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Singling out Israel an exchange of views: Norman Geras, Eve Garrard, Richard Kuper, Jan 2006

Singling out Israel 

Eve Garrard, 13 Jan 2006

Across at Engage, David Hirsh takes issue with a piece by Richard Kuper which argues that it’s justifiable to single Israel out for specially hostile treatment. [The piece, published in Red Pepper, is no longer available on that website; but its core arguments are reprised here.] (There are various highly cogent remarks on both pieces on the Engage comments thread.) I’d like to draw attention to some more general features of Kuper’s arguments that seem to me to undermine the plausibility of his position.

Kuper’s first and principal justification for singling out Israel for hostile attention is that it singles itself out by claiming the high moral ground of commitment to the values of liberty, justice and peace. It invites evaluation in terms of Western values, since it claims to be committed to them. But it does seem to follow from Kuper’s criticism that if Israel dropped that claim, then for him there would be much less reason to single it out for further attention, and he would be able, no doubt with a sigh of relief, to turn his hostile attentions elsewhere. It looks as if an implication of his view is that we should cut much more slack to countries which are unashamedly oppressive and tyrannical, and be far harsher to countries which explicitly endorse liberal values. (And indeed quite a few of those who think it’s OK to single out Israel for criticism do appear to be acting on that principle.) This is a quite astonishing prioritization of the vice of hypocrisy (which Israel is supposed to possess above all others – itself a highly dubious claim which Kuper makes no attempt to support) at the expense of ignoring the rather more terrible vices of tyranny and mass murder. It may be that Kuper is appealing to an unspoken assumption that we should only judge polities by the standards which they themselves respect. But this is an even more unattractive view: it would sink any hope of appealing to human rights in the face of killing and torture.

Another of Kuper’s arguments is that what justifies singling Israel out for punitive criticism is that it’s supported by America. So here the principle seems to be that a country which is a friend of America’s should be judged by a much harsher standard than countries which do much worse things, just so long as they aren’t supported by America. It’s hard to see how this differs from the familiar view that we should leave people alone even if they’re bastards, provided that they’re our bastards – hardly an admirable, or noticeably left-wing, moral principle. In fact both of these arguments are ones with which sections of the far right could comfortably feel at home. (Eve Garrard)

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The selection of Israel 2
Norman Geras, 13 Jan 2006

[The original posting, The selection of Israel, 13 June 2005, dealt largely with deabtes about the academic boycott and is not directly relevant to these exchanges]

This is by way of being an addendum to Eve Garrard’s post [above]; I comment on an argument of Richard Kuper’s not dealt with by Eve. He writes:

Is Israel singled out? Well yes, in the sense that anyone supporting any cause singles that cause out from all the other[s] they might pursue and prioritises it. There are dozens of reasons why people single out causes. You might identify with those who are suffering or see their oppressors as like ‘us’, or feel responsible historically in some way for the particular cause and wish to make amends. And while we might hope that all oppressions would be universally condemned on the simple grounds that people shouldn’t treat others the way they do, we know this doesn’t cut much ice in the real world. There are too many valid causes and we inevitably select.

Now, what Richard says here is perfectly valid in its application to single individuals. I cannot protest or act against every case of need, or injustice or cruelty that there is in the world, and if I devote my energies to trying to do something about one rather than another, I should not be subject to criticism for that. It is better that I do it than that I do nothing, and as Richard says there are many different kinds of reason that propel people towards one cause rather than another. Nor is it morally required of someone who acts with meliorative intent that they should focus on (whatever is or is thought by them to be) the biggest injustice in the world. A person who chooses to try to help people suffering in a lesser way, and not some other people suffering in a much worse way, is not necessarily doing so because she is prejudiced against the second set of people, or even because she thinks that in how she chooses to act she is making the very best possible meliorative use of her time and energy. She may just have some personal connection to the issue she takes up, or have been made aware of it in a way that specially affected her. Our moral lives are not those of consequentialist calculating machines.

It is different, however, when one is considering large aggregates of individuals: members of organizations, parties, churches, movements, or more amorphously – as in the present case – a great segment of left-liberal opinion in the West. It doesn’t just happen that a whole lot of individuals converge on one cause. There have to be reasons. The movement today to institute boycotts of one kind and another against Israel, but not against other states whose human rights records are worse, and often vastly worse than Israel’s – I just name Sudan here to get this point comprehensively settled – didn’t come about simply through a lot of different individuals homing in, for a multitude of personal reasons, on the justified grievances of the Palestinians. Either there are good reasons which can be cited to show why Israel is an especially egregious case, and it is those reasons that have induced so many people to single it out for special prejudicial treatment. Or there are not such good reasons – and then there is at least a prima facie case for thinking some prejudice againt the country or its people may be at work. The supporters of boycotting Israel have yet to provide a good reason for singling it out.

