, one cannot simplify prior to gaining a depth of understanding and taken in some breadth as well. To imagine otherwise is to be self-indulgent in the extreme, is to trim off what seems unappealing based upon a superficial set of comprehensions. No doubt, we all over-estimate our knowledge at times, but to imagine one can simplify prior to gaining depth is to append a methodological problem onto a epistemological problem, is to multiply or exponentiate the root problem, and to be self-blinded to it all as well.

    All this seems obvious enough, but one example, this article by Norman Podhoretz. The reason he’s able to effectively distill, emphasize salient and pivotal points via analogy and otherwise, avoid getting lost in secondary issues and detail, forward claims while providing appropriate contexts and caveats, etc. is precisely because he’s acquainted with both the depths and breadth of the issues/factors involved. And again, all this should be obvious enough, that it isn’t speaks to an educational system embued with ideology and an array of other fatuous comprehensions.

    In sum and referring back to the quoted excerpt, there’s certainly nothing wrong with “reducing” via analogy with simpler examples in order to explain complex phenomena and issues after one has come to an understanding and appreciation of those complexities. But to imagine one reduces first, prior to an understanding and appreciation of the complexities and in order to understand, is to place the cart before the horse. It’s fatuous. And again, all this should be obvious enough, but when ideological influences form the primary basis and filter for interpreting historical and contemporary events, it’s commonplace to avoid and even to be unaware of the obvious.

  3. JeffB says:


    You’ve done a much better job of distilling my thoughts than I could have. Thank you for quoting me accurately and completely, and for the thoughtful commentary.

  4. fp says:

    Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.

    It is an american tendency to oversimplify. This is part of the culture induced by a faulty educational system. The reality is that the system does not inculcate knowledge and ability to reason, but is rather based on a cookbook approach, where the burden of thinking is minimized to the max (as all generalization, there are exceptions, but it’s accurate enough for our purposes here).

    The fact of the matter is that Jeff does not have the knowledge necessary to judge the conflict, which forces him to predicate his position on familiar, simplistic ideological grounds. And being of the left persuasion, he’s looking for some oppressed, and because the palestinians claim they are oppressed, he buys their narrative and infers everything else from that.

    There is a closer to home example that could be used to demonstrate the weakness of his position: would he be willing to return the US to native indians and leave the US? After all, the indians were not just bought out, they were REALLY transferred.

  5. Jeff B says:

    “I don’t understand. If one insists on interpreting paradigms (which are supposed to be about how one analyzes data, not about which side one takes), as pro- or anti- something…

    My understanding of a paradigm is a set of postulates or presuppositions one utilizes (perhaps unconsciously) in analyzing and interpreting phenomena, as distinct from the analytical methodology or conclusions drawn. In comparing the continuum/deterministic paradigm of classical physics to the quantum/probabilistic paradigm, for example, there is certainly a difference in the the particular analytical tools used (classical vs. quantum mechanics), but the essential difference is the underlying assumptions made about how the universe works. The problem with paradigms is that if one doesn’t accept, e.g. the quantum view, then one cannot arrive at correct conclusions about certain phenomena, regardless of the accuracy of one’s knowledge or the rigor of one’s analysis. The virtue of distinguishing paradigm from the whole framework of postulates/knowledge/analyses/conclusions is that by accepting a simple shift in view one can arrive at correct conclusions without abandoning the physical and mathematical knowledge acquired over a lifetime. Well-intentioned physicists can agree to analyze data within both paradigms and see which gives results best comporting with “truth”. At best they can come to agreement, at worst they can accurately delimit points that can benefit from further research/discussion and points on which opponents respectfully agree to disagree.

    In the initial paragraphs of your “Introduction to Paradigms” piece it seemed that paradigms and their usefulness were describe essentially as above. Further into the paradigm sections the definition seemed to morph into a more complex and comprehensive “framework” including modes of analysis and a descriptive summary of the views of various political camps. While valuable, I think this construction makes communication and understanding between camps very difficult, as it requires one to abandon not just a few postulates but a whole complex of interpretations, “beliefs, values, and personal morality” in order to see things from the other point of view.

