Tablet Exchange on Honor-Shame with Paul Scham: Unabridged Version

My friend Paul Scham, who’s on the National Advisory Board of J-Street and teaches about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at University of Maryland, as well as one of the editors of Israel Studies Review, read my piece on Honor-Shame and the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Tablet and wrote a response, to which I wrote a response, which the Tablet, after considerable editing, has published. Both Paul and I are publishing the unedited versions of our work on our blogs, so that the five zealots who want to follow every detailed turn of our discussion can do so at their leisure. Comments welcome.

Honor and Shame are not the Problem:  A Reply to Richard Landes

By Paul Scham[1]

Richard Landes’s article on the honor-shame problem is erudite, articulate, and stimulating.  It is also largely irrelevant to understanding most of the Arab world today.  Such broad sweeps of historical generalization are titillating to historians and others but do not take account of the immense variation within the Arab and Muslim worlds and the fact that fundamental changes have occurred and are occurring within the last few decades, to say nothing of the last century.  Relying on a strict cultural determinism, as Landes does, is a disservice to understanding these dynamics.

To be clear, I am not by any means denying that cultural factors are essential to understanding any society or that politics can ever be carried out on a blank slate.  Indeed, most of my own academic work is centered on the importance of historical narratives in understanding – and perhaps even helping to solve – the Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Arab) conflict. I and many others on the Left have strongly criticized the tendency of Westerners, especially American policymakers, to think ahistorically and to assume that democratic institutions can be built or rebuilt at will, given sufficient determination and resources.   The prime example of that fallacy is, of course, the conceptions behind the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Nor do I deny that understanding the role of honor and shame is essential to engaging and dealing with some societies, perhaps most of them in different ways.   And I absolutely agree that shame and honor are salient characteristics of Arab and Muslim societies.  I have frequently argued that without recognizing and dealing with the humiliation that the Nakba caused Arabs, especially Palestinians of course, one cannot understand Palestinian dynamics since 1948, nor even aspire to settle the conflict.  But at this point Landes and I part company.  I think history and experience show that humiliation can be overcome in various ways, and that societies are not condemned to wander for centuries seething from the anger of past humiliations.

It is instructive, as Landes points out, that the honor/shame nexus was created to understand Japan in the context of World War II.  The concept clearly fits Japanese society, but nevertheless Japan has been strikingly able to adapt Western institutions and create a recognizably democratic society that still retains highly distinctive features.  Thus, it is clear that an honor/shame society is not doomed ab initio.

In fact, ‘Shame societies,’ such as the Arab and Japanese, have long since developed mechanisms and rituals for settling disputes and restoring the honor of the injured parties.  However, the West has little use for shame and even less for ritual; the former has long been privatized (“Deal with it!”) and the latter relegated largely to religion and Miss Manners.  We prefer to redress our injuries through the courts and monetary compensation.  It is a western legal assumption that most injuries can be addressed through cash payments, though, of course, as individuals we recognize that some injuries can never be healed.  Western societies are similarly perplexed by long memories, such as Jews grieving for temples destroyed over 2000 years ago or Shi’a and Sunni Muslims fighting each other today over a religiously-based succession dispute that began in the 7th century.

Humiliation is even harder to understand for Westerners.  Jews do understand memory but Ashkenazim generally do not relate particularly to shame, though Mizrachim do, while Ashkenazim tend to prefer guilt.  As a country, Israel, until the last few decades at least, has generally maintained a pragmatic approach that has served it well.  A few obvious examples Israel often cites to show its willingness to compromise are Zionist agreement to the partition plans of 1937 and 1947 and an (at least nominal) willingness to trade land for peace in 1967. For an excellent discussion of why Palestinians weren’t willing to compromise on partition, see Natasha Gill, The Original No: Why the Arabs Said no and Why it Matters.

Israelis have never comprehended the huge humiliation component of 1948.  For 45 years Israel officially believed that Palestinians would simply disappear in the mass of undifferentiated Arabs, perhaps analogizing how expelled Jews throughout history were usually absorbed in existing Jewish communities.  This did not happen; instead, in exile “they became a nation,” ironically, as the Israelites did in Egypt, according to the Hagadah.  Not until 1993 did Israel recognize the Palestinians as having a collective identity.

For their part, the Palestinians and most other Arabs went through various changes, which Landes, intent on his cultural determinism, refuses to recognize.  For one thing, they did “change their elites.”  The old post-colonial regimes were almost all overthrown in the decade after 1948; Syria in 1949 and in a series of further coups, Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958.  Jordan, seemingly the most fragile of Israel’s direct adversaries, maintained the Hashemite dynasty, but saw King Abdullah assassinated in 1951 and his grandson, King Hussein, nearly overthrown in 1957.  As many historians have pointed out, there were peace overtures from Syria and even from Gamal Abdel Nasser when he took power in Egypt, though there are clear disagreements as to how serious they were.  The Arab world did change, but largely in the direction of pan-Arabism, however; not in a direction that would have abandoned the claims.  This was at least partly due to popular pressure, since the Arab and Muslim world saw the Palestinian loss of their homeland as a clear-cut case of their brothers and sisters in ethnicity and/or religion suffering a grievous wrong.  It is exactly parallel to the contemporaneous and almost universal Jewish support for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel after the Holocaust. The other factor is Israeli recalcitrance, according to many Israeli historians, by no means most of them “revisionists” or post-Zionists.  Notably, Israel’s first Foreign Minister and second Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett, hewed to a generally more dovish line but was consistently overruled by David Ben-Gurion.

We have also seen a steady progression of Arab willingness to compromise, since at least the 1970s.  Until 1967 and beyond, most Arab rhetoric was indeed focused on destroying Israel and expelling post-1917 Jewish immigrants; this gradually changed to a demand for a democratic secular state and then acceptance of a two-state political solution.  Indeed, the main reason for the rise of Hamas in the late 1980s was the (for them) unacceptable moderation of the PLO.

