Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Evil of Unpleasant Realities - Why "Liberal" Jews are Turning Against Israel

I recently came across an article by a Rabbi Brian Walt, titled "Affirming a Judaism and Jewish identity without Zionism." Rabbi Walt obviously comes from a fundamentally different religious and theological perspective than I. That being so, I usually wouldn't even bother writing about such an article. However, I believe that Rabbi Walt's article expresses views that are, amazingly enough, at conflict with my own at an even more basic level than theology (which shouldn't even be possible). The differences touch upon the most basic issues of all, the role of rationality in human life and arguably even the basic nature of reality. Moreover, I believe that the kind of thinking underlying Rabbi Walt's article is becoming increasingly common, even in (perhaps even especially in) those circles that ostensibly celebrate rationality.

The article is a near-perfect illustration of the superficial romanticism that underlies much of what goes by the name "liberalism" nowadays, and helps explain why "liberal" Jews are increasingly finding themselves feeling like they have to chose between their identity as "liberals" and their support for Israel. By "superficial romanticism", I am referring to a worldview in which one's "feelings" have absolute moral authority. I am not addressing the various political and ideological positions commonly associated with liberalism (of any stripe), nor am I addressing the the fact that our emotions inevitably color our moral judgments. I am addressing the increasing tendency to see  superficial feelings, i.e. one's immediate gut reaction to an idea, image, or story, as having sufficient moral authority to render any further thought irrelevant. While such thinking certainly exists in all circles, my observation has been that this kind of thinking is increasingly seen in ostensibly "liberal" circles as not only respectable but as "deep" and "profound", and that much of what passes for "liberalism" today is simply advocacy for and celebration of such a worldview.

Thus, in Rabbi Walt's world, the emotional impact of images and stories reigns absolutely supreme. That which is ugly or unpleasant is inherently immoral. Necessity and survival are ugly concepts and are completely ignored. Context is a distraction. In this world, I need only look at an isolated image - such as a child's toy lying in the ruins of a demolished home - and my gut emotional reaction tells me everything I need to make a moral judgement. Similarly, if an image or story evokes an unpleasant association in my mind, that evoked association is morally conclusive in of itself.

Thus,  Rabbi Walt describes seeing soldiers demolish a home while the owners stand by "wailing." This is an ugly and unpleasant scene, and that is all he needs to know. Why were the soldiers doing this? What events had led to this scene? Not important, not even relevant. Soldiers=bad. Bulldozers=bad. Wailing=bad. All bad. (Oh, and toys=good!)

The underlying idea here is that the fact that the state of Israel is doing something that is ugly and unpleasant inherently means that what they are doing is wrong. Not because it is unnecessary, not because it won't work, not for any rational basis, but simply because it is ugly and unpleasant. No necessity can justify that which evokes unpleasant emotions in my mind. There are no hard choices, there are no necessary evils, there are no justifications.

Similarly, Rabbi Walt describes how the separation between Arabs and Jews in Israel is "very evocative of scenes" of Apartheid from his childhood in South Africa. Apartheid is, of course, a very bad thing, and therefore, in  Rabbi Walt's mind, anything that superficially resembles Apartheid is equally bad. No further thought is necessary.

And so on...

Uprooted trees = evil.

Arabs being processed at a checkpoint (evoking ugly images: "processed like a group of animals") = evil.

It is a sad irony that of all the Israeli "violations" of human rights described by Rabbi Walt, almost none of them go much beyond property damage, inconvenience, and bureaucratic red-tape. Yet, he sees these "violations"  as a justification for supporting the side of those who regularly engage in violence and murder not only against random Israelis, but even against other Palestinians! The moral scales are completely skewed, mainly because of another negative emotion: guilt. While I'm sure (or I hope) that Rabbi Walt feels just as horrified about the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians due to Palestinian rocket attacks and terrorism as he does about the bulldozing of an Arab house, he only feels guilty about the actions done by Israel. When Israel does something ugly and unpleasant, i.e. inherently unjustifiable, Rabbi Walt feels "implicated" in the crime, and he can only free himself from that guilt by opposing what Israel does. When an Arab terrorist blows up a bus, or a Palestinian rocket kills an Israeli civilian, Rabbi Walt does not feel implicated and therefore his emotional reaction is less severe. In the logic of Rabbi Walt's world, the fact that Israeli actions create more unpleasant feelings in his mind than Palestinian actions automatically means that Israel is the bad guy. Arguing that this is a subjective and illogical judgement would be missing the point.

