My series of posts last week on the events in Gaza caused unease for some readers because of their strong criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government and military, such as the siege that had been going on for years and the massive assault that has been going on the past month.
The unease was expressed in one comment by HRK who said:
I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog, but I have to say, I’m somewhat confused by this latest series of posts. Although I understand – and to a large extent agree with – your basic idea that the Israeli policies are self-destructive, I don’t understand why you seem to be giving the Palestinians a free pass on this one. I know plenty of other sources don’t, but as that your basic stance seems to be that civilian deaths are an unnecessary evil, wouldn’t it be better to point out the lack of regard for it that both sides have shown in the past?
HRK was quite perceptive in sensing that there was something slightly out of kilter and I can understand his/her confusion. It arose because I had broken the rule regarding how one comments on particular issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The rule in the US is that whenever the actions of the Israeli government are criticized, it must be immediately preceded or followed by equal or harsher criticism of the Palestinians. Otherwise one is deemed to be ‘not responsible’, or biased, or worse.
Moreover, the rule requires the opposite behavior when the parties are switched. Harsh criticism of Palestinian atrocities against Israelis need not be accompanied by a similar balancing act, such as pointing out equivalent or worse acts by Israel. In fact, attempting to do so immediately opens one up to criticism, the charge that one is ‘excusing’ the atrocity, or implying ‘moral equivalency’ between the two sides. (Read journalist Robert Fisk’s experiences with this.)
HRK’s confusion about what my stance was is an indication of how much this rule has been internalized, so that it is assumed to be the norm that everyone must follow. Anyone who violates the rule is immediately subject to having his or her motives questioned.
I do not choose to follow that rule and will criticize actions that need to be criticized on their own merits without worrying about what motives may be imputed to me. Anyone who has read my writings will know that I think that tribal allegiances based racial, ethnic, religious, and national identities are not only stupid but even evil, and that the resultiing wanton harming of civilians that is a consequence of these allegiances is also an evil, whether done by al Qaeda, the US, Israel, the Palestinians, the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers, or whoever. Life is precious and ordinary people have the right, wherever they live, to be free of the fear of being the victims of political power plays.
The implication that ‘moral equivalency’ is necessarily a bad thing is another symptom of how these kinds of rules are internalized. It seems to imply that ‘our’ side because of our very nature, by virtue of who we are is morally superior to ‘their’ side. Hence ‘our’ actions can never be evil by definition, but must be due to mistakes or accidents or unavoidable events. Meanwhile ‘their’ actions, even if identical to ‘ours’, are intentionally evil, carried out with cruel deliberation. So again, by definition, there can never be moral equivalency between acts committed by ‘us’ and ‘them’, even if the acts themselves are identical.
This kind of thinking is endemic and can be found in discussions of almost all conflicts, not just with Israel and Palestine. Uri Avnery tellingly describes how the dominant power uses its propaganda power to shape the narrative structure.
Nearly seventy ago, in the course of World War II, a heinous crime was committed in the city of Leningrad. For more than a thousand days, a gang of extremists called “the Red Army” held the millions of the town’s inhabitants hostage and provoked retaliation from the German Wehrmacht from inside the population centers. The Germans had no alternative but to bomb and shell the population and to impose a total blockade, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands.
Some time before that, a similar crime was committed in England. The Churchill gang hid among the population of London, misusing the millions of citizens as a human shield. The Germans were compelled to send their Luftwaffe and reluctantly reduce the city to ruins. They called it the Blitz.
This is the description that would now appear in the history books – if the Germans had won the war.
Absurd? No more than the daily descriptions in our media, which are being repeated ad nauseam: the Hamas terrorists use the inhabitants of Gaza as “hostages” and exploit the women and children as “human shields”, they leave us no alternative but to carry out massive bombardments, in which, to our deep sorrow, thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed and injured.
IN THIS WAR, as in any modern war, propaganda plays a major role. The disparity between the forces, between the Israeli army – with its airplanes, gunships, drones, warships, artillery and tanks – and the few thousand lightly armed Hamas fighters, is one to a thousand, perhaps one to a million. In the political arena the gap between them is even wider. But in the propaganda war, the gap is almost infinite.
Almost all the Western media initially repeated the official Israeli propaganda line. They almost entirely ignored the Palestinian side of the story, not to mention the daily demonstrations of the Israeli peace camp. The rationale of the Israeli government (“The state must defend its citizens against the Qassam rockets”) has been accepted as the whole truth. The view from the other side, that the Qassams are a retaliation for the siege that starves the one and a half million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, was not mentioned at all.
The kind of thinking decribed by Avnery illustrates the worst kind of tribalism, where we demand to be judged by the good intentions that we say lie behind our actions, while we judge ‘them’ by their actions alone and the intentions that we get to assign to them. To look at the actual acts and use the same standard of judgment for those committed by both sides is to commit the sin of moral equivalency.
The propaganda system can only work if we internalize the rules of discussion set by the dominant forces and follow them unthinkingly. It is encouraging that more and more people are breaking them.
Next: Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies
POST SCRIPT: Israel’s clout with the US
In this report that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (January 12, 2009), we see that not only can the Israeli prime minister order George W. Bush about, he feels free to brag publicly about doing so.
The Security Council resolution passed on Friday calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza was a source of embarrassment for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who helped prepare it but ultimately was ordered to back down from voting for it and abstain, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.
Rice did not end up voting for Resolution 1860, thanks to a phone conversation Olmert held with US President George Bush shortly before the vote, the prime minister told a meeting of local authority heads in Ashkelon as part of a visit to the South.
Upon receiving word that the US was planning to vote in favor of the resolution – viewed by Israel as impractical and failing to address its security concerns – Olmert demanded to get Bush on the phone, and refused to back down after being told that the president was delivering a lecture in Philadelphia. Bush interrupted his lecture to answer Olmert’s call, the premier said.
America could not vote in favor of such a resolution, Olmert told Bush. Soon afterwards, Rice abstained when votes were counted at the UN.
As John Cole says: “I am not sure what Israel has on us that they can extract billions of American taxpayer dollars every year and dictate our foreign policy, but it must be something pretty good. The craziest thing about this is the silence of the jingosphere. Had this been any other nation bossing around Bush’s Secretary of State, or, god forbid, France, can you imagine the wingnut Voltron that would have been formed in outrage? As it is, crickets.”