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  1. The Weekend Essay
28 October 2023

On the responsibility of intellectuals

As the conscience of society, writer-thinkers should not be swayed by prevailing political opinion in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

By George Scialabba

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

—WH Auden, “September 1, 1939”

“The 7 October attack by Hamas was morally barbarous and strategically futile. Nothing justifies the killing of innocents, not even the denial of a people’s nationhood for 75 years, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of them to make way for colonial settlers, or the killing of thousands of their own innocents in scandalously disproportionate ‘reprisals’. And as for strategy, for the weak (and not only for them), nothing is less efficacious than such violence, which makes trust – the only reliable basis of lasting security – impossible. Better a people should suffer another 75 years of dispossession than that another such crime be committed in its name. Of course, those who would allow this people to go without justice for another 75 years, and who allowed it to go without justice for the last 75 years, share the murderers’ guilt, and with far less excuse.”

No one asked me for a public statement after the Hamas raid. If anyone had, this is roughly what I would have said, and I’ve used it as a kind of template in reacting to the innumerable public statements, solicited and unsolicited, that I’ve encountered since the event.

The loudest class of reactions – the most numerous, most anguished, most indignant – has been to the least consequential of statements: those of university students. Several dozen student organisations, probably representing several hundred individuals, issued a statement after the raid that began by holding Israel “entirely responsible” for “all the unfolding violence”. Academic luminaries such as Lawrence Summers, and more consequentially, billionaire donors such as Ken Griffin, Marc Rowan and Jon Huntsman demanded that the universities in question (Harvard and University of Pennsylvania – though Penn was guilty only of hosting a Palestinian literature festival several weeks before the attack) officially disavow the students’ statements. There was, of course, little debate about the substance of the letter beyond hand-wringing, and it has now been deleted, with the (desired?) result that there will apparently be little more. Is this how such matters should be handled in a healthy democratic society, or, for that matter, a self-respecting educational institution? Couldn’t Summers or some other Harvard eminence responsible for the instruction of the young have descended from Parnassus and shown the deluded students the error of their ways in face-to-face debate?

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What did the students mean by their first sentence holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the attack? They could not have meant what the sentence appears to mean: that Israel rather than Hamas carried out the attack. They must have been making a statement about moral responsibility for the attack. To absolve Hamas of responsibility for murder is plainly wrong; therefore “entirely responsible” is indefensible. But what if the students had written “largely responsible”? Suppose that during the Vietnam War the National Liberation Front (NLF), or Viet Cong, had committed some atrocity comparable to Hamas’s? I don’t know how students then would have reacted, but surely millions of Americans would have agreed that the United States, as the aggressor, was “largely responsible for the unfolding violence”, even if NLF atrocities were also morally wrong. Most of the world – though not Americans, by and large – believes that Israel is, in effect, the aggressor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: for preventing the return of 750,000 Palestinian refugees to their homes after the 1948 war and ever since; for continually extending its illegal settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank; for devastating southern Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 in an attempt to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO); for refusing to accept the results of the 2006 Palestinian election, in which Hamas was chosen as the Palestinians’ political representative; and for imposing an inhumane blockade on the two million inhabitants of Gaza, and carrying out vastly disproportionate reprisals, mostly affecting civilians, after previous Hamas attacks. I’m pretty sure the rest of the world, having supported countless UN resolutions demanding that Israel give back the West Bank, would have ignored the students’ statement or rebuked them for rhetorical ineptitude but not seen it as an existential threat to Israel or to Jews.

[See also: The Middle East cannot be the same after this war, says Israeli ambassador]

Student-bashing is a species of left-bashing. If war is politics by other means, so are polemics about foreign policy. The right and the centre have shown themselves determined to locate and publicise “irresponsible” formulations by the left. That would be welcome if they also deigned to take notice of the non-foolish things leftists have to say – often in the same piece – about centrists’ and rightists’ cherished illusions and guilty silences.

In “Notes on Nationalism” (1945), George Orwell observed: “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” The opinion and commentary I have read so far – in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs and online sites such as Unherd, Quillette, Compact and Persuasion – has been almost wholly devoid of any mention of Israel’s many crimes against the Palestinians, as though that would be to minimise the horror of Hamas’s attack or deny Israel’s right to lawful self-defence. On the contrary, the usual judgement about comparative criminality is implied, for example, in this entirely typical article from New York Magazine:

“The Israel Defense Forces do not, as a matter of policy, aim to kill Palestinian civilians, though it is debatable how sorry they really are when they inevitably do. This differentiates them from Hamas, which glorifies the killing of innocent Israelis (because again, in their worldview, no Israeli is innocent).”

In the 15 years before the Hamas attack, Palestinians suffered 6,407 fatalities and 152,560 injuries in comparison with Israel’s 308 and 6,307, respectively.

Obviously, every event has both immediate and ultimate causes. In the present case, one should ask both who is responsible for the massacre and who is responsible for its context, the conflict that has generated so many past and (probably) future massacres. This is the left-wing reflex, which infuriates left-bashers, who insist that talk of root causes is merely an excuse for “revolutionary” violence. That is an evergreen fallacy: that to explain is to justify. It is doubtless, in some cases, an honest confusion; in others, an ideologically motivated dodge. In the latter case, its purpose is to deny that, beyond simply denouncing terrorism by the designated enemy, anything morally relevant remains to be said.

