Monday, July 21, 2014

More on Gaza, Israel, and Krauthammer

With the civilian death toll in Gaza now twice what it was when I wrote on this subject three days ago, I feel duty-bound to lodge a few more objections against Charles Krauthammer's exculpatory column from July 17th.  You may say that there is a certain "Why bother?" factor to this quest, but I assure you that I don't have any illusions about changing Krauthammer's mind.  He has followed the Israel-Palestine conflict closely enough over the years to know already that much of his column is roundly untrue, and anyone else pointing this out to him will not make a difference.  I do have some hope, however, that I might preserve some of the as-yet unconverted from being taken in by Krauthammer's assertions, delivered as they are with such apparent confidence.  This I will try to do.

I have already taken on Krauthammer's claim that Israel "painstakingly tries to avoid" civilian targets in Gaza via a system of advance "warnings"-- the claim was absurd three days ago, for the reasons I stated then, and it has become even more absurd in the time since, as the number of Palestinian casualties has mounted past the 400 mark (about a quarter of them children).  The "warnings," to the extent that they are offered, do little to save lives.  The New York Times reports today that for most Gazans, instructions from the IDF to flee or vacate the area immediately pose the unanswerable question: to where?

The Gaza Strip is a region considerably smaller in size than the Queens borough of New York, and home to 1.4 million people (Queens has about 2.3 million, by comparison).  What kind of scene would ensue, exactly, if Queens was bombarded over ten days, then  invaded on foot, and then an apartment building in which you live in Queens was showered by leaflets urging you to "evacuate the area"?  Where would you go-- and how easy do you think it would be to get there?  You might say you would decide to leave the borough or the city-- to go stay with relatives in Vermont or Massachusetts, perhaps.  But of course, the people of Gaza have no such recourse.  For our analogy to work, we have to imagine a Queens that is surrounded by walls, fences, and gunboats.  And we have to imagine that you haven't been able to see those relatives in Vermont or Massachusetts for six years because you must obtain an incredibly scarce permit to travel to these states; nor can you get to a hospital outside of Queens.  And finally, we have to imagine that Queens, in this analogy, is one of the poorest places on the planet with eight out of ten of its people living on humanitarian relief from international agencies.  Because these are the conditions that the people of Gaza continue to endure under the occupation and blockade.

Charles Krauthammer is not convinced, of course.  To him, there has been neither occupation nor blockade.  "Occupation? Does no one remember anything?" he writes, with authorial eyebrows raised in false incredulity: "It was less than 10 years ago that [...] Israel uprooted its settlements, expelled its citizens, withdrew its military and turned every inch of Gaza over to the Palestinians."

It is masterful how Krauthammer in this passage colors just within the lines of truth.  Israel may no longer be physically "occupying" Gaza, that is to say -- but only in the sense that the jailer doesn't "occupy" the prison cell.  The inmate gets "every inch" of the solitary cubicle to himself, after all -- but the test of freedom is surely whether or not he can get out!  And by this measure, Gaza is not free.  The New York Times summarizes the obstacles its people face to crossing the Egyptian or Israeli borders or escaping by sea, and Amnesty International describes Israel's draconian restrictions on movement to the West Bank, even though Gaza and the West Bank are supposed to be a part of the same political entity, and both regions share significant cultural, social, and familial ties.

Meanwhile, let us throw some cold water on the implicit claim that Israeli's withdrawal from Gaza was an act of disinterested largesse.  It is no secret that the real plum in the pudding of the Occupied Territories has always been the West Bank, which is home to the towns and regions that have the most emotional and symbolic resonance for expansionary right-wing Zionists.  It was with an eye to this plum that Israel vacated Gaza in 2005.  Sharon withdrew unilaterally in that year (i.e., with no negotiations or consultation with any Palestinian leaders), and he did so not as an overture to peace or as a step toward gradual disengagement from all the Occupied Territories, but as a way to secure a wavering American support and, more importantly, to seek a quid-pro-quo whereby Israel could extend even deeper tendrils into the West Bank, in the form of settlements (at least according to Avi Shlaim's interpretation).  And it worked.  Bush and Sharon's affection for one another blossomed anew, and meanwhile, says Shlaim, "in the year after the withdrawal, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent and territorially contiguous Palestinian state." (Shlaim, p. 309).  If there is no occupation in Gaza, according to Krauthammer, would he at least admit that there is a continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, where 870 Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their homes last year, according to Amnesty International, and 22 civilians killed by Israeli forces in peaceful protests?  Krauthammer doesn't comment on the matter here, but I'm guessing not-- since he shows indifference to the truth on so many other points.

