My Least Convincing Arguments
There will be no Zoom call this Friday, May 26. Our next call will be a week from this Friday, June 2, at Noon EDT, our regular time.
Our guest will be Shay Hazkani, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and author of Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War. Hazkani’s highly acclaimed book uses letters by both Israeli and Arab soldiers, as well as other documents, to challenge longstanding myths about Israel’s war of independence. In particular, he questions the assumption, which is widespread in Israel and among diaspora Jews, that Israeli soldiers saw the war as one of survival and Arab soldiers and commanders saw it as a war of extermination.
Here’s a panel discussion about Hazkani’s book with various scholars. Here’s a hostile exchange (in Hebrew) between him and Yediot Ahronot's Ben-Dror Yemini (which starts with this article by Hazkani, which led Yemini to accuse Hazkani of charlatanism (in Hebrew)).
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.
Sources Cited in this Video
The podcast about Montaigne.
Mohammed El-Kurd’s declaration, at Duke University, that “I don’t care” what Palestinian freedom means for Israeli Jews.
I was wrong in the video. Although Vladimir Jabotinsky authored an essay entitled, “man is a wolf to man,” he did not invent the phrase.
Israel’s operations to rescue Ethiopian Jews occurred in the 1980s (Operation Moses) and 1990s (Operation Solomon).
Things to Read
In Jewish Currents, Nadia Saah introduces a photo essay that marks the 75th anniversary of the Nakba.
Like Montaigne, the medieval Jewish poet Shmuel haNagid thought humans weren’t as different from animals as we often like to think. Rafi Magarik uncovers a poem of his, which makes that point with extraordinary power.
See you a week from Friday,
Hi. We’re not gonna have a Zoom call this Friday. We will have one a week from Friday, which is June 2nd at our normal time, noon ET. That’ll be with Professor Shay Hazkani, who’s an historian at the University of Maryland, who’s written a really acclaimed book called Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War, in which he draws on a whole series of documents, particularly letters from both soldiers on the Israeli and the Arab side to try to understand what was really motivating people who were fighting in that war, and also looks at a lot of the documents from the Arab side in terms of propaganda. And one of the things the book does, which I think is really important and fascinating, is it challenges this conventional notion that is common in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world that basically Israelis saw this as a war for survival, and Arabs saw this as a war of extermination. And I think that he challenges that pretty significantly with all of this archival material. So, I’m looking forward to talking to him a week from Friday. There won’t be a call this Friday. The call is for paid subscribers and paid subscribers also get access to all of our previous conversations.
I was listening to this podcast the other day about, of all things, these essays of Montaigne, of whom I knew nothing, very little at all. And one of the points that Montaigne evidently makes in his essays is that people think that they are in control of the arguments that they make. But in fact, the arguments often to control them. And what Montaigne means by this, I think, is that our vanity becomes associated with certain positions that we hold. Our identity becomes associated with those. And so, then we work very hard to defend those positions. But, you know, two years earlier, we were defending something else. And two years later, we may be defending something else with just as much, you know, enthusiasm and kind of intensity because we’re kind of slaves to the arguments that we’re making at a certain point because those become—only temporarily, but for a certain time—a very important part of the kind of who we are, and we don’t want to relinquish them, you know, because someone else forces us to.
And so, you know, that struck me particularly because I did hold views a couple of years ago that are different than the ones that I did today. And I was giving a talk in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and a guy came up and he actually quoted me something I had said, you know, a few years ago when I was criticizing maybe one equal, integrated state, and still supporting a two-state solution. He said: well, you know, were you stupid back then, you know, what was wrong? And so, the Montaigne thing just made me think about the importance of humility in realizing that I really don’t know what my views might be in the future. I would not necessarily have predicted in the past that I would hold views that I do today. I’ve been wrong about lots of things. And I certainly can be kind of caught up in the kind of the vanity of defending the position I hold today because, you know, it’s kind of where I’ve staked my flag. And so, you know, there’s a certain vanity of kind of wanting to protect it from potential critics.
