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Yoram Hazony’s Paradigm Shift

21 Dec

While the recent series on Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal focused on a conflict that’s always close to the surface in any Middle East debate (i.e., who plays what role in our Left-Right political continuum when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict), an article by Yoram Hazony (one of the most insightful political thinkers of the age) point out challenges that go way beyond how we think about contemporary political alignments.

For, according to Hazony, the way important players (particularly in the West) view the current conflict has to do with a clash not of civilizations but of paradigms, the intellectual frameworks through which we understand and interpret facts and ideas.

Hazony borrows this idea from Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking work The Structures of Scientific Revolutions which proposed that major advances in science proceed not through the careful and gradual work of experimentation and analysis but via shifts in paradigms that go against everything that is currently believed.

The shift from an earth-centered to sun-centered universe was one such break (with earth-centered beliefs supported not just by religion and superstition, but by the science of the day) giving way to new theories which better fit the facts.  Similarly, Newton’s physics had to give way (or at least make room for) fields such as relativity and quantum mechanics which explained things that could not be understood from intuition applied to everyday observation.

In each of these cases, champions of new theories proposed something that did not fit the strict definition of science.  The best example of this is Charles Darwin who proposed a theory of evolution that required life on earth for millions of years, even though the reigning science of the day (thermodynamics) clearly showed that the sun (which was assumed to be burning chemical fuel) could only have existed for thousands of years.

Under the terms of science (which say we should not believe easily falsifiable theories), Darwin was a crackpot.  But in this case Darwin’s crackpot ideas were championed and embraced long enough for Einstein to come along and show that nuclear fusion meant the sun (and earth) could indeed be old enough to support Darwin’s proposals.

As Kuhn describes, most conventional thinkers do not embrace new theories but instead fight them, which means such people (no matter how brilliant) have to die off before a new generation of thinkers comes along to do the heavy lifting in support of concepts rejected by their predecessors.

Hazony applies this idea to the relationship between Israel and the West (particularly Europe) in which states busily shedding their independence in a move towards transnationalism (embodied in institutions such as the EU and UN) see Israel (and, to a large extend, America) as relics of the past: independent nation states which insist on tending to their own needs and interests who show no interest in subsuming themselves into a global superstate.

Given this analysis, each side (the European and Israeli) can look at the exact same facts and come to widely different conclusions.  His most salient example has to do with Jews under arms which Israelis see as the moral answer to the problem of Jewish helplessness which they feel led to the Holocaust.  But to the European post-nationalist, the armed Jew represents a people who have not learned the lesson of the Holocaust which is that nationalism will always lead to militancy and war (which is why it must be superseded by global governance).

This does leave open the question as to why Europe, which seems to deplore nations like Israel acting in their own interest, seems so keen on creating new nations (such as a Palestinian one) and why scorn for Israel acting in its own interest is not matched by equal or more anger directed at existing states which brutalize their own people and act in ways that should seem abhorrent to the transnational humanist.

Hazony deals with this subject in a second essay which, like the first piece, falls back on a philosopher who goes back much further than Kuhn: Kant.  For according to Kant, all nations must pass through the stage of nationalism (a civilizational stepping stone that’s a step up from the jungle and tribe) on their way to subsuming their national character into truly global governance which, for Kant, was the only thing that could end war and conflict (which he saw as taking place within and between nations).

Now this language cannot be used explicitly by those who feel Arabs, Asians and Africans are too primitive to be “ready” for the same evolutionary step as are Europeans.  But it certainly provides one explanation for the extraordinarily high expectations placed on nations like Israel compared to the total lack of any expectations of civilized behavior placed on Israel’s foes (not to mention most of the other world’s states).

One could propose a simpler explanation as to why Israel is treated as it is: anti-Semitism which treats the nation of the Jews as the Jew among the nations.  But even here we need to keep in mind that bigoted attitudes (even suppressed ones that take the form of anger directed at Jews for looking after their own national interests coupled with automatic forgiveness of non-Europeans when they act savagely) must have a framework in which to operate.