What has not changed is the memory of expulsion and the demand that it be recognized by Israel and the world.  As a people that cherishes its memories for millennia, Jews should be particularly sensitive to other peoples who take memory seriously.  For decades, Israelis claimed, and many still do, that Arabs left “voluntarily.”  However, in the last few decades virtually all Israeli historians,­­ of whatever political persuasion, have recognized that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave, i.e., expelled, and the rest left out of fear.  Most recently, Ha’aretz columnist Avi Shavit in his best-selling book, My Promised Land, devoted a chilling chapter to a painful description of the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda (now Lod), something originally revealed publicly in 1979 by none other than Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli commander at the Lod expulsion.

It stands to reason that when a people has been defeated and largely dispossessed by another, they want their land and homes back.  But there is no recognition of this normal human reaction in Landes’s article.  It makes sense to him that the Jewish people wanted its land back for 2000 years but he does not even examine that as a reason for Palestinian anger against Israel, even though their dispossession occurred within still living memory.

But even if he might concede that that reaction would be normal, Landes says that the culturally determined honor-shame imperative means that Palestinians and all other Arabs want only to redress their humiliation by destroying Israel.  It is interesting that Landes doesn’t address the very clear changes over the years.  Instead, you would think that all that Arabs have said is variations of “We will destroy you.”  There has been a lengthy peace process – several of them – but that is seemingly all smoke and mirrors and wishful thinking on the part of ignorant and naïve leftists like me.

In fact, there is a very long track record of statements by numerous leading Palestinians – not to mention the Arab League Initiatives of 2002, 2007, and 2013 – which make clear that they are ready to agree to the 1967 borders, with modifications and swaps.  I agree that the Palestinian Authority has not definitively repudiated the “Right of Return.”  If Landes had bothered to talk to Palestinians about this, he would realize that virtually every Palestinian leader recognizes that there will be no more than (at the most) a nominal right of return.  For Palestinians, who do not believe in Israeli goodwill any more than Israelis trust Palestinians, renunciation of the right of return comes only when an acceptable peace deal is ready to be signed.  However, there must be recognition by Israel that there was a Nakba, something Israeli historians have long since recognized.  And the two are by no means synonymous, despite the efforts of rightwing Israelis and radical Palestinians to convince us to the contrary, nor does one imply the other. Nakba means “catastrophe”; it does not mean accepting the whole of the Palestinian narrative.

Landes also brings up the “dhimmitude” thesis, peddled in the last few decades by a scholar who calls herself “Bat Ye’or” (daughter of the river, presumably the Nile).  Jews (and Christians) as “People of the Book” indeed had the status of “dhimmi” in traditional Muslim societies (though it was largely abolished in the 19th century).  Dhimmis can be understood either as “protected persons” or as “second-class citizens”; both are true.  Jews and Christians paid a special tax, the jizya, and were subject to certain restrictions, but their status was, with some exceptions and occasional riots, far better than that of Jews subject to Christian rulers into the 19th or, in the case of the Russian Empire, the 20th century.  Yes, there are anti-semitic statements in the Qu’ran, but there are also injunctions to protect Jews.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that Muslims were so incensed at their once-powerless dhimmis attaining state power and defeating them in Palestine, that they forgot everything in a murderous rage to exterminate them a rage that has supposedly lasted 66 years.  Landes certainly does not supply such evidence.   Instead he provides a very selective sampling of anti-semitic statements and none of the many contrary views.

Perhaps it isn’t apparent, but Richard Landes and I are old friends and we once had similar attitudes towards Israel.  Then I realized that my liberal values weren’t informing my attitudes towards Israel and I moved towards the “peace camp” and now identify with the Meretz party in Israel.  Richard meanwhile moved towards the right.  That’s how I see it, at least.  He describes it as having recognized reality while I have embraced fantasy.

I mention this because since our paths diverged several decades ago I have spoken with literally hundreds of Palestinians and other Arabs in various capacities to try to understand their perspectives and strategize with them on peace-related issues.  As one would expect, there is a wide variety of views, but there is a common desire to end the conflict and an almost desperate wish to “normalize” the position of the Palestinian people, just as Zionists wished to normalize the Jewish people through establishment of a state.  There are very, very few Palestinians who like Israel (why should they while the conflict persists?) and believe it is good that it exists (though I have met a few) but a majority would certainly be willing to accept some version of a two-state solution.  Admittedly, the most extreme would probably not deign to speak with me,, but I have met a fairly large cross-section of Palestinians, both in- and outside historic Palestine (aka Eretz Yisrael).

Several years ago, when I suggested to Richard that he talk to Palestinians, he told me I was spending too much time listening to them.  On the contrary; I think I got a reality check.  Are they all lying to me?  Do they have a secret line that they keep to themselves and one that they peddle to outsiders?  Such thinking reminds me very much of those who believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zionism, that famous forgery that posits that we Jews are secretly planning to take over the world.  I by no means believe everything I’m told by Arabs (or by Jews or anyone else) but when you start hearing patterns that are confirmed over and over, you get a good idea that you’re on the right track.  And I and most of my ilk do not believe in magic solutions; if and when there is a consensual peace treaty, that will not end 100% of the violence and Israel will still require a vigilant army.

Richard tries to include all Arabs in his broad brush strokes but the situation is even clearer with regard to other Arab countries.  Notably, he does not mention the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was recently modified to make it clear that it is not a take it or leave it proposition.  Nor does he evince any awareness of inter-Arab maneuvering, especially in recent years, which shows clearly that most Arab governments are far more concerned with Iran – and see it as a far greater danger – than they do Israel.  Can anyone really think any leader of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, the most important Arab states, sees Israel as a greater threat than ISIS or Bashar Assad, let alone Iran?  At this point, they simply want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict settled with a modicum of rights for a Palestinian state that they can use as a fig leaf to show their people.  However, instead of discussing these issues, Richard quotes Rahman Azzam Pasha, head of the Arab League in 1948, when the Arabs indeed wanted to destroy Israel.  That would be like quoting what Richard Nixon said about Communist China in 1949 to explain American policy toward China today.

