Monday, June 14, 2010

Paul Berman on Gaza and After

Gaza and After: An Interview with Paul Berman
michelle sieff | march 2009

PAUL BERMAN IS A writer on politics and literature, an editor at Dissent and The New Republic, a professor of Journalism at New York University, and a preeminent public intellectual. He has written or edited eight books, including, most recently, Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems, edited with an introduction, published by the Library of America in 2006.

Many of Berman's political writings have analyzed progressive political movements and their ideas as well as the political movements and ideologies that have challenged these ideas in the modern era. In two of his books - A Tale of Two Utopias, published in 1996 and Power and the Idealists, published in 2005 - Berman analyzed the intellectual evolution of the student radicals of 1968, both in the United States and Europe. In Terror and Liberalism, published in 2003, Berman examined the ideas which underpin radical Islamist political movements and illuminated the connections between Islamist and European totalitarian ideologies.

In the wake of Israel's war against Hamas, I sat down with Paul Berman to discuss the war, the Obama Administration and the Middle East, and the persistence of antisemitism in our own time.


How have you judged Israel's actions against Hamas? Do you think Israel used disproportionate force against Hamas?

There is an obligation to live, which means that Israel has not just the right but the obligation to defend herself. Judging the proportionality of the Israeli actions runs into a complication, though - something of a logical bind.

It is now and then noted in the press that Hamas, in its charter, calls for the elimination of Israel - though, actually, the charter goes further yet, which is almost never noted. Article Seven of the charter, citing one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, makes clear that Hamas acknowledges a religious duty to kill the Jews. It's all pretty explicit. Which Jews in particular must be killed, in order to bring about, as the charter puts it, the "Last Hour?" Article Seven merely stipulates "the Jews" - which leaves open the possibility, I would think, of killing all of the Jews, or at least (judging from other sections of the charter) the Jews who inhabit any place that is now or used to be Islamic. In any case, the Jews of Israel.

History has some experience with political movements that proclaim in their founding documents the intention of killing the Jews
What is Israel trying to fend off, then?

Two possibilities. First: it's not so hard to imagine that, if Hamas were allowed to prosper unimpeded, and if its allies and fellow-thinkers in Hezbollah and the Iranian government and its nuclear program likewise prospered, the goal announced in Article Seven could be largely achieved. History has some experience with political movements that proclaim in their founding documents the intention of killing the Jews. And so, a first possibility is that Israel is up against military enemies who have every intention of committing a genocide, and who might conceivably succeed. The possibility that Israel is defending itself against a genocide ought to lead any reasonable person to grant the Israelis a degree of latitude in judging what is a proportionate action - even if, as Michael Walzer points out, an invocation of genocidal dangers could also end up as a justification for doing too much.

However, a second possibility. The Hamas charter is full of wild language - not just the part about killing the Jews, but also the invocation of the Protocols of Zion and of an antisemitic theory of history. But maybe all of this stuff should be regarded merely as an overwrought cry of pain - an expression of powerlessness. Maybe there is a kind of pathos of victimhood and suffering in Hamas' ideas, and not much more.

I think that, around the world, a lot of people look at Hamas in that light. They see in Hamas the ugliness that clings to the powerless, and, out of compassion, they excuse the ugliness. Or they choose to overlook it, in the way that, out of courtesy, you might choose not even to notice a dreadful deformity on someone's face or body.

Now, if Hamas were, in fact, extremely weak and doomed to remain so - if Hamas were capable of nothing more than lobbing primitive rockets at Israel, which might kill a few people but not more than a few - well, the question of proportionality in Israel's military response would look a little different. Israel, in that case, would have acted just now in a grotesquely criminal way, like some deranged police force that, in its efforts to put down a street gang, has ended up leveling an entire city.

A lot of people...see in Hamas the ugliness that clings to the powerless, and, out of compassion, they excuse the ugliness
But which of these is the correct analysis - that Hamas poses a genocidal threat in the making? Or that Hamas expresses mostly the ugliness of the powerless, and poses a relatively small danger? Everything hangs on the answer to that question. People tend to assume that the proportionality of a military action should be measured against what has already taken place - that somebody who has been attacked has the right to counter-attack on roughly the same level. "The law of even-Steven," in Walzer's dismissive phrase. But it is the future that has to be taken into account.

