Singling Out Israel for Moral Opprobrium

I am a tribalist at heart.  I really care about my tribe, or, I should say, the various tribes of which I am a member.  I care about them in ways that I don’t care about other tribes.  Kant forgive me, but it’s true – there are other tribes that I really couldn’t care less about.  When I sense that I am becoming heartless and apathetic to the sufferings of others unconnected to my tribe, I try to work on my “human” side, or my “living being” side, or my “creaturely” side – in order to make a new tribe in which I am a member with whatever Other has a claim on me.  But, usually, it’s only about me and my tribes.

So, when critics say to me, “Why are you always harping on Israel when there is genocide in Dafur, or vast suppression of human rights in China?” my answer is that I simply care more about Israel because I am part of the tribe.  And just as I would be more upset if I found out that my brother, and not a total stranger, were a murderer, or even a thief, when there are lots of more vicious criminals out there, because he is my brother, so I am more upset about my country perpetrating human rights violations against the Palestinian people for generations, than about the genocide in Darfur.  For one thing, I am much more implicated in what Israel is doing than what is going on in Darfur, although I guess we also have responsibilities there as human beings, and as people who can do something about it.  But Israel is my country, and its crimes are mine.  I know that some will say that this excessive concern for my own is “racist.”  But there you have it, I am a tribalist.

Ah, but you will say, that’s all well and good for you.  You are an Israeli; you are a traditional Jew; you have a right to criticize.  But what about criticism from folks who are outside the tribe entirely, like from some of those British and German leftwing intellectual-types?  Shouldn’t they be more concerned with Darfur than Israel?  And if they aren’t, isn’t that a sign that they are unreasonably fixated on Jews?

Not necessarily.  Even though such people are not part of my Israeli Jewish tribe, they may be part of another relevant tribe (say, the Palestinian tribe, or the Friends of Palestine tribe, or even the People-who-Expect-the Countries-That-Present-Themselves-as Civilized-Should-Act-in-a-Civilized-Fashion tribe).  Whether they feel themselves to be perpetrators or victims, they are perfectly right in focusing their attention on whatever tribe they belong to, as long as they hold that tribe to a justifiable ethical standard.  To demand of them to spend that much energy on other tribes may be Kantian, but it ain’t human.  We selectively reward and punish all the time.  Speed cops certainly do.

What, then, would bother me?  Well, if people criticized Israel for behaving in ways that they excuse, or worse, approve of, in others, without further justification, then that would raise my suspicions.  If an American of Irish descent would see nothing wrong in the IRA killing innocents and then would blame Israel for doing the same thing, then I would question that person’s consistency, sincerity, and motives.  If a person criticized Israel’s actions because she felt that they embody the negative qualities of Jews everywhere, then she would be a member in good standing of the Antisemite tribe.

I think that the Israel advocates understand the tribalism thing.  Because they are always singling out Israel for special consideration.  They don’t criticize the massive amount of foreign aid that Israel gets from the United States, although, as Kantians, they should be against such preferential treatment.  No, they support the preferential treatment because they are, like me, tribalists.  I am sure they give good reasons for their position, but why don’t they spend the same amount of time lobbying for other worthy, even worthier causes, than Israel?

So when somebody argues against the academic boycott of Israel as follows:

The singling out of Israel for special punishment is not about achieving a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It can only stigmatize the Jewish state for being particularly malevolent.  This, whatever the intention, feeds negative historical stereotypes and can fuel anti-Semitism.  (italics added; see here)

I reply as follows: First, I appreciate that the speaker, unlike others, does not call the “singling-out of Israel for special punishment” in itself morally wrong or anti-semitic.  There may be good reasons for singling out Israel on this point; whether Israel is deserving of an academic boycott needs to debated on its merits.  Suggest to the Israel Lobby, who single Israel out for preferential treatment, that their actions can fuel antisemitism, and they will respond that antisemites will be be antisemites whatever the Lobby does, and that the preferential treatment is deserved because of Israel’s strategic importance to the US, etc.

And, ribono shel olam, isn’t it time to give the “the possible fueling of antisemitism” canard a rest?  How many times has that one been used to stop us orthodox Jews from reporting to the police wife-beaters and rabbinical child-molesters?

On one point I agree with the speaker: the singling out of Israel for special punishment is not about “achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict”.  Rather, it is about achieving justice and dignity for a group that has been without it for too long a time, and, incidentally, for those of us who care, about taking care of Israel’s soul.  The punishment is to rectify an intolerable situation that has festered since 1948, and especially since 1967, namely, the thwarting of the Palestinian’s people right of self-determination, and the hell that they have had to endure as a result.  The fact that other peoples, including my own, have suffered hell in the past, is entirely without relevance to this part of the story.

Speaking of stories, here is one I leave you with:

Once upon a time, two small boys, Pete and Paul, were fighting over a garment.  Pete grabbed the garment, wrestled Paul to the ground, and sat on him, at first for days, then for months, finally for years.  Pete had nothing against Paul personally.  He even made sure that he had enough to eat and drink to stay alive.  But Pete was afraid to get off Paul’s stomach, because whenever he did, Paul would start clawing at him, and Pete was scared, for himself and for the garment.  He was even willing to share a bit of the garment with Paul – he certainly did not stand to gain by having to take care of Paul — but how could he be sure that Paul wouldn’t use the opportunity to grab the garment from him, or worse, sit on him?

Whenever an onlooker started to rebuke Pete for sitting on Paul, he would say, “Why are you picking on me?  I am only sitting on the kid; he’s not dead or nothin…If you turn around, you will see plenty of people doing worse things.”  And he was right; it was an awful neighborhood.  Pete began to suspect that anybody who criticized him was really a friend or relative of Paul, or at least unwittingly gave him support.  Because if he really cared about crime, why was he just going after Pete?

Pete was also right to be afraid of Paul.  You see, Paul hated Pete and, aside from his getting his freedom and the garment, he would love nothing more than to see Pete dead for what he had suffered all these years.  But instead of sending somebody for the police, or seeking outside help, of which he was always suspicious, Pete just kept sitting there on Paul.

And there he sits, to this day: holding on to the garment and defending himself from the accusations of the onlookers by saying, “Hey, I am willing to let the guy up, provided that he….”


Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on September 3, 2007, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume).  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.

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