Monthly Archives: April 2012

Assadwashing: On the Distinction between Supporting Palestinian/Arab Rights and Denying Israeli Rights

I recently noted this hit piece on me. Normally I wouldn’t bother responding, but in this case a) it’s from a BU student, and b) it so embodies everything that’s wrong-headed about Palestinian “advocacy” that it’s actually an invitation to explore both the moral rhetoric and argument of the BDS movement. Fisking ahead.

Pointing to Syria to divert attention from Israel’s crimes

20 April 2012

Why aren’t pseudo-supporters of Syrian human rights actively lobbying Israel to stop the occupation of the Golan Heights?

(Yin Dongxun / Xinhua)

Answer: Maybe because the Druse of the Golan have far more human rights under Israeli rule than under the butcher of Damascus.

The very fact that one could seriously ask such a question shows the fundamentally “us-them” mentality involved in this formulation. No matter how viciously “we” Arabs treat our own people (e.g., Assad in Syria today), we want the human rights community to support putting Arabs (not even – Druze) under Arab sovereignty… is this a kind of “right of dictatorship”?

The Israeli government and its supporters have long utilized a wide range of propaganda tools to sugarcoat Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians.

I like the use of the term “atrocity.” Nothing in the widely inflated thesaurus of accusations against Israel so carefully collected by Electronic Intifada and their allies (e.g., al Awda) comes close to what the Arabs do to their own people (torture, civilian massacres, systematic throttling of free press). But it’s Israeli “atrocities” that drive these activists wild with indignation. Here again we encounter the honor-shame, us-them mentality: what Arabs do to Arabs is not nearly as problematic, no matter how bad, as what Israelis do to Arabs. In other words, no matter how slight the offense, Israeli inflicted Palestinian suffering is an unbearable humiliation. Indeed, in some versions of the story, it is even responsible for preventing Arabs from creating democracies.

In addition to pinkwashing (using Israel’s relative support of gay rights to sugarcoat the country’s apartheid nature) and greenwashing (perpetuating the perception that Israel has environmentally-friendly policies to do the same), Zionist advocates are now using a different method: Assadwashing.

The problems with the “pinkwashing accusations” was widely addressed at the time the NYT shamefully published the editorial. Assadwashing is a worthy successor in the category of inane moral arguments.

But I find (again) the author’s use of “relative support” to characterize Israel’s defense of gay rights, to be especially amusing. Tell it to the Palestinian homosexuals who, for decades, have been fleeing to Israel for that culture’s “relative” tolerance. Jamil makes a grudging concession, which he swiftly brushes aside; and yet, in this matter, Israel shows a double tolerance neither of which one detects in the Arab world: a) for homosexuals, and b) for the “other,” even the hostile “other.” Hard to find a better case of a not “us-them” mentality than Israel’s treatment of Palestinian gays.

Such observations have actually led some gay progressives to praise Israel. Understandably, this infuriates the zero-sum activists for Palestinian “rights,” like Jamil.

As the Syrian uprising moves into its second year and Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues its brutal crackdown, the pro-Israel camp has breathed a sigh of relief and put on an indignant grin. Zionists now feel justified in pointing to Israel’s northeastern neighbor and exploiting the Syrian people’s suffering and resistance in order to further their own political agenda, depicting Israel as a “vibrant democracy” in comparison to Syria.

Ummm, yes. Can you imagine the equivalent of an Ahmad Tibi or Hanin Zouabi in any Arab country… say, an Iraqi or Iranian Jew who loudly and publicly denounced the regime as anti-Semitic and oppressive and openly called for its overthrow? On the contrary, even Muslims who show any support for Israel are under penalty of death.

To follow Jamil’s logic here, pointing out the obvious (and important) is forbidden lest it benefit ‘the [evil] enemy.’  Truth means nothing in the face of solidarity, if the truth works against “us.” That makes sense from a purely “us-them” mentality, but hardly seems like it should fly in a moral conversation. As Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who studied North African honor-shame cultures noted:

The ethos of honour is fundamentally opposed to a universal and formal morality which affirms the equality in dignity of all men and consequently the equality of their rights and duties. Not only do the rules imposed upon men differ from those imposed upon women, and the duties towards men differ from those towards women, but also the dictates of honour, directly applied to the individual case and varying according to the situation, are in no way capable of being made universal. 

So one should not, by this logic, apply the same standards to everyone, both to perpetrators (Israel vs. Syria) or to victims (Palestinians vs. Syrians). Eyes on the prize.