Unfortunately, we cannot predict the future. We stand in the dark, and we make guesses. Those of us who look on the Gaza war from thousands of miles of away enjoy the luxury of speculating this way or that way. But if you were in the Israeli government, it wouldn't be so easy to gamble on the answer. So Israel is in a bind. No matter what the Israelis choose to do, they have to recognize that they might be tragically wrong - either in their failure to defend themselves, or in the suffering they inflict on other people.

One aspect of the proportionality debate has been pretty much ignored, and this has to do with the rest of the world, and not Israel - the rest of us. People ought to have noticed by now that any number of humanitarian catastrophes lie just over the horizon and are perfectly predictable - the catastrophes that will follow ineluctably from any future wars in Gaza or Lebanon, or from an attack that Israel, out of fear of the Iranian nuclear program, could conceivably launch on Iran.

No matter what the Israelis choose to do, they might be tragically wrong - either in their failure to defend themselves, or in the suffering they inflict on other people
Now, if the rest of the world really wants to worry and be upset over humanitarian disasters, there would be every reason to start worrying right now over the prospect of those future wars. A humanitarian logic ought to lead us to ask, how can those wars be stopped, pre-emptively, so to speak - instead of merely deploring them, after the fact. I know that a lot of people would say that, well, Israel ought to dismantle its West Bank settlements and do a thousand other things to allow their enemies to calm down. Me, I've never had any patience for West Bank settlements, and I can picture a lot of ways that Israel could improve.

Still, it would be disingenuous not to notice another obvious reality. An Iran without a nuclear program would be in no danger of Israeli attack. Here is an impending war that rests on a single variable. Why not alter the variable? Equally obvious: Israel is not going to launch a war against any of the groups on its own borders that remain at peace. Why not do everything possible to disarm those groups? Protests, moral pressures, diplomatic pressures, not to mention grand international alliances, not to mention human rights reports!. There are a lot of things that could be done. But it may be that, around the world, some of the people who weep over the sufferings caused by war would rather see still further wars than undertake even the simplest and most obvious steps to avoid the wars.

You laid out two interpretations of Hamas. Why do you think so many outside observers are wedded to the interpretation of Hamas as a weak, powerless organization?

It's human nature to believe that a political movement like Hamas is weak - or, if it is strong, that its wild language is merely blather, and not to be taken seriously.

Back in the 1930s, people used to assume that, once the Nazis had found their way into a position of responsibility for the well-being of Germany, they would stop saying wild things and would certainly think twice about putting their program into action. Power was supposed to sober the Nazis up. But maybe there is something about ideologies of group hatred that makes it hard to sober up.

Then again, I think that a certain number of people see nothing especially crazy or hateful in Hamas' arguments and goals. They see points that are fairly reasonable, even if Hamas' way of expressing those points seems a little crude. The Jews should not be killed, all reasonable people agree; but (so goes a very popular argument) neither do the Jews have a right to defend themselves. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is not a sophisticated document; but Walt and Mearsheimer's book "The Israel Lobby" is (in some people's view) a sophisticated document. And the sophisticated document makes the unsophisticated one seem like it is on to something. By reasoning in this fashion, people end up concluding that Hamas' doctrines have a purchase on truth - something that quite a few people believe. But they choose not to say it because they don't want to look unsophisticated or coarse.

Power was supposed to sober the Nazis up. But maybe there is something about ideologies of group hatred that makes it hard to sober up
Anyway, history does not lack for genocides, and we have to assume that a lot of people have figured that, for one reason or another, genocide is a good idea. The people who think in this fashion are not just the fanatics who engage in the massacres, but also a larger public that gazes from the sidelines without objecting, and sometimes even applauds.

During the Gaza conflict, there were several anti-Israel protests where Israel was routinely demonized as a Nazi or Apartheid state. Why do you think so many activists, especially on the left, demonize Israel? Is it a sign of antisemitism?

