The Problem With Both "Pro-Israel" and "Anti-Israel"

In a typically thoughtful piece today, Jonathan Chait explains why he has "grown less pro-Israel over the last decade." I want to push back on this a bit, not because I disagree with any of the particular points Chait makes, but because of the broad framing. The idea of "pro-Israel," like its mirror "anti-Israel," is the enemy of rational thought and debate on this topic. Unless you're talking about whom you're rooting for in the Olympics, talking about who's pro-Israel and who isn't, and to what degree, almost never helps illuminate anything. This is something I brought up a few months ago, but it has a new urgency now, because this conflict is going to cause a lot of people to reevaluate how they feel about Israel.

One of the interesting things about Chait's post is that he mentions an emotional connection to the country, but the specifics he brings up are all practical questions, on things like the Netanyahu government's sincerity when it says it's committed to a two-state solution. Since we're talking about a democracy where the government and its policies are open to change, in theory that shouldn't bear much on one's basic commitment to the country. But of course it does.

So let's step back for a moment. What do we mean when we say someone is pro-Israel? At the most basic level, we mean that she believes Israel ought to exist (there was a time when this was a matter of some debate in the West, but it isn't any longer, at least not in mainstream circles). Beyond that though, you can take varying positions on almost any particular area of disagreement and still be pro-Israel. You can think Israel ought to exist within its pre-1967 borders, or that it should hold every inch of land it took since then (and retake what it gave away), and both positions can be "pro-Israel." You can think that West Bank settlers are heroes for holding the land God granted the Jewish people, or that they're a bunch of bigots and thugs who make peace infinitely more difficult, and both positions can be "pro-Israel." You can think that Netanyahu's decision to launch this war was the only appropriate reaction to the murder of those three teenagers, or you can think that decision was a disaster, and both positions can be "pro-Israel."

In other words, the idea means almost nothing, unless you're using it to indicate that someone is laboring to put aside their own capacity for reason and morality in order to justify whatever their side happens to have done, either lately or decades ago. And frankly, that's how I've come to think about it. When I think of someone who's "anti-Israel," I think of someone who apologizes for terrorism committed by Palestinians and thinks that there's only one country in the world where human rights abuses occur; in other words, a moral idiot. And when I think of someone who's "pro-Israel," I'm increasingly likely to think of some Palinesque dolt who believes that the Israeli government is perfect in all things, and that that very terrorism gives Israel a pass to treat every Palestinian man, woman, and child with as much cruelty as it likes; in other words, another moral idiot.

Once you stop worrying about whether you're pro-Israel or anti-Israel, you can judge the Israeli government's decisions, developments within Israeli society, and other questions related to the country each on their own terms. You can also make judgments about the conflict that are freed from the necessity so many feel to continually compare the Israeli government's actions to Hamas' actions, or the opinions of the Israeli public to the opinions of the Palestinian public, with the only important question being which side comes out ahead. Those comparisons end up dulling your moral senses, because they encourage you to only think in relative terms.

If you're still stuck being pro-Israel or anti-Israel, you end up asking questions like, "Which is worse: for Hamas to put rockets in a school in the hopes that Israel will bomb it and kill a bunch of kids, therefore granting Hamas a momentary PR victory; or for Israel to bomb the school anyway, knowing they're going to kill a bunch of kids?" If you're pro-Israel, you'll answer that Hamas' action is worse, while if you're anti-Israel, you'll answer that Israel's action is worse. But if you're neither, then you'll give the only moral answer, which is: who the hell cares which is worse? They're both wrong. Questions like that end up only being used to excuse one side's indefensible decisions.

Believe me, I realize that it isn't easy to get rid of the pro-Israel/anti-Israel dichotomy. I grew up in a home where Zionism was our true religion. Israel is different than other countries; no matter how much you love going to Paris, eating French food, and reading French literature, it would be weird to describe yourself as "pro-France." That's because it makes sense only in the context where there are other people taking the opposite position; while there are people who don't like France, there isn't a significant "anti-France" movement.

But you don't have to buy into the dichotomy. And once you step outside it and stop worrying about which team you're on, it can become easier to see things clearly.

Comments

Disappointing. Does the action of one zealot negate the others'? Something is missing like the net level of morality. I'll stick to discovering the chain of interaction first.

One element that should be considered when discussing the "pro-anti" sentiment is whether the country in question exists solely for the protection and safety of its citizens. France, as most countries, may have a history of nationalist rhetoric, but this is limited to government's traditional duty to instill blind allegiance. Pride for its own sake doesn't characterize Israel's (or supporters') social psychology. If one remarks that s/he is "pro-Israel" the statement assumes a much more fundamental meaning: "It is only antisemitism that defines my position. No other country faces a similar threat of annihilation, yet no other country has been able to deliver the sanctuary from ethnic persecution of its citizens in the way Israel has done for the world's Jews. I believe in both Israel's right and NEED to exist by whatever measures it must take to ensure its continued existence." Right or wrong, it is this fear of history repeating itself that makes one pro-Israel vs. pro-anything else. I also cannot ignore the many, many otherwise intelligent, informed individuals who claim support of Palestinian causes strictly on the basis of Israel's presence, military might notwithstanding. Yes, there remains much dispute among academic and lay circles whether Israel has a right to be there, a fact not to be dismissed.

I think Paul Waldman's column is spot on. As a Jew I have conflicting opinions about Israel.
Let's not blame anti-Semitism for all anti-Israel sentiment. We Jews have made some choices since World War II and what one sees today are the results. How about taking a little bit of responsibility?

While I support any nation's right to defend itself, Israel's actions smack of overkill. They are no longer defending themselves, they are out to annihilate Hamas, and all other Palestinians while they are at it. There has to be some balance to one's actions. Israel needs to give a cease fire a reasonable chance ( there is plenty of dispute as to exactly who violated the last one first); if Hamas is in fact, the aggressor, then Israel has the right to go after them full force. Right now, the Israelis have made their point. They can destroy Hamas whenever they want. Give peace a chance, and the non-Hamas Palestinians as well.

Why do people insist on that meaningless phrase "the right to exist"? Where in classical liberal doctrine, or modern political theory, do governments have a right to exist? This is something virtually no one questions, and when I raise the argument in public, eyebrows almost disappear into hairlines. As if anyone who questions Israel's right to exist is obviously a lunatic -- or a moral idiot.

People have a right to self-determination, unless they live in the world's biggest refugee camp.

This is excellent. Increasingly I find my Jewish friends getting "pailinesque" on the question of Israel, and any criticism of Israel is instantly equated with anti semitism. I don't have any Palastinian friends and only a few Arab acquaintances, who also tend to be...vehement. It does seem as if Israel allows American jews--who enjoy a well deserved degree of success and influence and assimilation--to cultivate and maintain a sense of perilous urgency. So the missiles--which are very bad and very annoying--are constantly being described as an existential threat even though they are almost entirely ineffective. "Israel has the right to defend itself!" Right, agreed, no one ever said otherwise. People who contribute money to the defense have a right to raise questions about it.

Waldman makes an important observation - these labels keep us from judging actions on their own terms. In fact, I would argue that's what they are designed to do. Much like the "Support Our Troops" stickers were designed to shut down debate over the Iraq War. You have questions over the case for war? You have questions over how government officials are handling the war or occupation? You must be "anti-troops"! Similarly, if you feel revulsion over the civilian body count in Gaza or the occupation itself, you must be "anti-Israel". Who wants to be accused of that? Criticism is silenced.

These are techniques of propaganda and we should acknowledge them for what they are.

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