Perversely, to Zionist propagandists, Assad’s pernicious brutality comes not as a tragedy but as a savior.

Or, alternatively, and possibly still more perversely, to anti-Zionist propagandists, the global revelations of Assad’s pernicious brutality come not as a tragedy for the Arabs who are, and have been, the recipients of this brutality, but as an embarrassment/tragedy for Palestinian efforts to depict Israel as an apartheid-practicing tyranny.

No Cheers for Stanley Fish’s Tribal “leftism”

Last month, Stanley Fish wrote a piece on the Limbaugh “slut” controversy for the NYT column called “Campaign Stops: Strong Opinions on the 2012 Elections.” It’s, at least to my mind, a deeply disturbing piece, that reveals a political agenda people like Stephen Hicks have long argued lay behind the pseudo-relativism of post-modern thinkers.

Two Cheers for Double Standards

By STANLEY FISH

What is a double standard? It’s a double standard when you condemn an opponent for doing or saying something you would approve or excuse if it were said or done by one of your buddies. The double standard that is in the news these days concerns Rush Limbaugh, who called Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, a “slut” and “prostitute” because she told Congress that her university’s health plan should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Limbaugh has not had many defenders (Mitt Romney said weakly that he wouldn’t have used that language), but some on the conservative side of the aisle have cried “double standard” because Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized (and suspended for a week) for characterizing Laura Ingraham as a “right-wing slut,” and Bill Maher emerged relatively unscathed after he referred to Michele Bachmann as a “bimbo” and labeled Sarah Palin with words I can’t mention in this newspaper. If you are going to get on your high horse when Limbaugh says something inappropriate, shouldn’t you also mount the steed when commentators on your team say the same kind of thing? Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.

These are not so much judgments based on content so much as attributions of venal motives. Limbaugh is “malicious” – i.e., it’s not that he’s wrong, he’s bad. For Fish not to note the shift from content to character, from substance to ad hominem, seems rather sloppy. Presumably he knows the difference.

(Some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures. Won’t wash.)

Interesting that he waves away this option, which is the preferred rationalization among many. I am not particularly impressed with the distinction (everyone’s a public figure here in the sense that they’re weighing in about public policy in the public sphere).

The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.

It’s quite striking how often the gut emotions appear here – “despise…” “malicious…” “can’t abide…” Are political disagreements so visceral for Fish?

But there is an alternative way of looking at the matter and it is represented in a scene (which I have discussed previously in “The Trouble With Principle”) from the classic western movie “The Wild Bunch.” Two outlaws, played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, are talking about the gang of railroad detectives pursuing them. What rankles is that at the head of the gang is one of their old comrades. Borgnine’s character is dismayed at what he takes to be the treachery of a former colleague. Holden’s character explains that he gave his word to the railroad. Borgnine’s character shoots back, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give your word to.” What counts is who your friends and allies are. You keep your word to them and not just to anybody. Your loyalty is to particular people and not to an abstraction.

This is the classic notion of asabiyya described by Ibn Khaldoun as the highest moral principle: “my side right or wrong.” It is, by modern, civilized standards, a primitive notion associated with tribal warriors, self-help cultures (like the mafia), and patriotism (Gott mit uns). It’s precisely what people so often condemn among Zionists (communautarisme, “Israel-firsters,” “Israel right-or-wrong crowd”). That Fish would invoke it in a moral discussion in a culture based on “whoever is right, my side or not,” is rather astonishing.

Ummm… Why aren’t you going to Damascus?

Flytilla 2012

posted Apr 5, 2012 10:56 AM by Michael Rabb

Welcome to Palestine 2012:  Confronting Israel’s Blockade & Apartheid

April 5, 2012

On April 15th, hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from around the world will converge on Israel as part of “Welcome to Palestine 2012”.  I’m proud to say I will be among them.

There is no way into Palestine other than through Israeli control points. Israel has turned Palestine into a giant prison, but prisoners have a right to receive visitors.

Welcome to Palestine 2012 will challenge Israel’s policy of isolating the West Bank while the settler paramilitaries and the IDF commit brutal crimes against a defenseless Palestinian civilian population.

We call on governments to support the right of Palestinians to receive visitors and the right of their own citizens to visit Palestine openly.  The participants in Welcome to Palestine 2012 ask to be allowed to pass through Tel Aviv airport without hindrance and to proceed to the West Bank to take part in a project there for children to benefit from the right to education.”

