In my effort to explain the virulent anti-Zionism of the “Left,” I suggested that it was a matter of moral envy and competitiveness, since Israel, under conditions of existential threat, behaved far more humanely towards its enemies, and more democratically towards its own people than, say, the brutal totalitarians Lenin/Stalin and Mao, who between them are responsible for over 100 million deaths of their own people. To this JeffB responded with a particularly categorical dismissal of the notion that the Israelis had ever been or are now the object of an existential threat on the part of Palestinians and other Arabs.
I quoted this comment in an subsequent post on Krauthammer’s brief history of the prelude to the Six-Day War. Jeff B’s response — that Krauthammer’s piece is “typical propaganda” — offers us an opportunity to consider the entire issue of what differences there may be between propaganda and history, one of the more significant boundaries which post-modern approaches have problematized.
I quote JeffB’s initial response to my claim that Israel was under existential threat:
What existential threat? The notion that the Arabs want to literally exterminate the Jews is a self-serving paranoid delusion unsupported by any evidence. Did Arab armies in 1948 or 1967 or any other time massacre Israelis or otherwise display any genocidal intent or action? No. Were the Jewish populations in Arab countries after 1948 ever subjected to any organized genocidal efforts? No. There were riots in which people were killed, but there were no death squads, no concentration camps, no planned or organized efforts to threaten the existence of Jews.
Now I would personally describe this as an excellent example of propaganda. Jeff, who admits that he is not particularly knowledgeable about the history of this conflict, makes a statement that is so categorical — “no… no… no… no… etc.” that in order to reflect a careful assessment of the historical material, would necessitate a great deal of research. (It’s always hard for an historian to assert categorically that nothing of the sort ever happened, since first he must go through all the evidence, but also consider the periods and places for which there is no evidence, before reaching so bold a conclusion.) In this case, Jeff has to have at least looked at the evidence put forward by historians — and neatly collected by Zionists eager to make the point — that the Arabs have indeed expressed their desire to commit genocide, and when they could, indeed carried out massacres. (A number of commentators have suggested an extensive reading list for Jeff.)
Jeff B has apparently not done anything of the sort. (Correct me please if I’m wrong.) So where did he get the “information,” and what gave him the assurance to assert it so boldly. (He could have written, “as far as I know…” or even asked the question, “what evidence…?”) But he did not. He spoke as either a seasoned historian speaking aggressively about a topic he has mastered, or as someone quoting a position 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 really interested in debate, but only in drawing us into a discussion so he can assert his anti-Zionist political credo. There were points — this post prominent among them — when I tended towards yes; but others — his recent comment on paradigms — when I felt he was really engaged in substantive discussion. So, with your permission and participation, Jeff, let me ask you some questions.
(And to the other, often excellent commenters at the site who take on Jeff, let’s leave off the name-calling. I’m not sure it helps anyone to dismiss “leftists” as a bunch of idiots, even were it true. If you want to make a point about how problematic “leftist” thinking, a highly valid point as far as I’m concerned, make it substantive. otherwise, let’s stick to the issues.)
First, who is your source for the statement above in bold/italic? Is this from your research? From a friend whose reliability you trust enough to make it openly in a forum where you are subject to serious challenge?
Second, what if it turns out you are wrong? What evidence would you accept as probative (rather than mere propaganda — see below)? What importance does this assertion of “no evidence” have for your view of the conflict?
Third, how do you decide what makes something propaganda, and what makes it “true”? You posted this categorical dismissal of assertions above in a manner that makes me strongly suspect you’ve been listening to Palestinian propagandists whose “narrative” systematically dismisses any Israeli claims that the Palestinians/Arabs bear responsibility in this conflict.
(Indeed, what makes the Palestinian narrative so striking, particularly in that it has become a favorite of many post-modernists, is that it is above all totalistic, and excludes other (e.g., Israeli) narratives in ways that not only fly in the face of the evidence, but also the post-modern imperative of abandoning “grand narratives” and listening to many narratives.)
And yet, when offered some evidence of Arab genocidal intentions, you dismiss it as “typical propaganda”:
As for Krauthammer’s text, it’s typical propoganda that conveniently ignores Israel’s misdeeds and the valid enmity they produce to wrongly portray Israel as the innocent victim of Arab malice.
I infer certain things from your response. Please correct me if my inferences err. The key element here is not the factual basis of Krauthammer’s assertions. For that you’d have to read Michael Oren’s book, Six Days of War, upon which Krauthammer based his essay. Instead, you seem to dismiss his comments as propaganda because they [are intended to] “conveniently ignore Israel’s misdeeds and the valid enmity they produce to wrongly portray Israel as the innocent victim of Arab malice.” This suggest that you identify propaganda by its effects, not its accuracy (although presumably, to call something propaganda is to assert its inaccuracy and possibly dishonesty).
But in your brief comment you make two things clear about your own thinking: 1) Israel’s misdeeds have produced legitimate Arab enmity, and 2) (therefore) the Israelis are not the innocent victims of Arab malice. Let’s call these two points your “moral conclusion” about the conflict (what I would call PCP2). Thus anything that might lead towards the conclusion that Arab hatred may not be justifiable, and that Israelis are the victims of excessive enmity cannot be admitted as historical evidence, but rather automatically becomes propaganda lest your moral position lose its grounding. So you conveniently dismiss as propaganda anything you don’t like.
I’d go one step further. The idea that to present the evidence as he did means that Krauthammer wants to present Israel as innocent (rather than, in this case, the aggressed) strikes me as a serious over-simplification. I know few Zionists who don’t agree with the statement that this is a morally complicated problem with rights and wrongs on both sides. It’s the Palestinians and Arabs who insist on their innocence, on their “legitimate” anger and hatred, on the total guilt of the Israelis. As a result, any attempt to undermine this totalistic “moral” discourse, registers as an effort to reverse it. It reminds me of people who, when criticized, say, “Oh, so it’s all my fault.” That may be a good rhetorical move, putting the critic on the defensive, but it’s above all an avoidance mechanism for facing responsibility.
Now this may strike you as a reductio ad absurdum, but then I’d argue that to summarize Krauthammer the way you did, is also a huge oversimplification. But if I’ve done you an injustice, please explain under what conditions something that challenges your moral conclusion can make it past your propaganda “radar screen.” Similarly, what kind of skeptical filters do you apply to the Palestinian position: under what conditions are you willing to consider that some of their assertions represent not historically valid assertions but propaganda designed to “conveniently ignore the Arabs’ misdeeds and the valid enmity they produce to wrongly portray the Palestinians as the innocent victim of Israeli malice.“?
I will be posting a number of pieces that address this issue of “existential threat,” (as have and will the other commenters at this site). I think this issue lies at the heart of this conflict, and I’d like to hear from you about them. But I’d also like you to reflect on what the relationship between your moral commitments/conclusions and your consideration of historical evidence, and what kind of evidence you need before you will admit something that challenges your (awfully simplistic) moral vision of this conflict.
In your comment on paradigms you write:
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.
How about trying on both paradigms rather than clinging so ferociously to one that you dismiss as propaganda whatever historical evidence contradicts it, and you accept as historical “fact” whatever the proponents from “your” side assert, however much those assertions might be historically unfounded “propaganda”?