Friday, July 16, 2004

Exitus Acta Probat?

On the Left's Coverage of Israel, and "Western" Anti-Semitism

(for the sake of brevity, pro- and anti-Israeli will be used instead of pro- or anti-Palestinian. Not only is it more familiar, but it's just shorter.)

Anti-Israeli activists often protest that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, but rather a manifestation of the right and responsibility to criticize a nation-state that is behaving poorly. They are, of course, correct in one sense (that one need not be anti-Semitic to take issue with an Israeli policy any more than one need be racist to criticize the behavior of the Palestinian people, a point that is hopefully not lost on them) but wrong in another.

Latent Racism

All humans are racist. We are biologically programmed to like that which is familiar, and dislike that which is "Other". This is the principle behind advertising. Unless you are an utter lack wit, you aren't going to buy a car based on an ad on your TV. However, after seeing months and months of those ads, when do you want to buy a car, even if you look at a comparative ranking of various cars you are far more likely to buy the one that you "recognize" and have seen the most images of, than the highest rated car.

All this means is that one is most comfortable with those who share every aspect of one's culture, and thus "understands" one. Any difference has to be portrayed on a level that is unthreatening, and does not imperil "understanding", or else it makes one uncomfortable. In the last fifty years, Jews in the Western world have made the mistake of both being self-assured and successful (unlike, say, Arab/Muslim populations) and not sublimating and watering down their culture (unlike, say, East and South Asians). Being neither pitiable nor "funny looking WASPs" (and thus not marginalizing their identity), they instead have made their identity pejorative to broader society.

I neither applaud nor condemn this decision (especially as it is no doubt subconscious). As an Indian-American, I have been a party to open discussions within the Indian-American community where people commented approvingly of fellow Indians who had managed to compartmentalize these two identities, and even personally admonished those who were not. An Indian in the United States does not bring up Indian politics, advocate Indian food or in any way "flaunt" that identity in public. I was a member of my university debate team, and Indians on the debate circuit all made a conscious choice never to run cases that regarded India. To do so was to "ethnicize" one, and those who did it lost out.

Neither do I condemn "the larger Western society" for this reality. It simply is a reality of human nature. Any minority, ethnic or religious, in this country who denies that their progenitors and compatriots were/are religious is either lying or ignorant. Across the world people like their own, and sneer at the Other. So why is anti-Semitism different?

Anti-Semitism vs. Racism

In one sense it is not. Western culture has fundamentally pejorative imagery that biases against Jews. There are also similar images that bias against others, and thus in sense there is no difference. So how can Anti-Semitism shape the discussion on Israel-Palestine, without anti-Arab racism doing the same?

The answer is it is not. Both are shaping the nature of the debate, but each according to the stereotype in question. Naturally stereotypes emerge from the past, and as much as the educated person may wish, they are subtly influenced by the rhetoric of old. Jews were traditionally seen as wealthy, amoral or evil (after all they rejected the teachings of Christ) and powerful. (The moneylender always has power after all.) The "traditional" view of Arabs was that of an emotional, somehow childish people. The image of the "Noble Savage" mixed with images of "Arabian Nights", to produce a sense that these people needed to be protected from themselves as well as others. Kipling's "White Man's Burden" meant that these poor benighted heathens were not responsible for their actions. Like children, they needed to be directed, and protected at the same time.

Into this dichotomy add the Left's lingering post-colonial guilt, and you have the manipulative, powerful, wealthy (and amoral) white man (but one with whom the West does not identify very strongly) occupying the lands of the continually-abused, recently-decolonialized, emotional, childlike Arab. When an Israeli helicopter kills a Hamas leader, it is seen as another atrocity by a colonial regime. When the impoverished Palestinian blows himself up on a bus, he is making a poignant protest against the injustice of it all. The Palestinian is not morally culpable for his actions; not only is he occupied, but he is an Arab. That Israel is a nation-state, and the Palestinian bombers are "resistance fighters" only makes the picture more romantic.

