Several years ago I was asked to write an essay on the progressive case for Israel. The editor did not like the essay — thought it too convoluted, I think. I just ran across it, and thought I’d put it here. Comments welcome.
The Progressive Case for Israel, the Arabs, and the Global Community.
The following essay constitutes the groundwork for a discussion about globalization and fairness, with the Arab-Israeli conflict as the focus of a particular case study. It represents a progressive case that aims to benefit both Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and, in the longer run, hopefully, peoples all over the globe. It begins by making explicit progressive values and goals, and then considers how best to empower such values. Then the essay looks first at the ways in which these values play out in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and which forces on both sides of the ethnic conflict show commitment to those values. It then compares this analysis with the current Leftist consensus on the causes and possible solutions to the Middle East conflict, a contrast that suggests that current consensus actually undermines the progressive values it claims to promote. It concludes with the outline of a course of discursive actions which will hopefully lead to a progressive outcome for everyone in the Middle East and in this increasingly globalized world in which we live.
I. Progressive Values
The fundamental progressive commitment concerns the relationships between those with a hand on the technologies of power (elites) and those who labor (commoners). Put briefly, we might sum it up as the belief that elites should make the bounties of nature and culture available to all, commoners as well as elites, and hence dedicate themselves to programs that educate, empower and elevate commoners both to exercise freedom and participate in the deliberations of power. Correspondingly, all that seeks to prune back the excesses of power – opacity, arbitrariness, privilege, arrogance, violence, hierarchy and authoritarianism – find favor among progressives.
Such values, of course, do not by any means represent either an interpersonal or a fortiori a political norm. On the contrary, the standard pattern of sophisticated societies finds exceptionally well- and self-endowed elites monopolizing as much as possible the technologies of power (weapons, transport, communications), with a vast majority of the laboring population (ca. 90-98%) at more or less subsistence levels. We find such configurations in most agricultural (peasant) societies with restricted literacy, “aristocratic empires” in the words of John Kautsky, from the ancient and contemporary Near East and medieval Europe and Islam, to Indian, Chinese, Aztec and Mayan polities. At their most “liberal”, such authoritarian elites may allow some 10% of the population access to some public space, to some power over the products of their own labor, to some control over property, to some voice and choice and ability to speak their minds. But generally such liberality, after initially enriching such cultures, tends to destabilize them, provoking an authoritarian reaction among the elites that settles into a pattern that draws a prime divider across the social landscape.
These prime divider societies form around an elite that stigmatizes manual labor, keeping the vast population whose lot is to work from participating in deliberative public, political life. Elites take wide-ranging legal privileges – exemption from taxes, from torture and harsh punishments, even from arrest, above all, claiming the right to shed another’s blood for the sake of one’s honor. They monopolize the public voice; they render rulership opaque with mystery, so that it need not explain or justify its behavior to its subjects. Such cultures tend to follow hierarchical patterns of interaction where they swiftly punish acts of defiance, and reward deferential and subservient acts. They have correspondingly low levels of tolerance for genuinely autonomous behavior – “free speech” (i.e., criticism), alternative experiments in legal sovereignty, resistance to elite impositions. Indeed one characteristic of such polities fits Sheldon Wolin’s characterization of Machiavelli’s principle of the “economy of violence” – a willingness to engage in ruthless behavior, to massacre civilians if necessary as a message that one “means business.” The surprise of Tiananmin square’s drama was how long it took to bring in the troops. Elites normally deal with unstructured (unbeckoned, unchoreographed) popular activity especially when it demands empowerment, by massacring such effrontery.
The over-riding political maxim in such cultures holds the zero-sum principle that one must either “rule or be ruled,” a projection of what Augustine called libido dominandi (the lust to dominate) onto others that justifies using power to one’s unfair advantage. Only one can win, and the other must lose. As the Romans said of themselves: we would either be slaves or masters, and we have such a genius for the latter that we have come to rule the world. As the Athenians said to the Melians when they argued that it was unfair to kill the men and sell the women and children into slavery – “This was a law long before our time and will endure long after: that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. And as for your claim of unfair, you only make it because you are weak. If you were in our situation, you would do to us just as we are to you.” In short, however fancy the dressing, might makes right.
Prime divider societies are at war within and without. Elites not only cow their populations, they also discharge the hostility of that larger population by demonizing neighbors and going off to war against them. Prime divider societies take war for granted. Rule or be ruled domestically becomes plunder or be plundered internationally. War is the “sport of kings.”
By contrast, progressive values seek to undermine all aspects of this prime-divider society. In place of the zero-sum power-struggle of the dominating imperative, progressives push for the positive-sum interactions of an empathic imperative in which one does not do onto others what one does not want done to oneself. In place of stigmatizing labor, it becomes at the very least no disqualification from public life, at best, dignified, and the people who engage in it are offered the chance to enjoy as much of the fruits of their labor – including having a public voice – as possible. Instead of legal privilege, progressives favor the principle of equality before the law, striving to create, judicially at least, a fair playing field. Those societies that attempt to dismantle their prime divider and replace it, in principle and to some significant extent in practice, with some form of equity across the whole range of the culture, experiment in launching a “civil society”, that is a culture in which elites have committed to switching systematically from violence to a discourse of fairness in settling disputes, and ruling elites consider themselves servants, not chief predators of the larger population. In the simplest terms, the progressive agenda is to dismantle the prime divider in various cultures so that peoples can live in peaceful and cooperative relations with each other around the world.
One of the greatest problems for progressives today seems to be a lack of appreciation for how rare and exceptional experiments in civil society are. Prime divider societies are the norm for most state structures over the last 4 millennia at least. The earliest recorded experiments in “civil society” first occurred in antiquity, some 2500-3000 years ago, the most famous of which was Athens (7th-5th century BCE). But these never achieved any significant size, and the more successful ones consistently became imperial states imposing new forms of prime divider on their hapless neighbors like the Melians. On the contrary, as Eli Sagan has so eloquently described, democracies are direct challenges to the dominating imperative that the Athenians invoked in justifying their treatment of the Melians; and when they cease to adhere to those beliefs, the democracy will not long endure. To be a progressive is to believe that people are capable of achieving power and not abusing it systematically. No one is perfect, but progressives believe that one can and should develop societies that prune back the dominating imperative, that insist, though separation of powers, free press, periodic changes in leadership, that those who hold power can and must be held accountable.
The constitutional struggles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have produced the first successful sovereign experiments in progressive values, the first time in recorded history that democratic systems have become the most successful form of nation-building. These egalitarian constitutions, all with equality before the law as their central principle, attempt to make the rules of civil society those of the political society as well. The experiment, coming alongside (and directly linked to) an enormous surge in powers of production and distribution (the empowering of commoners), has produced the most powerful, technologically creative, and unstably peaceful society history has yet to record.
