Newsletter #181— November 7, 2023
From the BI Israel/Hamas War Discussion
Colin's Letter to Us
Hi Guy and Heidi! Thanks so much for your excellent work at BI -- and your openness and willingness to tackle hard conversations openly and eloquently.
I just wanted to respond briefly to this portion of your newsletter:
It seems to us that Richard's [Rubenstein's] views track closely with those of the "intersectional" (and largely pro-Palestinian) left. As this group frames the situation, the ongoing war is just the latest battle in the larger Palestinian struggle against Israeli "settler colonialists" — a group whose crimes are serious enough to make the brutality of the October 7 attacks understandable (if not fully justifiable). More broadly, this group seems to view the Palestinian / Israeli conflict as just one episode in the long-overdue effort of oppressed peoples (generally defined in terms of race and gender) to break free of the white power structure that traces its origins back to Western Europe and its colonial empires. As we understand it, the assumption underlying this oppressor / oppressed framework is that, in virtually all conflicts, the white oppressor class is the real villain and any effort to focus attention on other sources of oppression, large-scale violence, and brutality (such as the October 7 attack) is little more than a disingenuous effort to divert attention from the real battle against the oppressors.
The problem that we have with this way of looking at the world is first, it is far too simple. We live in a world composed of a diverse array of complex societies which are, in turn, composed of multitudes of individuals doing things that are sometimes virtuous, sometimes evil, and, often, somewhere in between. The quest for justice and a better society focuses around cultivating virtue and discouraging evil wherever it might arise. To simply divide the world into oppressors and oppressed on the basis of racial and gender characteristics (as the intersectional left often does) and without regard to the merits of individual behavior seems to us to be extremely unjust and unwise (and the opposite of the social justice that its advocates claim to be pursuing).
Another major area of disagreement arises from the intersectional left's exclusive focus on the many historical crimes and ongoing injustices perpetrated by Western democracies and global capitalism. We fully recognize that Western democracies have done terrible things in the past. We also agree that there are many serious faults in the the current global, democratic, capitalist system and major reforms are critically needed. That said, we also recognize that that these systems, especially when compared with authoritarian regimes and failed states, have provided enormous benefits to their citizens — both in terms of material prosperity and personal rights and freedoms. There is a reason why immigrants are flocking to, rather than away from, these countries (including the United States). On a very broad range of dimensions, life is better under these systems than it is elsewhere. In fact, life is so good we have the time to spend enormous amounts of energy fine tuning things by working to protect ourselves from the most trivial "micro-aggressions."
By focusing exclusively on the things that have gone wrong and neglecting the many things that have gone right, we have taught a whole generation of young people that capitalistic Western democracies have nothing of value to offer and that, as purely oppressive regimes, they ought to be overthrown. And replaced with what? What we are now seeing in the Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and increasingly in Africa is what the alternative really looks like — a world of ruthless "macro" and "micro" aggressions in which sadistic and utterly ruthless leaders violently quell any sort of dissent with the wanton murder of their opponents (and anyone their opponents might care about), sometimes along with widespread murder of their own citizens (as is evidenced in Gaza when Hamas shoots civilians trying to escape the war zone.)
What has been so utterly shocking to us about the last month, in addition to Hamas' staggering barbarity, has been the fact that the "social justice" left has been unable, because of their ideology, to see that evil for what it is, to condemn it, and to actively fight against it. Do they really want to go back to a world dominated by the continuing and violent struggle for power and "I'll fight you for it" rules? Do they really want to walk away from the continuing quest to build a democracy that lives up to its ideals — ideals that largely came out of the now scorned civilizations of Western Europe? We think that the continued pursuit of those ideals offers the best path toward building a "power-with" society that works for everyone — something we should fight for rather than repudiate."
While I don't share all of Richard's views, I felt that this portion of your analysis: "Richard and many others seem to see the principle threat as oppression (as perpetrated by Eurocentric whites), while we see the principle threat as a much wider and more complex array of factors of which oppression is one of many." That seems like a "straw man" argument to me. As in, this opposing perspective sees the subject in a overly simplistic way (e.g. Eurocentric whites) -- but we see it in a more sophisticated and nuanced way.
I am not a member of the "Pro-Palestinian" left -- nor am I a member of the "Pro-Israel" right. I believe both Israelis and Palestinians (and all people around the world) have a basic human right to live in peace and have self-determination.