Bias, Double-standards and Morality

An interesting question for the reader, especially one residing in the United States, would be "Is there any justification for Al-Qaeda's attacks on September 11th, 2001?"

No one will say yes in public. The nuanced view would be that there were reasons, but that those reasons did not justify the action. Knowing those reasons, understanding them so as to implement policy to reduce the stimuli that provoked this response may be good policy, but is not morally obligated; we didn't "deserve" 9/11. However, transpose actions identical morally, if not in scale (Palestinian suicide bombing) and the calculus changes. "They are fighting for their freedom" becomes le nom du jeu.

This inconsistency defies logic. It is simply wrong to intentionally kill civilians who have not militarized themselves (picked up weapons, or in other ways substituted themselves for soldiers in roles soldiers normally play during war), for any reason. This statement is one that virtually anyone would agree with, should the context be 9/11, 3/11 (Madrid), or even Oklahoma City. Set the stage as Israel, and suddenly the far Left begins to hem and haw. "Surely it's justified if the Palestinians have no other way to fight back?" Morality is now less important than a fair fight??? "Surely it's justified if this is the only way the Palestinians feel they can draw world attention to their plight?" Perhaps I'm labouring under another definition of the words "morality" and "principle" I was under the impression that what separated such from "situational ethics" is precisely that no matter how inconvenient, a moral principle superseded the current context, and restricts action no matter what the reason. Even if that reason is publicity.

Of course there are other alternatives. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela all managed to get publicity and efficacy against implacable foes without resorting to such tactics. They even managed to restrain their compatriots, who presumptively would otherwise have succumbed to the same despairing bloodlust as Hamas et al. That the world does not expect that of the Palestinians is a further continuation of the subtle racism that is felt against them. "They can't possibly achieve such heights of moral rectitude, after all they're poor decolonialized Arabs." The inconsistency between agreed principle and the rhetoric regarding the Middle East conflict is implicitly due to the dovetailing stereotypes of Arabs and Jews.

This double standard is troubling on its own; what makes it even more dangerous is who it empowers. Even as we are all racist, anti-Semitic, etc etc, some of us are more so than others, both in absolute terms, and more readily obvious, with regards to different groups. (After all, some of us are more susceptible to the impacts of advertising as well) Radical anti-Semitism has been taboo for sometime. Replace in an anti-Semitic screed the word "Jew" for "Israeli" and suddenly a horrific bit of hate speech becomes a public ally acceptable political opinion. On its own, that isn’t necessarily important, but if the person in question is a reporter, an editor or a politician, their words now impact thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

Do remember that racism is not a rational, conscious decision. People don't sit down, examine possible stereotypes, then jump up and yell "I hate Black people"." Perceptions of all groups derive from what we see and hear, in conversation and in the media, and the impact is subtle. Anti-Semitism does not originate from people watching "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", but rather from portrayals of Jewish characters in the media, in plays and the use of stereotypical images of Judaism when discussing other issues.

It is not fair at all to say that everyone who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic to any degree more than those who do not. This latent anti-Semitism is so widespread in the West that everyone who grows up here has been to some degree exposed to it. One is not saying thus that we are all evil, but rather if we are to be fair to both the Palestinians and the Israelis, we must intellectually reject the stereotypes, and the subconscious imperatives they create. Both sides must be held to the same standards, the same standards we hold ourselves to, and those who interact with us. If we can invade a random country on the grounds that they might have someday posed a threat, surely we can understand the Israeli reluctance to give sovereignty to a population that continually attacks it.

This article may seem to be an apologia for Israel and its behavior with regards to the West Bank and Gaza. It is not intended as such; rather the object is to awaken the understanding that any examination of any issue is coloured by subconscious biases that we all have. If we refuse to keep them in mind, we allow them to cloud our thinking. If we recognize them, then we can correct for them, and monitor our analytic and evaluative judgments for their impacts.

To read more of the theory behind this article, look to Charles E Osgood, a psycholinguicist. (Nothing about Judaism, Israel, decolonialized guilt or racism in his writings, just a discussion of how bias forms, and how it impacts us.)

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