    It would be extremely useful to revisit the issue of frameworks/paradigms, and decompose them into postulates, interpretations, values, beliefs, and typical stances on various issues. There are probably subsets of postulates underlying these latter items that need to be teased out and stated explicitly. Hopefully this would lead to a situation where postulates would be clearly stated and analyzed, essential facts stated and corroborated, interpretations examined logically, complex situations “made as simple as possible, but no simpler”, points of agreement and disagreement delineated, and the bases of differences clearly understood.

  6. fp says:


    It’s not surprising that you chose to get into paradigms and not address the issues on which you’ve been taken to task. Side-stepping is a known technique to get out of inconvenient circumstances.

    Leftists are very good at that, particularly when they can throw around lots of terminology to impress.

    Back to the subject at hand, shall we?

  7. Jeff B says:

    RL 05/19/07b

    “There’s no “pro-Zionist” paradigm that needs elaboration as far as I can make out. Have I misunderstood you?

    Not sure. “Pro-Zionist paradigm” was improperly phrased. One may arrive at a pro-Zionist position from many sets of initial assumptions, including the evangelical paradigm that postulates that Israel must be reborn so it can be destroyed in Armageddon. In that sense I agree that there is no such thing as a “pro-Zionist paradigm”.

    There is a distinct “Zionist paradigm” that represents the postulates of Zionism, including an inherent right of all Jews to move to and create a Jewish state in the lands ruled by Jews in biblical times. Actually a set of related paradigms, differing in the extent of the land claimed, the necessity/timing of transfer of the native population, etc. A set Palestinian and British paradigms can similarly be laid out.

  8. Jeff B says:

    fp 05/19/07

    “There is a closer to home example that could be used to demonstrate the weakness of his position: would he be willing to return the US to native indians and leave the US?”

    That’s the $64 question. To be consistent with my principles I should be willing to do so, but I am not. I am willing to acknowledge the injustice committed, my part in them, and make amends/reparations.

  9. fp says:

    you are milder to yourself than to the israelis, which is what i would expect. and the native indians don’t send suicide bombers to your public areas.

    what you propose is exactly what israel has proposed ever since 1948 EVEN THOUGH THE REFUGEES SITUATION IS NOTHING LIKE THE NATIVE INDIANS!!!! (read non-propaganda history). And the arabs have always refused. There was a long period when they would not even talk to israel. and when they did, it was an excuse to get closer to israel as a first step towards its elimination (read about arafat and oslo).

    That’s because the issue is not injustice, but rather refusal to accept the existence of israel.

    Your reply demonstrates how little you know about the subject and the typical leftist do-gooder who ignores real injustices (closer to home) and gets all worked up about fake ones.

  10. […] on he has heard and accepted as his own. I have wondered, even at the blog, about whether JeffB is a troll: is he here just to yank our chain, not reall […]

  11. Jeff B says:

    RL 05-20-07a

    “The very chance Palestinians had to have their own self-determined nation appeared within the context of Zionism and its efforts.

    Nonsense. The Arab world was under colonial control in 1917, either Ottoman or European. With one exception every one of these lands achieved independence by the 1950s, and many within a decade of the fall of Turkey. The exception, of course, was the one place, from Morocco to Iraq, where the aims of European Zionists conflicted with native self-determination.

  12. Jeff B says:

    RL 05-20-07b

    Complexity is a recurring theme in the comments of most of the posters, including yours. In this view, the Zionist/Palestinian conflict cannot be understood without considering masses of cultural and historical information. I disagree.

    The conflict is complicated for Zionists in the same way that slavery or colonialism was complicated for its proponents – it’s difficult to explain away the clear injustice and inconsistency of the position. One must explain how only one of the numerous groups that have occupied and controlled this land – Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Arabs – can lay exclusive claim to the land 1800 years after that group was defeated and exiled. One must explain how people who have lived in Europe for centuries have as much or more right to live in Palestine as the people who have lived on the land for centuries. At the same time one must explain why the descendants of the Romans, who controlled the land for hundreds of years before and after the Jews were exiled, have no such rights. Then one must explain why in 1948 the homes and land of Palestinian refugees were seized, while Jewish refugees were demanding compensation for the homes and property left in Europe. One must justify driving hundreds of thousands of people into exile from the land they had lived on for centuries. One must twist the natural animosity that any human being would feel upon losing his home and land into vile racist hatred. It is indeed a difficult and complicated task.

