Tuesday, November 24, 2009

more on the middle east

I have recently gotten involved in a number of groups that are trying to regenerate enthusiasm for Israel among American Jews. There is a sense that the two communities are growing apart, and many of us would like very much to reverse that. Unfortunately, some people contribute more than others to this effort.

Last night one of our groups hosted Barry Rubin, whose Wikipedia entry describes him as a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and senior fellow at the center's Institute for Counter-Terrorism as well as a prolific author and editor. The lecture was entitled "Looking under the Goldstone: How the new campaign against Israel is destroying the Arab World." It was unusually well attended, owing to aggressive publicity efforts in which I played a minor role.

In practice, the lecture had little to do with Goldstone or current events at all, being devoted instead to Rubin's apparently well-rehearsed theory of the Arab-Israeli conflict. So far as I can make out, the theory is as follows:

1. Arabs have no interest in peace with Israel and simply pretend to, primarily in English-language statements, in order to undercut support for the Jewish State and hasten its ultimate destruction. They regularly lie and exaggerate in their official declarations, often admitting privately, to Rubin and others, that they are in fact doing so. (Rubin, who it must be admitted is quite witty and urbane, appears to speak Arabic and to have met various Palestinian leaders.)

2. Westerners, including liberal Israelis and American Jews, are often taken in by the above because they persist in thinking in Western terms, under which one says what one means and tries to take an honest or even self-deprecatory view of one's own position. By contrast Arab culture rewards strength and interprets the above tendencies as weaknesses to be exploited.

3. The Goldstone Report was effectively written by Hamas propagandists who intentionally lied and exaggerated to Goldstone as predicted above. Goldstone himself is an "opportunist" who collaborated with the South African apartheid regime despite claims to the contrary.

4. Given 1-3 above, there is little or no chance for a meaningful peace agreement in the foreseeable future.

My problem with all this is less that is false, although I think points 1-3 mostly are (I'm less sure about #4), than that it is almost wholly devoid of original, intellectual thought. If one adjusts the names and dates slightly, there is quite simply nothing here that I couldn't and didn't hear from hard-line Israelis when I was fourteen years old, and probably intuited to be emotional rather than intellectual in origin even at that tender age. Essentially we are asked to believe that the entire Middle East is impermeable to rational analysis because one side is inherently dishonest, violent, and cowardly, the prejudice thinly veiled under a patina of "cultural" analysis of exactly the type Rubin purports to disdain: an almost exact reflection, as it happens, of the other side's extremist views. If this is what is being offered by Israeli intellectuals--and I must note that Rubin has an appointment from the IDC, a sort of fledgling institution, rather than a full-fledged Israeli university--it is no wonder there is a credibility gap.

I find this sort of analysis particularly dispiriting given my own work on antisemitism and the Holocaust (actually, pre-Holocaust) era. Imagine that an American intellectual in the 1930s had asked a European antisemite, what are you getting so excited about? Aren't the Jews relatively small in number, and lacking in political power? Ah, the antisemite would have responded, you are thinking in liberal Western terms. The Jews don't tell the truth like other people: they claim to be loyal citizens and in fact cooperate with foreign powers. They think in long terms: even a tiny number of them will some day control our political system. The antisemite would likely have responded, in other words, with an essentialist, "cultural" argument not entirely different from that advanced by Rubin and his ilk. I am not saying that the Israeli (or American) right are like the Nazis: there is no real threat of violence and their analysis of contemporary issues is frequently accurate. I am simply suggesting that theories which substitute emotion for reason, which lump together entire groups of people on the basis of supposed cultural traits, do not have a very good track record, and Jewish people should be particularly reticent about using them. To fire up a crowd of believers, such arguments (if they be called that) may be successful. To win over the unconverted--let alone make foreign policy--they are likely to be much less so.


At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Richard said...

I think it is possible for an argument based in emotion to reach the same conclusion as one based in reason. The rational argument that is supported by factual findings is no less legitimate just because a similar conclusion could have been reached on emotional grounds. In fact, the argument supported on both emotional and rational grounds seems even more robust. Currently, 54% of Palestinians support suicide bombings. http://www.zoa.org/sitedocuments/pressrelease_view.asp?pressreleaseID=1600. In other words, a majority of Palestinians support the splattering of the brains and organs of infants across the walls of Israeli cities. Fortunately, that number is down from 76% in 2003. 65% support the terror attacks on 9/11. There is significant support of suicide bombings in other Arab countries as well. http://www.articlesbase.com/journalism-articles/nigeria-lebanon-supports-suicide-bombings-and-bin-laden-1234829.html. I think most Arabs are good people; in fact, I never met an Arab that wasn’t. And I concede that no general conclusion should be drawn using only one metric; however, Point 1 appears somewhat legitimate when placed against this backdrop.


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