For most people do not think of themselves as bigots and then try to find a theology to justify their bigotry.  Rather, they adopt a storyline (or paradigm) that places them in the role of virtuous truth seeker (or truth discoverer) with a mission to transmit this received wisdom to the world.  It is only within such a paradigm that people can justify the most contradictory and (in many cases) discriminatory and even vicious behavior.


From Ambivalence to Betrayal – 2

10 Dec

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Left vs. Right

One of the reasons why fights over the Middle East (whether they involve BDS or some other propaganda effort) tend to immediately be cast in terms of Left vs. Right is because the majority of attacks on the Jewish state these days come wrapped in Left-leaning vocabulary.

This is not to say that card-carrying right wingers like Pat Buchannan or outright fascists like David Duke don’t also hurl thunderbolts at the Jews and their state on a regular basis.  But even they tend to use terminology that has long become familiar to both Israel’s defenders and defamers.

For instance, with a few exceptions you will no longer even hear Israel’s most ardent foes talk about throwing the Jews into the sea or readying for a massacre that would rival the Mongols (language Israel’s hostile neighbors used repeatedly during the first two decades of the state’s existence).  Instead, complaints (which range from reasonable-sounding to hysterical) draw upon the language of human rights and international law to make the case that Israel is the world’s greatest violator of both.

In fact, individuals and groups who use this terminology to make their case against the Jewish state do not simply see themselves as Progressives but insist that their issue defines who does and who does not deserve this label.

This is why those traveling under the BDS banner routinely accuse liberals who do not follow their lead of being PEPs (“Progressives for Everything but Palestine”), encapsulating in a single inelegant phrase the assumption that support for anything other than Palestinian demands (whatever they happen to be this week) represents an abandonment of liberal principles.

The key to understanding this phenomenon is seeing how ineffective it is trying to use this same accusation in reverse.  For instance, I don’t think I’ve met a single Israel supporter who, at one time or another, has not expressed the notion that Progressives who claim to champion the rights of women and gays (for example) can possibly favor the Arabs (who crush the rights of both) as opposed to Israel (which probably has the best record with regard to gender and sexual equality in the world).

Activists with this mindset (which I once had and still possess to some degree) are perpetually shocked to find out how ineffective such “reverse-PEP” arguments are when directed against Israel’s most ardent foes.

Gay rights is the perfect example of an issue that should demonstrate both the yawning chasm between Israel’s approach to human rights vs. its opponents, and the hypocrisy of anyone claiming to champion liberal values who fights to expand the territory in which the murder of gays is politically and religiously sanctioned.

But try to bring this contradiction to the attention of self-styled, pro-Palestinian, “progressive” groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and you will soon find yourself being accused (and accused and accused and accused) of “Pinkwashing,” a fake phenomenon invented by JVP types to avoid this issue entirely by casting it as part of an evil plot by Israel’s friends to “change the subject” from whatever it is the Israel-dislikers insist is the only thing we’re allowed to talk about.

The reason behind this strategy of avoidance (as well as the shrillness that accompanies it) is that Israel’s foes (who have no answer regarding the glaring contradictions of their claimed ideology) assume that if they simply ignore their opponents and shriek their own accusations ever louder, eventually others will tire of trying to get a response out of them, leaving the field open for debate to continue on the Israel-haters own terms.

The behaviors we see from Israel’s loudest accusers (dividing the Left into “true Progressives” who toe the BDS party line and “false” ones who do not, ignoring all facts and arguments that they cannot respond to, and never relenting from perpetual attack mode) all have precedent in the argument which framed the Left during the last century as much as hostility to Israel defines it for this one: the role of the Soviet Union (and support thereof) as the touchstone for commitment to revolutionary change.

It is to this subject that Wistrich turns to first in From Ambivalence and Betrayal, and I shall turn to next.


