Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reflections on Israel and Liberalism

I have been pondering a lot lately the question of why there seem to be so many liberal intellectuals who are opposed to Israel. The Jewish conservative would no doubt tell me that it shows the fundamentally morally bankrupt nature of liberalism as a whole. I cannot accept this answer, not only because I believe in many of the tenets of liberal ideology, but also because there is no logical connection between opposition to Israel and any other liberal idea. On all of the hallmarks of the traditional liberal agenda, like civil rights, workers’ rights, and the environment, Israel is leagues ahead of any of its neighbors, and historically, liberals were consistently among Israel’s strongest defenders. To be sure, Israel, like all countries, has room for improvement in many areas. If their issue was only with specific policies, they could work within the democratic system to change those policies, as they do in all of the world’s great democracies. Yet, the rhetoric coming of so many liberal intellectuals amounts to delegitimizing the very entity of the Jewish state.

Some would like to chalk these people’s opposition to Israel to mere antisemitism. While I do not deny that this is probably the case in some instances, I have a hard time believing that so many people who are so careful to remove any trace of prejudice from their heart in all other areas would suddenly fall prey to old-fashioned antisemitism. Still others would claim that the real problem stems from ignorance. They look at the situation superficially. They see that the Palestinians look weaker, assume they are the victim, and reflexively support them without looking into the real details or history of the conflict. Once again, while this may be true some of the time, I cannot accept that these people who clearly think on a very sophisticated level in everything else they study, would suddenly give in to intellectual sloth when it comes to Israel.

Where I believe the real answer lies is in a subtle but significant shift in liberal ideology itself. I would term this the shift from modern liberalism to postmodern liberalism. Modern thought is characterized by a rejection of prejudice and superstition in favor of an epistemology that relies entirely on reason in its pursuit of an absolute and universal truth. For the modern liberal, the most significant truths are the notion that all people are entitled to the same basic rights and the notion that government can have a positive role in making people’s lives better without interfering with their personal decisions. I stress that this is a universal idea and it gives us an objective yardstick by which to measure the moral development of any society. Furthermore, one who truly believes these ideas will want to export them the world over in order to improve the lives of all human beings. The debate of whether liberalism should be exported militarily is a pragmatic debate over whether this means is actually effective.

Postmodern thinkers, by contrast, reject any notion of absolute truth. The very concept of truth, they would claim, is merely a product of our prejudices and biases. Every person has his or her social, cultural, or historical narrative, within which certain ideas may make sense, but nothing can be claimed with objectivity outside of the narrative. To the postmodern liberal, the idea is that we should all ultimately evolve to an enlightened, postmodern way of thinking. In doing so, we will come to respect the differences in one another’s narratives and promote tolerance and diversity and the well-being of all. The political idea of the modern liberal that it is not the role of government to tell people how to behave has, for the postmodern liberal, become a philosophical idea that there is no objectively right or wrong way to behave. The idea of exporting liberalism militarily, far from being a pragmatic debate for the postmodernist, is fundamentally wrong. We have no right to try to force ideas which make sense within our narrative on people who do not share that narrative.

What does the postmodernist do when two narratives are fundamentally incompatible? This is essentially what is happening any time there is conflict in the world. However, when the conflict is between two undeveloped societies, it can be attributed to a lack of postmodernist context. They are fighting because they have not yet reached the level of intellectual sophistication to respect each other’s narratives. The real problem arises when there is conflict between a developed society and an undeveloped one. The developed society is expected to respect and accommodate the other side’s narrative, and in doing so, the undeveloped society will, of course, learn to respect and accommodate them.

Unfortunately, real life does not always work this ideally, and this brings us back to Israel. The Palestinian narrative calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and in the case of Hamas, the entire Jewish people. It is a narrative that fundamentally cannot coexist with the Israeli narrative, no matter what Israel’s borders are. Every attempt by Israel to accommodate the needs of the Palestinians has been met by more and more violence, and Israel has been forced to use its military to defend its citizens. However, the use of military force by a developed nation against an undeveloped one is automatically viewed as sinister to the postmodernist. It is immediately assumed to be an act of imperialism; of trying to force your narrative on another people, the cardinal sin of postmodernism. It may begin with Israel, but ultimately a liberalism that no longer has an objective moral yardstick by which to measure competing narratives will wind up supporting not only Hamas, but a great many other illiberal causes, all in the name of tolerance and diversity. The true believers in the original ideals of liberalism, modern liberalism, must reclaim the mantle from the postmodernists, not only for the sake of Israel, but also for the sake of liberalism.

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