As a result of the success of progressive ideas since these revolutions, elites now explicitly envisage their role as treating those without access to power fairly, to pruning back the excesses that power so readily tempts us to by denouncing the abuses of power, by “self-criticizing”, by taking the side of a stranger over one of “ours” if justice demands it. We prize peaceful, positive-sum relations and develop the powers of empathy that permit us to avoid demonizing traps of paranoia, where the enemy’s malevolence deserves destruction. We protect the right of people to voice their opinions, to make their voiced heard; we want to educate and elevate those not so fortunate as ourselves and share the world of abundance and peace that we ourselves seek to enjoy. We rejoice in the commoner’s freedom; we invoke the responsibilities of power. We have a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature and its ability, given the chance, to behave well and sustain a fair (just) society.
Progressives seek to understand others, to sympathize with their feelings and accommodate their desires as much as possible, to apologize for oppression and make amends. We hold the “other” as no different from us and worthy of the same consideration as we ourselves want. In one way or another, progressives want a fair social contract.
I call these progressive values demotic, in that they seek to involve the people understood in its broadest humanity, in an open and voluntary mutual commitment, rather than the imposition of order by an elite (self-styled aristocrats, the “best” rulers). The most common elements involve isonomia (equality before the law), the dignity of manual labor, and access to all to public voice. They can appear in (apparently) secular forms, as in mid-1st millennium BCE Athens, as well as religious forms, as in turn of the 1st millennium BCE Israel. They both get launched by the acceptance of a set of demotic rules and courts to enforce them and both encourage the existence of a large class of free families who eat their food by the sweat of their brow.
This, of course, hardly means that civil societies eliminate the dominating imperative, that both private and public figures do not abuse power and behave exactly as the Athenians assured the Melians everybody does. I am not suggesting here a stark contrast between a good civil society and an evil prime divider. I think rather that we might conceive of this in terms of batting averages. In prime divider cultures, the frequency with which people deviate from the zero-sum dominating imperative is probably well under .200, in some cases below .100. When a culture reaches about .200 average (think of positive-sum interactions as oxygen levels), it may be capable of launching a successful experiment in civil society, although that experiment will not last if the culture does not use its opportunity to encourage still higher batting averages. Western countries today may be in the high .200s, low .300s.
So of course one can find the same faults in democratic cultures that exist in prime divider societies. And one might, as an earnest progressive, want to argue that we are far from living up to our ideals, by insisting that there is little or no difference between us and anyone else, by, for example arguing as does Howard Zinn that the American Revolution was really little more than a change in aristocracies. The Europeans in particular like to believe that there is no difference between American imperialism at the end of the 20th century and European at the end of the 19th, a position that demands either immense ignorance of what the Europeans did, or bad faith.
Jews and Civil Society and Modernity
By this definition of progressive values and civil society, the principles of ethical monotheism share a great deal in common. The biblical commandments are isonomic, making no distinction as do so many other codes (e.g., those of the Romans or Hammurabi), between commoners and aristocrats. The fifth commandment: “Six days shall you work and on the seventh you shall rest, you, your family, your servants…” illustrates both the across the boards application of these principles – work and rest – and the dignity of manual labor. The list of progressive values embedded in Judaism could be lengthened at will: the traditions of public reading of the biblical text including translations into the vernacular, the prophetic tradition of self-criticism and concern for those below the prime divider, the insistence on fair judgment that favors neither the powerful nor the weak…
Under these circumstances of the modern formal commitments to playing fairly, therefore, the Jews have thrived as never before. For the last two millennia, Jews have operated primarily in worlds dominated by Christians and Muslims, in which a religious apartheid legislated disadvantages that placed the Jews firmly below the prime divider. Whenever that status was threatened (by the progress of civil society based on positive-sum Jewish relations with Muslim and Christian commoners – the famous “thriving communities of 11th century Spain, France and Germany), the authorities could unleash a pent-up hostility that they systematically nourished around issues of honor, shame, and paranoia. The result: pogroms, massacres, expulsions. The Jews were never allowed to flourish too long. Their success was bad for the prime divider.
Modern, demotic conditions have created an entirely different climate for Jews. Anytime professions are open to any one competent to perform them, the Jews with their prodigious traditions of learning, will do well, as they have since their “emancipation” – lawyers, doctors, researchers, professors, journalists, narrators. This stems, I would argue, from the fact that the Jews have been playing by such rules for millennia. Far from being the desiccated and superstitious fossils that the generous gentiles who freed us imagined, we have turned out to be formidable players of the game of modernity, bouillon cubes over which boiling water had been poured.
The modern anti-Semite says, precisely: These Jews are the agents of a vast plan to use democracy to destroy the natural order (aristocratic prime divider dominion), not in order to inaugurate civil societies, but in order to take over the world and enslave all mankind. According to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Jews are demopaths. They do not believe in democracy. No, on the contrary, they are diabolically committed to dominion, and plan the enslavement of all. They use democracy to draw people to their destruction and enslavement. They pretend to love, but really plot the destruction of, civil societies.
Modern anti-Semitism, then, represents both the surprise and dismay of those accustomed to the Prime Divider when faced with Jewish success under the new egalitarian rules. The “gentile aristocracy” as the forgers have the Jews refer to them in the Protocols, will be denied a basic “freedom” when the Jews triumph – they will no longer have the “right” to dominate. Whereas medieval anti-Semites dominated from above the prime divider, modern ones, having lost dominion, understandably view their loss of control as catastrophic. And in their paranoia, they project onto the Jews their own worst fears and instincts.
Thus we get the basic plot of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Jewish demopaths seek not freedom and fairness, but to trick people into overthrowing their natural elites (the “gentile aristocracy” who assure stability, and whom the Jews are too weak to take on directly) so that they can dominate the world. Jews press for democracies so they can exploit their advantages in that system to rule the world.
Ironically, anyone who believes the Protocols admits that they do not believe in the very possibility of democracy. The text holds as axiomatic, as something everyone knows, that the dominating imperative rules mankind, that democracy brings not freedom but chaos, that no one will, once on top, behave any better. The argument that everyone uses power to oppress others, that there are no gradations, is essentially a demopathic argument that considers democracies by nature impossible and therefore a disguised plot. Those who embrace this conspiracy thinking signal their commitment to playing by the principle of “rule or be ruled”, they identify themselves with the demopaths who first forged this text.
And so anyone, a fortiori a group as smart as the Jews, who promotes democracy does so in order to produce chaos and use the crisis to enslave the population. (The Greeks called such figures demogogues and tyrants; I call them demopaths). In the battle for dominion, the stakes have become total, and the enemy plays by a set of rules (civic culture) that systematically castrate traditional authoritarianism. Anti-modern authoritarians then, fascists and fundamentalists of many stripes, tend to imagine the very existence of an autonomous culture over which it cannot maintain dominance, as an unbearable threat to their very existence. In conditions of civil society, those who cannot live without the dominating imperative turn to the paranoid imperative: exterminate or be exterminated. From zero-sum (I win, you lose) to negative-sum (we both lose).