Consistency and Gaza Propaganda

20 Nov

As human beings, we crave consistency.  Or at the very least, inconsistency leaves us enormously uncomfortable.  Which is why the most effective accusation you can throw at a political adversary is not that they are liars (which requires you to get into a debate over what constitutes “the truth,”) but that they are hypocrites (which only requires you to show that someone’s deeds are inconsistent with their words).

In order to obtain the comfort that consistency provides us, our brains tend to build the information we receive into stories.  And once such stories are established, the intake of further information becomes simpler since we tend to accept information that fits into these existing storylines, while rejecting (or at least questioning) information that does not fit these pre-established narratives.

This is the simplified explanation behind confirmation bias, one of the cognitive biases that tend to drive most decision making, especially when dealing with complex and controversial issues like Middle East politics.

This is why the dueling narratives that make up a conflict do not just represent shallow propaganda, but are instead critically important since whoever’s storyline first gets established in people’s minds (and, by extension, public awareness) becomes very difficult to dislodge once established.

So, in the case of the current Gaza conflict, it becomes vital whether this war is seen as a case of #GazaUnderAttack or #IsraelUnderFire.  And in this war of narratives, dueling images (of dead  Palestinians civilians vs. Israelis running for cover, for example) become key mechanisms for establishing one story vs. another into people’s heads.

Historically, Israel’s foes have been quite successful in building the story of conflicts like the 2002 Terror War, the 2006 Lebanon conflict and both the 2009 and current Gaza clashes  around civilian casualties, providing a parade of images of dead children and bloodstained parents which have tended to drown out information needed to understand the conflict in full (such as the fact that Hamas decided to start both the 2009 and current wars through endless cross-border missile attacks on Israeli civilians – each of which constitutes a war crime).

The fact that many of these images were staged or manufactured did not seem to diminish their effectiveness, even when photo or video fraud became exposed.  But something seems to be different this time around.  For in the early stages of the current conflict, skepticism of the Palestinian storyline (even among a media that previously accepted Palestinian claims with little question) seems to be far more widespread than in the past.

This does not apply to all journalists, of course.  Certainly ones acting as de facto human shields in Gaza (who refuse to report what’s happening above their heads, while waiting for the inevitable civilian casualties to turn up so they can be driven by their handlers to a photo op) are as credulous as ever with regard to pushing a Palestinian narrative. But beyond these cases, there seems to be far less journalistic gullibility this time around.

Some of this may have to do with the sheer audacity of the Gaza propaganda photo fraud that greeted the beginning of the conflict.  For in the past, while war images were largely staged, at the very least they involved photos and video of the actual conflict zone.  But this time, we’ve see a host of bloody images tagged with statements of moaning sorrow and accusations of Israeli brutality that originated from an entirely different conflict at a different time.

Most notably, images of people killed or maimed in the current conflict in Syria have been shoved in people’s faces with declarations that they are, in fact, pictures of Palestinians hurt or killed during the current Gaza conflict.

Now stop and think about this for a moment.  Over the last year, there have been upwards of 30,000 casualties in the Syrian civil war.  And as those bodies were piling up, the same “peace activists” currently marching in the streets managed to keep their voices still on the subject (just as they never managed to find their tongues when Hamas was firing thousands of rockets into Israel that made the current war inevitable).

But once the Gaza war (and associated Gaza propaganda) started, suddenly civilians who met violent deaths in Syria became critically important: as props which could be posed as victims of a different conflict at a different time.

This level of cynicism is so profound that it made it that much easier to expose slightly more complex frauds (such as this image of the leaders of Hamas and Egypt cradling a dead infant whose death more than likely came about from one of the very Hamas missiles Israel is trying to stop being fired at their country).

And for all but the most jaded journalists, this level of manipulativeness crosses an important line.  For it’s one thing to stroke a reporter’s ego (and asking them to cut journalistic corners) by convincing them that they are covering the victim in a David vs. Goliath struggle.  But it’s quite another to treat those same journalists (and, by extension, the public they are informing) as absolute numbskulls willing to swallow every word or image handed to them without question.

