I have been absent from much of the conversation going on about recent events in Israel and Gaza. Partly that’s been because much of what I was feeling just did not want to be captured in words. Partly because there were issues that I felt demanded more knowledge than I could pretend to. And partly because, given the state of the discourse – at least as it appears on my FB feed – I didn’t feel that anything I might actually say would do anything beyond proclaim, “I’m the kind of person who thinks X!” And while this seems to be The Conversation the Jewish community is having, it doesn’t feel much like a conversation.
What follows, then, are some notes about what a real conversation might look like, based on what I think I know about ethics, about the current situation, and about how to speak to people who don’t agree with you (I used to teach high school, so I’ve had some experience with that). If you think I’m wrong on some of these, let me know – although if you disagree with me on any of the “Categorical Statements” under “Thoughts on the Situation” we probably don’t share the same universe. Because it seems to me that if we’re straight on these, then we might be able to talk. To each other.
Some thoughts on moral reasoning
To have a right to something does not mean having a right to do anything claimed to be in support of that right.
Conversely, to say that something done in support of a cause was wrong does not in itself invalidate the cause.
To have a right to do something does not mean that thing is either moral or wise.
Suffering does not necessarily endow one with either virtue or wisdom. Sometimes people do become wiser as a result of their suffering; sometimes they become broken and bitter; and sometimes it doesn’t change them at all.
The potential total amount of suffering, folly, and injustice is infinite; neither victimhood nor wisdom nor righteousness is a “zero-sum game”.
At the same time, when things like suffering, folly, and injustice, as well as wisdom, righteousness, and compassion, do occur they do not do so in infinite amounts. The fact that a particular action is unjust does not make the party committing it entirely unjust.
It follows that:
· Critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the legality of that action or strategy.
· Critiques of an action or strategy are not, in themselves, critiques of the cause they are claimed to support.
· Similarly, critiques of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the justice of the cause (although the justice of the cause is a precondition for the justice of the action).
· Nor can critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy be met by arguing that those on whose behalf the actions are purportedly taken are themselves victims.
· To point out injustices committed by both sides is not to create a moral equivalence. One could, for example, argue that the fire-bombing of Dresden was a war crime without claiming that the Allies were no worse than the Nazis.
Some thoughts on discourse
The purpose of cheerleading is to bolster the feelings of those already convinced; the purpose of arguing is to convince someone. It is important to be mindful of the distinction, and to choose one’s rhetoric accordingly.
Insisting on a point is not the same as arguing for a point.
Saying that everyone in a particular community believes something to be true is more a statement about the community than about the truth value of the proposition.
A figure known to be a partisan of one side is unlikely to be seen as a compelling authority to those not already sympathetic to that side.
A figure held to be untrustworthy on a range of issues may not have much credibility on others.
Questioning the integrity or moral status of one’s interlocutor is similarly unlikely to prove an effective strategy for convincing him or her.
If a large number of your target audience is unconvinced by your arguments, it is a more useful exercise to re-examine your own presentation than to blame the audience.
Thoughts on the situation.
1) Categorical Statements:
The death of children is a bad thing.
Targeting civilians is a bad thing.
While particular institutions may be broken and particular polices unjust, the principle of international law is a good, not only when it is helpful or convenient. This is especially true for treaties one has signed.
Oppression is a bad thing.
The State of Israel has no less legitimacy, and no less a right to exist, than any other state. Jews have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.
Palestinians have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people. Palestinians have no less a right to self-determination and freedom from oppression than any other people.
The Occupation is not, and has never been, benign.
Hamas is not a force for good or liberation, and its policies have increased the misery of the residents of Gaza.
Hamas has shown no interest in a long-term settlement with Israel.
It is past time for the American Jewish community to address what it means that no country outside of Israel has ever seen the settlement of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as anything other than a violation of international law.
A stable Palestinian state is crucial for Israel’s long term security.
 Yes, I’m aware that I didn’t say that Palestinians have the same right to a state as any other people. That’s because I’m not convinced that peoples have a categorical right to a state prior to that state’s existence, in the way that people have a right to be free from oppression. Do the Basques have a right to a state? The Kurds? The Roma? And yes, I’m prepared to apply this reasoning to Israel. I don’t think, prior to 1948, that the Jews had an absolute “right” to a state. That doesn’t delegitimize Israel; I don’t think there was an absolute right to a Czech nation-state, but that doesn’t delegitimize the Czech Republic. That also doesn’t mean I don’t think there should be sovereign Palestinian state; I do. That’s because I think it, like the State of Israel in 1948, is the best political solution in the current situation.