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Reply to Richard Kuper
Eve Garrard, 19 Jan 2006

In his response to my objections, Richard Kuper explains that Israel’s commitment to Western values justifies singling it out for punitive treatment, because if we don’t single it out we are complicit in its misdeeds; the really important thing is that we say ‘No, Not In Our Name’. So this justification for singling out Israel is that it purifies us, it enables us to keep our hands clean (and better still, to show the world that they’re clean). The narcissism of this argument, the absorption in our own moral condition, is not only unattractive, it’s also profoundly (so to speak) frivolous – it puts us and our moral purity at centre stage, instead of the problems of those who have to live and act in the ghastly dilemmas of the Middle East. And the argument also leaves something quite unexplained: why doesn’t a socialist like Kuper feel the same need to declare his purity in the face of other regimes, regimes which claim adherence to socialist values while engaging in oppressions far more deadly than that of Israel (North Korea comes to mind, as does China)? Is he not, as a socialist, complicit in the horrors they commit unless he constantly and loudly says ‘No, Not in My Name’? (Myself, I don’t think Kuper is complicit, but as far as I can see he ought to think he is, if he believes his own argument.)

But in any case it turns out that this part of the putative justification is redundant, since Kuper says that even if Israel abandoned its commitment to Western values (and thereby no longer supposedly required us to say ‘Not In Our Name’), he would still want to single it out for hostile attention, since, he says, Israel would still be behaving unjustly, and so he wouldn’t want to turn his attention elsewhere. But now the original question that his article was supposed to answer has disappeared from view. That question is about why people on the left (and elsewhere) single out Israel for hostile attention when other countries behave so very much worse, by orders of magnitude. And (this part of) Kuper’s answer is that we have to declare that we’re not complicit; but it turns out that even if we didn’t have to declare this, we should still in his view single Israel out on account of its unjust behaviour (in preference to targeting regimes which commit, for example, genocide). So the reference to Western values and Israel’s commitment to them is in fact doing no explanatory work – Kuper’s desire to focus on Israel would, apparently, be unaffected by its absence, and is not explained by its presence.

Kuper then goes on to point out that the US’s support for Israel is remarkable, and that I ought to find it of some interest. I certainly do; I entirely agree with him that it’s remarkable, significant, and interesting. But what I can’t see is how we’re supposed to get from the fact of that support, and our interest in it, to the claim that we ought to single out Israel for punitive attention, rather than other countries which commit far worse atrocities. How are we supposed to move from ‘America, the world superpower, supports Israel more than any other country in the Middle East’ to ‘Therefore we should give Israel harsher treatment than other countries which behave far worse’? There’s a yawning logical gap, which cries out to be bridged by some such intermediary principle as the one I suggested that Kuper is implicitly appealing to: the claim that we ought to judge America’s friends more harshly than others. That principle, or something like it, is needed to explain how America’s support for Israel can act as a justification for judging the latter by a more punitive standard. But that principle is itself in urgent need of justification, and if we can’t accept it (as I can’t myself) then the justification for singling out Israel collapses. To rescue it, Kuper needs to provide some other principle which will bridge that logical gap, and in his response he doesn’t do so.

In his reply to the objections I raised Kuper seems to have lost sight of the fact that the singling-out problem is a comparative one: it’s about harsher treatment for one country’s misdeeds compared to gentler treatment for other countries’ much greater misdeeds. Those who object to Israel being singled out for hostile treatment don’t want to deny its misdeeds, what they want to know is why its misdeeds loom so large in the field of vision of the boycotters, when the far greater oppression and massacres of others get only the most cursory attention. It’s a motes and beams problem: Israel seems to be an intolerable irritant in the eyes of a section of the left whose vision remains relatively undisturbed by Sudan and North Korea and China and Russia and Zimbabwe and Syria and Iran. They owe us an explanation for this, and it’s to Kuper’s credit that he tries to pay this explanatory debt. But neither the appeal to our own longing for moral purity, nor the emphasis on American support for Israel, provides us with anything like an adequate answer to the question that he originally set out to address. (Eve Garrard)

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Another reply to Richard Kuper
Norman Geras, 19 Jan 2006

I’m grateful to Richard Kuper for responding to my comments on his article, but I’m bound to say that I don’t think he meets the argument I put; he sidesteps it. I don’t have a lot to add here, therefore, beyond pointing out that that is what he does.

Richard presents me as saying that there are no ‘good reasons’ why people might be concerned about Israel and want to do something about it. But that isn’t what I said, and it’s clear from the part of my post with which Richard expresses his agreement that it isn’t. What I said was that an explanation was needed for an aggregate phenomenon:

… [some] good reasons… to show why Israel is an especially egregious case… reasons that have induced so many people to single it out for special prejudicial treatment…

On this Richard offers nothing, and I’m disinclined to prolong the matter further.

I will just point out two ways in which what Richard does offer highlights his failure to offer what he needs to. First, he sets out a list of some of the realities of ‘ongoing occupation and settlement’. This is argument by non-comparison in a comparative matter (see Eve Garrard’s post immediately below); it’s the only list Richard gives us. That is how proponents of the AUT boycott argued and argue, and it’s a method that would work for boycotting anywhere – which doesn’t mean we should boycott everywhere, but that those who want to justify boycotting Israel should find a better argument. Second, Richard says that ‘the Middle East is a tinderbox and Israeli policies contribute to making it more unstable’. But if it’s tinder box and stability we’re focusing on here, why aren’t would-be boycotters looking also to other relevant, and non-Israeli, contributors to instability in the region? Oh, you know, like Iran, Syria, movements that deliberately murder innocents by suicide bombing? These just don’t seem to be such popular targets of left-liberal obloquy or for would-be punitive action. And nobody seems to be able to say why.

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Norm, on whose website these exchanges took place, thought it time to draw a conclusioon to the debate at this point.

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