Getting back to the topic of consistency, in some ways BDS supporters (and fellow travelers) have an easy time in this area since they consistently peddle a simple storyline of Israeli brutes vs. innocent Palestinian civilians that leaves no room for pesky facts such as Hamas militancy and Israeli victims.

But they also have a problem, given that they also want to portray themselves as “peace activists” vs. what they really are: the propaganda arm of one side in a war (i.e., a weapon system).  For if they were really fighters for peace and human rights, issues like Hamas war crimes and human rights violations might concern them, and they would treat mention of 30,000 dead in Syria as something other than “Assadwashing” (i.e., the accusation that any mention of Syria is really an attempt by sinister Israelis to distract attention from their own crimes).

Patterns and Propaganda

19 Nov

As I mentioned yesterday, part of the reason for this new site update is to provide better access to resources for those who might encounter an acceleration of BDS-related activity in the wake of the recent flare-up along the Israeli-Gaza border.

And how can I be so sure we’re going to see more calls for divestment and boycotts in the coming weeks and months? Well if there’s one thing we can predict not just from anti-Israel activists but from the Palestinian groups they support is a repetition of established patterns.

The latest war is a case in point, given how much it hews to a pattern we saw established during Israel’s Defensive Shield crackdown on West Bank terror in 2002, followed by the Lebanon War in 2006, Cast Lead in 2009, up to the present conflict.

In each of those cases, Palestinians (or in the case of Lebanon, Hezbollah) triggered a wider war by pushing their terror activity (whether in the form of suicide bombings, cross-border attacks and kidnappings, or missile attacks) past the level Israel could continue to tolerate.  At which point, a low-level war in which only one side was doing the shooting became a full-fledged, two-way border conflict.

Despite ever-increasing sophistication of their arms, groups like Hamas are no match for the more sophisticated and (more importantly) better-disciplined Israeli troops.  But in any conflict with Israel, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have learned they could assume:

  • The “courageous” warriors who triggered the conflict could “go to ground” by hiding in bunkers while their “troops” stationed military hardware in schools, mosques and hospitals where they could fire at Israeli civilians while hiding behind Arab ones (and never be called out for activity that in any other context would be considered a war crime)
  • Political organizations masquerading as “peace groups,” which managed to stay somnambulant while missiles were firing into Israel, would suddenly roar to life when Israel responded, taking to the streets in various US and European cities to demand an immediate ceasefire
  • A credulous media would publish any images provided by their Palestinian handlers, especially ones that showed bloody children (or, preferably, blood-stained parents grasping and kissing a dead child)

All of this activity formed the propaganda arm of the overall war effort with the goal of limiting Israel’s military response just enough so that the political structures in places like Gaza and Lebanon would stay intact by the time the ceasefire was demanded and then implemented.  At which point the militants could celebrate their “holding out” against their Israeli foe, with “victory” defined as the leadership surviving the war they started (never mind the devastation that war caused to all around them).

These ceasefires always came with guarantees by the “international community” that the steps which led to the most recent war (such as militants arming themselves to the teeth and then using those arms to attack across the Israel border) would no longer be tolerated.   And these were deals groups like Hamas and Hezbollah could readily accept since they understand full well no UN agency (or other enforcement vehicle) would lift a finger as they rearmed for the next conflict.  Especially since such agencies would more likely be busy organizing kangaroo courts to condemn the Jewish state for “disproportionality” (or whatever other new crime they could invent), turning themselves into the final front in the war that just ended, responsible for generating the propaganda that could be used to justify the next one.

This time around, the pattern has been hewn to so closely it might make you think that Hamas was working off a checklist.  But strangely enough, the usual tricks don’t seem to be working as effectively as they once did.

Scores of journalists are still faithfully publishing Palestinian propaganda, which is also being pumped around the world via social media.  But this time the exposure of fraudulent images (which was a bit of a novelty act among pro-Israel activists in previous wars) has gone mainstream, to the point where every image of a bloody baby coming out of Gaza is now being subjected to scrutiny that the originators of this propaganda never anticipated (and don’t know how to handle).