Oh, as Irving Howe said, "There is no heart so warm that it doesn't have a cold spot for the Jews." We like to think of hatred of the Jews as a low, base sentiment that is entertained by nasty, ignorant people, wallowing in their own hatefulness. But normally it's not like that. Hatred for the Jews has generally taken the form of a lofty sentiment, instead of a lowly one - a noble feeling embraced by people who believe they stand for the highest and most admirable of moral views.

In the Middle Ages, Christians felt they were upholding the principles of universal redemption, and they looked on the Jews as terrible people because the Jews had refused the word of God - had insisted on remaining Jews. And so, the loftiest of religious sentiments led to hatred of the Jews.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers looked on the Enlightenment itself as the loftiest form of thought - the truest of all possible guides to universal justice and happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers detested Christianity because it was a font of superstition and oppression. But this only led them to despise the Jews even more - no longer because the Jews had refused the message of Christianity, but because the Jews had engendered the message of Christianity. And the damnable Jews insisted on remaining Jews, instead of repudiating religion altogether.

As Irving Howe said, "There is no heart so warm that it doesn't have a cold spot for the Jews"
The religious wars wreaked all kinds of damage on Europe. But the Treaty of Westphalia came along in 1648 and put an end to religious wars by establishing a system of states with recognized borders, each state with its own religion. The new Westphalian system embodied yet another Enlightenment idea of lofty ideals - the grandest guarantee of universal peace and justice. But the Jews were scattered throughout Europe, instead of being gathered together in a single state. The new state system was supposed to be a comfortable shoe, and the Jews were a pebble. And they insisted on remaining Jews, instead of helpfully disappearing. So one hated the Jews for failing to conform to the new system of states.

Today we have arrived at yet another idea about how to bring about universal peace and justice - the loftiest, most advanced idea of our own time. Instead of looking on well-established states with solid borders to keep the peace, Westphalia-style, we look on states as a formula for oppression and war. Lofty opinion nowadays calls for post-state political systems, like the European Union. Unfortunately, nowadays the Jews possess a state. Thus one hates the Jews in the name of lofty opinion, no longer because the Jews lack a state but because, on the contrary, they have a state. They seem keen on keeping their state. And once again the Jews are seen to be affirming a principle that high-minded people used to uphold but have now rejected as antiquated.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people with advanced ideas began to look on Christian hatred of the Jews as a retrograde prejudice - and the advanced thinkers embraced, instead, the pseudo-science of racism. They no longer hated the Jews on religious grounds - they hated the Jews on racial grounds. The word "racism" originally applied to hatred of the Jews. Racial hatred seemed up to date. Today, however, racism itself has come to seem like a retrograde prejudice. And so, people with advanced opinions hate the Jews on anti-racist grounds, and they regard the Jews as the world's leading racists.

And so forth. The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man's happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man's happiness would right now have achieved perfection - were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one's opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.

The political left has always been of two minds on these matters. An opposition to anti-Semitism (and to all kinds of bigotry) did use to be one of the pillars of the modern left. But the left has always rested on more than one pillar, and some of those pillars are a little wobbly. And there is the left-wing conceit that, today at last, the system for universal justice and happiness has been discovered, and should be embraced by all advanced thinkers. The cosmopolitan abolition of states, let us say. And here are the Jews resisting it. In short, nothing leads more quickly to a disdain for the Jews than a feeling of smug loftiness.

The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one's opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews
To be sure, lofty disdain comes in different versions. In its respectable version, lofty disdain right now adopts a position of long-faced sadness over Israel for being such a reprehensible place, for existing at a moment when states ought to fade away, for being racist, for perpetuating religion, for being an example of European imperialism, and so forth. One shakes one's head in sorrowful regret that the Israelis are the way they are.

But the disdain takes another shape, too, which is cruder, though it follows more or less from the first version. In the cruder version, the Jews are not just regrettable for being retrograde. Much worse: the Jews have done something really terrible. By forming their state and standing by it, they have set out actively to oppose the principle of universal justice and happiness - the principle that decrees that a people like the Jews should not have a state.

