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Morality in Political Choice

We humans have it hard. Our fellow, non-human creatures act as directed by algorithms implanted by the relentless sifting of Darwinian evolution over tens of millions of years.

OK, in the ‘higher species’ some tuning of these evolutionary algorithms takes place through some very basic group cultural adaptation, and also by social learning in the course of growing to adulthood. But no animal, other than Man, fit Walt Whitman’s scathing commentary on our moral quandaries:

I think I could turn and live with animals, 
they are so placid and self-contain’d, 
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, 
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, 
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, 
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, 
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, 
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

So you laugh; it rings so true. I suffer from this condition myself and it seems so specially appropriate to Jewish politics. Maslow constructed a hierarchy of needs and values running upwards from physiological to safety to love/belonging to esteem and to self-actualisation. This was about the individual and has been critiqued and tweaked endlessly but the basic idea holds true, not only for individuals but for collectives – including nations.

Daniel Gordis’s recent history of Israel ‘Israel: A concise history of a nation reborn’, which I highly recommend as an introductory text and useful quick reference, points to the painful conflicts in Israel’s history between the higher and lower values. It goes on to the present day and will doubtless plague the collective Jewish conscience for the foreseeable future

This serves as an introduction to some recent papers from the BESA institute which are worth reading. Dr Alex Joffe writes,

The settler-colonial argument against Israel posits that Zionism was an imperial tool of Britain (or, alternatively , that Zionism manipulated the British Empire); that Jews represent an alien population implanted into Palestine to usurp the land and displace the people; and that Israel has subjected Palestinians to “genocide,” real, figurative, and cultural…with Zionism thus imbued with two forms of ineradicable original sin, violent opposition to Israel is legitimized and any forms of compromise, even negotiation, are “misguided and disingenuous…

You will recognise this argument from a previous post in which I included an article by Alice Rothschild, but you will find it at the root of basically all anti-Zionist writing (and here I’m not referring to ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel but to those productions in which the whiff of Jewish ‘original sin’ is inescapable). Dr Joffe attacks the factual basis of these claims. He argues and produces evidence that the Palestinians are almost entirely derived from 3 sources:

  • The Arab-Muslim conquest of Byzantine Palestine in the 7th century.
  • Immigration by Muslim and Christian Arabs during Ottoman and British rule
  • Possible conversion of indigenous Jews and Christians to Islam in the 7th century and thereafter.

In the words of InbariIndeed, not a single Palestinian tribe identifies its roots in Canaan; instead, they all see themselves as proud Arabs descended from the most notable Arab tribes of the Hejaz, today’s Iraq, or Yemen.

This does not undermine the claim that Palestine (including present-day Israel) was settled by people who have now been there for a variably long time, who feel themselves as indigenous, who are largely Islamic and who recently, mostly in the second-half of the 20th century, came to identify themselves as Arab and Palestinian rather than primarily in terms of their tribe and clan. Identity is indeed fluid and any political settlement  will need to deal with that reality.

But the claims that present-day Palestinians make as descendents of the Canaanites and pre-Canaanite peoples (presumably going back to the ‘out-of-Africa’ Adam and Eve) is entirely part of a PR effort to erase Jewish history from the region. As pointed out by Joffe

“…there is indisputable evidence of continual residence of Jews in the region. Data showing the cultural and genetic continuity of local and global Jewish communities is equally ample. The evidence was so copious and so incontrovertible, even to historians of antiquity and writers of religious texts, some of whom were Judeophobes, that disconnecting Jews from the Southern Levant was simply not conceived of.”

He is wrong, however, when he concludes “Jews are the indigenous population.” That is a meaningless statement, but that Jews preceded present-day Palestinians is a fact. In an interesting twist, it appears that the modern Lebanese are most closely related to the ancient Canaanites. Go chew on that.

Sticking to basic needs, read Maj.Gen.(res.) Gershom Hacohen’s challenge to the assertion by Barak that an Israeli presence in J & S (the West Bank) is unnecessary from a strategic perspective and undermines the Zionist project. From a geopolitical perspective that claim is utterly absurd and it’s mind-boggling that a senior Israeli military-political, figure like Ehud Barak could write that with a straight face.

Hacohen points out that it was the left-of-centre Shimon Peres who wrote

If a separate Palestinian state is established, it will be armed to the teeth. It will also have bases for the most extreme terrorist forces and they will be equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that will endanger not only passersby but every plane and helicopter flying in Israel’s skies and every vehicle traveling on the main highways of the coastal plain. … The main problem is not agreeing on demilitarization, but upholding such an agreement in practice.

Hacohen goes on to point out “About 90% of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria has been under the Palestinian Authority’s rule since the mid-1990s and Gaza’s population has been under Hamas rule since 2007. Therefore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently focuses on the Jerusalem area and Area C in Judea and Samaria. Rabin argued that Israeli control in these areas – all the settlements, military bases, main highways, and the vital area leading to the Jordan Valley – was the minimum necessary to preserve defensible Israeli borders.”

Of course that will not quieten the Western and Jewish critics surfing the wave of moral fervour and certainly not current Palestinian maximalists seeking reversal of history,  but it’s the truth. There may be arguments of a broader political nature which outweigh such primary security concerns but they would need to be overwhelming to balance the existential need for strategic depth, minimal though it is.

And just to consolidate that line of reasoning read Yaacob Lappin’s article also under the auspices of the BESA Center. In it Lappin claims that “In July and August alone, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and the IDF thwarted more than 70 terror cells in the territories that were planning and trying to execute attacks.

To sum up: before one can endorse the ‘higher values’ you do need to be around. Given Israel’s size, position and current neighbours I would certainly endorse the prioritisation of security. It is the difficult task of Jews, Walt Whitman notwithstanding, to try to reconcile survival with humanity and decency. But nowhere is it written that it is necessary to cut your throat to satisfy moral absolutists and self-aggrandisers.

PS, The BESA Center should include good references in its reviews and reports, even those intended for the general public.

Mike Berger