Similarly, they hypocrisy of “peace activists” who only get active for peace when someone they don’t like returns fire seems to be being accepted by more than just those of us who know these groups all too well.

Finally, geopolitical winds seem to be blowing against immediate implementation of a ceasefire, partly due to American and European politicians no longer being willing to pay political capital to bail the Palestinians out of yet another self-created jam, and partly due to inter-Arab political rivalries that are playing themselves out in Gaza just as they are in Syria and beyond.

The civil war in Syria also plays an indirect role in why Hamas seems to be failing to make its usual traction, propaganda-wise, a factor that talks to the role the need for consistency plays in our human psyche, a topic I’ll continue on tomorrow.

Gaza: Here We Go Again

14 Nov

It’s time like these, when the missiles are flying in from Gaza (virtually guaranteeing an escalation in violence), that the true nature of BDS and associated “peace movements” stands revealed.

For according to every source and interpretation, one of the things holding the Israeli’s back from immediately retaliating against an enemy opening fire at its civilian population (something any other nation in the world would do immediately and unquestionably) is fear of massive protests that would appear instantly across the world, leading to a new round of condemnations from international bodies.

Of course, Hamas – the people who decided to start firing those rockets – fear no such protests or condemnations, understanding that people taking to the street in various US and European cities are part of their arsenal, a deterrent that allows them to push the limits of how many missiles and mortars and terror attacks they can subject Israelis civilians to without triggering a massive response.

In other words, far from representing a “peace movement,” BDS et al represent a weapons system, in this case acting as the propaganda arm of a party to the conflict.  And while this weapon system might, if backed into a corner, choke out a few mealy mouthed words along the lines of: “Yes, firing missiles at Israeli schools is terrible, BUT…[Seige! Occupation!!  Leiberman!!!],” once Israelis return fire they will somehow find their voice, taking to the streets in the hundreds and thousands calling for an immediate cease fire (all in the name of “human rights” and “justice,” of course).

Keep in mind that if the Israelis ever decide they cannot accept that one of their borders will be perpetually showered in rockets, that this will inevitably lead to the deaths of Palestinians on whose behalf the BDSers claim to be fighting.  So even if Palestinians (vs. Israeli) lives are the only things these groups count as precious, the Hamas-instigated violence at the border all but guarantees the loss of these lives.

And, ironically, there actually is something the BDS and associated “movements” could do to prevent such a tragedy.  They could, for example, publicly announce that Hamas must stop firing missiles at civilians (a reasonable thing for a peace movement to say) and that, this time, they will NOT take to the streets if Israel decides to do something about said rocket fire.  They could call an end to the flotillas, a termination of visits, a refusal to continue their anti-Israeli campaigns in any way unless and until Hamas stops putting Israeli and Palestinian lives at risk by ending their senseless cross-border attacks.

If immediate anti-Israel protests were not inevitable, this would require Hamas to recalculate its risks with an understanding that they may not be provided the cover they expect if their target decides to retaliate.  In other words, those who claim as their moral lodestone the preciousness of Palestinian life are in a position to actually limit loss of that life by simply doing what any genuine peace movement would do immediately and unquestionably: fight for peace.

But expecting this to happen is as realistic as expecting a nation’s navy to start firing on its own army.  For as the BDSers have proven again and again, their movement is simply one more armament, deployed to give those who actually pull the trigger maximum military maneuvering room.

In fact, reality might be considerably creepier than this, with the boycotters actually looking forward to a shooting war (regardless of the cost to both Israeli and Palestinian populations).  For its only after a Gaza or Lebanon crisis that the ranks of the BDSers swell and they get to take to the streets in fits of self-righteous fury, something they love beyond all else – including beyond the value of  human life (especially someone else’s).

Einstein once famously said that “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”  But I suspect that even his genius couldn’t explain a “movement” that contributes to ensuring war escalates and never ends while simultaneously insisting everyone treat it as a “peace movement”

Reality Check – Egypt

26 Jun

News on both the BDS and international fronts keep delaying some of the commentary I was planning to do on the upcoming PCUSA divestment debate (which may be a good thing, given how uncharitably I’ve been feeling about the organization over the last year which will likely lead to some less-than-kindly words I may end up regretting).