II. Israel And Progressive Values
Taken broadly, Zionism represents one of the most dedicated progressive movements of the modern period. One finds in the Zionist movement all the great themes of progressive discourse – the dignity of manual labor, equality before the law, broad consensus that discourse not violence should serve as the means to dispute settlement. Indeed, Zionism has produced a dazzling array of social experiments all of which show the remarkable commitment and will-power exerted in launching and sustaining egalitarian ethics even in the most hostile conditions.
The very ideology of Zionism, in almost all of its variants, represented a systematic rejection of the imperialism and “prime-divider” ideologies of the European world it sought to flee – from the “enlightened” imperialism of the French and the English to the paranoid imperative of the fascist reaction to the victory of civil societies. Indeed one might even say that the very existence of Zionism as a modern, secular, progressive ideology came from the realization of many modern Jews at the turn of 1900, that the mentality of the old world, that of the “prime divider” elites, still had too much strength in Europe to guarantee any reliable support for Europe’s new civic culture to tolerate and defend the newly empowered and astonishingly successful Jews. Indeed, were one to seek some of the most cogent early “deconstructions” and critiques of the imperialism imbedded even in Western modern discourse, one could look with great profit to the writings of the Zionists.
In the following discussion, I only touch on some of the more exceptional elements of this issue, which is summed up (and these days lost) in the comment “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” (It is true that Iraq has recently experienced its first democratic elections, but under circumstances that do not yet permit us to judge whether it is a truly robust democracy.) These following points, then, represent just the tip of an iceberg of discussions that can and should take place about the difficulties of launching and sustaining a civil society, a discussion that stands at the heart of our ability as human beings to negotiate this process of technology-driven globalization. They will, hopefully, allow us to examine the “Israeli apartheid” argument more specifically at the end.
Radical Egalitarianism: The kibbutzim constitute one of the largest and successful radical experiments in communal living in the modern world, one which compares very favorably with the other, far more short-lived flurries of such communities in the West around the 1840s, the 1900s, and the 1960s. No other utopian movement has shown such vigor and durability, such a long-lived commitment to radical egalitarian values, and a more civil shift from the radical to the more moderate principles that naturally arise with material success. The study of Kibbutzim, one might argue, represents one of the richest places for the study of radical egalitarian life-styles in all of sociology. And one of the first things one would note in this study, kibbutzim could not have followed their remarkable trajectory, had not the ardent Zionists who filled their ranks shown passionate dedication to the most radical versions of progressive values – material as well as legal equality. And despite the radical instability of such standards, they managed a remarkably smooth transition to “normal time” and the material success that comes to disciplined civil societies. Similarly so many aspects of Zionism, both before and after the establishment of the state, reflect the profound commitment of so many involved to playing by progressive rules.
Similarly, the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, itself by far the most successful effort to revive a written language in modern times, reflects a profound demotic commitment. The ability of an elite to successfully start a movement demanding high levels of intellectual commitment from commoners speaks volumes about the close and positive-sum relations between these two populations within Judaism.
Zionism could not have triumphed as it did without this profound and widespread commitment to progressive values. Indeed, Israel represents one of a handful of radical socialist experiments that actually took power in the course of the 20th century, and the Soviet Union’s support for it initially derived from a belief that it stood with the communists against the capitalists.
Resistance to Revolutionary Fascism: From this perspective, in which Zionism represents one of the several radical progressive revolutionary movements of the 20th century, we can understand one of the more puzzling and troubling aspects of Israel today. If the Zionists were so progressive, then what happened? Why did a state committed to equality and justice for all end up looking like an oppressive apartheid nation? Such a reading bases itself on an analysis that systematically underestimates the difficulty of launching a genuinely progressive society and screens out the historical context. Such experiments, as I emphasized above, are extremely rare (until modern times), and never immediately successful, but sometimes take hundreds of years to achieve widespread equality (Blacks in the USA). Generally the rule seems to hold that the more radical the aims, the more likely that the experiment will turn from progressive to fascist, from liberation to terror, from democracy to totalitarianism. And the process accelerates under conditions of threat from the outside. The earliest experiments in social equality as a sovereign principle invariably run into deep hostility from surrounding nations, still governed by prime divider elties (e.g., France, Russia, Israel, China). These neighbors often turn collectively on the subversive new experiment and seek to strangle it in its cradle. At this point, members of the progressive revolutionary elite consistently fell prey to paranoia, turning on any internal dissent as a betrayal of the revolution. Thus men whose political careers began in moral genius like Robespierre, became moral monsters, and radical revolutions became totalitarian regimes. The temporary authoritarian transition, like the “dictatorship of the Proletariat,” do not give way to progressive societies.
Of all the progressive revolutions of the last 250 years, the only two not to go paranoid and authoritarian, are the American and the Zionist. Of course the American revolution was perhaps the most “moderate” on the list, not reaching the minimum standards by which we normally judge democracies (one person one vote) for almost two hundred years, nor did it find itself surrounded by sovereign enemies bent on its destruction. Israel, on the other hand, went faster and more radically into social democracy, and had more cause for fear than any other revolution since not only the regime, but the entire people found themselves threatened by the surrounding enemies of the new state. Given the pressures on nascent Israel – the threats of genocide by surrounding Arab nations, the immediately preceding genocidal efforts by the Nazis, the deep internal divisions within the Zionist movement about how to deal with these threats – any impartial observer, aware of the international trend, would expect the revolution to go totalitarian rather quickly. And yet, quite the contrary, under pressures that would have “melted down” most progressive revolution, Israel has continued to operate a robust (and quite messy) democracy for over half a century. Given that, aside from Israel and the United States (which, as we shall see below, was dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances than Israel) no other progressive revolution has lasted for more than a few years before yielding to the paranoid imperative, this stands as a record streak far exceeding Joe Dimaggio’s record.
Education and Empowerment of Commoners: It seems almost trite to discuss Israel’s record on education. However one might complain about various aspects of the process (including the religious politics), Israeli education constitutes one of the most successful systems in the world, producing, among other things, numerous academics with world-wide reputations. Israeli schools constitute a wide array of public and private experiments, and the range of people who have access to such education, including the Arab population, stands out in the history of democracies (American Indians and Africans went centuries without access to the mainstream education). Israel’s commitment to education was both evident and backfired in the period they controlled the West Bank. When they conquered the territory in 1967 there was not one institute of higher education in the entire West Bank (a Jordanian policy); within a few years there were several. Within decades they had become hotbeds of political radicalism and irredentism. The Jordanians discouraged these schools because, as practitioners of prime divider politics, they restricted access to empowering education to the incumbent elite. They assumed, according to the prime divider’s principle of “rule or be ruled,” that if Palestinians had access to education, they would use it to destroy anyone foolish enough to grant it to them. The behavior of faculty and students at Bir Zeit shows, alas, how right they were.