And, yes, Palestinians were (and still are) humiliated by the Nakba.  Most would certainly love it if Israel were to disappear and all of those dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 would be able to return (though large numbers, perhaps a majority, would stay where they’ve built a life.  But decades of trying to destroy Israel have taught them that Israel is not about to disappear now or in the foreseeable future.  That is why the main Palestinian organization, the PLO, has accepted non-violence and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is, as Israel’s most eminent living statesman, Shimon Peres says, a partner for peace.

I was one of those who hoped for Arab democracy in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ and am disappointed but not totally surprised that it has evolved instead toward greater repression and violence in most cases.  But that neither proves nor disproves that Israeli-Palestinian peace can be achieved. What it does show definitively is that the vast majority of Arabs are more concerned with their own lives than with going to war to liberate Palestine, something they last did in 1967 (it is clear beyond doubt now that Sadat had no expectation whatsoever of destroying Israel in 1973; see, e.g., Yigal Kipnis, 1973:  The Road to War (Just World Books, 2013)).

Getting back specifically to honor/shame dynamics:  Arabs have developed mechanisms to overcome the barriers to reconciliation that honor and shame can cause their societies, and these are ingrained in the culture.  Two of the best known are sulha and tahadiya, which are forms of truces; the latter is discussed in my2009 USIP Special Report, which I co-authored with a Palestinian colleague.  These institutions include certain factors which may or may not be relevant to this conflict, but they do show clearly that the culture tries to prevent honor and shame from causing too much damage.  Sometimes these mechanisms succeed, sometimes they fail, as with the persistence of “honor killings” in parts of the Arab world.

Interestingly, precisely as I was writing this piece, I happened to experience this mechanism informally on a personal level.  I (and another friend) had had a quarrel with a Palestinian friend of ours that had lasted several years.  When the time came to move beyond it, he invited us to a very nice venue and went out of his way to rebuild the relationship.  To our considerable surprise, we left feeling better about him than we had in years, and are happy to work with him again, something we certainly had not envisioned.

I am the first to agree that this anecdote, in itself, proves nothing.  But it is part of a cultural tradition of moving beyond the honor/shame nexus that can, I agree, debilitate a society.

Finally, Richard scoffs at those who believe that the terms of Israeli-Palestinian peace can now be simply stated.  They can be indeed, but not because they are so obvious or simple.  Rather, some of us have spent a large part of our lives studying the conflict and trying to understand both sides.  This has borne fruit in initiatives like the Geneva and Arab Peace Initiatives, and others.  They represent similar compromises which the majority on both sides are willing to accept, but which, in parallel lockstep, they are convinced the other side would neither accept nor honor.

Thus, there is no reason to create a complex culturally determined framework which is set up to prevent any form of reachable compromise.  While there is certainly an honor-shame mechanism that operates in the Arab world, to expand it into a gigantic superstructure that overwhelms all other interests is historically and factually untenable.  This is not to say that a peace is simple.  The framework is clear but there are decades of mistrust and contrary understandings that encrust it.  But a political process that takes into account the real needs of both societies is both realistic and attainable.

[1] Paul Scham teaches the history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Maryland and is Executive Director of its Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies.  He is co-editor of Shared Histories and Shared Narratives, about Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives.  He blogs at Partners for Progressive

Response to Paul Scham

Dear Paul,

Your response illustrates the problem. You speak of humiliation and how to deal with it, but your notion of what’s involved is basically a projection of attitudes that prevail in the modern west. You and most policy-makers in the West acknowledge that Arabs and Muslims are very concerned with matters of honor and shame, but you all think that you can appease those sensitivities by showing them honor and not shaming them. They, in turn, use our misguided good will to bully us; they lead with their glass chin. Muslims riot around the world and kill innocent people because the pope said Islam is a religion of violence, and the pope needs to apologize. When you lose a sense of irony, you know you’re scared, and you’re probably missing the most important elements of the story.

From your point of view, “It stands to reason that when a people has been defeated and largely dispossessed by another, they want their land back,” a perfectly normal “human” reaction that you think I ignore. For you it’s about justice, fairness, the tragedy of dispossession, the almost desperate desire for nationhood and normalcy, all things that make sense to us.

But that’s precisely my point. I don’t think this conflict is about Israel taking the Palestinians’ land. Even though you write it as a statement of where we agree, I would never write a sentence like “without recognizing and dealing with the humiliation that the Nakba caused Arabs, especially Palestinians of course, one cannot understand Palestinian dynamics since 1948, and that the conflict cannot be settled without doing that.”

The point of my article was to distinguish between the Arab refugee Nakba of 1948 and the Arab global humiliation of 1948. They’re not the same thing, and they’re definitely not an a fortiori. On the contrary, the response of Arab leaders to their catastrophic global humiliation was to redouble the actual Nakba of their refugees.

Those Arab refugees from Palestine, the ones rounded up and put in concentration camps by their brethren to whom they fled, were at the bottom of the heap of the Arab world’s honor-shame system – fellahin, manual laborers, transients, people without protection (which is also why they were dealt with so cruelly). Israeli-inflicted humiliation was the least of their concerns in 1948; they suffered uprooting and, in their new surroundings, deliberate degradation and impoverishment from their brethren. Their original use of Nakba reproached the Arab leadership that brought catastrophe down upon their heads.

The plight of the Palestinians, then, is not the core of the conflict. Indeed, that problem could be solved to everyone’s benefit with a minimum of good will if the Palestinians were a people and their leaders cared about them. The core of the conflict in this “honor-shame” analysis concerns the Arab Nakba, the global humiliation of 1948. Arab leaders loudly promised a world community, that they would deal summarily with this holocaust-wounded people. When they failed, spectacularly, they became the laughing stock of the global community.

For these players, for the current Arab political culture’s honor-group, it’s not about land. By merely coming into existence – a free people in our own land – Israel constituted at blow to Arab and Muslim honor; in that universe, Israel was literally unthinkable. Dar al Harb in Dar al Islam – heaven forbid! By winning in 1948, Israel added insult to injury. Even in the West (which did not fully appreciate what Dar al Islam was about), the military loss blackened the Arab’s face in front of the world community.