But then the irony is that I might pick up that flag one day myself and move it of my own volition. And so, it made me think about how I would apply that principle of humility to the position I now hold, you know, which is the idea that there should be one equal, integrated political unit between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And I think, you know, because I’ve listened to a lot of people criticize it over the years, and I think there are, for me, two fundamental criticisms, one of which doesn’t, at least at this moment, doesn’t feel compelling to me. But the other one I find more difficult. And I would call them a kind of universalist critique of the of the view that I hold and a particularist critique.
So, the universalist critique is that one equal state is not the most moral position and not the position that is best for universal morality, which in this case means equally looking at the needs and rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews. I really don’t think that critique is very strong because if you really do believe that Palestinians’ rights are every bit as important as those of Jews, then it seems to me you really have a very difficult time defending something like the fact that Palestinian refugees and their descendants can’t return to the places they’re from when Israeli Jews can have a state where they can return after 2,000 years. I just think based on universal standards of morality, I just think that’s a really, really, really hard argument to make.
And even though it’s true—we don’t exactly know what one equal state would look like, and it could be problematic and all kinds of ways—I just really think it’s hard to argue that it would be worse for Palestinians than the status quo they have now, in which they lack fundamental basic rights. And given that the two-state solution I think is now so remote, I think that it’s hard to make a universalist moral argument that it would not be better overall from a human rights perspective to try to have a political environment based on equality under the law rather than Jewish supremacy. And that even inside the green line, that Palestinian citizens who are the most privileged Palestinians would be better off in a state that treated them equally rather than a state that was based on giving Jews rights that they don’t have.
So, that doesn’t really bother me. The problem with only making the universalist argument is that it doesn’t carry that much weight with a lot of Jews. Because when you’re talking to other Jews—not all Jews, but to a lot of Jews—we’re not looking at this from a kind of deracinated, universalist perspective. Many Jews are looking at this—and I understand this, and I feel some of this myself—as partisans of one particular group, a people imagined as a kind of an extended family. So, when you talk to Jews, the question you get again and again and again is not only, or not even mostly, is this universally correct, it’s more: what does it mean for us? Is it good for us? People don’t tend to say explicitly like, I don’t care whether it’s good for Palestinians. But they tend to emphasize the question of: is it good for us? Is it good for Jews? This idea you have, Beinart, giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.
And so, they invite you into a particularist argument, an argument which is not about universal morality or human rights for everybody. It’s really about: is this best for Jews? And it’s that particularist argument, in some ways once you go down that road, or having that conversation just about is this good for Jews, in a certain way I’ve already lost because I’m abandoning the universal moral framework. On the other hand, and there are many, many left critics, including Jewish left critics of Israel, who don’t engage in that question at all because they feel like fundamentally it’s morally wrong. Like, you wouldn’t—it’s not a perfect analogy—but you wouldn’t engage in a conversation about, if someone said, well, is the end of segregation in the American South going to be good for white people, you would say, that’s not a debate I want to have because that fundamentally already cedes too much ground, morally, right?
But I am enough of a particularist. I do have enough of a particular concern for my own people that I feel like I can’t ignore that particularist critique. And I also feel like if I do ignore it, I just cede my ability to convince lots and lots of people because there are just a lot of people—most people probably in the Jewish world in the United States and around the world—for whom a universalist argument is not enough. They care. You have to convince them that this is gonna work out OK for Jews, that it’s at least not going to be worse for Jews because they’re operating from the principle of what’s good for us. And they feel that, you know, given the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust that Jews have the right to think in those terms. And they think that everyone, you know, that people all over the world think in those terms. So, why shouldn’t Jews, who have had it so rough of all people have the right to think about what’s best for us. And they think, don’t Palestinians think in those terms, what’s best for us? So why can’t Jews think in those terms? So, I spend a lot of time in those particularist debates. It’s actually I think something that’s made my writing a bit different than other kind of people who argue for one equal state like Tony Judt, who did decades before me, or Edward Said, is that I try to spend a lot of time engaging with the particularist argument and saying, no, this is actually gonna be better for Jews. Legal equality under the law would be better for Jews.