Among the host of extraordinary accomplishments that Zionism has produced in the Jews’ brief opportunity to run a civil society, the innovations in social work stand out. Jewish social work institutions have dealt with an enormous array of ethnic and class problems, and repeatedly found creative solutions to them. Again, much of the credit goes to the unusually high sense of mutual commitment that characterizes Jewish communities, and much of the inspirational force behind it comes from a profound commitment to escaping from race and prejudice, to empathizing with others and finding mutually beneficial ways of interacting. And again, the failure to accomplish the most difficult act of social integration – to fully empower the large Arab Muslim minority – should hardly eclipse the array of unusual successes in Israeli social work, much less should that failure lead to accusations of apartheid.
Self-Criticism: Perhaps the most striking aspect of this remarkable achievement concerns the role of self-criticism in Israeli society. No other culture on record – certainly not European democracies – has so extraordinary a record of self-criticism. With the exception of the Germans (and not the Japanese), who have terrible crimes to atone for, no other culture has as many scholars openly critical of their own country’s past, no other culture has changed its textbooks so rapidly to accommodate revisions in its own history which are by no means flattering. Similarly the Israeli press stands as perhaps the most self-critical of all presses in the world. Nowhere in the West – a fortiori in the rest of the world – do we find so mainstream a paper as critical of Israeli behavior as Ha-Aretz.
Self-criticism lies at the heart of all civil societies, and particularly at the ability of any such cultural experiment to raise its learning curve, to correct errors, to tolerate a wide range of criticism and thus put in play a wide range of perspectives. I suspect that this ability derives from a longstanding (two millennia-long) culture of machloket in rabbinic Judaism. If authoritarian (honor) cultures prize politeness – you do not say certain things lest there be violence – then democracies prize civility – you can say what you think and there won’t be violence. This perspective illuminates the extraordinary range of political opinion openly expressed in both parties and press, the exceptionally (some might argue even pathological and self-destructive) self-critical revisionism of Israeli “post-Zionist” historians, and of Israeli human rights groups like B’tselem. When people complain about the lack of civility in Israel, they really complain about the lack of politeness. Given how high the stakes and the frictions, Israeli culture has a remarkably resilient capacity to handle such matters without violence. And any example of Israeli excesses one might cite, there are hosts of principled refusals that stand behind it.
Military Morals: One of the great oxymorons of history, military morals reflect the ability of nations to control their soldiers, especially in the heat of battle. This stands as one of the lesser moral but immensely beneficial social accomplishments of the human race. Far from reflecting a broad consensus, as it may now seem in the world after the Geneva conventions, such military restraint is not the norm. Most armies have encouraged ruthlessness as a principle means of pacifying conquered peoples. When the Bosnian Serbs adopted the practice of raping Muslim women as a weapon of domination and humiliation, one of the nastier exploitations of military victory this side of genocide, specialists in rape pontificated on NPR about how when any army rapidly and unexpectedly takes over large domestic populations, rape is inevitable. They made no mention of the exceptional anomaly of Israeli behavior in the Six-Day War. Taharat neshek [purity of arms] has had its share of critics (as befits a self-critical culture). But none of these critiques has considered the larger picture, one in which, by their profound commitment to fairness and respect for the lives of the enemy’s civilians, the Israelis have written by precedent alone, vast tracts of any future law of peaceful nations.
Similarly, Israel has stood at the forefront of civil society’s commitment to the value of human life and the reluctance of power-holders in civil society to shed human blood, by outlawing the death penalty in all but the case of Eichmann and the Holocaust. The irony here could not be more striking, however. Europeans are quite proud of their renunciation of capital punishment, and look down on the USA for continuing to execute criminals. And yet this has no impact on their embrace of Palestinian political causes despite the wanton taking of life – Israeli and Palestinian – that characterizes Palestinian politics. Nor does it draw any acknowledgment of how difficult it is to maintain Israel’s commitment to no capital punishment when faced with war criminals and mass murderers on the rampage.
Renunciation of Power: All successful experiments in civil society come when important members of the elite all agree on the limits to power, men (and women) who would rather be free than exercise dominion. Thus, whether Gideon or Cincinnatus or George Washington, the great military leader refuses kingship. All experiments in civil society comes with a willingness to renounce power, in particular, the power to dominate. So did the 7th century Athenian aristocracy in adopting Solon’s isonomic law and redistributing land to make strong independent peasants, so did the medieval aristocracy renouncing terrorism on the fields of the Peace of God in the late 10th early 11th century, and the French aristocracy renouncing their feudal rights on the 4th of August 1789.
In this sense, Israel has shown unparalleled willingness to renounce claims to territory. Indeed, Israel’s Yesh Gvul represents the most vigorous anti-imperialist sentiment – within an army! – ever documented. Nations rarely give back conquered territory, and none, when possessing so little terrain and surrounded by such ruthless enemies, has agreed to give back even a fraction of the amount of territory that Israel has publicly offered to give to the Palestinians since its victories in 1967. The very ability of Israel to sustain a democracy under wartime conditions, to accept opposition, to admit that the other party should be allowed to take over the reins of power if the public so vote, depends on a pervasive commitment in Zionist culture to the principles of renunciation that civil society demands.
In short, Zionism closely considered, offers one of the most extraordinary tales in the annals of demotic social and political experiments. If one were to create a Richter scale for civil societies, and identify at what point they melt down into the kind of paroxysms of “revolutionary terror” that lead to totalitarian dominion, then Rwanda and Biafra, and Algeria and Bosnia, Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union, all melted down at relatively low temperatures. Israel, over the last 50 years, has sustained a democracy at temperatures that would long ago have melted down any other extant society. As one reporter pointed out while discussing the Israeli reaction to martyr mass murder in the spring of 2002, were it to happen in America, I don’t think we could control the vigilantism the way the Israelis do.
The Dramatic Reversal: Zionism as Racism, Imperialism, Messianic Colonialism
And yet, Zionism appears in the eyes of the world as exactly the opposite of what I have presented above. Far from a paragon of democracy, she seems racist, imperialist, cruel and relentless. Far from adhering to the principles of equality before the law, Israel has built an apartheid society where the Muslims are second, even third-class citizens. “No sooner did they take power,” people seem to like to say, “than they turned around and did to others what had been done to them.”
As a result, the general public, and most of us, are caught up in a discussion of the problem that frames the issues along the following lines. The Palestinians, like all people, want to be free and have their own nation. Israel’s unwillingness to grant the Palestinians their freedom is the source of the violence, and if only Israel would relent, things could be solved.