That humiliation lies at the heart of key causes and resolutions to the conflict, and the Palestinians are not a reflection of that problem, but a product of the Arab world’s combined denial and attempt to avenge it. The Palestinian people, victimized by Israeli conquest and expulsion, represents a scapegoating narrative by which the Arab elites seek to at once deny and revenge their Nakba by using the Palestinians as sacrificial pawns: they may not make peace with Israel precisely because they literally exist to destroy them, something some on the “left” are beginning to recognize.

This resistance lies behind the irredentist voice we now hear (alas, even from infidel “progressives” on Western campuses): From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. It really means, from the river to the sea is dar al Islam, over which Islam must rule, in which infidels can only live as dhimmi. That’s why all land-based compromises, i.e., solutions in which the Jews get even a sliver of a slice of land, have failed so far. It’s got nothing to do with Palestinian identity, nationality, rights, or peoplehood. The only people who take Palestinian claims to national identity seriously are progressive infidels; no one in the Arab world pays it any more than lip-service.

But I suspect somewhere you know all this. You just don’t want to admit it, because you are in thrall to the notion to which you’ve dedicated most of your scholarly work “the importance of historical narratives in understanding – and perhaps even solving – the Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Arab) conflict.” If only we would listen to, even affirm the perfectly reasonable complaints of the Palestinians, their demand that Israel and the world “recognize” their “memory of expulsion,” their claim to nationhood, then we could all move forward (which is what virtually every Jew in the world would like to see happen). And who more than Jews should understand wanting one’s nation recognized, wanting to return to one’s land? Win-win!

And you may be right: narrative does have therapeutic value, especially when it’s tied to empirical reality. Your therapeutic history, however, relies a projection of how to deal with humiliation and a misreading of the enormity of the humiliation. So not only will such apologies not work, they will (and have) backfire(d) precisely because the people you seek to move – the “Palestinians” – cannot move without the approval of the Arab honor group, and that group plays by entirely different rules when it comes to overcoming humiliation.

For them the motto is: “that which has been taken by force must be taken back by force.” And this applies triply to situations in which you lost to a (supposedly) weaker “force.” The dream of a negotiated positive-sum solution would make them women in their own eyes. When you say, “history and experience shows that humiliation can be overcome in various ways, and… societies are not condemned to wander for centuries seething from the anger of past humiliations,” that’s the history of the West to which you refer, not Arab history, where to this day, Shi’a and Sunn’i still seethe over events over fourteen centuries ago.

But your strategy has another problem. The “narrative of Palestinian suffering inflicted by Israel that you’ve accepted as “authentic” actually serves as a lethal narrative, fashioned by the very Arab leadership that seeks revenge at all costs, that uses the Palestinians for whom it pretends to speak, as sacrificial pawns. You say, “the Arab and Muslim world saw the Palestinian loss of their homeland as a clear-cut case of their brothers and sisters in ethnicity and/or religion suffering a grievous wrong.”

Nonsense. It’s not clear whether anyone in the Arab world cares about (when they don’t actively dislike) the Palestinians. It’s a classic zero-sum, scapegoating narrative, steeped in denial, compensatory anger, and hatred, a narrative that not only targets the intended victim, Israel, with the accusation of committing the crimes that the Arabs tried and failed to accomplish, and refuses any responsibility for the vicious blunders they themselves committed, but also victimizes the “Palestinians” on whose behalf it claims to speak. And most Palestinian spokesmen, traitors to their people, adopt this narrative that targets Israel rather than the Arab elites who cause their suffering. The way the Nakba has become a weapon against Israel tells the tale of how the Arab zero-sum honor-shame group has appropriated Arab self-critical impulses get appropriated for scapegoating narratives steeped in denial.

And rather than help them pursue the kind of self-criticism necessary for any growth, you (and your colleagues on the “left”) condescend to the Palestinians by adopting their dishonest narratives as a way to spare their feelings. Israel has to acknowledge their narrative editorializes Haaretz, and although they also should acknowledge Israel’s, dialogue advocates tend to give them a pass when they fail. They, being in the weak position, we cannot expect them to publicly self-criticize; “wait,” they tell us, “till we have statehood.” Talk to anyone who goes on a “dialogue trip” to the Palestinian territories in search of understanding: “listen,” they’re instructed, “don’t contradict, don’t argue. They need to tell their story.” It’s the equivalent of saying, “go, drink a toxic stew of lethal narratives designed to make Muslims jihadis and infidels pacifists.”

On the contrary, they need to start hearing the stories of those “others,” those infidels, they’ve wronged in countless ways, with their mass-murdering “resistance,” with their heinous and sadistic accusations of Nazi-like behavior, with their cowardice in the face of their own predatory elites whom they dare not criticize openly. The Palestinians will really become a people, a nation, perhaps the first in the Arab world that is not, in Sadat’s words, “a tribe with a flag,” when they begin to acknowledge their tragic story: how they were betrayed and victimized by their own elites, how that came about because their political culture is driven by a pathological honor-imperative that demands dominion, dominion over the “other”, whether socially inferior, or Christian or Jew, over their women, over each other, how they have the best possible enemy and the worst possible “friends.”

Which brings me to my last comment on your text. You ask: “Could they all be lying to me?” and respond, “no.” This response embodies your cognitive egocentrism, from the allusion to the Protocols (we didn’t like being accused of conspiracy, we shouldn’t accuse them) right down to its formulation, in which lying is a serious accusation. But very few cultures in history value honesty over public honor. Even fewer have public figures “proud” to admit to error and wrong, a tendency so strong in the Jewish community that we have people who are “proud to be ashamed to be Jewish.”

In an honor-shame driven society, however, saving face trumps all; indeed honor demands the shedding of blood. A fortiori, must one lie to save face. As a result, the overwhelming weight of public opinion on the Palestinian/Arab side opposes any form of honesty that shames. What Palestinian spokesmen admit to massacring Jews as a shameful deed? On the contrary, even “moderates” like Abbas, glorify those who mass-murder Israeli civilians.