    The other narrative is simple and transparent: strangers came from Europe in huge numbers against the will of the native population and drove out any natives who opposed them. Hostility toward the strangers is based on their actions, and would exist whether they were Jewish, Hindu, or Martian.

    “can you have the intellectual flexibility to consider the following: the rights and wrongs here are not simple; the grievances of the Palestinians may be way out of proportion to the wrongs done them … the depths of their anger and irredentism of their demands may have little to do with the “stolen land” and much to do with stolen honor.”

    Certainly, and I have held very sympathetic views toward Israel in the past. But those views just don’t hold up to historical, logical or ethical scrutiny. Can you consider that your cultural and religious traditions have taught you from childhood that one side was intrinsically right and virtuous, that only one narrative was valid? That you may have to exert considerable, perhaps extraordinary effort to be objective?

  13. fp says:

    bingo. it’s just as we thought: jeff will discard the need for knowledge and reason and will not educate himself because (a)he is trying to run away from disproving of his ideology (b) he’s lazy.

    He talks about historical, logical and ethical scrutiny which he has not done, he distracts with side issues — complexity, paradigm — he ignores evidence that contradicts his ideology, admits to inconsistency without being bothered by it, and continues to push unsubstantiated positions.

    at this point I feel like calling a spade a spade and tell jeff what he really is, but I won’t to respect RL’s request.

    he’s a dime a dozen. let’s not waste our time with this crap and provide him a platform to propagandize.

  14. fp says:


    you don’t understand: if it’s contrary to the dogma it’s “nonsense” BY DEFINITION. no evidence or reasoning is needed. it’s all a matter of “self-declarations of what is “self-evident” and whoever does not see that is a fascist zionist racist.

    quite naive of you to give jeff any attention. i understand the motive, but you’re playing poker with a dead hand.

  15. JeffB says:

    RL 05-21-07b

    A note on complexity.

    “Maybe you shouldn’t strive so desperately to simplify. …. Staying focused at all costs — including accuracy and nuance — may not be a good way to proceed. (Most modern scientific endeavor would never have occurred if the simplistic thinking that “seemed” to answer the problem — e.g., the geocentric universe — had not been contradicted by a close look at reliable data.)”

    I don’t think this analogy is used correctly. The geocentric model may have been simple, but the thinking required to understand Ptolemy’s mechanically and mathematically complex system of spheres, deferents, epicycles, and equants was not simplistic by any means. Nor was the model contradicted by the data – to the precision available in Copernicus’ time the model was quite accurate. The driving force for adopting the equally simple heliocentric paradigm was that a far more elementary set of postulates could explain the same phenomena with the same accuracy – in other words a preference for elegance and simplicity over complexity.

  16. JeffB says:

    RL 05-22-07a

    You took issue with my reply to Lynne T, who wrote:

    “… lands were purchased, either from largely absentee landlords or through the British government … At times the Jewish settlers paid not only an exhorbitant purchase price, but a second payment to move squatters from the land.”

    I interpreted this sentence to mean that someone (the same person who collected rent/evicted deadbeats) was paid to evict the squatters, and indicated the disregard of the Zionists for the native’s property rights. You interpret this to mean that payment was made to the squatters to “buy” the land from them, and that this indicates the respect of the Zionists for the occupants “as natives with rights”.

    Putting these interpreations in the form of equations gives:

    1. “a second payment to move squatters from the land.” == “a second payment to evict squatters from the land”

    2. “a second payment to move squatters from the land.” == “a second payment to the squatters to buy their land”

    I argue that the first equation makes far more sense grammatically and contextually. Why would one say “to move squatters” when one meant “to pay squatters”? Why would one call people whose rights to the land one respects and feels obligated to renumerate “squatters” in the first place?

    You go on to state:

    “They paid them, and you can be sure that had the “squatters” not wanted to move, the Zionists had no mechanisms with which to force them to move (e.g., the government, the recourse to raiding and violence), since that would have immediately aroused violent opposition to their presence.

    We’re both speculating, but I doubt there was no mechanism for evicting squatters or tenants who didn’t pay their rent. Officials and agents of the landlords didn’t just vanish when the British took over from the Turks. There were clearly effective mechanisms for orderly transfer of property (deeds, taxes, surveys, etc.), and one must presume there were equally effective mechanisms to maintain those property rights. Even if the squatters were compensated to leave the lands they had long occupied, it’s reasonable to assume that they could not afford to buy shops or new land in the seller’s market created by a large influx of Europeans willing to pay exhorbitant (by local standards) prices. And indeed, the influx of European settlers and their land acquisition did immediately arouse violent opposition among the natives.