Intersectionality, to me, means that all oppressed people should support each other in their mutual efforts to realize this basic human right.
This lens of intersectionality can be applied to many situations around the world, from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the citizens of Eritrea (where I served in the Peace Corps) to yes, the Palestinians in the West Bank. It's not to say that the framing of intersectionality explains every situation in toto, but it can illuminate some commonalities that all these populations experience -- often when a more powerful group decides to oppress a less powerful group (a variety of rationalizations for this often follow, usually along the lines of a) they're incapable of governing themselves, b) they're too violent, c) they're ignorant, d) they're culturally inferior, etc.) This is more often the reason why "sadistic and utterly ruthless leaders violently quell any sort of dissent with the wanton murder of their opponents" -- it's usually the powerful vs. the powerless, not the other way around.
From my perspective, to say that intersectionality is "generally defined in terms of race and gender" is to trivialize the concept. Yes, in the United States many have experienced long-term racism (slavery, the treatment of native populations) and sexism (the marginalization and disempowerment of women in American society). So in the US that lens of intersectionality resonates with groups who have experienced those dynamics. Also, in the US racism has largely been from the perspective of the majority white culture against minority (e.g. black and brown) populations -- which you describe as the "white power structure that traces its origins back to Western Europe and its colonial empires."
But this US-centric black/white framing does not resonate in many other contexts, including the Myanmar or Eritrean experience, as well as many others around the world. The oppressed populations in those contexts have nothing to do with colonial treatment of native American populations, or the legacy of slavery and racism in the American south. To reduce intersectionality to its most primitive form (as expressed by shouting undergrads on campuses) is to oversimplify it -- as you note: "The problem that we have with this way of looking at the world is first, it is far too simple." You describe the concept in a reductive way, so it's easy for you to dismiss it. I think looking at systems of oppression and subjugation, and how these systems perpetuate and reinforce themselves, is well within the purview of your ambitions at BI, and it also accounts for "a much wider and more complex array of factors" as you put it.
When you say "What has been so utterly shocking to us about the last month, in addition to Hamas' staggering barbarity, has been the fact that the 'social justice' left has been unable, because of their ideology, to see that evil for what it is, to condemn it, and to actively fight against it. Do they really want to go back to a world dominated by the continuing and violent struggle for power and "I'll fight you for it" rules?" You are grouping a lot of people together, and making many logical jumps in this sentence. How is wanting to empower individuals around the world to stand up for their human right to peace, security, and self-determination (e.g. my definition of intersectionality) the same as "going back to a world dominated by the continuing and violent struggle for power and 'I'll fight you for it' rules"?
I believe in capitalism and democracy, and I think those forms of social organization have proven the best at helping the greatest number of people achieve peace, prosperity, and self-determination. I do not believe that intersectionality is synonymous with anti-capitalism and a rejection of democracy (though a few shouting campus rallies might elide the two concepts). To say that "we have taught a whole generation of young people that capitalistic Western democracies have nothing of value to offer and that, as purely oppressive regimes, they ought to be overthrown" -- I certainly am not saying that, and while there may be a handful of provocateurs who might make that argument to rile up their college rallies, I haven't personally heard anyone with any influence on the left make that argument (it's one you'd hear on FOX but never on MSNBC -- a useful extreme perspective to delegitimize the left). You seem to be asserting that the "social justice left" doesn't believe in democracy, but democracy is at the heart of empowering the oppressed -- the Palestinians have been asking for true democracy for decades. I don't believe the left is saying democracies should be overthrown -- I think they're saying that democracies should live up to their commitments to give every citizen a voice in their own governance.
You know well the risk of labeling one side in a conflict "evil" and worthy of condemnation. There are many Palestinians in Gaza who reject Hamas and hate what they did, and they don't deserve to be called evil. Collective punishment of millions will achieve nothing but more tragedy, and more hatred -- breeding a new generation of hopeless and traumatized people who will dedicate their life to exacting revenge. I condemn the evil and barbarity of Hamas' attack on October 7th. It was terrorism, pure and simple. The perpetrators and their supporters must be captured and brought to justice, by force if necessary. Israel has the right and the responsibility to make itself safe and to seek retribution against those who would do it harm. But terrorism is the WMD of the powerless -- Hamas is the latest example, but it is preceded by Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, on and on. If a population is hopeless and desperate, eventually they will fight back, even if they give their lives and/or harm their compatriots in the process. Israel, like the US after 9/11, wants revenge -- and it has the power to exact a heavy price. But like the US, an overreaction will make the problem worse, not better.
