Are We Sure It Can’t It Happen Here?

One runs a risk whenever one cites the 20th century’s great terror states while discussing current ominous developments in the western democracies. Apparent comparisons of the United States or western and central European countries to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia will inevitably be hooted down with accusations of alarmist conspiracy-mongering and worse, shameful ahistoricity. Nevertheless, that must not keep us from noticing and pointing to contemporary events that bear an eerie resemblance, however slight, to things that went on in those totalitarian terror states. Such regimes don’t spring up overnight. They emerge, and looking at history, we can see that their more or less gradual emergence have telltale signs that we would do well to keep an eye out for. We can’t rest comfortably with the cliche that “it can’t happen here.” Yes, we run the risk of overinterpreting events, but perhaps that is better than underinterpreting them.

America today (though this is not new) is a place where the embers of fear of the outsider are being vigorously fanned from the very top of the political system. This is too clear to need substantiation. Just reread Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy for president three years ago, then observe his subsequent speeches, tweets, and actions. How revealing is his opportunism in seizing on any act of violence by an immigrant — “legal” or “illegal” — as though it were the rule rather than an anomaly! His not-so-subtle message is that all outsiders, and not just actual proven perpetrators, are by nature capable of atrocities against Americans and that those who have abstained until now can’t be trusted to continue their nonviolent ways. It’s not that they have the burden of proving their peaceful intentions; rather, it’s that they can never prove themselves trustworthy and thus eligible to live among us.

To what purpose does Trump communicate this message? It would be a mistake to to reply that it is only to advance his agenda of cutting — for cultural as well as economic reasons — even “legal” immigration and the admittance of refugees. It goes deeper than that. It is plainly to reinforce his “America First” nationalist religion with which he seeks permanently to transform — Trumpize, we may say — America. (His economic nationalist drive against global trade, the wealth-enhancing division of labor, is part of this program. In his eyes, it is ipso facto patriotic to “hire American and buy American” and therefore disloyal to think or do otherwise.) For Trump, the purity of America has been compromised long enough by the venal leaders of the past. Time to undo the damage. Step one: reduce, on the way the eliminating, the inflow of even more outsiders. And we can see the signs of step two: ridding America of “outsiders” who are already here, indeed, who have been living here peacefully for decades, including adults who were brought here “illegally” as children (so-called Dreamers) and who know no other society, and adults who are suspected, without hard evidence or due process, of having been granted U.S. citizenship only because of allegedly fraudulent documents.

Such measures, supported by ranting tweets and ominously familiar rally harangues, communicate one thing: the targeted groups consist of lesser persons if they are persons at all. Thus their children may be seized and held in camps, and parents deported without knowing the fate of their children. Unaccompanied children seeking refuge from violence are shut away in overstretched detention facilities and “tent cities,” left in the charge of quintessential bureaucrats. (See “Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever.”) Trump partisans, who scream whenever local Child Protective Services takes Americans’ children away, are unmoved when the parents Trump targets are outsiders, or “aliens.” “It’s the law” is an entirely satisfactory explanation for those partisans in the latter case, but not in the former. Victimless technical violations committed by an American parent are rejected as grounds for such a drastic measure as family separation, but an equally victimless technical violation (“illegal entry,” failure to have government papers) is regarded as something approaching a capital offense. What does that tell us?

It tells us that outsiders are not only unwanted; they are intrinsically unworthy of being wanted because, as outsiders, they are less than human. So why care that many of the “illegals” seek asylum from inhuman conditions in their home countries? Send them back where they belong! They don’t belong here! So they are stateless, countryless, superfluous, rightless, which how Hannah Arendt described refugees, having been one herself.

It would be terrifying enough if what we are seeing in the Trump administration were novel. But it is not. We see it in other places, and we’ve seen it before in the not-too-distant past. In America, the novelty is that Trump’s recent predecessors, however ruthless their deportation programs, did not engage in Trump-style dehumanizing rhetoric. But, then, Trump wants to do more than just enforce bad “law”: through actions and words, he aims to brand the outsider as threatening to national security. (A similar tone can be heard in defenses of earlier American anti-immigrant statutes.)