But I am conscious of the fact that when I get into that kind of argument—argument number two, the particularist argument, the argument that it’s good for us rather than just the argument that it’s good universally, you know, kind of the sum total of human rights for all the people—that I am on thinner ground. It’s a harder argument to make, and it’s a harder argument to make for a couple of reasons. The first argument is when Jews look at the situation for Israeli Jews now, it just doesn’t look bad. It looks good. I mean, yes, there are lots of people who are worried about, you know, who think there’s immorality and worry about things like the Jewish soul. But once you’re talking about the Jewish soul and immorality, you’re already back to argument number one, really, which is about universal morality. But when you move away towards the simply question of: where are Jews going to be safest? The question not of Jewish souls but of Jewish bodies. And this is the argument that really dominates more when you get to the right end of the American Jewish community and certainly in much of Israel. You’re not going to convince people with those arguments. The arguments they’re fundamentally concerned about is: where are Jews going to be safer? And when are Jews gonna kind of flourish more? You know, and they look at Israel, those people, Israelis, diaspora Jews, and they think: it’s working pretty well now. It’s working well, right? It’s a thriving country, right? Like Jews are basically pretty safe. Palestinians are not safe, but Jews are generally pretty safe. They have a thriving economy, a great cultural scene. And so, it’s kinda hard to argue to those people that things are gonna be so bad for Israeli Jews that they should take a flyer, they should take a bet on this idea of equality.
And so, I end up arguing saying things like, well, in the long term, even in the medium term, when you inflict all of this violence, because oppression is violence, on Palestinians, it’s going to come back to you. Maybe it’s not coming back to you that much now because there’s a huge power differential, but do you really believe the power differential is gonna be maintained forever? That this violence could come back to you in much greater degrees if the Palestinian Authority collapsed, there was another Intifada. But, you know, I think a lot of my critics kind of look at the world and say: why can’t Israel get away with this? I mean, look at the world in which we’re moving into. In many ways, it’s a world in which liberal democratic norms, norms of international law are deteriorating, whether you look at China or Russia or even the United States and its behavior. They often point out the fact that the US and Australia, many other countries got away with basically exterminating their native indigenous population. So, why is it so unclear that Israel can’t succeed, right? Benjamin Netanyahu is a student of history. He thinks a lot about history. He believes that in history, power is what matters. And he believes that the powerful emerge victorious, and that if, you know, they could cleanse the Native American continent of indigenous people largely and produce the United States, why can’t they ultimately do some version of that in Israel-Palestine as well, with more ethnic cleansing or just more subjugation or whatever.
And it’s not an argument that I can fully, you know, overcome. Maybe it’s just that partly it’s too awful for me to be willing to admit that that could be true. But it could be true if one, again, operates only within frame of prism number two, which is basically: is it good for Jews, by which I mean, is it good for Jews materially? Not is it good for Jews kind of morally or psychically, spiritually, but isn’t good for Jews materially. It’s hard to overcome that argument. I’ll say things like, well, political science literature shows that in divided societies over time, they tend to be more stable and more peaceful when all people have a voice in government rather than when one group is kind of locked out. But, you know, those people might say, well, you know, I mean, a lot of these divided societies, look like a real mess when you try to give everyone a voice in government. I mean, you know, Bosnia, you know, is looking pretty dysfunctional. Even countries like Belgium, you know, are pretty dysfunctional. Post-apartheid South Africa is pretty dysfunctional, you know. It’s certainly better for Black people than apartheid. Is it better for white South Africans? I mean, you know, it hasn’t been a disaster for white South Africans, but it’s not clear that it’s necessarily been better for white South Africans. Many white South Africans, including many white South African Jews, have left because it was better for them when they basically had kind of total racist domination, rather than having to share resources to some degree and political power with Black people.
So, if you move away from the kind of any moral discussion—and I feel like I’m often drawn into those conversations—I don’t necessarily feel like I come away always having, you know, convinced the other person at all. And the other part of the argument, which I think makes it hard when you’re in the particularist realm—again talking about just what’s good for Jews—is that people will say: why do you think that if Palestinians are given real political power, that they will have any concern for the welfare of Jews. And that often gets expressed, I think, in kind of crude terms and kind of often racist terms like, oh, Palestinians just want to kill the Jews. They wanna drive the Jews into the Sea. And look at the Hamas charter. I mean, I think that’s mostly totally wrong. I mean I think that in fact if you operate from the principle that Palestinians are just like other human beings who have absolutely no desire to kill or be killed, and who turn to violence, some of them, because of the massive violence that’s been inflicted on them, it makes total sense to imagine that Palestinian armed groups would be much less likely to turn to armed resistance when they had a way nonviolently to participate in politics and get their needs met.