So, yes, the comparisons to apartheid - or, more radically and these days more typically, to the Nazis. The comparison to the Nazis began to emerge in the 1970s in Western Europe and also in the Arab world, and by now it is pretty much everywhere you look.

It's a remarkable comparison in all kinds of ways, but I'll point out just one aspect. The Nazis are generally regarded as the worst, most evil political movement in all of history - a political movement that not only committed crimes but stood for the principle of crime. By comparing Israel to the Nazis, people mean to suggest that Israel is likewise one of the worst, most evil political institutions that could possibly exist. The accusation is cosmically huge. And the cosmically huge accusation makes perfect sense - if you keep in mind the venerable idea that the Jews stand in the way of mankind's achievement of a perfected system of universal justice and happiness.

From the standpoint of the venerable idea, Israel's problems with its borders and its neighbors do not resemble the difficulties that other states have with their own borders and neighbors. There is no point in making statistical comparisons - the comparisons that might show how many people have been killed in Israel's wars, or how many people have been displaced from their homes by Israel, compared to the number of people killed and displaced by other wars and other states around the world. The statistics, if you looked at them, would reflect the fact that Israel is a small place, and its borders none too large, and its wars and disasters are not among the hugest that have taken place in the last sixty years, or even the last six years.

In the end, [antisemitism] is the grand accusation against the Jews, in ever newer versions: the Jews as cosmic enemy of the universal good
But the statistics, as I say, are irrelevant, given the peculiar philosophical light that people shine on Israel. Israel's struggle puts it at odds with the entire principle of universal justice and happiness, as people imagine it - no matter how they choose to define the principle. Other countries commit relative crimes, which can be measured and compared. But Israel commits an absolute crime. In the end, it is the grand accusation against the Jews, in ever newer versions: the Jews as cosmic enemy of the universal good.

You sound like you might be talking about human rights activists. Are you suggesting that human rights activists are now acting in the service of an antisemitic agenda?

In the service of an antisemitic agenda? No, no, the phrase is wrong. The only conscious program in the human rights movement is a good program. I hugely respect the Israeli human rights activists. To try to keep track of what has taken place during the Gaza war and may still be taking place - this is totally necessary. We know very well that the IDF has done terrible things in Gaza - perhaps by not taking judicious care, or by falling into the temptations of blind hatred, but mostly because any kind of warfare at all is what it is. But how will we ever learn what exactly has been done, if the human rights groups don't work up their reports?

There is a human value merely in recording what has taken place. If I myself had suffered in Gaza, I would definitely want human rights groups to come record what I had been through. Anyway, the Israeli human rights groups help keep the IDF honest. And so forth with other human rights organizations - at least in principle, even if there is a lot to say about the practise.

Still, even those of us who think of ourselves as the friends and champions of the human rights movement - even we ought to be able to look around and, in a spirit of lucidity, notice a couple of peculiarities. I do think that, in some of the human rights reports on Israeli military action in the past, you could see a kind of in-built analytic distortion. The human rights investigators work up analyses of what they ascertain to be facts; but their notion of facts excludes political motivations. And yet, if you ignore the political reasoning behind certain kinds of violent acts, you really cannot account for what has happened. Once you have ruled out making an examination of political motivations, you are absolutely guaranteed to conclude that Israel has acted with disproportionate force. It's predictable in advance.

The human-rights investigators work up analyses of what they ascertain to be facts; but their notion of facts excludes political motivations
A further problem: the human rights groups make their reports or accusations - and, somehow or another, the reports and accusations end up resonating all over the world. During the Gaza war, the front page of every major newspaper in the world was filled with reports and photos of Israeli violence, which became, not for the first time, a world-wide controversy. The same thing will happen, on a smaller scale, when the human rights reports come out with their accusations of Israeli war crimes, in a few weeks or months. It is as if all the news organizations of the world have agreed that, if a major problem with human rights exists anywhere in the Middle East, it comes from the one country in the region that most obviously cares about human rights. The greater is someone's high-mindedness about this kind of thing, the more that person is likely to end up singling out Israel for its assault on human rights. Statistics make up a big part of the human rights picture of reality; and yet, judged statistically, something has got to be very odd in the repeated emphatic focus on a single place. These are the peculiarities of the human rights movement right now.