Stripping human beings of their personhood as well as their natural rights should make us all recoil. It is not only immoral in its own right; it is corrosive to our society because it encourages people to emote (I hesitate to say think) and act in immoral and self-destructive ways. Consider the fact that the Trump administration has no trouble finding men and women who are willing to seize children from their mothers and fathers and place them in strange facilities; to capture people who are trying only to escape violence and tyranny; and cage people who are simply looking for work and a better life in a freer land. Those government agents are not conscripts. They can quit their jobs. Why don’t they? Is this Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”: unexceptional people just “doing their jobs” in order feed their own children, advance in their careers, and someday retire in modest comfort? (See her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) Do they sleep well at night? Can they look at themselves in the mirror? Why wouldn’t they be able to do those things? They are being good citizens, serving their country, following lawful orders. Indeed, they are involved in something greater than themselves, which happens also to relieve them of personal responsibility, or at least they might think so. (In this connection, I recommend Leonard E. Read’s important essays “On That Day Began Lies” and “Conscience on the Battlefield.”)

Are there parallels in the past? We need only consult Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Note carefully the full title. Horrors can begin small, putting good people off-guard perhaps until it’s too late.

Discussing the prelude to the horror that was Nazi Germany, Arendt wrote:

In comparison with the insane end-result — concentration-camp society — the process by which men are prepared for this end, and the methods by which individuals are adapted to these conditions, are transparent and logical. The insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses. The impetus and what is more important, the silent consent to such unprecedented conditions are the products of those events which in a period of political disintegration suddenly and unexpectedly made hundreds of thousands of human beings homeless, stateless, outlawed and unwanted, while millions of human beings were made economically superfluous and socially burdensome by unemployment. This in turn could only happen because the Rights of Man, which had never been philosophically established but merely formulated, which had never been politically secured but merely proclaimed, have, in their traditional form, lost all validity.

The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done … by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law….

The road to domination requires the extinguishing of individuality, Arendt wrote, which represents “spontaneity,” subversive thought, and perhaps resistance. In Trump’s rants do we find any clue that the people he targets are individuals, each with his or her own story and aspirations? If we were to think about the victims that way, we — I include in the “we the border agents and detention officers — would be less likely to acquiesce, much less participate, in their mistreatment.

If “illegals” can be dehumanized, can we be so sure that groups of “legals” and even certain citizens won’t be subjected to the same sort of process?  Arendt warned that “the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time [is] whether they serve totalitarian domination or not.”

I am not saying that immigrant-detention facilities resemble the concentration camps that Arendt spent so much time examining. We are fortunate that traditional hard-fought minimum legal protections and the constellation of civil-liberties organizations that stand ready to pounce on as-yet illegal mistreatment certainly pose obstacles to any significant advance toward the terror state. But who can rest comfortably with just that?

We need something more. We need a broad-based and vigorous moral campaign to trumpet the humanity of detainees and those seeking entry, whether as immigrants or refugees. The public must be reminded that these are persons with names and loved one, and not merely numbers in a cold bureaucracy’s database.

Further, those who know better must work overtime to cultivate not only a love of the “Rights of Man” but a love of individuality, that is, diversity and pluralism. Ultimately, as Arendt suggested, it’s the only insurance policy against dehumanization, oppression, and its ultimate consequence: genocide.

This humanitarian campaign ought to include lessons in basic economics. Recession, depression, and unemployment breed superfluousness, despair, intolerance, bigotry, resentment — and, finally, the scapegoating of the outsider. We’ve seen this happen when the “outsiders” were Americans with darker skin. In contrast, people who have a sense of economic security and optimism have one less pretext for eying the outsider with suspicion. So we must preach that widespread and chronic economic distress has only one source: the state, with its manipulation, monetary and otherwise, of our economic relations. A freed economy — freed of trade and other restrictions — is thus another insurance policy against dehumanization and genocide. (For this reason, Albert Jay Nock, for example, worried in 1941 that economic upheaval spawned by the U.S. government’s profligacy endangered Jewish Americans. Similarly, in 1922 H. L. Mencken expressed this fear regarding the Jews of Germany.)