Your pious defense of Arab honesty – they wouldn’t all lie to me – merely proves either how little you understand, or how you’ll lie to preserve their honor. (Indeed many of your colleagues on the “left” are quick to accuse anyone who suggests otherwise of “racism.”) But in some (many) cultures, lying is a game of wits: I lie to you to test your critical acumen. When you accept their strategic protestations as true – e.g., the settlements are the problem; we Palestinians will be satisfied with a return to the “‘67” borders, we desperately want to live normal lives – you think you’re being generous and sympathetic, but you just demonstrate your folly to them.

As for your Palestinian interlocutors, I don’t know how each one feels, but I think that many fall along the following spectrum: on one extreme, those who want your approval, and at the other extreme, those who would manipulate you into getting Israel to make public confessions that blacken her face before the world community (feeding BDS), and concessions that would fatally weaken her (feeding the Palestinians’ military option). My sense is that you will not allow yourself to suspect your interlocutors of the latter: heaven forbid that they should be so dishonest, and that you should be so easily manipulated.

In so doing you strengthen the very honor-shame forces that you accuse me of being a cultural determinist for identifying as the source of the problem. I actually believe the Arab and Muslim world can change – indeed, for the sake of Muslims and infidels the world over, must change. (As the Taliban and ISIS make clear, nothing would be more disastrous for Muslims than the victory of Islamism.) My academic work focuses on how cultures deal with testosteronic honor, and under what circumstances a more positive-sum voice emerges, especially in relationship to the “other.” (Europe in the Middle Ages was also a zero-sum honor-shame culture.) And my analysis suggests that the folks who claim to represent the “progressive left” from the “solidarity” movement to the J-Streeters, encourage the Palestinians to double down.

The best proof that Arabs have a noble and tolerant past and that Islam is a religion of peace, is not repeating politically correct formulas to soothe their wounded egos, but for the present generation of Muslims to bring that proud identity into reality, not as sadistic rage, but as a courage to show generosity to the “other,” in this case the Jewish other.

Positive-sum westerners see “two states” as the obvious solution to the conflict on the land between the river and the sea. But analyzed in terms of honor-shame reasoning and the players involved, not only is that solution not going to work, but it’s actually designed to pursue the zero-sum dream: “Palestine from the river to the sea.” When we understand that the problem is not “how much” territory is Israel willing to concede to satisfy the Palestinians?” but “how do Arab Muslims overcome the humiliation that is Israel, and find their dignity in the global community,” different landscapes and alternatives arise.

First it becomes crystal clear that resolving this contest in a way that convinces Islamist supremacists to stand down becomes imperative not only for Israel, but for the West and all other peoples around the world, who, in the early decades of the third (global) millennium, are also the target of this zero-sum, honor-driven, imperialist version of monotheism: one God, one rule, one religion. The idea that “land for peace” is an (the only) option, has progressives, Jewish and not, convinced that if only they cram this solution down Israel’s throat (for its own good of course, à la J-Street), they’ll solve the problem. Such a solution will only pour oil on the Jihadi fire.

The alternative perspective, however, by considering real causes, opens up new thinking and new solutions. This means viewing the specific conflict as one between Israel, the only (democratic) state of the Jews, fighting off 22 Arab and 57 Muslim (authoritarian) states driven by a hard zero-sum vision of Islam in the world to oppose its very existence, and beyond that, between Muslim theocratic, authoritarian political culture and the democratic West.

In that framework, I’d like to suggest a Qur’an inspired alternative, also an obvious solution, but one that addresses the heart of the dilemma, not only of the “local” Arab-Israeli conflict, but the global “Muslim-infidel” conflict, namely the inability of Muslims to live peaceably with their neighbors, Muslim and infidel. The greatest challenge of this generation is to the Muslim world to effect major changes in the hard zero-sum way they have historically behaved towards infidels (and women, and anyone less powerful). Everyone’s life, on this increasingly connected planet of the beginning third millennium, depends on Muslims rising to this challenge. Israel is their Dreyfus Affair, their test of modernity. Can they shift moral paradigms? Can they live at peace with the rest of the world without trying to subject them?

To those of Allah’s faithful who would like Islam to stand in a place of honor among the nations of a peaceful and peace-loving world, I make this suggestion that, I think, will set you on a fruitful path. In the Qur’an, Surah 107 explains to people that, at the Last Judgment, Allah will not smile on those who “would be seen (i.e., admired) yet refuse the small kindness.” And yet this is precisely what Arab and Muslims have done to the Jews for the last 66 years.

There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, or about a fifth of the global population; there are 12 million, Jews, or about a fifth of a percent of the world population. Of the entire area occupied by Arab-speaking majorities in the world, greater Israel constitutes a fifth of a percent of that total. Given all that Islam shares with Judaism (dare one say, adopted from Judaism), do you Muslims really think that on the Day of Judgment, Allah will forgive you if they refuse us the “small kindness” of being allowed to prosper on this tiny sliver of land? For the sake of world peace – literally – do not refuse us this “small kindness.”

Scham Answer to Landes Response

Your lengthy answer to my response highlights the differences in our world views and I think I don’t need to reiterate my arguments, except for one general point.  You are seeking intellectual/ideological solutions as a preface t, or even substitute for, political change, while I see the problem as primarily political and therefore amenable to political solutions.  As I wrote previously, I agree that some of the ideological phenomena, even pathologies, that you describe exist in the Arab and Muslim worlds.  However, I strongly disagree that they are the dominant themes, even if they appear the most spectacular and therefore seem most newsworthy.  I feel you are erecting a huge ideological superstructure based on a lot of intellectual constructs, many of which would collapse in the face of Israeli political action to ameliorate the conditions it has imposed on the Palestinians under its effective control.

Of course there’s a lot more that I could write but I think we have delineated our differences pretty well, at least for a start.

