Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Even If (Most Of) What Detractors Say About The Founding Of Israel Were True …(Andrew Pessin) (Part 1 of 2)

Guest post by Andrew Pessin: (Subscribe to his free substack)


“I was forced to leave my study group because my group members told me that the people at the Nova music festival deserved to die because they were partying on stolen land.”

--M.I.T. student Talia Kahn on her campus environment

1. 2023 and 1948

It may be 2023 but campus responses to October 7 show that, for many, it’s still 1948.

Many campuses exploded in outright celebration of the barbaric violence, the enthusiasts typically invoking, by way of justification, the massacre’s “context” or “root causes” (in Israel’s “occupation,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” etc.) and the legitimacy of “resistance” to those evils “by any means necessary.” Even many who didn’t quite “celebrate” the violence invoked the same by way of explanation quickly bleeding into justification. And many of those who remained silent about October 7, too, were no doubt thinking the same when they said things such as “I need to learn more about this complex situation before rendering judgment.” Now normally after watching armed men tie up a mother and father and three small children and burn them alive you don’t need to “learn more” to determine who the bad guys are, but hey, it’s “complex.” I’ve argued elsewhere that that silence amounts to complicity, to borrow the popular expression many progressives apply everywhere except to themselves: you’re in favor of October 7 or you’re against, in other words, and silence entails the former.

But now this shocking campus response itself has its own “context” and “root causes.” In my view the twenty-year-long campus Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign of lies against Israel combined with the more recent expansion of progressivism (aka Critical Race Theory, DEI, Wokeism, etc.) has amounted to a campaign to delegitimize and dehumanize not just Israeli Jews but all Jews; and the clear success of that campaign explains why so many are somehow unable to see that the torture, mutilation, rape, and murder of babies, children, women, pregnant women, the disabled, and the elderly is a straightforward moral atrocity constituting a mass terror attack. If every Jew is fundamentally guilty, then their torture and murder is not merely permissible but even obligatory; if every Jew is guilty, then nothing you do to the Jew can make the Jew a victim.

So what does this have to do with 1948?

The dehumanization campaign above in fact ultimately rests on the premise that the 1948 establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel was a massive injustice. For consider: if that establishment were perfectly just, then the efforts to prevent it then and the 75 years of nearly continuous “resistance” to it since, whether military, terrorist, diplomatic, cognitive, or other, would be unjust. In turn, many of the measures that Israel has taken over the years that detractors cite as “root causes” above—as Israel’s “oppression” of Palestinians, as mechanisms subserving its “occupation” and “apartheid,” etc.—would be seen not as illegitimate aggressive measures of domination but as legitimate reactive measures of self-defense. Take just two examples, the security barrier along western Judea and Samaria and the blockade on Gaza instituted after Hamas took power there by an illegal violent coup. Detractors call the former an “Apartheid Wall” and say of the latter that it makes Gaza an “open air prison.” But to those who see the establishment of Israel as just these are legitimate defensive measures justified by the unremittent preexisting violence directed toward Israelis by Palestinians.

If Jewish sovereignty there is legitimate, in other words, then Jews are ordinary human beings with ordinary human rights including the right to defend themselves, by walls or blockades as need be. But if Jewish sovereignty is not legitimate then Jews are simply evildoers who, per campus dehumanization, lack even the basic human right to defend themselves, and all such measures become aggressive mechanisms of an unjust occupation. On this view every Jew is guilty and therefore worthy even of the atrocious harms of October 7, including the babies, and Hamas is not a genocidal Jew-hating terrorist group but “freedom fighters” fighting for “decolonization.”

If 1948 is just, in short, then 2023 is a terrorist atrocity; if 1948 is unjust then 2023 is political liberation.

So 2023 really still is about 1948.

This point has actually been clear for some time. Those who follow the campus scene know that the anti-Israel movement long ago gave up on the demand merely for a Palestinian state alongside Israel in favor of undoing Israel entirely. The popular chant, “We don’t want two states, we want 1948!,” states that about as clearly as can be. But it took October 7 to see how profound and visceral that demand is, as it manifested itself in the celebration of the slaughter. For them, the massive injustice of 1948 means that the Israeli Jews of today have it coming to them, as the M.I.T. student above quoted her antagonists.  

Clearly Israel advocates need to double down on disseminating their “narrative,” the one grounded in the long Jewish history in this land, and on finding ways to do it that will break through the ideological fortress that BDS and progressivism have established on our campuses.

But here I sketch an alternative, complementary strategy.

2. Grant Them (Most of) What They (Falsely) Claim

Let’s for the moment (falsely) grant the detractors what they claim, or most of it, namely that the establishment of Israel was an injustice: per their narrative, that Jews were “settler-colonists,” outsiders who, via “ethnic cleansing,” took over the land that became the State of Israel.

Even if so, I suggest, the campus anti-Israel movement of 2023 is morally objectionable. And once we see that this movement—that aims to undo the Jewish state “by any means necessary,” to “dismantle Zionism,” to remove its supporters from campuses, with events, talks, panels, conferences such as this one numbering in the thousands across hundreds of campuses in recent years—in fact is morally objectionable, then we can begin to see it for what it actually is: a campaign of dehumanizing hate that grotesquely leads its proponents to see the mutilation and mass murder of Jewish children as the moral high ground.

