August 18, 2014

Gaza and the Chomsky narrative

There is nothing especially surprising about the current round of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.  The two parties have, for more than half a century, been locked in a conflict over land that they are unlikely to settle either amicably or soon.  Stripped of all the interesting but muddying historical factors (religion, the artificial borders drawn after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the last gasps of European imperialism, etc.) the conflict is all too predictable on its face.  In 1948, one people displaced another by force.  That is nothing very new in world history.  In this most rudimentary sense, it isn’t much different from the English colonization of Northern Ireland – the source of a conflict that lasted over 400 years.  There are Palestinians alive today who lost their land at gunpoint, so it is just in the nature of these things that the enmity between the two parties is not going to abate any time soon.  Hatreds caused by conquests are bitter enough, but hatreds caused by actual expulsions must inevitably run deeper.

It is an entirely useless exercise to moralize about the inevitable.  War has always been a bloody and detestable affair.  What is interesting about the current phase of this miserable saga, however, is the depth and vehemence of the moral angst indulged in by third parties.  It is incredible the rapidity with which the western world has forgotten that war is by necessity nasty, brutal, and unjust – and it is equally breathtaking to watch the tenacity with which people cling to the illusion that long standing hatreds can be undone by shows of public indignation.  Maybe we can tweet our way to universal peace, but I would not hold my breath.

I’m not particularly a fan of Israeli foreign policy, which has been heavy-handed and unethical at times.  On the other hand, I have to wonder what policy the people who are indignant about the Israeli attacks on Gaza expect the Israeli government to undertake as an alternative.  Are they supposed to accept the rocket bombardment of their citizens and do nothing?  Is it really plausible that they will take Palestinian schools and hospitals off their targeting lists regardless of what Hamas chooses to use them for?  Should the Israeli government simply concede “Checkmate!  The human shield gambit works!  We lose!” and march their entire population into the sea?

There is no doubt that the ongoing fighting is a human tragedy at the level at which human tragedies occur – the level of individual dead or maimed human beings.  There is no doubt, either, that it is shaping up to be a public relations victory for a certain species of pacifism prevalent among the elites of the United States and Europe.  I can think of no one who personifies this particular mindset better than Noam Chomsky.  Not long ago, I listened to a lecture in which Chomsky argued, in his dry deadpan way, that the real terrorist nations of the world were the United States and Israel.  His reasoning was, if I may paraphrase it briefly, that terrorism consists of manipulating a population by fear – and that Israel and the US, insofar as they conduct large scale military operations with just such manipulations in mind, are the world’s greatest terrorists.  Compared to the Israeli Air Force, the logic would now run, an Iranian-made rocket launched by Hamas is just a minor irritation.  This is an effective argument if unopposed, particularly if you reinforce it with appropriate pictures of bleeding Palestinian children and crying mothers.  Unfortunately, the real world is not that simple.

If you accept Chomsky’s reasoning, you have to answer an uncomfortable question -- Who were the real villains of the World War Two?  It is a matter of record that the US and Great Britain inflicted far more civilian casualties on the Germans than the Germans inflicted on the US and Great Britain.  Moreover, many of the victims died quite horrible deaths in firestorms – meaning they were essentially cooked to death.  Deaths caused by individual raids often numbered in the tens of thousands.  Children were not spared by any means.  Moreover, the policy fit Chomsky’s definition of terrorism.  Much of the rationale behind strategic bombing was the goal of breaking the will of the enemy populous to continue the fight – a goal which, incidentally, bombing never really accomplished.  By Chomsky’s utilitarian moral logic, the Allied powers would have been the greater villains due to the sheer scale of their efforts – the German bombing of London, Coventry, and other English cities were mere sideshows by comparison.

An important question has gone largely unconsidered in all the noise.  It is this:

Assuming one side or the other is going to ultimately prevail, which is the more likely to visit the greater suffering on their vanquished party?

If you apply this question to the case of World War Two, I think contrasting the Marshall Plan with the Holocaust should suffice as an adequate answer.  In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while the Israelis have been willing to rob, disenfranchise, and impoverish their enemies – they do stop short of actual genocide.  What Hamas and their regional allies would do if they prevailed is a matter of conjecture – but if we use their own stated goals and present tactics as a guide it is fair to say the outcome would be grim.  When Israelis win, the killing usually ceases; when Arabs win, it tends to intensify.1  While it may be reaching to equate Hamas with ISIS, the example of ISIS, replete with beheadings and willful genocide, is chilling.  Even the comparatively tolerant Saudis lop peoples’ heads off without much compunction and forbid the practice of any non-Muslim faith within the kingdom.  Can one blame the Israelis, whatever wrong-doings they may be guilty of, for refusing to stick their national neck out?  Chomsky’s formulation entertains an ironic fixation with body count at the expense of any substantive analysis of intent.  The death of any civilian in a war is a tragedy, but the deaths of people butchered indiscriminately by rockets represent, I believe, the greater moral crime than the deaths of those killed unintentionally in the course of stopping that very bombardment.  It is analogous, roughly, to the difference between an entirely deliberate and unrepentant murder and an accidental homicide – albeit a gruesome one.

The reaction of the liberal west belies an underlying arrogance of its own.  The unconsidered subtext of the endless sturm und drang regarding the sins of European man is that westerners are in fact so powerful, and so superior, that any western nation can now prostrate itself before its non-European enemies with impunity.  There can hardly be any belief more implicitly racist than that.  It is notable, too, that while we tend to consider the slaughters in Rwanda, Darfur, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, and Syria humanitarian disasters, we consider the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza a crime.  It is just an act of nature, we accept without thinking, when brown people butcher one another – but the deaths of Palestinians matter because they are being killed by, more-or-less, white people.2  Ugly as it is, western liberals tend to sing the song they know.

The Arabs and the Israelis have traditional music of their own.  Unfortunately for both parties, the songs they love are so similar that they create a bitter discord.  The Israeli song is a ballad of two thousand years of pogroms, ghettos and gas chambers, to be assuaged by the restoration of the land God gave them.  The Arab song is a ballad of religious fervor and long-suffering oppression to be avenged in a return to their former glory.  Lyrics of this kind almost always end in death.

1 There are exceptions to this rule that should be noted.  During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, many civilians were systematically butchered.  While the Israelis did not engage in the massacre directly, they did stand by and let it happen.

2 My point ably made by Christopher Hitchens – may God rest his soul…

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