This perception permeates the general presentation of the conflict. For example most of our news is framed in this “rational” model, in which the anger and frustration “must” have their origins in the wrongs committed to these indigenous people. The basic premise sets Israel at fault, and interprets every additional act of moral depravity on the part of the Palestinians (and so many other Arabs and Muslims), as a “reasonable” response to suffering and humiliation. And if only the Israelis would stop humiliating them and making them suffer, they would behave like the rest of “us”.
At its extreme this take on the Middle East leads people, especially in the radical extremes of both right and left, to an extraordinary demonizing of Israel, one in which the Zionists become the agents of evil, of messianic settler colonialism, of apartheid racism. More generally it makes everyone unhappy with Israel, with her reluctance to give more generously, to grant the Palestinians what the Zionists so ardently claim for themselves. And Jews, especially Jews committed to progressive values, find themselves at once horrified by the behavior and image of the Israelis, and torn by the moral dilemma of choosing between their progressive values and their loyalty to their own people.
In order to understand the paradoxical relationship between progressive values and the Arab-Israeli conflict, one must look not only at the relationship between Israeli and Zionist values and the progressive values of civil society, but also at how the progressive agenda plays out in Arab political culture and reappears in the civic culture of the West.
III. Arab World And Progressive Values
In the Arab world, as in many other parts of the world, people responded to the challenge of the West in the course of the 19th century, some with blanket hostility, others in recognition that they had something to learn from the West. Since Islam has important demotic elements – literate autonomous communities, the dignity of labor, the brotherhood of believers – these forces that sought to take advantage of the civic culture the West had developed. Arab intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, political activists, men and women, hastened to learn the Western techniques in order to express their own cultural idiom. At the turn of the century, while Ottoman dominion slowly crumbled, demotic forces stirred in the Arab and Muslim world, and the principles of fairness and justice invoked in public. Iran, in the period between 1905 and 1911, even tried a democratic experiment that failed. One could, without too much exaggeration, imagine the decline of Ottoman dominion in the Middle East giving way to a Arab culture of great vigor and strength. Certainly many Arabs thought that way.
But they were sadly mistaken. The 20th century has been a catastrophe for the Arabs, a complete failure of their hopes and desires. Like the Spanish of the 16th century, they were great nations through which billions in bullion and petrodollars passed, and which ended up poorer at the end of the century. In both cases the elites shared almost nothing of that wealth with their commoners; in both cases the great afflux of wealth led to a hardening rather than a thinning of the prime divider; in both cases they expelled a large and active Jewish community from their midst. Oxygen flows to the atmosphere below the prime divider remained exceptionally – one is tempted from a modern perspective to say intentionally – low. Indeed there is not an Arab nation where the commoners (it’s hard to call them citizens) have access to the public voice (unless it’s in the form of thuggish riots in the Arab streets), access to an open and empowering education.
What we would reasonably call progressive has failed so far in the Arab world. According to a UN poll, 50% of the youth want to get out of countries in which Muslims hold the levers of power. The place that came the closest to a modern entente of mutual tolerance, with a resulting exceptional vitality, was Lebanon for the first two thirds of the 20th century… until the PLO arrived in 1970. Within five years, the already fragile entente between Maronite Christian and Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim Arabs collapsed in a civil war that ended up killing around a hundred thousand civilians in incredibly brutal circumstances (1975-82).
Thus, from the Atlantic to Central Asia, from Syria to Yemen, the Arab world has fared badly with the basic principles of the progressive charter – fair treatment of commoners, equality before the law, renunciation of violence in dispute settlement, tolerance of dissent and freedom of speech. Very badly. In one sense, one might argue that the Arabs are so angry now, because they have looked in the global mirror and are horrified at what they see: dictatorship, commoners kept in ignorance and poverty, wars and violence… everywhere, with oil money, without oil money (and of course none of the Arabs in power shared oil money with other Arab nations, or – heaven forbid! – with the Palestinian refugees).
In a devastatingly honest article – one that no European liberal would dare have written, Abdullah Rashid gives us a brilliant description of the dominating imperative at work at every level of Arab culture:
I do not exaggerate by saying this [that Arab culture is addicted to tyranny], because within each one of us there is a little dictator who feels gratification when he is repressed by those stronger and more brutal than he, and who at the same time does not refrain from acting this same way, in his milieu, towards those weaker and inferior in status. And when that milieu expands, he gradually imposes this on more people, so that when this sphere grows and he is the one who decides first and last, and who gives the orders, dictatorship spreads and it is imposed on all the people. Thus yesterday’s oppressed become today’s oppressor; yesterday’s subjugated become today’s subjugator; he that was wronged now becomes the wrongdoer; the humiliated becomes the arrogant.
And all of this is then projected onto Israel and the West. But that is another matter to which we shall return.
Perhaps the most pervasive evidence for the failure of progressive values to take hold in the Arab world comes from the immense power that honor and shame still exercise over virtually all Arab communities. Indeed, one can argue that the Arab world has become more pathologically driven by honor and shame as a result of their present perceived humiliation. It is one thing to kill the man who raped your sister, and kill your sister when she has shamed the family by flaunting her disobedience – not Western morals, but recognizable behavior – but only in times of real madness do brothers and fathers kill their daughters for having been raped.
One can tell the narrative of this massive and humiliating Arab failure in close connection with the history of Zionism. At every point in its development, at every point of its collective behavior, fascist Arab political culture took shape around a virulent rejection of Zionism. This is not to say there weren’t Arabs who welcomed the Zionists and saw in their advent the same occasion that had led the Great Suleyman to establish a dominion and culture as great as the West in the 16th century, when he welcomed the Jews who had fled Spain. But the party of these “liberals” lost, and it lost to a wide range of political figures who played modern technology with a prime-divider tune – honor, shame, violence, dominion. “Rule or be ruled,” “Democracy from the barrel of a gun,” “Only the obliteration of my enemy can wash away my shame.”
Indeed one finds a high correlation between the moment when an allegedly progressive movement, like Nasser’s “socialism,” turned towards dictatorial authoritarianism with the moment when the ruling party turned up the anti-Zionist rhetoric. Throughout the 20th century, the most oppressive Arab leaders were also consistently the most anti-Zionist. Demophobia, tyranny of Arab elites over Arab commoners (and minorities), of men over women, go hand in hand with Anti-Zionism throughout the 20th century.
Faced with the challenge of civil society, Arab political culture went not on the progressive path from the zero-sum dominating to the positive-sum empathic imperative, but rather to the negative-sum paranoid imperative: “exterminate or be exterminated.” From the earliest points in relations between Zionists and Arabs in Turkish and British ruled Palestine, a powerful voice within the Arab community defined the conflict as one of hard zero-sum: the very existence of Zionism was seen as threatening the core of Arab and Muslim identity. The Arabs framed both the 1948 and 1967 conflicts – the two times that they thought they could win, in terms of exterminate or be exterminated. “We will make Ghengis Kahn!” is not a piece of Zionist propaganda, but the propaganda of the Arab League in 1948. And the men who readied themselves for glorious massacre in 1948 were the same political agents who put all the (powerless) Arab refugees of their failed war into concentration camps, lest they find decent lives and move on. No, the wretched refugees had to serve as sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab Zionophobia.