But I think that there’s a more subtle version of this argument than the kind of racist Palestinians-will-just-take-any-opportunity-to-drive-the-Jews-into-the-Sea argument. And the argument is more just that it’s just that Palestinians are not invested in the existence of a flourishing Jewish community in Israel-Palestine, right? That’s not their problem. It’s not their concern, right? It’s not to say that most Palestinians want Israeli Jews to leave. I don’t think most Palestinians want Israeli Jews to leave. But, ultimately, that’s not their primary concern, nor really should we expect it to be, right? I mean, it’s not like if you had asked, you know, Nelson Mandela, you said, you know, can you guarantee that there will be a large white thriving population in post-apartheid South Africa? He would probably say, you know, I hope there is, but ultimately that’s not the litmus test for me of whether we get to end apartheid, right?
And so, I think that sometimes this gets expressed it to me, and the writer Jonathan Freedland from The Guardian kind of asked me this question. He said: Peter, can you guarantee that any one equal Palestine-Israel that they would have sent planes to pick up the Jews of Ethiopia, you know, who as people remember, you know, in the 1990s were being persecuted and Israel kind of brought them to Israel. Will they have that kind of zealous concern for trying to protect Jews in the diaspora. Now, one could argue that Israel today doesn’t necessarily have such a zealous concern. But putting that aside, I think the answer is probably no. I can’t guarantee that a future equal Israel-Palestine would necessarily, you know, send planes to pick up some persecuted group of Jews in the Horn of Africa. I mean, why would Palestinian political leaders necessarily feel like that was one of their paramount concerns?
And I was struck that the Palestinian writer and poet Muhammad El-Kurd gave a speech a couple of years ago, and he was asked this very question. He said: what’s gonna happen to Israeli Jews in one equal state, you know, in which there’s freedom for Palestinians from the river to Sea. And I thought Muhammad El-Kurd said something which was jarring to I think to many Jews and jarring to me, but in some ways, I think was very honest, and he said: ‘I don’t care. I truly, sincerely don’t give a fuck.’ That’s what Muhammad El-Kurd said. And I want to be clear. I don’t think Muhammad El-Kurd was saying by any means I want to oppress Jews. I want to inflict violence. I don’t think it’s what he was saying at all. I think he was just saying: that’s not my problem. I am a member of a brutally oppressed, persecuted people. We want our freedom. I do believe that Muhammad El-Kurd said believes in a state of equality, but his view is: how that situation works out for Israeli Jews is not his concern. And to some degree, like, why should it be his concern, right? I mean, given the number of things that he has to deal with, and that other Palestinians have to deal with themselves.
And so, I just want to be honest about the fact that those are kinds of arguments that are difficult for me to respond to. I mean I do have responses. I make them all the time. I don’t think they’re bad responses, but they’re not necessarily responses that I think I find fully convince other people because there is a view of the world, which says that the world is a very dark place, that ultimately considerations of power are what matter, that groups of people and states that do brutal hideous things often get away with them, just like individuals do, and often flourish as a result. Not morally, perhaps, but flourish economically, militarily, politically. I think that’s the world that Benjamin Netanyahu believes in. I think it’s the world that he was taught by his father. That man is a wolf to man, as was famously said I think by Jabotinsky. And when I talk to people like that, I find myself having a difficult time. And I can’t avoid talking to them because I feel like I need to try to convince them, and I also feel like there’s a part of me that identifies with the question of talking within Jewish self-interest. But I’m not necessarily sure that I always get the better of the argument. So, this is kind of my effort to try to think in the kind of way that Montaigne was suggesting about the recognition that one should be humble about the arguments one makes and try to recognize their weaknesses. Again, our conversation will be not this Friday but a week from Friday on June 2nd with Shay Hazkani from the University of Maryland. I hope many of you will join us.