Some of the most serious criticisms of Israel and Zionism come from Jews themselves. How do you interpret this response?

Well, sometimes the criticisms are rightly made. But, yes, a very curious phenomenon does pop up now and then. An old phenomenon. Back in the time of the European ghettos, most of the Jews were stuck behind the walls, and were despised for being there. But some of the Jews got out, and they did their best to blend into the majority population, and they even did their best to highlight the difference between themselves and their despised ghetto brethren. I happen just now to be reading Bernard Lewis on Lessing, the German writer.

I quote Bernard Lewis: "Lessing, perhaps the greatest of European philosemites, subtly realizes this attitude. In one of his plays, a vulgar and loud-mouthed antisemitic servant, suddenly discovering that his revered master is a Jew, tries to atone for his previously hostile remarks by observing in defense of the Jews that 'there are Jews who are not at all Jewish.' Some Jews responded to this kind of defense and implied invitation with eager enthusiasm, others with outrage. Both kinds of responses can still be found among Jews in the present day."

Lessing lived in the 18th century, and Lewis wrote the lines I've just quoted in the 1980s, in his book Semites & Anti-Semites. But it's really about our own moment, isn't it? There do seem to be a fair number of Jews who are tremendously eager to show how innocent they are - unlike the other Jews, the guilty ones.

What does the election of Barack Obama mean for America? Do you think that American support for Israel will continue under his Administration?

I'm enthused by Obama. And, in my enthusiasm, I find myself thinking: this election has been the most inspiring event in American history. The American Revolution was inspiring, and the Civil War and Lincoln likewise, and Franklin Roosevelt and the victory over fascism, and all that - inspiring events because they signaled big forward steps for democracy. But there has always been something wrong with America, and the claim to be democratic has always contained an extra clause. And so, each of those big successes in the American past has been accompanied by a small, unobtrusive asterisk, which leads your eye to the bottom of the page, where you find the extra clause, which says: "Democracy is fine and good for most people, and yet, for various unfortunate reasons, one part of the American population is hereby excluded." The asterisk has meant that America is living a lie. Even at America's grandest moments. But no longer! Not on this one point, anyway. The election just now is the first large event in American history that can be recorded without an asterisk.

[T]his election has been the most inspiring event in American history
The old-fashioned antisemitic right-wing is completely on the outs, for now. As for the anti-Zionist left in America: The Nation magazine, the Answer movement, the professors who want to boycott Israel (now, that's an interesting phenomenon!) - these kinds of tendencies are pretty marginal, in America. The views of The Nation magazine on the Middle East are represented in the degree of about five percent in the Obama administration. We have every reason to believe that President Obama will be totally sympathetic to Israel's principle policy, namely, the policy of continuing to exist. I don't know everything that Obama will do - but he won't adopt his measures on the basis of an unstated antipathy to Israel.

Now, if the new administration were capable of taking a wider view of the problem in the Middle East than the Israelis themselves are sometimes capable of taking - would that be bad? It's good that Obama has expressed a compassion for the Israelis who have lately suffered - but also for the Palestinians.

As for the anti-Zionist left in America: "The Nation" magazine, the Answer movement... these kinds of tendencies are pretty marginal
There is every reason to weep for Gaza, even if we can understand why the government of Israel is not awash right now in those particular tears. And there is every reason for the United States to do whatever can be done to help the Palestinians to a better life, liberated from these pathological ideologies whose adherents keep condemning their fellow Palestinians to ever lower rungs of suffering and sorrow. I don't know how much the United States can do to help the Palestinians throw off Hamas and a number of other groups, but, however much it is, I hope that Obama does it. To be pro-Israel is good - but the United States should show herself to be pro-Palestinian, too, in the simple belief that, in the long run, a pro-Israel position has to be pro-Palestinian, too, and vice versa.

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