But some things do remain to be said. First, that by the ordinary definition of terrorism – deliberate violence against civilians for political purposes – both Israel and the United States have also been guilty of terrorism: the former during its 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon, as well as many of its bombing raids in that country at other times, and its blockade and bombing of Gaza; the US far more extensively, through its support, training and arms sales to many brutal regimes and insurgencies; the latter’s large-scale bombing of cities in the Second World War, the Korean War and the Indochina War; and the Iraqi sanctions, which killed tens of thousands of civilians. Second, that the definition of terrorism should perhaps be broadened to include reprisals that can hardly fail to produce civilian casualties, like the bombing, strafing and bulldozing of inhabited areas where terrorists may be hiding; or that cause a grave deterioration in the life of an entire society, like large-scale jailings, house detonations, curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints, school closings, border closings, import restrictions, destruction of cultural, administrative and agricultural resources, and more. The third point to raise is that those responsible for a huge, flagrant, persistent injustice, which they could remedy without grave detriment to their own society’s security, and which terrorists claim to be protesting, deserve some blame for the terrorists’ crimes (an allocation that does not diminish the terrorists’ responsibility). The left’s critics deplore its lack of moral complexity, but their own understanding of terrorism is a virtual flight from complexity.

[See also: The Cloud of Unreason]

Another simplicity to which Western (particularly American) intellectuals are prone is “rejectionism”. According to the conventional wisdom, Israel has made many generous peace offers over the years, which Palestinians have refused, demonstrating their – and other Arabs’ – fundamental unwillingness to live peacefully alongside Israel and absolving Israel of its prima facie obligations to somehow make whole the refugees of 1948 and relinquish Palestinian lands annexed since 1967. In the New York Times, under its executive editor AM Rosenthal, and the New Republic under Martin Peretz, probably the two most influential American vehicles of political opinion in the late 20th century, this view was unquestioned.

It was, nonetheless, false. The Egyptian Peace Plan of 1971, the PLO Peace Plan of 1988, and the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 all envisaged full diplomatic recognition of Israel. Israel rejected or ignored all of them. The reason, as with the Madrid, Oslo and Camp David negotiations, is that Israel has never been willing to withdraw from all the occupied territories and allow a Palestinian state there. The history of the Byzantine manoeuvres with which Israeli negotiators managed to portray various schemes for partial withdrawal but continued control as generous peace offers is told in two books by Israeli writers: Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009) by the Oxford-based historian Avi Shlaim and Israel/Palestine (2002) by the academic Tanya Reinhart, as well as in Noam Chomsky’s monumental and indispensable Fateful Triangle (1983).

Many have called the Hamas massacre Israel’s 9/11. If so, we must not repeat that event’s sequel. The response of American intellectuals to 9/11 was shameful. Only one explanation was allowed: the terrorists hated American values: democracy, progress, science, freedom. The notion that they had grievances, legitimate or fanciful, about American foreign policy was derided as “apologetics for terrorism” or “reflexive anti-Americanism”, even though the George W Bush White House’s chief counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke, said the same thing, citing publications by al-Qaeda. Eventually, after a period of national mobilisation aided by these left-bashing intellectuals – Christopher Hitchens, Charles Krauthammer, the drum-beating Project for a New American Century, the New Republic‘s mean-spirited “Idiocy Watch”, which jeered at reservations about the war on terror – America marched off to two ruinous wars, one criminal and one of tenuous legality. Let us hope Israel is wiser and more law-abiding.

Apart from a few student revolutionaries, no one has actually welcomed the Hamas attack and called for more of the same. What, then, should Western intellectuals say to Israelis and Palestinians? We should remind the Palestinians of their own professed belief: “And the retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it, but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation – his reward is [due] from Allah. Indeed, He does not like wrongdoers” (Koran 42:40). I am pretty sure “wrongdoers” includes “terrorists”. Islam, Judaism and Christianity all teach that it is better to suffer an evil than to commit one. Beyond that, we should advise them to appeal to the conscience of Israelis – and Americans, who have steadfastly enabled Israeli policy since 1967. Whether or not that advice turns out to be a cruel joke depends at least in part on us intellectuals, whose vocation it is to inform the conscience of our societies.

We should tell the Israelis that they must refuse to pretend they are blameless, whatever their politicians and their foreign cheerleaders tell them; that having suffered even the greatest of evils does not license doing evil in return, much less to those who had not done them evil in the first place; and that they have some substantial injustices to redress, and though doing so will probably not gravely threaten their security, they must do so whether or not – though of course as prudently as possible.

Finally, because power entails responsibility and preponderant power entails preponderant responsibility, Western intellectuals should not fail to address America’s leaders and citizens. For the sake of a reliable and powerful ally in the region containing “one of the greatest material prizes in world history”, as an American statesman described Middle Eastern oil in the 1940s, and secondly because of a ferocious domestic lobby, the US has virtually conceded Israel carte blanche in its dealings with the Palestinians. The policy has been a success in its own terms: no serious threat to American dominance in the region has arisen in many decades. But it is realpolitik at its ugliest. The US cannot dictate peace, of course, but its influence is immense: Israel has no other source of military and diplomatic support.

Unfortunately, no one in American politics now has the moral or intellectual stature to propose a just settlement. Israel’s current political leadership is the most fanatical and bloody-minded in that country’s history. And Palestinian politics have never recovered from the Israeli-American overturning of their election in 2006. In Israel/Palestine, it is midnight in the century.

[See also: The great unravelling]

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