Waging this campaign would not be mere altruism. It would also be self-regarding in the noble sense of the Socrates, Aristotle, Benedict Spinoza, Frédéric Bastiat, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, etc. By being good to others we are also being good to ourselves. Pluralism enables us to extend ourselves by giving us access to more knowledge, goods, and experiences than we as limited beings could ever acquire alone. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said that a “friend is another self.” Thus a freed and open society is like a super-self. Spencer and Menger analogized society to an organism, not to diminish the individual but to emphasize how a pluralist society augments each individual. Indeed, it maximizes each person’s power in Spinoza’s sense of the capacity to move toward excellence as rational social beings in the vast and infinite world.

To repeat, I am not saying Trump’s rants and policies constitute an inevitable prelude to a totalitarian nightmare. I am saying the nightmare could not befall us if dehumanization never took place.

“Totalitarian solutions,” Arendt wrote, “may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” Decency, then, depends on widespread understanding that a worthy remedy is indeed available: freedom, pluralism, and social cooperation.

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Trump, Spinoza, and the Palestinian Refugees

As though we had any ground for doubt heretofore, we can now clearly see — in light of his end to $350 million in annual humanitarian assistance to five million Palestinian refugees — Donald Trump’s cruel and spiteful nature.

It was not enough to stack the so-called peace process against the Palestinians in every possible way, not least by appointing unabashed Israeli partisans as his envoys. It was not enough to give Israel a pass when it murdered noncombatants in Gaza and practiced apartheid in the West Bank. It was not enough to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their powerlessness by mocking their dream of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

No, he also had to deny the hapless and homeless refugees — victims of the Nakba, Israel’s systematic ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the Palestinians from their ancestral home in 1948 and again in 1967 — food, medicine, and, for their children, education through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA. (This is a reversal of Trump’s position of last year.) Just before that he cut $200 million in other Palestinian aid, including to the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip prison, where half the population is under 18.

Indeed, Trump went still further by seeking to have most refugees declared nonrefugees (and therefore ineligible for a right of return to Palestine), defining them out of existence with the wave of a hand. He’s attempted, as Geoffrey Aronson put it, to “remove Palestinians from the diplomatic and humanitarian equation.” Of course, if he were to accomplish this end, it would relieve Israel’s rulers and military, as well as its pre-independence leaders and militias, of culpability for their crimes.

Some blame victims; others — like Trump and his ilk — pretend the victims don’t exist. Anyone who attempted something like this with respect to, say, Jews would properly have been denounced by all decent people.

Donald Trump is many things. What he is not is a mensch. But we knew that. This is the same guy who seizes children from parents (who lack government papers), seeks to kick people out of the country who were brought here “illegally” many years ago as children, and strives to deport even Americans with papers whom his administration eyes with suspicion.

A mensch does not act as though millions of people disappear merely because he chooses to ignore them. But Trump acts just that way, just as he acts as though the issue of East Jerusalem could be expected to go away simply by his moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and decreeing it the unified and eternal capital of the State of the Jewish People (anywhere and everywhere), that is, by taking Jerusalem, as he says, “off the table” — as though he had the power to do that. (“So let it be written. So let it be done.”)

Bear in mind that Trump’s move is a spending redirection, not a spending cut. Moreover, I plead no case for UNRWA. Again, as Aronson writes, “Palestinians are of two minds about the organization. No one can deny the health and educational benefits it provides, but the price paid for being wards of the international community is considerable, indeed for many unbearable.” He paraphrases what a woman in Gaza told him: “UNRWA was an abomination…, responsible for breeding complacency and fatalism among Palestinians and offering an excuse and a means for powers great and small to let the Palestinian problem fester.”