This deep irredentism of the Arab world, founded in the zero to negative sum logic of honor and shame, and fed with the worst elements of European anti-semitism, explains the conspiracism that permeates Arab political culture today. The importance to Arabs and Muslims of such conspiracy narratives as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, their readiness to accept the most outlandish claims – that Mossad was behind the events of September 11, 2001 – has immense appeal, no matter how implausible the scenarios. Why? Because these narratives assault the enemy and avoid taking responsibility. And under the current, pathological conditions, this has led the Arab world to launch into a torrent of Jew-hatred in which not only are the most heinous European anti-Semitic beliefs – blood libel, international conspiracy – taken over wholesale, but Arab demonizers add new variants constantly, like Humantashen baked with the blood of Arab children, or television series on the Protocols, or “historical” movies about the Damascus blood-libel as if it were a real event. Anti-Zionism is a drug administered to Arabs and Muslims by their own elites who, as they oppress them, offer them the Zionists as scapegoats.
Given the prominence of Jews in the paranoid fantasies of so many Arab thinkers, one must conclude that Zionism has upset them greatly. The current wisdom holds that this is only natural since the Zionists invaded and drove them from their land. But such a view literally adopts the demonizing narrative that the Arabs have developed to justify their paranoia. In fact, unlike other European colonial ventures, which used liberal amounts of violence to domesticate the indigenous population (English, French, Belgians, Portuguese, Spanish), the Zionists came in as players in the game of civil society: they bought their property; they established productive relations with their neighbors; they made the place livable for large numbers.
Unlike European colonialism that invariably led to precipitous drops in indigenous population, the advent of the Zionists to Ottoman, later British Palestine led to rapid increases in the indigenous population. The demographics of Palestine (river to sea) are extraordinarily vigorous for the whole of the 20th century, despite the endemic warfare. Everyone’s figures went up dramatically from 1900 onwards, Arabs, Jews, Christians, even Europeans. When the Arab rioting (which ended up killing more Arabs than Jews) broke out in 1936, the Peel Commission asked the rioters why they had attacked the Jews since things were clearly better for everyone since they had come. Replied one man:
You say we are better off; you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207)
The quintessence of zero-sum: I would rather rule in wretchedness than have to share with equals. And of course, the idea that this rioter was master of his house before the Zionists came, and not the victim of a prime divider dominated by both Turkish rulers and absentee Arab effendi landlords is equally misguided. But in expressing himself this way, he spoke for a generation, and many more generations, that mistook honor for integrity, and considered rioting and killing Jews (and settling scores with other clans) as an act of great nationalism.
For the Arabs, however, the advent of the Zionists need not have signaled catastrophe. It could have been their ticket to autonomy from the West. The Jews had had a much harder time living with Christians, who for theological as well as social reasons, disliked Jews in general, and feared greatly autonomous ones. Overall, Jews got on better, it seems with Muslims, certainly the Muslims claim so.
And so, had the Arabs welcomed the Zionists as Suleyman the Magnificent welcomed the Jews of Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, the Jews would have offered a different way to acquire the knowledge of the West, than from the West directly. Given the ancient links between Jews and Muslims that far pre-dated the emergence of civil society in the West, and given the rather vicious and domineering ways in which Europeans had imposed their culture on the Arabs, one would have thought – and I imagine there were people arguing this – that the Arabs would see Zionism as a magnificent opportunity for them to “get back in the game.” Imagine if Algeria, upon getting rid of French political dominion, had become a place that welcomed the Jews. Is it possible that it would not be in its current catastrophic condition.
This obviously did not happen. Nor is it for lack of energy and intelligence, which Arab Muslims show in great quantities. The failure came primarily because the Arab world closed ranks and chose zero and negative-sum paths across the boards. This does not mean they had to, or even that most wanted to. It means that those prime-divider elites who would not allow freedom to their own people – much less another people – were able to dominate the scene though a combination of terror (targeted killings of moderates as “collaborators”) and a base appeal to the most paranoid and violent of aspects of tribal honor. The uniformity of prime-divider societies in the Arab world, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, regardless of whether the country had oil revenues or not, speaks volumes about the suffocation of alternatives in that world. It is also immensely humiliating.
And Israel is the most unbearable part of it. This is true not because she is the most oppressive in an objective sense – the Arab elites have inflicted far more pain and suffering on the Palestinians than the Israelis. But because, in the world of tribal warrior honor, the Jews are despised as weaklings. The Athenians explained it quite precisely to the Melians as they ruthlessly dealt with their defeated compatriots. “One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.” In the entire history of Islam (i.e., in the Arab historical memory), the Jews have always been a subject people. And in a society where honor demands the shedding of blood, Jewish dhimmi are considered women. And there is no greater humiliation to “men” than to be beaten by “women.”
At the core of the Arab rejection of Israel, the irredentist core of this conflict that has made it, and will continue to make it insoluble no matter how much of our rationality we wish to project onto Palestinian political actors, lies the problem of shame and humiliation. At a social level, Israel as a civil society threatens the Arab world’s prime divider, that is, the honor of her rulers and more broadly, of her men. In the midst of dictatorships and honor-bound hierarchical cultures where killing for honor holds place of pride, Israel stands as a constant subversion, all the more Israeli women. At a political level, Israel represents the humiliation of Arab imperial pretensions to dominate the entire region from the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains. At a religious level, an autonomous Jewish state in the Arab heart of Dar al Islam where Muslims alone should have political power, represents a historical blasphemy. No wonder the Arabs widely believe that the two blue lines on the Israeli flag represent the Nile and the Euphrates; and that Muslims widely believe that Judaism seeks to destroy them. They project their own desires. The paranoid imperative holds it as axiomatic that the “other” has the same desires that you have.
This framework enables us to understand most aspects of Palestinian political behavior. Abba Eban famously said, the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This actually reflects Eban’s cognitive egocentrism, in which he projects his “rational” (i.e., positive-sum) mentality onto the Palestinians. He sees Palestinian statehood and a resolution to the refugee problem, as an opportunity. For a zero- or even negative-sum Palestinian political actor, such opportunities are catastrophes in which he must renounce his dreams of revenge and dominion. These are not opportunities, they are defeats… humiliating defeats.