Here is perhaps his biggest whopper of all: "[T]here was no blockade [of Gaza]. On the contrary. Israel wanted this new Palestinian state to succeed. To help the Gaza economy, Israel gave the Palestinians its 3,000 greenhouses that had produced fruit and flowers for export. It opened border crossings and encouraged commerce."  What time frame are we talking about here?  Krauthammer surely means that there was no blockade of Gaza prior to the election of Hamas.  But presented as it is in the column, the wording suggests (perhaps intentionally) that there was never a blockade at all. Krauthammer certainly never mentions the blockade that was implemented after 2006, to such devastating effect.  He also makes the claim that "there was no blockade" in the context of refuting those "[a]pologists for Hamas [who] attribute the blood lust to the Israeli occupation and blockade," and proceeds to deny the existence of the occupation in the present.  It therefore sounds an awful lot like he is denying the existence of the blockade in the present as well, and not just in the brief intervening period between the 2005 Israeli withdrawal and the election of Hamas.  This at least is how the claim will be read by those who give Krauthammer's writing the opinion column "once-over," and who (like me, I regret to acknowledge) don't follow events in Gaza very closely until the place is being walloped again by Israeli missiles.

But surely that's not what he's saying -- it would be too monstrous of a lie.  Krauthammer is no doubt just benefiting here from the fudging that the 800-word format allows.  One can perhaps debate the extent to which the blockade has been eased in recent years.  But the claim that there has been "no blockade" of the Gaza Strip at any point, and no collective punishment of the residents of Gaza by its means, is about as patently false as any claim can be.

Where is Krauthammer coming from in all this?  While denying his often outrageous claims, can we extend some sympathy for whatever suffering and vulnerability drives him to make them?  One doesn't become an inveterate prevaricator for no reason at all-- especially when the prevarication serves such an apparently disagreeable cause as that of further dispossessing 1.4 million of the most downtrodden human beings on the planet.  I see a way of shedding some light on his motives.

I can understand Krauthammer's sense, for instance, that the world judges Israel by a more rigid standard than it applies to other states-- and that this may be motivated in part by anti-Semitism.  It is pretty galling to see various blood-spattered autocrats thumping the podium about Israel's human rights record, while dissidents languish in their own prisons.  

I also understand that locating anti-Semitism among the ranks of Israel's critics has never been an especially difficult task.  I still remember an occasion in college when the campus was hosting an Israeli statesman for a talk.  Some group (I don't think it was a student group, but I could be wrong) used the occasion as an opportunity to bus in dozens of its members from outside the school to heckle him.  As I walked past the outside of one of these buses, several of the hecklers leaned out the windows and pointed at me, shouting "Jew! Jew!"  I am not Jewish, nor do I belong to an identity group that is typically harassed in this manner, but the incident gave me a micro-second's taste of what it must feel like to be a victim of anti-Semitic abuse.  And that was only one instant, on one afternoon, facing one busload of goons.  It's not hard for me to imagine that any prolonged encounters with people like that from the anti-Israel camp would convince me that criticism of the state's actions was driven by blind hatred and little else.

Meanwhile, it is a matter of statistical fact that the human rights community, along with left-wing academics and intellectuals, do devote a greater word count to the crimes of Israel in the Occupied Territories than to the frequently more heinous deeds of the Sudanese government, Bashar al-Assad, the People's Republic of China, etc.  The major human rights organizations write endless reports about the actions of the latter states and actors as well, I shouldn't have to emphasize, but the coverage ratio of Palestinians killed by airstrikes and rubber bullets to civilians gassed or incinerated by Assad is not precisely one-to-one.  There is a reason for this, however, that has nothing to do with anti-Semitism-- a reason which, in fact, serves a sort of back-handed compliment to Israel and its Western allies.  