3. The Child As a Metaphysical and Ethical Fresh Start

Let’s start with a repulsive practice that occurred for a while soon after October 7: activists not ripping down the posters of Israeli hostages but instead replacing their “Kidnapped” headings with the word “Occupier.” There was a photo of a sweet little kidnapped three-year-old girl, for example, labeled as an “Occupier.” A three-year old who was born in this land, very probably to parents who were born in this land, very probably to parents who were born in this land, and so on, possibly stretching way back.

In contrast consider how refugees and immigrants are considered in pretty much any other country in the world. Someone moves to Canada, and maybe in time becomes, feels, is a Canadian; but their children are largely raised as and feel Canadian, and certainly their grandchildren. Three of my own four grandparents immigrated as refugees from Russia to the United States, and my parents, and certainly I myself, feel as American as can be. One or two generations is more than enough, generally, for assimilation and ultimately legitimation. Anyone who claims otherwise—who tells the children or grandchildren of an immigrant that they don’t belong here—would instantly and correctly be branded a racist.

Well, those who put the word “Occupier” on the photo of a three-year old are saying that no matter how many generations her family may have lived in this land, even if her family is one of those whose roots trace back two or three thousand years, then she can never belong there.

They may as well put a target right on her head—as Hamas in fact did.

Now what, exactly, is so repulsive about this practice, beyond its obvious racism? It’s that that little girl is entirely innocent, she cannot be blamed, for anything that may have preceded her in this world. She is simply not responsible for the alleged sins of her parents, or of her grandparents, or great-grandparents, any more than the small child of a Hamas member is responsible for his parent’s terrorist activities. Nobody is responsible for what anybody did prior to their own birth. Nor is it her fault or responsibility that she was born when and where she was.

A child, a new generation, is fresh start, a “do-over” in the most profound metaphysical and ethical ways.

Keep this child in mind as we next consider the question of how to rectify large-scale historical injustices.

4. On Rectifying Large-Scale Historical Injustice

Take your pick for an example; there is no shortage of historical injustices. Obviously, unfortunately, we have no time machine, no way to literally undo the event or retroactively prevent it. Uncountably many innocent lives have been lost and shattered in every terrorist act or war, but there’s just no way now to make Sept 11 not have happened, or the Vietnam War, or World Wars II or I, or the American Civil War, or the French Revolution, or the 30 Years War—or the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (which, curiously, is pretty much the only major historical event that large numbers of people around the world ever even express interest in undoing).

So that’s off the table.

The next best thing would be to compensate those individuals who actually suffered the injustice. But if the injustice involved their death that’s also impossible; and unfortunately for those who survive the injustice, they die off too as the event gradually sinks into history. If there are ways to identify and compensate any remaining survivors of specific concrete injustices, by all means have at it.

 The most plausible mode of rectification for some large-scale historical injustice, then, is to compensate not the individuals who suffered the injustices but their descendants. And that’s where things immediately get tricky.

First, from whom, exactly, should they get their compensation? Presumably from descendants of those who perpetrated the original injustice. But a child, we just saw, is a fresh start, a “do-over,” who cannot be held responsible for the sins of her forebears. It seems very unjust to demand recompense from someone who is in no way responsible for the injustice in question.

Nor, though it’s more complex, is it obvious that the descendant of the original victim should actually be entitled to anything, period, especially as the generations go on. If a new child is not responsible for the sins of her ancestors, neither is she deserving of any of the merits or blessings of the ancestor; nor is she automatically entitled, by virtue of being born, to restitution of something that may have once belonged to them or compensation for something that may have happened to them. Obviously where there is some concrete property in question and a relevant enduring legal system in place there may be laws governing inheritance and restitution, but that’s not what we’re discussing here. The fact that something unjust happened to my grandparents or they were unjustly deprived of something does not automatically mean that I am owed anything. I didn’t suffer the loss, after all, and nothing was taken from me; I was born long after, into the new reality created subsequent to the loss—a fresh start.

Of course an objector might imagine here a counterfactual such as, “Well, if the loss hadn’t occurred then I would have been born into a better situation, so I did after all suffer the loss myself.” If so, then she might be entitled to restitution or compensation.

Perhaps, but this objection opens up a whole set of problems. Once you open the counterfactuals then almost anything goes. If the loss hadn’t occurred then many things would have been different, a whole other course of life would have ensued, and who can know what that may have included? Perhaps in this new course of life your grandfather would have been hit by a truck or died of a heart attack and never sired your parent, so you would never have been born—but if you owe your very existence to the loss you can hardly claim that the loss harmed you! Or perhaps if the loss hadn’t occurred you would have ended up far worse than you in fact are, so the loss actually improved your condition. Millions of people have become refugees and ended up resettling elsewhere, where their children, or grandchildren, eventually end up with much better lives than they would have had had the ancestors stayed put. Even if we grant that the historical loss resulted in a negative outcome for you, it’s not clear that that outcome can be blamed entirely or even maximally on the loss itself. In the case of the Palestinian refugees, for example, even where we grant that their contemporary conditions are poor, should we blame those conditions on the 1948 war—or on the 75 years of their mistreatment and mismanagement since, at the hands (for example) of the refugee agency UNRWA and the many Arab states who resisted their rehabilitation and resettlement?