You’d say, “don’t change the subject; you’re just trying to bloodshedwash Israeli sins.”
I’d say, “you are too cowardly to confront the real victimizers of innocent and imprisoned Arab masses; Israel’s such a choice target for your moral outrage – safe, high profile, and oh so satisfying for your self-destructive addiction to Moral Schadenfreude.

Liberals, Passover, and the Attitude towards the “Other”: The Dilemmas of 21st Century Morality

Jay Michaelson has an interesting essay in the Forward on “why Jews are so liberal?” which he wants to link to the Passover holiday. In some ways, he could not be more right, in others, he could not be more wrong. And why that’s true of both cases gives us an insight into the dilemma of the “liberal” in the 21st century.

NB: Michaelson works on millennial movements and has read my book (or at least knows of it), so in principle he knows about active cataclysmic apocalypticism and the dangers involved in this religious belief, as well as the current wave of apocalyptic Islam. He’s also has written before (2009, after Operation Cast Lead) on these matters, expressing, among others, the dilemma of understanding Israel’s problems defending herself on the one hand, and being pressured to condemn her by his friends and by the images of Israeli might and Palestinian suffering on the other. To judge from this piece, the sloganeering of his “liberal” “friends” has won the day.

Why Are American Jews So Liberal? – The Jewish Daily Forward Published Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why Are American Jews So Liberal?

Enduring Political Message of the Passover Seder

By Jay Michaelson

Strangers in Strange Land:

American Jews have long since adapted to life in the U.S. So why do they vote like they are just off the boat?   Why are Jews so liberal?

Every few years, the question gets asked, often with the unspoken follow-up “… and what can we do to change that?” This year, Republican super PACs are drooling with anticipation. If you think the attacks on Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson — I mean Gingrich — I mean a Super-PAC that theoretically doesn’t co-ordinate with Gingrich — were mean, just wait until the general election. Israel! The war on religion! The Ground Zero mosque! Anything to wake up the Jews and get them to vote Republican.

What’s more, Jews have every reason to vote Republican. In a series of studies, political scientist Sam Abrams (together with Steven M. Cohen and others) has shown how American Jews’ views on helping the needy, on diplomacy versus war, and on other litmus test issues actually line up with the center, maybe even the center-right, rather than with the left.

No link, but I suspect that on helping the needy most Jews end up on the left of the left. Certainly when Madoff went down, every major non-Jewish charity in the Boston area lost because their Jewish donors no longer could keep up their contributions.

Moreover, Jews are, on average, more affluent than most Americans, and political scientists tell us that the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. (More on that below.) When Jews were hawking pickles on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, our Democratic politics made sense. But not now, when we live in gated communities.

This is old stuff. Jews, unlike other immigrant groups, continue to vote against their pocketbook (which is admirable). And in the 21st century, they even vote against their identity (which is not so noble).  

And yet, since Ronald Reagan, no Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 30% of the Jewish vote. It’s an anomaly.   Abrams has suggested that Jews vote Democrat largely out of identity. Judge Jonah Goldstein, a 1940s Republican from New York, said famously, “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.”

Despite the fact that Roosevelt sent their fellow Jews back to the Nazi killing machine.

No doubt, that is in large part true. But in light of the Passover holiday, I want to suggest a different, perhaps complementary, view: It’s in our religion. The Torah says, many times, that our experience of oppression is meant to lead to ethical political action. “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land… and you must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:11–15).   These are clear, powerful texts. It’s only human that when we have plenty, we lose our sense of empathy for those who have little. So, religion comes to remind us not to do that — in the Jewish case, by remembering the narrative of the Passover story and our shared experience of oppression.

Actually, it goes much deeper than that. This is what one might call the empathic imperative: “do not do onto others as you would have them do onto you” rather than the dominating imperative, “do onto others before they do onto you.” It’s the way that the Exodus leads not to a reversal of relations (the slave becomes master), but it short-circuits that tendency to reverse and prolong the cycle of abuse – do onto someone weaker what someone stronger has done to you – with an empathy for the less powerful. It’s the key to true freedom which involves granting others the same freedoms we wish to exercise.