Thanks for listening, and keep up the great work. The conversation you are facilitating is the hardest, and most important, discussion taking place in the conflict resolution field right now.
Guy and Heidi's Response to Colin
We maybe are painting with too broad a brush, and yes, we were thinking of intersectionality as it appears in the US (and other English-speaking democracies), which is the place where we are most familiar with the term's usage. Based on our own conversations, and our readings (particularly, recently, Yasha Mounk's very well researched and documented book, The Identity Trap), what we wrote seems to be widely believed. (This article outlines his views in this particular context).
I'm glad to hear you aren't a subscriber to those views, and your acceptance of capitalism and democracy and the rights of all people -- whites and Jews included, we assume -- seems to be broader than is common among the intersectionalists we read and read about. We're watching the college campuses -- where the next generation of leaders are forming their attitudes -- and we are reading articles such as "Feminists Are Consenting to Hamas’ Rape Culture" and Why My Generation Hates Jews and we are responding with considerable alarm. Perhaps that alarm is causing us to over-generalize, but these trends are alarming, particularly to Jews. (And, we think, that's correct and is something that should be alarming to everyone because, as was said before "first they came for the Jews...and then they came for...)
As we wrote in the second half of this post [Newsletter 176], this is a "perfect storm" conflict where both sides are humiliating, angering, and sowing fear in the other. Sadly, both are being extremely successful at that, and repairing the damage is going to very hard, as I doubt there is any trust or benefit of doubt left. (I was surprised to see Julia Chaitin still calling for a withdrawal from the West Bank -- apparently she has some trust remaining.)
We wish there were a nonviolent answer to this tragedy. We wish a ceasefire would stop the carnage. But if Israel is unable to destroy Hamas's ability to attack both Israel and its own people, then we are teaching terrorists all over the world that the more gruesome you are, the better. The more inhumane you are toward your own people the better. We are demonstrating that that kind of behavior will get sympathy and support around the world, as long as the enemy is seen as an "oppressor." That is not a precedent we want to see set. And we don't want to see a repeat of Oct. 7 a few years out either when Israel is forced to end the war before Hamas' control of Gaza and ability to launch this kind of attack on Israel is destroyed.
We, too, were very upset when it looked like Israel was exacting collective punishment. To the extent that is true, they should be condemned. It also is stupid because, as you say, it creates many more enemies. Israel is usually smarter than that. But it looks to us as if much of this may well be the result of a very effective Hamas propaganda campaign. The hospital that was said to be running out of fuel wasn't actually running out of fuel. The IDF left 300 liters of fuel at the front door of the hospital, but Hamas wouldn't let the hospital staff get it, nor would they bring it in. How much more of the shortages were real? We don't know. But it doesn't seem likely to us that Israel would be stupid enough to harm civilians unnecessarily. They will, however, harm civilians if that is what they are forced to do in order to subdue and disempower Hamas. It's an awful situation for the innocents on all sides.
One of the other features of this war is that it is difficult or impossible to know the extent of civilian casualties since Hamas compiles the statistics and since it does not distinguish between military from civilian deaths (or "friendly fire" casualties from those that result from Israeli attacks). Hamas also has a high degree of control over the information coming out of Gaza and has every incentive to inflate casualty counts. That said, it is undoubtedly true that this war is causing immense suffering among the innocent civilians of Gaza.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that there is no guarantee that Israel's war on Hamas will ultimately be successful. This war could easily end in defeat for Israel and quite possibly catastrophe. The October 7 attack has unleashed a tragic, unpredictable, and truly complex chain of events. We simply hope that the many players in this drama — and we outside observers — are able to combine their insights and expertise in massively parallel ways that find a positive path through this crisis.
Thanks for raising some very important questions. These are questions that we've struggled with since October 7 and have, only reluctantly, reached the conclusions that we have outlined in our posts.
Be well, and thanks for allowing us to share this correspondence.
- Opening Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/aerial-photography-of-concrete-roads-7nrsVjv...
- Israel/Gaza Map: Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:October_2023_Gaza%E2%88%92Israel_conflict_fixed_version.svg; By: Ecrusized; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; Date Acquired: Nov 9, 2023
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