Landes Answer to Scham response:

The very fact that experts in politics call themselves political “scientists” says a great deal about how much they overestimate the reliability and the scope of their discipline. I am not engaged in intellectual/ideological analysis (projection?). I’m engaged in psychological and anthropological analysis as a necessary preliminary to finding practical solutions.

Join me.

14 Responses to Tablet Exchange on Honor-Shame with Paul Scham: Unabridged Version

  1. So much cluelessness, so little time.

    “Are they all lying to me? Do they have a secret line that they keep to themselves and one that they peddle to outsiders?”

    Yes. That is exactly what they do. They nice sounding things in English to foolish American liberals. In Arabic among Arabs, they speak of blood lust and death worship.

    Check the translated material at:

    “I have frequently argued that without recognizing and dealing with the humiliation that the Nakba caused Arabs, especially Palestinians of course, one cannot understand Palestinian dynamics since 1948,”

    Humiliation should lead to humility, which civilized men hold to be a virtue. And the liberal is correct that the Japanese learned to deal with it. But, the Japanese are civilized and turned humiliation into productive activity. The Japanese constructed the world’s third largest economy on their tiny resourceless island.

    The Arabs deal with humiliation differently. They turn to homicidal violence. Have you ever heard of honor killings? They are perfectly willing to murder their own children if they feel that the child has humiliated them.

    Simply put Arabs are not civilized, and they don’t want to be civilized. They want to be 7th century barbarians. And they will kill anyone or anything that gets in their way. Refer to the works of ISIS in Iraq to see it demonstrated. Further, despite having enormous sums of capital poured on them by the sheer luck of sitting on top of cheaply produced oil, they have not been able to put together an industrial economy of any size. Subtract fossil fuels from their productive activity, and they live in abject poverty.

    Look at what they did in Gaza. They did not turn it into Japan. They took the resources the world donated to them and used those resources to build an underground fortress. Clearly, the sole object of their democratically elected government is the violent death of Jews.

    I give up.

  2. I tend to side with Richard Landes, but also have some misgivings about all this talk of an ‘honour-shame driven society’.

    Being the victim of an injustice and too weak to defend yourself triggers a feeling of shame or wounded pride that easily mutates into hatred. I think that is entirely normal (human). I can remember experiences from childhood and adolescence very much like that, and as an adult I also have them whenever I have to deal with tax officials and their legal ways of reversing the burden of proof!

    In Plato’s Gorgias Socrates argues (demonstrates) that being the victim of injustice is ‘better’ than being the perpetrator (because the perpetrator is ‘uglier’ and consequently ‘worse’), but he doesn’t deny the obvious, namely that the victim suffers more.

    So I remain of the view that it is not so much the honour-shame emotional complex itself that is the problem, it is the cognitive misapprehension of reality, i.e. understanding something as an injustice when it isn’t, that triggers it when there is no valid reason for it.

    In the case of Muslims and Arabs raging because of the injustice done to them by Israel’s sole existence one may suspect that the unescapable insight that they brought it all on themselves by their own misplaced intransigence makes the ‘suffering’ only greater. The criminal rages about his victimhood in order not to have to admit to his crime (fault). Placating the criminal by withholding the truth from him, however, will certainly not help to deflate his narcissistic bubble.

    However, I don’t believe for a second that the real criminals, i.e. the political leaders themselves, are the victims of an honour-shame emotional complex: they’re cynically exploiting it for the power it achieves for them. The Muslim population at large could also probably be weaned off rather easily by a different political leadership. It’s those in between, the ‘supernumerous young men supplied by excessive population growth’, who suffer from it for their own private reasons, and then become the instruments of criminal political leaders.

    Paul Scham: “For an excellent discussion of why Palestinians weren’t willing to compromise on partition, see Natasha Gill, The Original No: Why the Arabs Said no and Why it Matters.”

    The Original ‘No’: Why the Arabs Rejected Zionism, and Why It Matters, by Natasha Gill, 2013-06-19

    It may be an excellent discussion, but what is her conclusion? My conclusion remains the same as it was before I read her article: enumerating all the reasons why the Arabs said ‘no’ to Zionism may be enough to prove that the Zionists had no right to Palestine. But it is not enough to prove that the Arabs themselves had a right to Palestine, and consequently had a right to say ‘no’ to negotiations with the Zionists on how to reach a compromise between their conflicting aims and claims. But that is exactly what the Arabs assumed. And that is what they did. And in defense of that unproven right they then waged a war against the newly created Jewish state of Israel, a war that was an unjust war.

    Richard Landes’s suggestion of the ‘small kindness’ alternative, I believe, is much more than a possible suggestion. It is the only lawful way to deal with conflicting aims and claims that are no proven rights. ‘Being of good will/good faith’ I would think is another expression for ‘small kindness’. It is very unfortunate that ‘world leaders’ tend to forget about these immaterial things, which they apparently find too impractical. At least that is the impression one gets when one hears them never talking about them. Although these immaterial things are needed to make our practical dealings human.

  3. dcdoc says:

    “The concept clearly fits Japanese society, but nevertheless Japan has been strikingly able to adapt Western institutions and create a recognizably democratic society that still retains highly distinctive features. Thus, it is clear that an honor/shame society is not doomed ab initio.”

    Whether or not Japan’s honor/shame society was doomed ab initio, its end came as abruptly and definitively as any profound cultural change has ever come about in human history, that on August 6, 1945, which was then re-inforced and made certain on August 9, 1945. What, if anything, will bring about anything like such a change in the Arab world remains to be seen.

  4. Richard Landes says:

    Paul’s friend Rob Eisen, who teaches Jewish Studies at GWU left the following note by him which I reproduce here.

    The honor-shame dynamic varies in content and intensity with different cultures, but it’s in EVERY culture because it’s a basic element of human psychology. There’s lots to say about this from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, something Landes just isn’t sensitive to. He also doesn’t seem to realize that the same dynamic informs all foreign policy in the world including that of the US. Everything we do in the international sphere is about honor-shame.