  17. Michael B says:

    “Complexity is a recurring theme in the comments of most of the posters, including yours. In this view, the Zionist/Palestinian conflict cannot be understood without considering masses of cultural and historical information. I disagree.

    “The conflict is complicated for Zionists in the same way that slavery or colonialism was complicated for its proponents – it’s difficult to explain away the clear injustice and inconsistency of the position.” JB

    A mischaracterization, certainly so of what I’ve suggested. And in the second excerpted paragraph a simplistically stylized piece of tendentiousness.

    Complexity is not being high-lighted for its own sake, neither is it being high-lighted for the sake of pretentiousness, nor is it being high-lighted to obscure – indeed, very much to the contrary, it’s being high-lighted as a critical factor, one which will illuminate.

    “The driving force for adopting the equally simple heliocentric paradigm was that a far more elementary set of postulates could explain the same phenomena with the same accuracy – in other words a preference for elegance and simplicity over complexity.”

    Deceptive and misconceived.

    Achieving those “more elementary set of postulates” required a history and background of more complex optics and mathematics, likely other factors as well. Too, it wasn’t simply a “preference” for elegance and simplicity over complexity, the overriding preference was for achieving greater degress of truth, one that achieved greater explanatory value and effect. If that overriding preference had required more vs. less complexity (without sacrificing “elegance” btw), then more complexity would have been the result.

    I.e., the primary driving preference was for explanatory value and greater degrees of truth value, not simplicity per se.

    There is the additional fact the both Ptolemy and Copernicus regarded their respective achievements as representing hypotheses and not as positivist claims, though that begins to be more tangential to the analogy you’re attempting to apply.

    In precisely the same vein, it isn’t primarily the need to comprehend “masses of cultural and historical information,” it’s the need to comprehend critical aspects of cultural and historical information, the need to plumb to proper and representative depths, therein avoiding both shallowness as well as “too much” depth (e.g., sophistries, pretentiousness).

  18. Michael B says:

    “In precisely the same vein” in the final graph refers back to the graph immediately following the “Deceptive and misconceived” statement.

    Also, another, more contemporary example which demonstrates the fact that science is not concerned with simplicity at the expense of explanatory value is string theory. String theory appears to be waning rather than waxing, but if it had ended up having explanatory empirical value, with its eleven and twelve dimensions and other complicating factors, it’s complexities would not have been sacrificed for the sake of simplicity, to the contrary they would be maintained because of their postulated explanatory value.

  19. Michael B says:

    Also, to be clear, when I stated “deceptive and misconceived” I did not intend to imply the motive was deception.

  20. JeffB says:

    Michael B 05-29-07a

    In regard to the geocentric/heliocentric paradigm shift I basically agree with what you say. It is agreement with experiment, not simplicity or complexity that rules in the long run. But if two theories predict the same outcome with the same accuracy, the simpler one is to be preferred. The burden of proof is on the proponents of the more complex theory to show the relevance of the additional parameters (e.g. string theory).

    ‘Achieving those “more elementary set of postulates” required a history and background of more complex optics and mathematics…’

    Not in this particular case. Telescopes (Galileo) and calculus (Newton) came well after Copernicus, so no significant optical or mathematical advances were prerequisites or stimulants of the heliocentric paradigm. The two paradigms could not be clearly distinguished experimentally at the time. This really seems to be a case of an intellectual advance driven primarily by intuitive dissatisfaction with the complexity of the existing paradigm. It was not a case where experimental data caused a crisis for the existing paradigm (like the black body ‘crisis’) as RL suggested.

  21. Michael B says:

    The point is that the primary focus is upon explanatory value or truth value and simplicity, conceived in light of Ockham’s razor, is secondary.

    (The remainder is to quibble only. Yes, in terms of optics I conflated Copernicus with Galileo. Otoh, while acknowledging Ockham’s razor, complexity and simplicty can be conceived as relative terms. For example as I understand it neither Ptolemy’s nor Copernicus’s mathematics were all that simple, to the contrary, and they were further complicated by positing circular orbits, thus necessitating epicycles(?) be additionally posited as rather inelegant correctives. However, Copernicus’s theory required fewer underlying assumptions than Ptolemy’s, reflecting a different and more complete set of mathematics, thus there’s no need to invoke Newton in terms of what was being suggested. It’s also not entirely true that Copernicus regarded his theory as a mere hypothesis, but enough.)