IV. Progressives and the Palestinian “Victim Narrative”: Dupes of Demopaths
The core of our misunderstanding right now, which also explains how the Left has become a major enabler of Arab fascism in the final decades of the 20th century and even more so since 2000, is cognitive egotism. We continue to project our positive-sum “rationality” onto the Palestinians, and more broadly, onto Arab political culture. We want to believe that they have come to terms with [our] “reality.” And we will ignore the evidence – including most of what we can see happening in Iraq –that Arab political culture is still victim to forces that will not give up dominion, or, in the case of the Palestinians, where Israeli defense forces have made their dominion impossible, they have not given up dreaming of dominion.
Cognitive egotism makes perfect sense, especially as an initial approach to another culture. Our society is based on a belief that if we trust others, together we can engage in positive-sum interactions, that we need not play the zero-sum game of rule or be ruled. Indeed we must make that first move – to empathize with the other and assume that they are like us, or want to be like us.
But at some point we need to register when such projections are not accurate. This is hard because, as members of civil society we try to make certain things veritably unthinkable, like honor killings and mass murder. It seems inhuman, even racist to imagine that another culture might have altogether different attitudes towards such things, and we prefer to believe that only the most desperate conditions would lead people to want to do such terrible things. We therefore systematically ignore the hate industry that goes on in the Arab world, the permanent state of incitement into which young Palestinians are brought to manhood.
Unfortunately, the corollary here means that if the Palestinians are behaving so badly, it must not be because of their alpha males cleaving to prime divider society and its attendant demophobia, but in the faults of the Israelis. And of course, as with any state in time of war, the Israelis have faults. So grist comes to the mill that grinds away any difference between Israel and the Arabs. We must, it seems, be even-handed. Even at the cost of progressive values.
Democracy, however, cannot be uploaded like a computer program as the Bush administration is learning the hard way. The progressive values that prune back the power of elites and empower commoners, the trust between people that civil society needs, form the cultural foundation for any experiment in democracy, or even demotic theocracy. The work has scarcely begun in the Arab world, and is, at every turn, violently undermined by demophobes who fear at all costs the constraints of civil society. And we enable that fascism by embracing the demonizing narratives of the Palestinians in our effort to be “even-handed.”
Arab and Muslim dreams of dominion (zero-sum) and, failing that, destructive violence (negative-sum) do not register on the screens of progressive thinkers as such. For them, the violence and irredentism of the Arabs represent the desperate resort of someone who cannot get a fair shake. To acknowledge the malevolence in Palestinian political and religious culture – towards their own people as well as their designated enemies – would make progressives sound like racists, apparently, for some, a sin greater than stupidity. So we are told with the assurance of a policy axiom, “any Palestinian with a three digit IQ knows that Israel is here to stay.” And “Islam is a religion of peace.” And “if only Israel would stop their occupation, then this could be resolved.” And no one seems to want to probe too closely into the meaning of Peace in Islam (submission to Sharia), or occupation in Palestine (to the sea). It is hard to know whether the idea that the Palestinians are not so stupid as to think they can eliminate Israel is more racist in its condescension about the IQ of a Sheik Rantisi and his followers, than it is stupid in its glib dismissal of a problem that lies at the core of the conflict.
Thus, taking the cognitive egotism behind Eban’s comment as dogma, when confronted with the irredentism of the Palestinians, the typical “reader” of the Arab-Israeli conflict assumes this must mean that the Israelis have not been sufficiently accommodating. “If only Israel had given more, then the Palestinians would behave rationally (by my standards).” Of course by not even allowing the contrary as a possibility – that is that further concessions will incite greater violence precisely because it empowers the Palestinians to pursue their maximalist goals – they make (their) reality testing dependent on Israeli vulnerability. The inability of people to even consider Arab irredentism –the Arab’s desire to wipe Israel off the map – as a “working hypothesis” makes them perfect dupes to Arab political demopathy.
Thus, when “liberals” and “progressives” engage moral affirmative action by applying their cognitive egotism to the Palestinian “leadership” and imagining that they are “just like us” despite the evidence, they become exceptionally receptive to demopathic arguments. These arguments are grounded in a paranoid, conspiratorial narrative that represents the antithesis of all progressive values – no empathy, no understanding, no sincere desire for peace. In this sense, the media which seems to have formally adopted as a matter of principle, the belief in the sincerity of Arab and Palestinian spokespeople, has no awareness of the systematic conspiratorial thinking that lies behind Palestinian behavior, both in terms of what they say to each other and what they say to the West.
Such an attitude is understandable as an initial perspective. When, after the 1967 war, Arabs stopped talking in European languages about wanting to destroy Israel, and asked for Westerners to give them a hearing, to “balance” their perceptions by “listening” to the other side, they made a perfectly reasonable request. But the West was not required, as a result of hearing the other side, to adopt it (as has the Left), nor even to give it equal weight (as has the liberal) to the Israeli narrative(s). Just because there are many narratives, does not mean that they are all equally valid, much less constructive. That there is no objectivity hardly means that there is no honesty.
The job of Western outsiders, if they wish to be fair, is not to give equal weight to all narratives, but to listen equally to all narratives and make some judgments based on equity. It does not mean taking a self-critical narrative by an Israeli which admits fault, and placing it, without editorial comment, alongside a demonizing narrative which admits no fault and blames Israel for everything. Otherwise, the uninformed observer might think that it’s clear-cut – the Arabs blame Israel, Israel admits fault. Case closed. As Kofi Anan said about Israeli claims that the Arab accusations about Jenin were lies: “Is it possible that the whole world is wrong and the Jews are right?” And he did so without knowing that he repeated precisely the cry that crossed Europe at the end of the 19th century when the Jews denied the blood libel. Then it was superstitious right-wing hate-mongers who took up the cry. Now it’s well-meaning left-wing hate mongers.
This is nothing short of scandalous, and intellectually bankrupt. As good progressives, we must listen above all for self-criticism, without which one cannot learn and cannot change. In a world where one cannot admit error lest one lose face, the “other” must become a scapegoat, as increasingly Israel has become for the Left. In such a world democracy cannot exist, as it does not in the Arab world.
It takes enormous effort and courage to admit fault, especially under fire. In the annals of history few cultures have shown such extraordinary ability to self-criticize (the biblical accounts, for example), and Israeli self-criticism under such heavy fire, represents an exceptional chapter in that story. But in the current situation, where demopaths and their dupes govern the discussion, self-criticism has become an enormous liability. Israelis say, yes we have done you wrong. The response is not, however, “And we, you.” but rather, “We told you so! You admit to being a racist apartheid state.” The editor of Ha-Aretz, seeing the uses to which anti-semites put his highly self-critical paper, is forced to wonder about the price of such public honesty.