Many aspects of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians commonly evoke such irrational reactions. In the mind of many modern "liberals", when they set the state of Israel, with its "white men in suits", uniformed soldiers, military hardware, factories, technology and emphasis on law and order, against the ragtag, hooded, "Che Guevara-esque"  "freedom" fighters of the "indigenous people", it is simply self-evident who the bad guy is. Israel is obviously the "Western imperialist power" oppressing the innocent natives.

That is the established narrative (despite the fact that that narrative developed in a very different context and has little relevance to the actual situation in Israel) and in that narrative the "liberal" knows which side he is supposed to support. There is no need to look for alternative narratives, there is no middle ground, and there is no ambiguity. All of these would require setting aside one's subjective feelings and dispassionately studying reality, and in this worldview that would be missing the point.

As long as Zionism was nothing more than the utopian dream of  Rabbi Walt's youth, it was fine. Like him, many of the early Zionists had utopian hopes for the  Jewish state. But then Zionism ran into reality, and reality is messy and ugly and has little tolerance for utopian fantasies. The founders of Israel thought they would be able to found a country where Jews and Arabs lived side by side in peace. They were fools and the Arabs quickly showed them that they were fools. The Jews in Israel found themselves in a fight for survival which has continued, with ups and downs, to this day. And, yes, its not fair, not to anyone, and yes, many Palestinians have suffered as much as the Jews, and that's terrible and sad and irrelevant.

Should the state of Israel have been founded? Perhaps not. (I am not a Zionist myself.) But that is also irrelevant. Like it or not, Israel exists, and the millions of Jews in Israel are not leaving. If peace could be negotiated on those terms, then Israel would jump for it (it actually has already, more than once), but the Palestinians have never accepted the continued existence of the state of Israel as acceptable, and continue to preach an ideology of irreconcilable hatred for the Jews.

In many ways, the issue I am addressing here is much bigger than Israel (although, from the point of view of Israel, it may well be a matter of existential survival). This kind of thinking underlies almost of all of the major political issues of our time, which is one of the reasons why it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold a civil conversation about politics. It also has a major impact on people's religious thinking. It is closely related to the issue of so-called "simple faith" (i.e. believing in God because you want to believe in God) that I discussed recently as well as the phenomenon of the pseudo-Chareidim I discussed some time ago

On the opposite end of the spectrum (well, the perceived opposite end), the so-called "argument from evil", which is commonly viewed as one of the most powerful arguments against the existence of God, is almost entirely an exercise in this kind of thinking. The reason that the "argument from evil" is seen as such a knock-down argument in favor of atheism is not because there are no rational solutions to the problem (there are, in fact, lots of such solutions), but because the underlying basis for the argument does not allow for a rational response in the first place. The real issue in the argument from evil is not that we can't explain why God allows or causes bad things to happen, but that we don't want bad things to happen regardless of the explanation. A rational response to the argument from evil would be missing the point.

The long-term consequences of this kind of thinking are very frightening. As the founders of the state of Israel discovered, reality doesn't change to suit our feelings. In the real world trade-offs are always necessary, difficult choices must be made, and ugly realities will always exist. Attempting to ignore reality never ends well, and our civilization's current attempt to do so will only make things much worse for us down the road. And, as has often been the case, the Jews are the canary in the coal mine, and may well pay the price long before the rest of Western society.

1 comment:

Chaya said...

I found your blog via a comment on FinkorSwim. It is a thoughtful and penetrating analysis that avoids the usual spinfest and partisan political name-calling. As antisemitism grows in the US, do they imagine their liberal friends and colleagues will come to their rescue? It is also disingenuous, considering R' Walt does not reside in Israel, and therefore has no experience with the realities of life there.