Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why it's not worth blogging about the Israelis and Palestinians

"I'm of Northern Irish descent, and I grew up in New York City in a mostly Jewish high school, and so as you can imagine, I've heard all the arguments about who's really to blame about a zillion times. And all I get out of it in the end is that the whole thing makes me sick and sad. I don't see any untainted victims. I see a bunch of people who have been stomped on by history beating up each other in revenge for past wrongs that can't be righted, lashing out whenever they think they can get away with it without losing the foreign funding that allows them to continue the fun. I don't ever blog about it because one is not allowed to have an opinion on the matter--no matter what I say, I'll be excusing terrorism or, irrelevantly, the holocaust, or shilling for western imperialism."


Ann Althouse said...

Seems to me she just blogged about it. Pretty crudely and narcissistically. How did her high school get into the post?

John Althouse Cohen said...

Seems to me she just blogged about it.

I think she knows that. She blogged about why it's not worth doing the conventional type of post where you announce which side you're on and explain why that side has such a fantastic moral claim over the other.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

What people don't get about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it's not a moral issue. It's a survival issue. Every society has the right, indeed duty, to fight for its own survival. Israel's existence -- not just its borders -- is continually threatened by people who want to exterminate it. No moral superiority is necessary in order for a nation to defend itself. If the Palestinians are fighting for the existence of their nation, they too have the right to fight. (By no means are other Muslim nations fighting for their own existence against Israel.) And they may be wonderful, worthy people in their own way. That doesn't matter. (See David Brooks' column in the NYT today. He understands this.)

John Althouse Cohen said...

I agree anyone has the right to defend themselves. But I'm tired of that point. It's an easy, automatic defense of anything Israel does.

The more interesting question (at least, more interesting to me now that I've maxed out on the standard defenses of Israel) is: is it a good idea (morally acceptable and/or strategically smart) for Israel to be doing precisely what it's doing?

And there are other angles that are still troubling me even given the generic right to self-defense:

Counterfactual history: Are there things that could have been done differently in the past to avoid the state they're in? (I include not creating the Jewish state in the first place as one possibility. This seems to be a taboo, which makes it all the more intriguing to me.)

Just-war theory: At some point, do conventional military actions so predictably kill large numbers of civilians that the distinction between conventional war and terrorism is blurred? It's easy to scoff at lefty "moral equivalence," but what if there's some truth to moral equivalence? Why defer to the military power that's doing the killing in accepting its own self-serving account of what's intended vs. collateral?

Blowback: You and I can sit here and have a high-flown ethical debate about the situation, but all the brilliant defenses of Israeli action we can come up with aren't going to reach Arabs in the region. They're naturally going to be moved by Palestinian suffering. The more the Israeli offensive goes on, the more Arab casualties there are, and thus the more surviving Arabs there are with intense, visceral grievances against Israel (and indirectly against the US).

Perspective: Is it justified for this situation to get such a major emphasis in our foreign policy? A relatively small number of people are involved, relative to the overall suffering and war going on throughout the world. To say it's "because we have a special relationship with Israel" is to beg the question.

Religion: Isn't it at the root of all this? I couldn't feel less sympathy for the desire to shape foreign policy around religious goals, no matter what the religion is.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I don't defend all that Israel does, but I do defend its effort to destroy Hamas. And I think I'm having (on my side, not yours) the opposite of a "high-flown ethical debate." I'm just saying kill them. Nor do I want to kill Palestinian civilians. The ideal would be for every Hamas (and Hezbollah) fighter to vanish from the earth overnight. It's unfortunate that civilians get caught up in it. It's unfortunate, too, that the line between a soldier and a civilian is blurry, and that terrorists hide among civilians. Nor do I worry about the enmity of the Muslim world as long as they aren't physically trying to destroy Israel. They have the right to hate us. I agree with you that the amount of attention paid to this situation by the rest of the world seems excessive; I think there are probably emotional reasons on all sides as well as realpolitik reasons. The situation would still exist without the attention, however. As for the religious issue, I agree that it's a regrettable motive on both sides. I don't care about mumbling and bowing in front of a ruined 2,500-year-old wall. I care about not killing half the Jews on earth.

The "easy, automatic defense" may be easy and automatic because it's valid. And it's hardly easy and automatic for the people there. I'm not there, and I don't see what standing I have to hold an opinion on it.

John Althouse Cohen said...

The "easy, automatic defense" may be easy and automatic because it's valid.

I agree. That's why I just said I'm maxed out on the arguments, not that I disagree with them. I think it's precisely because they're so valid -- and not just valid, but morally compelling enough to instill a feeling of righteousness -- that they can make it all too easy to ignore some of the angles to the conflict that it's harder to feel such moral clarity about.

And to be clear, I agree that Hamas should be destroyed and that accidentally killing innocent Palestinians (and for that matter, Israelis) is an unfortunate but necessary consequence of doing that.

I'd compare it to invading Iraq. Supporters of the invasion always had the easy argument to fall back on: "But we'd be removing a terrible dictator," and proceed to list all the bad things Saddam had done. I'm fine with killing Saddam, just as I'm fine with destroying Hamas. What bothers me isn't the noble intention to remove evil from the world. It's all the bad stuff that goes along with it when the plan is actually carried out.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I care about not killing half the Jews on earth.

I care about not killing people. Since Jews are people, I can literally say I care about not killing Jews. But that's all; I don't have some extra desire for Jews above other kinds of people not to die. I'm Jewish, and it might make me feel good to get extra worked up about people like me being killed; by the same logic, I could be extra concerned about the deaths of vegetarians or right-handed people or people named John or people who voted for Obama. But I'm not.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Your comment on the easy and automatic defense is where we agree; your comment on the killing of Jews is where we differ. Your position on the latter is more rational *sub specie aternitatis,* but as long as I'm down here and not in eternity, I don't feel bound to live by it. I care more about Jews than about Arabs in the same way that I care more about my family than other families.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I agree that my position is more objectively rational.

John Althouse Cohen said...

as long as I'm down here and not in eternity...

Wait, I thought you believed time is an illusion and everything really exists all at once. So aren't you actually "in eternity"?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

But my sensory apparatus doesn't yet perceive eternity at first hand; it's still in the time-world. Anyway:

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."
-- Whitman, "Song of Myself"

I recommend that line for all occasions whatsoever.