Now, let’s go back to that political science point from a moment ago, about how wealth and voting Republican tend to correlate. This is a telling point. Republicans tell us that they, too, are living out the mandates of the Bible — this was part of my point in an earlier column, that conservatives also say they have Jewish values. They just say that the best way to help the poor is to get government out of the way, let rich people make more money and then assume that those same rich people will generously make up the difference.   But then, if Republican policies were really for the benefit of everybody, why do wealthy people disproportionately vote Republican? Is it that the richer you get, the more you care about the poor?   No, of course not. Conservative politics are not for the benefit of everybody; that’s just spin. Trickle-down economics, for 30 years a pillar of Republican policy, doesn’t work. A little spending trickles down, but mostly, capital enriches itself. The wealth gap widens. The super-rich take bigger and bigger risks, and are then declared too big to fail. Trickle-down rhetoric — that tax cuts for the rich promote jobs, that taxing millionaire’s estates would hurt small businesses — is just a cover for rich people to pay fewer taxes and keep more of their money.   Which is why rich people vote Republican. Because we are selfish animals, and we want more stuff.

Aside from the superficiality of this analysis (which I largely agree with in as much as it’s partially accurate), the most striking element of this is the reductive and self-congratulatory nature of the invidious comparison. “We” democrats are good people; those republicans are selfish hypocrites. Not being a republican, and no longer being a democrat, this does not push my “us-them” emotions as it’s apparently supposed to.

Except when we remember. We remember, because of the Passover story, that we were slaves in Egypt: slaves, with no freedom, no property and no ability to look the other way from whatever we found unpleasant. And we remember, more recently, our Diaspora Jewish experiences, whether in the Holocaust or during times of anti-Semitism. Or, not too long ago, when we were disempowered peasants in Eastern Europe and new immigrants to America — just like the new immigrants that today’s Republicans want to keep out.

In other words, if we have an appreciation of the good that’s been done by letting us in, we are not to keep out others.

Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that, right at this time of year, reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.

Here’s where we skate close to the edge of something not identified. Apparently Michaelson wants us to view all “Others” as ourselves. But the commandment is to do so with neighbors and strangers. But enemies? That’s not Jewish, that’s Christian, and not even Christian, it’s radical Christian. While Judaism – indeed the Haggadah – reminds us we have enemies, liberals seem to live in a world where evil does not exist: bad things are done by people who have been misunderstood, abused, mistreated; being nice and empathic will make them “good” like us.  

And while this is true, maybe even in a large majority of the cases – depending on how good one’s therapeutic techniques are – in some cases, those where the Other is remorselessly hostile, such openness can render one fatally vulnerable.

Is this Judaism? Or, asserted without nuance, is it a potentially suicidal deviation, a system of thought that insists everyone is basically decent and humane, an approach to human nature that confuses humane with human, one that has far less longevity than the idealistic but also realistic three millennia-long Jewish tradition. Sadism is human. Only a moral imbecile treats a sadist as if he’s humane.

On Moral Sadism and Academic Disorientation: Northeastern’s Hijacked Holocaust Program

A version of this piece is up at PJMedia.

American’s for Peace and Tolerance has come out with a documentary on Northeastern’s Holocaust Memorial Program, documenting the hijacking of the program by radical anti-Zionists who spent much of their time comparing Israeli treatment of the Palestinians with the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Charles Jacobs published a column in the Jewish Advocate summarizing his criticisms.

According to an article on the subject, Northeastern Provost Stephen Director complained that Jacobs “cherry-picked his examples.”

“The present-day facts are clear: Northeastern is a vibrant academic community where people of all backgrounds and faiths come together in pursuit of knowledge.”

But dismissing a dozen prominent examples of previous intellectual and moral abuse of the Holocaust program at NE as “cherry-picked,” expresses either a lack of awareness or a dishonesty about the nature of this abuse. That Jacobs could cherry-pick any examples of people who used this venue at Northeastern to make the morally sadistic comparison of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the Nazis treatment of the Jews, represents a failure of judgment on a colossal scale.

How can an occupation which systematically exterminated millions of innocent civilians in a matter of three years, be compared with one in which the “target” population both grew in number and in prosperity over the course of 40 years? And how can one make such a comparison, without including a comparison of how Israel treats its “occupied” Palestinians with how the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war have been treated by their Arab hosts, who have been and continue to be far more ruthless and cruel with their own people than the “Nazi-like” Israelis.

Comparisons of Israelis with Nazis are not sober assessments of empirical reality – the hallmark of good history and journalism – but wild and degrading accusations – Israel-baiting – made in a moral and intellectual delirium. This represents a disorientation so radical that its prominence on campus needs to be addressed – explained, corrected – not covered up with claims of “academic freedom.” Academics are not “free” to make things up, and universities are not required to give those who do, a pulpit.

Northeast’s administration should not echo the FBI after Waco: “We didn’t do anything wrong and we won’t do it again.” We can’t learn from mistakes we don’t admit.