Human rights groups like Amnesty International are not just fact-finders-- they are advocates who are trying to change public policy.  Because of this, they devote more attention to places where they have a better chance of making a difference over time.  And Israel, at least within its pre-1967 borders, has some sort of civil society and electoral democracy that can respond to this advocacy.  The presence of civil society makes it easier for NGOs to document individual rights violations, rather than simply focusing on massive inflictions of casualties (such as those perpetrated by Assad or Omar Bashir, etc.), which can often only be discovered through satellite imagery, if that.  It also means that human rights groups have more than a prayer of affecting a change in public opinion, and thereby a change in government policy.  Israel is not unusual among world states for grossly perpetrating crimes against the people who live under its military thumb.  It is unusual in having a civil society that provides some scope for public criticism of the actions the government perpetrates in the public's name.  

One might say, as Robert L. Bernstein did in 2009, that Israel should be given more credit from rights activists for this very reason.  Bernstein laments, apropos of Human Rights Watch's reporting on Israel: "[T]he organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies [... It] has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields."

Well, hang on-- why does Israel remain an "open" society at all (to the limited extent that it does)?  Is it due to the state's intrinsically superior virtue?  Or to the very fact that it faces criticism for its rights record?  I obviously plump for the latter explanation.  The reason why societies like Israel become relatively "open" in the first place, in my view (the emphasis really is on "relative" here, given Israel's culture of impunity toward settler violence, its war crimes, its discrimination against Palestinians, and much else)-- the reason why such societies remain "open" over time -- in fact, the very thing which defines some societies as "open" rather than "closed"-- is precisely the sustained public scrutiny and vigilance that Bernstein regrets.  One cannot coherently argue that Israel should be spared criticism simply because it is an open society.  That criticism is the very thing by which we know it is open at all.  

Neoconservatives often accuse liberals of being so self-doubting as to catch themselves in a contradiction.  Liberals are led by their qualms, it is argued, to such a degree of skepticism toward their own civilization and its values, that they end up second-guessing the very ideals of free inquiry and free thought that led them to their skepticism in the first place.  There may be some truth to this, in some instances.  But it is surely no less self-defeating to turn against the value of open criticism in the service of so-called "open societies." This leads to the sort of "preservation" which in fact destroys the very thing it tries to preserve.  By contrast, public criticism of Israel, within and without its borders, is a vital sign of whatever "openness" still survives there.  It is also, in a way, the highest compliment anyone can pay to Israel, or to any other society that aspires to be democratic.

In the introduction to his 2009 book Israel and Palestine, Avi Shlaim asks himself a troubling question, as an Israeli citizen who served in his country's armed forces as a young man. "[H]ow," he wonders, "does a people that has been the victim of such indescribable callousness come to be the cruel tormentor of another people?  I confess that I find this subject rather painful and I do not have a satisfactory answer to the question." (Shlaim, xiv).  These are lines to weep over.  But Shlaim's question also answers itself, in a way, does it not?  That it is to say, it is not ultimately so unusual in this world that any country becomes a tormentor of another, especially not when the former fears, with good cause, for its survival in the world.  

What is unusual in Israel's case, by contrast -- and what does it unusual credit as a society -- is the degree to which Israel faces internal criticism from its own public.  Palestinian intellectuals and activists have never had to shoulder the burden alone of condemning the occupation, that is to say.  There have always been major Israeli voices and a significant public constituency calling for peace on just terms.  Nor do these voices come from the ranks of the so-called "disloyal." I can hardly think of any other country, in fact, so many of whose most high-profile critics have served in its armed forces and consider themselves ardent patriots (Avi Shlaim, Zeev Sternhell, the pre-conversion Benny Morris, etc.)  There must be some hope for peace and justice in a country that can produce Avi Shlaim and contain Zeev Sternhell.

When I was a kid, "the Israel-Palestine conflict" was one of those things in the news that just seemed a geographical feature of the world-- a mountain or desert that would be there for all time, immovable.  Now that I'm a bit older, however, 1967 and even 1948 don't sound like such incredibly ancient dates.  I reflect, for instance, that the entire history of Israel as an independent state has unfolded well within the lifetime of my grandparents.  Another thing I've realized is that nothing is static and unchanging in this world-- not even, come to think of it, mountains or deserts.  If there is one absolute certainty about the Israel-Palestine conflict, it's that its features and contours will change in the future.  How, and in what direction, is less clear.  