    Jews have the honor-shame dynamic too. In fact, it’s at the root of our culture. I could cite any number of examples, but perhaps the most important is the messianic idea which is the notion that at the end of days, our humiliation will be redressed and we will vanquish our enemies with God’s help in the most bloody fashion and we will then reside in our land with all the nations recognizing that the one true God is the God of Israel. You can’t find a better example of the honor-shame dynamic than this. I could also cite any number of examples from the research I’m doing on war in Halakhah about how honor plays into Jewish thinking on the waging of war.

    One of the reasons we don’t think we are subject to them same honor-shame dynamic in the current situation in Israel is that so far we’ve mostly been winners. You see the honor-shame issue emerge when people are losers. That’s when they speak of how important their honor is. But so far Israel has won its wars and has held on to the land it has conquered, so we don’t seen to speak about it. But I can promise you that if an Arab power were to ever conquer Israel or even part of it, you’d have Jews doing some terrible things in order to redress our own humiliation at having lost our land.

  5. Norm Kachuck, MD says:

    Thanks to all of you for a remarkably erudite and informative interaction on this page. I believe the responses to Professor Landes’ blog are missing some critical thinking about the social psychology of cultures, and how our WEIRD (= western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (Henrich et al 2010)) societies have diverged from their shame/honor-weighted past in a way that Arab/Islamic societies have not. And how the moral foundations of the persons in those societies, and the institutions they create for security and governance, are influenced by such intrinsic intuitional tenets of social interaction.

    The self-psychology of the shame-guilt spectrum in WEIRD society focuses on people in shaming families being branded characterologically as inadequate, as unable to meet societal standards of competence, and suffering from a lack of perceived self-worth as a result. And the corrective is empathy, for oneself as well as for others, if I might be permitted a clumsy explanation of a very complicated field. Therapeutic intervention requires the acknowledgement of vulnerability to shame being replaced with a self-esteem that makes it possible to understand and correct behaviors. As such, guilt is a healthier form of self-criticism and self-correction. Being guilty allows one to still be a good person who just did something wrong, without these actions impacting on one’s intrinsic self-worth.

    How this plays out on a cultural level is to do with the external-internal play of self-identification that society allows one to use in establishing self-worth. Healing the social brain is a culturally delimited process in both the West and Near East, I imagine, so one is playing out Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates about appearance of virtue being more or less important than some inner sense of it. It appears to be Dr. Landes’ point that the honor-based society is going to emphasize the shame aspect of social recognition, with redress to be found in recovering one’s image of self-worth, and this requires, in the Arab/Islamic world, far more than the Western judicial forms of recompense. Not solely one’s own “name” and reputation are at stake in any perceived defeat. In the nested kinship and balanced opposition structure of identity in the Arab world, it is also that of your family, clan, tribe, etc. I defer to Philip Carl Salzman and Rafael Patai on these points, but welcome being pointed in alternate directions for reference if there are ones (besides the late Edward Said’s Orientalism rejection, which I in turn reject as an example of Islamic/Arab honor protectionism).

    The first step has to be in rehumanizing and, if possible, validating each side’s version of morality as imbedded in a social contract that they can endorse. (No more thugs, traitors, racists, fascists, and other vilifying names that dehumanize the Other). I would appreciate your opinions on how we could use such a tool as the Moral Foundation Theory model created by Graham, Haidt and their colleagues (described in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, but more succinctly and scientifically discussed in Graham J, Haidt J, Koleva S et al, Adv Exp Soc Psych, in press but available now via Haidt’s web page), to reframe these social and psychological issues in a way that clarifies what separates the West (and Israel) from the Islamic Arab world. And on a more local level, I think we can establish ways using this model to account for how difficult it appears for Western “liberal” and “conservative” writers here to feel like they are being heard correctly in this process.

    The issue of how American Jews who profess liberal leanings on issues related to their home country, can become more conservative on issues related to Israel, is also a question, I believe, of self-identification with one’s “social” brain, and reflects how cultural context and social bonds define us and how we view moral behavior. I can’t speak for the correspondents here, but those Jews or Jewish supporters in my experience who move to a pro-Palestinian view in such situations are motivated by exactly the liberal matrix of care/harm and liberty/oppression that Haidt describes, and de-emphasize the other axes (fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation). Those who, like me, see this more balanced, or pro-Israel, are likely to increase emphasis on the other four. Interestingly, I would imagine that the same would be true for Muslims who feel strong ties to the US, and are concerned for their fellow religionists. But what of the Islamist fundamentalist, the Hamas member, the Palestinian “street”, the Israeli progressive, the settler or Jewish fundamentalist? These have yet to be researched, as far as I can tell, but would be of interest.

    Finally, what difference does this all make besides debating points? How does this framing of the psychological state of self hood, and the evolution of conscience as one might argue has occurred as shame societies turn to guilt for redressing grievances, aim us at trends we believe are required for the Arab/Islam world to meet the challenges of modernity? In psychotherapeutic terms, one hopes for insight into one’s intuitions and how they emerge from the unconscious to consciousness, and the way recognition of the sources of these feelings work on our rationales for understanding ourselves and world. From that comes empathy, as we recognize how we are formed by our interactions with others, and how evolution has worked on us at multiple levels to select advantageous behaviors and mental functions for social coherence and personal well-being. Jeremy Rifkin speaks of empathy sociologically as it is increasingly valued in Western society, evolving with our increasing WEIRD-ness. Will our discussions here lead to work in understanding how empathy fails to operate across the chasm between shame and guilt cultures? And can we turn this recognition into a method for improving our understanding of the Arab-Israel rift, and the strategy and diplomacy required to mend it?

    • Doctor Kachuck, thank you for this contribution of yours. I agree with your implicit point (if i understood you correctly) that the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict requires a deeper understanding of the psychologies of the involved societies. If i may suggest, it might be better if you rephrase something you said, i quote it:

      ” but those Jews or Jewish supporters in my experience who move to a pro-Palestinian view in such situations are motivated by exactly the liberal matrix of care/harm and liberty/oppression that Haidt describes, and de-emphasize the other axes (fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation). Those who, like me, see this more balanced, or pro-Israel[emphasis mine], are likely to increase emphasis on the other four.”