In the meantime, on the other side, self-criticism scarcely takes place in private. Any Arab so doing runs great risks for his life, and any Westerner who presses on these matters provokes great anger and hostility. So reporters from the BBC, for example, who show no hesitation badgering and interrupting Israeli spokespeople, show great deference to Hamas spokesmen. Progressives, instead of rewarding Israeli self-criticism and demanding that the Palestinians engage in a modicum of it, turn moral affirmative action into moral cowardice in which they fear making Palestinians and other Arabs “uncomfortable,” and want at all costs – including the ostracism of a Jewish self-defense – to make it possible for these subaltern victims to express their feelings (read: rage) freely. Thus they will not embarrass them with questions about the brutal way that Arab elites – especially Palestinians ones – treat their own people, and the high correlation between these ruthless elites and anti-Zionism.
It is altogether reasonable and fair of Western progressives to listen to the Palestinian “victim narrative” and say, “No, I’m sorry. This has far too little self-criticism to carry moral weight with me. I can grieve for your suffering without blaming the Israelis for so much that is self-inflicted precisely by a combination of ruthless elites and a scapegoating ‘street’. I cannot get morally indignant about Israeli ‘crimes’ according to standards you show no commitment to. You cannot use my values to smear Israel while you engage in abominations that you justify by invoking rage and frustration and resistance. Stop nurturing the rage, and perhaps you will begin to see more constructive ways out of your suffering. Then I will help. But do not ask me to sign on to your mad and self-destructive hate narrative.”
But nothing so readily rouses the ire of defenders of the Palestinians than such suggestions. Self-criticism is out of the question, not only because it embarrasses, but also because it lets Israel off the hook, a motivation I suspect also applies to “progressives” who take so much pleasure in denouncing Israeli crimes against humanity. Thus we can have organizations like ISM, who send deeply caring, idealistic young women to protect the houses of suicide bombers to stop Israeli “collective punishment,” but instructs these activists not to question the morality of this religious of mass murder, itself the most depraved form of collective punishment. The Nazis used to randomly kill civilians in retaliation. Not having Nazi dominion, Palestinian terrorists send out their children to kill themselves in the process of committing their collective punishment.
And in milder versions, we have liberals, deeply disturbed by the “apartheid” nature of Israeli society. Now the analogous thinking that permits this label to apply to Israel, necessarily takes apartheid out of the realm of racism (given that Israeli society is one of the most racially diverse in the world, especially for so small a population), and into the realm of inequality before the law, legal disadvantage for a group set apart – apartheid. But by that definition, Islam is an apartheid religion, with its dhimmi (non-Muslims protected from violence but drastically inferior) legal status for Christians and Jews. In this sense Arab and Islamic culture represents one of the oldest formal apartheid regimes in history, and the treatment of non-Muslims everywhere where Muslims have power today testifies to the vigor of apartheid attitudes and practices of the most heavy-handed type.
But again, we seem to feel that lest we make Muslims uncomfortable and ourselves subject to accusations of racism, we should pass over such unpleasant details. Fine. But how do you pass from silence on so egregious a transgression against progressive values on the part of the Arabs to a relentless attack on Israel’s failure to live up to the highest standards under the most trying of conditions? One can do so only by adopting the demonizing “Palestinian victim narrative” in which they (including their rapacious elites) are innocent victims of Israeli imperialism and colonialism. The sad fact, the humiliating fact by international standards, is that Israel treats its Arabs better than the Arabs treat their own, that Israeli soldiers show more concern for the lives of Palestinians than the Palestinian soldiers show for their own.
Of course any good Israeli progressive will respond, “Just because they don’t behave well is no excuse for us to.” Agreed. And the incredible vigor of this high moral expectation under such trying circumstances over so long a period – remember that civil society generally melts down within a few years of a progressive revolution taking power – is testimony to Israeli and Jewish commitment to these values. But the non-Jewish, non-Israeli progressives… why would they jump all over the Israelis and ignore the appalling behavior of the Palestinians. Shouldn’t they be the ones to insist on some moral progress among Palestinians?
Civil society and democracy, both products of the sustained effort to live by progressive values, demand a great deal of effort. In that sense the framers of the Declaration of Independence were wrong: freedom is not a God-given right, but a God-given possibility. Whether or not we are free depends on our willingness to pay the price for freedom, to give up the dominating imperative and trust others to do so as well. That takes discipline, trust, and empathy.
Israel is “apartheid” only insofar as it represents an island of civil society surrounded by people who so far seem unwilling to pay the price to achieve one. As one embittered Arab commentator put it, “we Arabs are addicted to tyranny.” The gross distinctions in living style between Israel and the Arabs is due far more to the failure of the Arab world to commit to progressive values, than tiny Israel’s nefarious impact on 350 million people stretched from the Atlantic to the Tigris.
V. Conclusion: The Middle East Conflict and the Global Community
When taken from the perspective of globalization and the dangers that face the world community today, the degree to which Progressive forces in the West have sided with an unreconstructed Palestinian cause seems nothing short of suicidal. In a world where cultures and religions come into increasingly close contact, we are faced with a choice between the constructive positive-sum or catastrophic negative-sum interactions, we must weigh conflicts in a balance that considers everyone. All over the world cultural contact and confrontation happens more rapidly and more penetratingly every day of this global millennium. Troubles, violence, and their demonizing rhetoric, appear everywhere. And we, as a planet of peoples learning to live together, need to learn to say “No!” to such narratives, to remind people making uncompromising demands that learning to live together is the goal, and no movement has the right to such self-indulgent violence.
And yet, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we have looked blandly upon the most dangerous and ferocious sentiments of entitlement and demonization. And we seem paralyzed, watching these forces turn the relations between Jews and Muslims into a cataclysmic tragedy. Were that all, it might be understandable if lamentable. But this enabling of such vicious behavior and discourse has immense implications for the emerging global community. In that context, it seems suicidal to encourage this conflict to fester, to look away as one polity nurtures hatred and violence, while passionately denouncing every moral failure of their enemies.
In so doing they have done no one any good except the demopaths and tyrants of the Arab and Muslim world who can count on Western “progressive” sympathy in their assault on democratic values. The first victims, the immediate victims of this unholy alliance are the hundreds of millions of Muslims who live in tyrannies from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Pacific islands of Asia, as well as those who live in the West and have become the victims of an increasingly aggressive Islamism that has taken over western mosques and Islamic communities. And rather than side with those who want to take the arduous path to a genuinely capacious and tolerant form of Islam, to a demotic culture in the Arab world, we accept without challenge the claims of the Islamists. We allow them to demand that we renounce Islamophobia and stay silent as they ratchet up the hysteria of their Judeophobia. Why does even-handed mean giving that Judeophobic narrative the same standing as a the Israeli narrative which, we insist, must be non-Islamophobic?
Why do progressives enable and encourage the worst instincts of so tragic a people in the grip of their bullies? Why do they take up with such enthusiasm the demonizing narratives of a scapegoating elite? Why do they behave in ways that hurt everyone that progressives claim to care about – the common folk at the mercy of nasty people abusing power? And when will we stop such self-destructive behavior?