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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Postmodern Moral Reasoning about Israel

Twenty to thirty years ago, the liberal consensus was that Israel held at least some, if not all or most, of the moral high ground in the Middle East conflict. Today on college campuses and elsewhere, many liberals castigate Israel and side largely with the Palestinians. What has changed?

Perhaps Israeli tactics—appropriating settlement territory (albeit land won in a defensive war, be it remembered), bulldozing houses, killing civilians in strikes on Hamas leaders—have fostered increased negative judgment against Israel among well-meaning liberals sensitive to injustice.

But there is a tendency among those making such judgments to dismiss sound moral reasoning in two respects:
the incitements and terrorism of unrelenting and genocidal Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians are ignored or shallowly rationalized as self-defense of an occupied people, and
the basic nature of the two parties is omitted from moral calculation. Israel is fundamentally a Western state with deep-rooted liberal and democratic institutions and culture, a society which has proven itself capable of self-correction, of the restraining and arresting of its militants and of acceptance of a Palestinian nation’s right to exist. In contrast, the Arab world is composed mainly of autocratic, anti-liberal states, and the Palestinians in particular have a deeply corrupt civil and political culture and a high tolerance for the virulently intolerant, anti-Semitic Hamas and others who are openly disdainful of a two-state solution, indeed proud of their devotion to the killing of Jews and the utter destruction of Israel.
How can self-professed liberals be capable of such shabby moral judgments?

Over the last twenty to thirty years, moral reasoning among many liberals has descended into a peculiar postmodernism, whereby the moral features of parties involved in a conflict matter not at all or decisively less than where the parties stand in a binary hierarchy: the oppressor and the oppressed, the powerful and the “subaltern.” The motives, methods and acts of the parties are irrelevant. The way power is exercised does not matter: democrats and fascists are equally guilty of being in authority. The only thing that matters is who has the power and who does not. In essence, this way of reasoning, beyond good and evil, derives from Nietzsche, filtered through hungover Marxism, postcolonialism and Michel Foucault’s analysis of cultural power. According to this view, all moral pretense, all reason, is merely a mask for the will to power. But whereas Nietzsche celebrated and honored the will to power and its discharge as the only “good,” his lapsed descendents sneak a collectivist sense of justice into the equation, so that a weak group and its will to power is all good and a powerful one and its will to power is all bad.

It doesn’t matter that the weak group might be corrupt, anti-democratic and viciously terroristic in targeting civilians or shamefully complicit in tolerating such terrorism. As long as it is getting the short end of the stick, it deserves support, it is “good,” it has whatever moral stature such an amoral classification system can grant. It doesn’t matter that the strong group is viably democratic and self-correcting and open to compromise. If the stronger group holds an upper hand, has a position of advantage, it is bad and to be condemned.

Aside from the flimsy foundations, or lack of them, under this line of reasoning, there is in it a residue of, ironically, a peculiarly Jewish moral tenet: support for the underdog. But the failure of attention to the actual qualities of the acts and motives of the parties represents an abysmal descent from sound moral reasoning and is more postmodernist than liberal.

This sort of reasoning is today widespread among college students and professors, under the influence of Foucault and Edward Said and others. Thus we see the weird support for Palestinian militancy and the knee-jerk condemnation of defensive Israeli action among so-called liberals.


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