  22. JeffB says:

    Michael B 05-31-07a

    My point is that RL’s assertions are incorrect; it was the new heliocentric paradigm that was “simplistic”, not the old, and it was parsimony, not contradiction with new data, that provided the impetus for its development and adoption.

    RL’s implication that complexity is associated with scientific correctness is also inaccurate. In their later stages many flawed theories become complex in an attempt to explain observations, for example early geocentric models trying to explain retrograde motion or classical physics attempting to explain black body radiation. New paradigms generally provide a simpler and more elegant view than their predecessors. I think many scientists have a sense that complexity is a symptom of a failed paradigm, not a healthy one.

    Obviously the acceptance and adoption of a scientific paradigm occurs in the long term as a result of experimental verification. But the impetus for the initial development and use of new paradigms is often subjective. The basic problem facing early astronomers was the retrograde motion of the planets, i.e. a periodic reversal of their path relative to the stars. To explain this motion in the geocentric model Ptolemy required the planets to follow very complicated “curlicue” orbits based on epicycles and other constructs. Copernicus proposed a far simpler (physically and mathematically) system in which all the planets (including earth) moved in circular orbits about the sun and retrograde motion resulted from earth’s revolution. It was not until the development of better technology (telescopes, chronometers) decades later that these paradigms could be distinguished experimentally. The primary impetus for the development and initial adoption of the Copernican system was its simplicity and elegance.

  23. Michael B says:

    Again: “The point is that the primary focus is upon explanatory value or truth value and simplicity, conceived in light of Ockham’s razor, is secondary [to explanatory value or truth value].”

    I thought you agreed but if you disagree with that then we simply disagree upon first principles and first principles cannot be argued. Parsimony (Ockham’s razor) is certainly important, but explanatory value and truth value are more important still.

    In terms of the remainder we risk quibbling still, but I disagree with several of your characterizations and presumptions. For example when characterizing someone’s conclusions you might first quote them such that continuity of thought – cogency – is better rendered, though that is one example only. Too, one of the primary motivating factors for Copernicus remained an aesthetic factor, hence his retention of circular (“perfect”) orbits and epicycles, such is reflective of intuition’s part more broadly in forming working hypotheses.

    I’m done here.

  24. Richard Landes says:

    to jeff b
    let’s try putting it slightly differently.
    complex (not complicated) thinking is necessary to think seriously about reality.
    the heliocentric paradigm was, above all, counter-intuitive — it defied the “common sense” of looking into the sky and observing how everything revolved around the earth.
    similarly, you look at the Palestinians, and make common sense assumptions that help you understand their behavior, lock into a paradigm in which they need not either self-criticize or apologize, and then everything makes sense. simplistic, egocentric… not ockham’s razor but a procrustean bed.
    and of course once the doors or reality are closed, the only thing that makes it thru your narrow openings are more razored-off pieces of evidence.
    again, i repeat… if you’re wrong, you encourage precisely those things that your “values” abhor — imperialism, racism, oppression.
    that apparently doesn’t seem to bother you…

  25. Jeff B says:

    RL 06-01-07b

    Again, the scientific analogy is flawed**.

    How about an historical analogy/example? What historical event or process demonstrates the necessity of complex thinking for understanding and the failure of simplistic thinking?

    **the heliocentric paradigm was, above all, counter-intuitive — it defied the “common sense” of looking into the sky and observing how everything revolved around the earth.

    Observation of the sky reveals only the complex relative motion of heavenly bodies and the earth, which can be due to motion of the earth, the bodies, or both. The stationary earth-centered model was based on other considerations, including the presupposition that the stars were on a rotating sphere and the observed motion of falling bodies:

    If it is the nature of earth, as observation shows, to move from any point to the centre … it is impossible that any portion of earth should move away from the centre. … If then no portion of the earth can move from the centre, obviously still less can the earth as a whole move. … Its shape must necessarily be spherical.
    Aristotle, On the Heavens, Book II, ch. 14,

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