      I doubt that it is the best way to start a discussion by (inadvertently) letting the “anti-Israel” side believe that you see them as unbalanced. Not to mention that the Israeli progressives (whom i have found myself increasingly identifying with) do not believe at all that they are anti-Israel (hence my scare quotes).

      My guess is that your mention of balance was a descriptive reference to the number of the invoked axes that are “satisfied” (please do correct me if there is a better term) by your beliefs on the particular aspect of the conflict, and not a normative reference to your beliefs being more psychologically balanced on account of that satisfaction. I hasten to add that i have no idea what those axes are referring to, and that i plan to read on them following your sources, but i thought of alerting you to the fact that your phrasing might give rise to unnecessary friction – a friction to be expected, considering that the Israeli progressives constantly complain that they are painted by the mainstream as somehow emotionally disturbed and unbalanced.

      I don’t have the time right now to engage you, and, even if i did, i would first need to read the online source you alluded to, but i hope i will be able in the future to chat about these things with you – i mean the societal psychological dynamics involved and how we might harness them in the quest for peace.

      Thanks again for your contribution. It is my firm belief that only sober dialogue, such as the one you demonstrably try to make come about, can ever lead to a real solution to the conflict – if there is one.

      • Norm Kachuck, MD says:

        D: Yes, not normative, but in relation to how the 6 scales are used to establish priorities of moral foundation in their model. The balance I referred to was in recruitment of more of these in the matrix by so-called conservative as compared to liberal respondents. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    This has been very interesting. I think Scham has a good point: the “honor-shame” narrative is not the whole story of the Arab (and other Moslem) rejection of Israel.

    Reducing it to that paradigm fails to account for many things.

    For instance, the indifference of many Moslems to Israel at times. Neither Turkey nor Iran had any particular reaction to the violation of the Dar al-Islam till much later.

    The Kingdom of Jordan has made peace with Israel, and the peace holds, despite the presence there of millions of ethnic-Palestinian Arabs.

    We could also note the presence of Christian Palestinians in the ranks of anti-Israel fanatics (e.g. George Habash).

    The spread of anti-Israelism through Moslem countries and communities in the last few decades has correlated with the “Arabization” and “Wahhabization” of Moslem culture under the influence of Saudi missionary work, lavishly funded by petrodollars. It’s in many ways a late development, not an automatic consequence of 1948.

    Landes is right to find a major root of Moslem hostility in the honor-shame paradigm; this sentiment was always at least latent among Moslems, as long as the Israel issue was still live. So it was easily stirred up when Islamist influence became strong.

    And of course it is embedded into the consciousness of the Palestinians. However, there it is combined with the material losses suffered in 1948. Not only have these losses not been redressed, but the Arab countries and even the Palestinians themselves refuse to let them be healed.

    It also ties in to the points raised by Natasha Gill in the essay linked by Scham: that Palestinians had legitimate objections to Zionism, which have been ignored. Her suggestion that

    Each of these elements contributes to anti-Zionism, along with plain anti-Semitism.

    Finally, Schama is right when he notes the practical indifference of most Moslems to Israel. However, when push comes to shove, when actual decisions about Israel are made, the honor-shame takes over.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    A point I forgot above: the comparison with Japan is important. Japan did suffer a catastrophic defeat and humiliation. But there are several differences.

    On one hand, Japan has no tradition of conquest and domination – for most of its recent history, it ignored the rest of the world. The imperialist binge of the early 1900s was an aberration.

    On another hand, Japan was defeated, but suffered no material losses other than wartime damage. No Japanese territory was seized, no Japanese were displaced from their homes. (There were insignificant exceptions.)

    In Palestinian revanchism, these two factors are both strongly present.

  8. Scott Smith says:

    “There are very, very few Palestinians who like Israel (why should they while the conflict persists?) and believe it is good that it exists (though I have met a few) … Several years ago, when I suggested to Richard that he talk to Palestinians, he told me I was spending too much time listening to them.”

    I would like to suggest an alternate way of looking at Scham’s observation and how that relates to Landes’ thesis. The small number of Palestinians who believe that it is good that Israel exists represent the small number of Palestinians who reject the prevalent notion that Israel’s existence represents “humiliation” to the Arab people. I don’t know who Scham has dealt with who fits this mold, but I am thinking of the likes of journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, Sheikh Ziad Jabari, (Jordanian-Palestinian) politician Mudar Zahran, and priest Gabriel Nadaf.

    I would summarize that with the exceptions of those who find Israel’s existence as an inherent positive, Landes’ discussion of the root-issue being the honor-shame dynamic is accurate. For them, demands for restoring a semblence of the 1967 demarcation lines is part of a taqqiya strategy in which regaining those territories will put them in a better position from which to restore their honor. The key to peace, rather than appeasing those who will be appeased by nothing short of removing the humiliating stain of the former dhimmis ruling their own state, is to augment the influence of the currently small number of exceptions. Doing so will likely require significant concessions on the part of Israel. However, doing so for the purpose of strengthening the hand of those who reject the zero-sum nature of the conflict, as opposed to doing so in the vain hope of appeasing those who cleave to it, would be worthwhile.

    I would recommend that both of you talk more to the exceptions, particularly those in the mold of the ones I listed by name. In the case of Scham, this would come at the expense of conversations with the non-exceptions and would provide a contrast between the demands of those seeking improvement in the lives of everyday Palestinians from the demands of those seeking a better strategic position from which to eliminate Israel. For Landes, talking to such Palestinians would provide a model for how a Palestinian society ready to live in peace with Israel would think.

  9. […] humiliation in the Israeli-Arab conflict  that I carried on with Richard Landes here and on Richard’s blog and in abridged form on Tablet.  Unfortunately, the current continuation of the always […]

  10. […] online in Tablet.  I wrote a response which appears below (and is excerpted in Tablet), which Richard answered (below my response) and then I wrote a brief rejoinder (below […]

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