But the recent election of an Islamist government in Egypt presents one of those times that it’s worth doing some political analysis normally beyond the scope of this blog, if only to put what both pro- and anti-BDS activists do into the proper perspective.

While local or online activism can be a wonderful thing (or at least an empowering experience, used for either good or ill), we all need to keep in mind that the primary driver of history is political and military power, which can also be wielded for both good and evil.

Many commentators have already talked about the delusional way we Westerners looked at the so-called “Arab Spring” which our media filtered through its own experience of youth counter-culture and middle-class “revolution.”  Yet, as anyone with eyes could see, in a situation where unlimited political power was up for grabs, guns and fanaticism would be a bigger driving force for change than Facebook accounts.

There are two competing “narratives” regarding the sources of misery in the Middle East, one that focuses all attention on Israel (or metaphysical entities such as “Zionism” and “Settlements”).  While proponents of this view are rarely so reductive as to claim that the entire region would be in a state of bliss if only the Zionist interloper was removed from the map (or had never come into being in the first place), they have no problem bringing every conversation about any Middle East subject (current or historic) back to their one topic of concern: “The Occupation”.

The Palestinian variant on this narrative (embraced by those who support BDS) sees 1948 as a Nakbah – a catastrophe – which destroyed an idyllic land called “Palestine,” whose restoration will not only bring redemption to “The Palestinian People,” but to the Arab world as a whole.  Within this context, discussion of any other political issue related to the Middle East is immaterial.

Those of us who reject this reductionist view have tried to actually include the Middle East in any discussions of the Middle East.  And as difficult as it is to come to grips with painful reality, that region has been a political basket case for generations, with all-powerful kings giving way to all-powerful military dictators who now face challenges by religious fanatics.

In each of these transitions, a sure-fire way an up-and-coming power uses to legitimize itself is to embrace hatred of Israel (tied to the “Palestinian Paradise Lost” narrative described above) to one up competitors (who are characterized as sell-outs and agents of Zionism and imperialism).  This is why Arab leaders frequently accuse their enemies of being closet Zionists (or even secret Jews). 

This is also why the Palestinian refugee issue, alone of all refugee issues in the world, has never been solved.  While, like every other refugee challenge throughout human history, it would have cost something to settle the question decades ago, it has cost hundreds of times more in terms of money and ruined lives to keep the Palestinian issue on a perpetual boil to ensure there would always be foot soldiers for a uncompromising revolution that would ultimately deliver a fantasized redemption.

As fanatics continue to gain the upper hand, we can expect the immiseration of the region to accelerate, despite the fact (or, more likely because of the fact) that unearned oil wealth greases the wheels of rejectionism and ensures that no political misjudgment or mistake can’t be covered over (or at least pushed down the road) through an adequate application of petrodollars.

And as the people of Egypt lose whatever human rights their previous tyrants allowed them, we can expect a further intensification of hostility targeting the one enemy all can agree to hate: the Jewish state (or, as more and more frequently and openly stated, just the Jews).

And before anyone starts raving that this analysis is “racist” for daring to use the word “Arab” when analyzing Arab states and Arab politics, keep in mind that we have seen this whole story play out previously in other parts of the world.  Most notably, there’s 20th century Europe where competing flavors of totalitarianism slit each other’s throats before a World War that cost millions of lives and left a continent ruined, followed by a Cold War that kept the world on nuclear high alert for decades, demonstrating that no regions or people are immune from the Totalitarian Temptation.

This doesn’t mean that “movements” like BDS should be regarded as anything less than a weapon system masquerading as a peace movement, or that we should slow in any way our challenges to their attempts to infect civil society with their toxic agenda.

But we should keep in mind what a small part in the overall story we and our opponents are playing as men with guns and zeal continue to define the world in which the rest of us have to live.