Moreover, why isolate and emphasize only that single counterfactual concerning your grandfather? What if your grandfather himself had acquired the thing in question by some unjust means? Or inherited it from people higher up the ancestral ladder who had done so? As you go up the ladder there are surely many injustices to be found, perhaps in great quantities, particularly given the long history of human warfare across the globe. If you insist that the descendant of the person who stole it from your grandfather doesn’t have rightful claim to it, then what happens to your grandfather’s claim to it if he only had it because one of his ancestors had stolen it from another? Shall we go all the way back to the 7th-century Muslim Arab conquest of the Land of Israel, which took the land ultimately from (say) the descendants of the 1st-century Roman conquest of the Land of Israel, which took it from the Jews? Shouldn’t we in that case give it all back to the Jews, or the descendants thereof? If we insist on “root causes,” shouldn’t we go all the way back to the roots?

So, yes, maybe you would have been born into a better situation had one particular injustice not occurred—but you equally might have been born into a worse situation had all sorts of other older injustices not occurred. If you are contemplating counterfactuals and thus undoing history, justice requires undoing them all.

If your grandparents did something unjust to my grandparents, then, that does not automatically give me a claim against you: you didn’t do anything, and I didn’t suffer anything. More broadly, the fact that one community did something unjust toward another community does not entail that all future generations of the latter have any legitimate claims against all future generations of the former. In fact if we go quantitative and acknowledge the enormous growth in the relevant populations over time, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that demanding compensation from later descendants of the original injustice-doers would end up perpetrating against them an even greater injustice than the original one their ancestors perpetrated. And it could hardly be just to demand the rectification of some historical injustice by means of some even greater contemporary injustice.

Let us repeat that point:

It is not just to demand the rectification of some historical injustice by means of some even greater contemporary injustice.

5. Still Not Convinced?

Even if you still have some intuition that later descendants of injustice-victims should have such claims, trying to accommodate those claims would literally be both impossible to do and a formula for disaster. If we inherit both the sins and the claims of our ancestors then we will live in a perpetual Hatfields v McCoys world in which everyone ultimately has a claim against everyone else. World history both distant and recent features massive injustices on inconceivable scales; as Arab intellectual Hussain Abdul-Hussain has put it on social media, everybody’s grandfather lost something, so everybody will have various, multiple claims to compensation. Even restricting ourselves to the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim Conflict (IPJAMC), even where we’re (counterfactually) granting that the Jews came from outside and took over via ethnic cleansing, who exactly were these perpetrator Jews? In the standard anti-Israel narrative these Jews came from Europe—whence they fled overwhelmingly as refugees escaping the massive injustice of persecution and pogroms. A simple glance at 19th century European antisemitism, culminating in mass-murderous pogroms of 1881 and 1903 among others (not to mention in 1930s Germany and the Holocaust), will easily demonstrate that. In addition to these Jews of course were the hundreds of thousands who fled Arab and Islamic persecution and pogroms across the Middle East and North Africa, leaving many lives and much property behind. These Jews were all victims of injustice, even if, on the anti-Israel narrative, they then victimized the innocent Palestinian Arabs. How can one demand today’s Israelis compensate today’s Palestinian Arabs without also demanding that most Middle East and North African countries compensate the Israelis? Throw in the fact that many Arabs themselves emigrated from those countries to Palestine in the 20th century and they, and/or their immediate relatives, may well even have participated in the persecution of the Jews who fled those countries. So today’s Palestinians also owe something to today’s Israeli Jews!

Everybody’s grandfather lost something. To look backward, to maintain and pursue all those claims, is only a formula for propagating violence and instability.

All the more so when we step a bit closer to reality, acknowledging the actual long history of Jews in the Land of Israel and remembering that at the time of the U.N. Partition proposal’s passing in November of 1947 there were zero Palestinian refugees. Zionism itself, in other words, displaced no one. There was, in fact, room enough for everyone in Palestine, until the Arabs launched the civil war and then the multi-Arab-army international war. In the process one percent of the Jewish population lost their lives, tens of thousands were injured, Jews were ethnically cleansed from those parts of the land that Egypt and Jordan conquered, and so on. So even if the Jewish immigration into the land (which displaced no one) were itself an injustice, consider the disproportionate injustice then perpetrated against them in the murderous military and terrorist activity that followed. If the Arab descendants of 1948 have a legitimate claim against the Jews of 2023, again, then surely the Jews of 2023 have similarly legitimate claims against their contemporary Arabs.

So there may well have been some massive injustice in the past. But it’s literally impossible to undo that injustice, and any efforts to compensate for the injustice will only perpetrate further, almost surely greater injustices, if not directly sink the region into the pre-modern Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, in which everybody loses.

Everybody’s grandfather lost something. And so unless we accept the idea that every new child is a fresh start, then everybody has a claim against everybody and all is lost.

(part 2)

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