Unclear to me as well, I admit, is the question of whether or not things will be "over" in this conflict, even if a two-state solution with sufficient rights for Palestinian refugees is reached, even if Israel apologizes for the crimes of the 1948 Nakba and the post-1967 occupation, even if the Palestinians recognize Israel in turn as a sovereign and legitimate state, and all the rest.  Supposing this happens, what comes next?  The reign of love and justice on Earth?  

At the first flowering of any peace, there is always a moment of pure ecstasy and jubilation-- as captured so well by Siegfried Sassoon at the close of the First World War.  After the ecstatic moment, however, is when the actually difficult part comes-- the boring and slow and inglorious part.  Kurt Vonnegut once wrote in a review of a Joseph Heller novel that "[for] my generation, Mr. Heller's generation, [...] everything has been downhill since World War II, as absurd and bloody as it often was."  That was quite a statement from an author whose written output was so pointedly concerned with deflating the myth of war's glory, said about another author who wrote to much the same purpose.  But it's also a very true statement-- war in some ways is easier to bear than peace.  It doesn't leave us wondering what to do with ourselves.

But bearing this in mind won't make the ecstasy of that first taste of peace any less real.  It will still be an unforgettable day when it comes-- one we should all work hard to realize in our lifetimes.  As Sassoon recalled of the moment when the great conflict of his lifetime had ended: "EVERYONE suddenly burst out singing; / And I was filled with such delight / As prisoned birds must find in freedom, / Winging wildly across the white."


  1. This is a great post and I almost entirely agree with it, but as you might imagine this comment is about the minor thing I disagree with. While your reading of the Bernstein column is correct and you argue persuasively against his position, there's a view in the neighborhood of his that I think might be more plausible. This is the idea that, while human rights groups shouldn't devote less energy or attention to Israel's crimes, they should moderate the intensity of their criticism somewhat to reflect the fact that Israel is a much more open and democratic society than many others.

    Perhaps you'd reply that precisely because criticism of Israel is more likely to spur change due to its (semi) liberal-democratic character, that criticism should be more intense so that it can be more effective. This is also a reasonable and appealing position and I'm ambivalent about whether it's more correct than the Bernsteinish view I outlined but I just thought I'd raise it and see what you thought.

  2. Hi Ajay-- thanks for your kind feedback and the thoughtful question. I guess my feeling about it is that Bernstein's remarks might have slightly more relevance to the way left-wing academics and journalists write about Israel, but that they are really out of place when urged against human rights NGOs. My understanding is that Amnesty International, for instance, decided early on that it would not make any distinctions between different kinds of regimes or different kinds of societies, democratic or otherwise, because this might lead it down a rabbit-hole of favoritism. Rather, it focuses on specific instances of rights abuses in various countries and devotes special attention to those cases in which advocacy seems likely to make a difference. This means that it spends disproportionate amounts of time on abuses committed by democratic countries, but also that in authoritarian regimes, such as the People's Republic of China, it doesn't focus necessarily on the most egregious violations, but on those that are sufficiently high-profile that the Chinese government might be vulnerable to global opinion with respect to them. (Liu Xiaobo does not suffer the worst treatment of all the PRC's prisoners, most likely, but his is the sort of case that might result in a victory, due to his public stature, Nobel Prize, etc.) It also means that Amnesty doesn't give any government credit for its nature and structure as a whole, but rather condemns each government’s specific actions on a case-by-case basis to the extent that they violate rights. I think Amnesty and HRW's way of writing about Israel makes perfect sense in light of this underlying philosophy.

    If Bernstein had been writing about journalists and scholars, rather than human rights NGOs, he might have had a slightly better point. These former do have to make some generalizations about different kinds of societies and their political makeup, and I do think they should show some sort of acknowledgement, when the situation calls for it, of the positive features of Israeli society. But I also think that those very same positive features are best protected by — and, in fact, include by definition— fierce public criticism of government actions. I would say the same thing about the U.S. I hope people in the US write about this country with respect for its comparatively strong traditions of democracy and civil liberties. But I also hope that this respect, if anything, leads them to write more forcefully and more frequently against rights abuses committed by this government than those committed by any others. If they don't, those very traditions for which they are trying to show their respect may wither on the vine. Civil liberties and democracy don't last long in the absence of very stern guardianship. The same goes for Israel.

    This is obviously pretty much exactly what you thought I would say (see your second paragraph), but here it is anyways : )