Unlike evil, ruthlessness is not some metaphysical abstraction we can ponder and dissect, but never fully understand.
For ruthlessness is concrete and, in its own self-centered way, completely rational.
After all, none of us would claim that we don’t want something from life (money, respect, love, authority), nor is it controversial to say that some people want more (sometimes much more) of these things than others. And the notion that a subset of people will go to any length to get what they want is not speculation, but historical and observable fact.
In fact, behaving ruthlessly is more intuitive than acting in some of the “civilized” ways we now take for granted (think for a minute about that example I used previously of a society where the people with guns unquestionably follow the orders of those without them).
But because ruthlessness exists in all times and places, we run the risk of missing some of the particulars related to the current situation of the Jews and their state if we simply chalk the behavior of our foes up to such an all-encompassing phenomenon.
For there seems to be a special something that makes ruthless men (and women) organize their politics around opposition to “The Jews,” with various rationalizations only coming into play after the fact to justify this opposition (i.e., The Jews are too religious/the Jews are Godless, the Jews are clannish/the Jews are assimilated, the Jews are stateless/the Jews have a monstrous state).
It’s tempting to blame this behavior on plain old bigotry, similar to the racism that has driven murderous rampages between people for millennia (as well as injustices such as slavery, Apartheid and Jim Crow). But all of these other forms of bigotry require the object of that bigotry (i.e., members of the despised minority) to actually exist. Only Jew hatred seems to spring up and become an organizing force for politics and society whether or not any actual Jews are nearby to hate, murder or enslave.
You can see this in Eastern Europe where self-declared anti-Semitic political parties are re-emerging, regardless of the fact that Jews have all but disappeared in those lands. And you see it throughout the Arab world which has become a Vesuvius of classic anti-Semitic words and imagery permeating the media, the school curricula, and the minds of a disturbing percentage of the population.
To understand why this might be, and why anti-Jewish politics is different from other forms of politicized racism, we must turn to another prophetic writer: Harvard University’s Ruth Wisse.
I promised myself to give the whole Left-Right thing a rest, but not before pointing out how much our tendency to evaluate every thinker along one of these axes impoverishes understanding. For these two dimensions just don’t make room for genuine iconoclasts like Lee Harris (a gay, Democrat voting, Southerner who left his Baptist Church behind for Philosophy and now writes for conservative think tanks and publications).
Regarding Wisse (a truly original thinker who is also an outspoken conservative), the temptation is to just lump her in with every other Right-thinking person in order to unquestionably embrace or ignore her (depending on your own political persuasion).
Certainly the subtitle of If I am not for Myself (“The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews“) is a direct attack on liberal belief. But her description of that liberal belief system (one which assumes the world and mankind is in the process of continuous improvement, that problems can and should be settled via reason and debate, and that conflict often arises from misunderstanding vs. malice) applies not just to those who might vote Democrat, but to anyone touched by Enlightenment values (which includes just about all of us).
According to Wisse, the Arab-Israeli conflict (or, as she more aptly terms it: “The Arab War Against the Jews”) challenges every part of this liberal belief system since it opens up the possibility that societies can devolve (not just improve), and that some problems cannot be solved through reasoned debate since they do not well up from misunderstanding but rather from deliberate malice (or what Lee Harris might call deliberate ruthless enmity).
Faced with the possibility that one group of people might hold a grudge for a century, and force their children and their children’s children to live in squalor for another century in order to have revenge over an enemy is more than many a good Enlightenment thinker can bear.
And so we draw back or avert our gaze (so that the world as it is does not interfere with what we would like it to be). Or (as we have seen again and again) we blame the Jews for the war waged against them in order to find some explanation that allows us to maintain our world view.
Wisse’s theory explains so many things I’ve encountered in the fight against BDS over the years, including my own political trajectory. It explains the retreat of those tired of what seems to be a never-ending fight into communities where they might not have to deal with the whole ugly mess (a group I belonged to after my kids were born around 2000). And it also explains the extreme hostility to forces (such as BDS) which try to drag the Middle East conflict into these supposed safe havens (which explains my behavior after BDS came knocking at my door in Somerville, MA in 2004).
Sadly, it also explains why so many people are desperate for an explanation of the Arab War Against the Jews that might make it seem rational, or at least within our ability to solve (such as believing it to be “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” which Israel could resolve if it wanted to). And it explains why the ruthless actors waging this war will gladly offer to provide this alternative to reality to anyone ready to buy it.
But this theory, important as it is, does not explain the role “The Jews” play for Lee Harris’ ruthless actors. To understand that, we need to look at another remarkable set of ideas in Wisse’s books, ideas that will be the subject of my next post.