But UNRWA’s many failings cannot be used to justify Trump’s action. He’s not punishing UNRWA’s personnel; he’s punishing the Palestinians. He’s not looking for a better way to ease their dire situation. He’s looking to erase them in order to help Israel, although of course the resistance his actions will surely provoke will not be viewed favorably by all Israelis. But, yes, I’m implying that some Israelis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among many, will welcome the resistance because they will use it to justify past and future brutality, oppression, and apartheid.

Axios reports that Netanyahu asked Trump to end U.S. funding of UNRWA. Netanyahu has thus also changed his position from the one that had the backing of Israel’s security apparatus, which favored a gradual reduction in funding but no cuts for Gaza out of security concerns. The thinking until now has been that succor for the refugees would keep them quiescent and take their minds off their right of return, even if that is revised to mean homes in the now-occupied Palestinian territories (the future Palestine) or cash compensation.

Unsurprisingly, Israel Hayom reports, “Israeli officials [i.e., politicians] welcomed reports Sunday indicating that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to act to end the Palestinian demand for a right of return and to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, a move they say is in line with Israeli policy.” The publication added, “A diplomatic official dismissed the criticism of a defense official who had been quoted as saying the U.S. decision ‘could set the area, which is already on the verge of a conflict, on fire.’” Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin praised Trump’s move, saying it “finally speaks the truth to the Arab lie that has been marketed all over the world for decades.”

What lie is that? That the Palestinians were terrorized by the Zionist militias and then Israeli army into fleeing their homes in 1948 and 1967? No serious person has doubted this since Israel’s New Historians scoured the government archives in the 1980s and documented the Nakba, the catastrophe. Long before that, however, scholars had debunked the lie that the Palestinians left voluntarily only when neighboring Arab rulers requested them to do so as a temporary wartime necessity. (But of course, even under that scenario Palestinian property owners would have a right to return to their homes.)

Let’s be clear: Trump has no intention of actually addressing the refugee situation, and Israel has no intention of treating any Palestinian justly. The criticism of UNRWA is simply a ruse for once again sticking it to the Palestinians. Why? Because Trump, like the rest of America’s ruling elite, favors Israel for geopolitical, domestic political, and cultural and ethnic reasons having nothing to do with justice, and he’s miffed that the Palestinians have rejected his “deal of the century,” which proposes to bribe them with Saudi economic aid to drop their grievances against Israel and abandon their longing for independence from the self-styled Jewish State. (See my “The Trump-Kushner Delusion on Palestine.”)

Trump’s die-hard supporters like to say his extreme measures and tweets are merely opening moves in his art of deal-making. So let’s go with that: he’s holding five million desperate people hostage in order to convince the corrupt Palestinian Authority to take his deal. That’s reassuring.

The “peace process” is and long has been a sham, and the United States has never been an “honest broker.” An authentic and promising peace-through-justice process would begin, quite literally, with an Israeli apology to all the victims who once lived in Palestine. Then all concerned may go about the business of establishing the terms for coexistence.

To bring this back to Trump (and Netanyahu, among others, I venture to say) and to end on a philosophical note, lately I have been reading Benedict Spinoza and some of his modern commentators. The 17th-century Portuguese-Dutch radical liberal rationalist wrote in the Ethics that persons for whom reason is not fully in the driver’s seat are to some extent passively driven by feelings and are therefore slaves rather than masters: “Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune.” (Douglas Den Uyl [see reference below] points out that this statement does not fully capture Spinoza’s position because in his view, to the extent a person is guided by reason, he has no self-sabotaging emotions that need checking; rather, his emotions propel him in a virtuously rewarding direction. Perfection, of course, is never achieved, but only striven for.)

Reason and understanding thus constitute a person’s path to freedom:

We shall readily see the difference between the man who is guided only by emotion or belief and the man who is guided by reason. The former, whether he will or not, performs actions of which he is completely ignorant. The latter does no one’s will but his own, and does only what he knows to be of greatest importance in life, which he therefore desires above all. So I call the former a slave and the latter a free man….

Spinoza further observed of the rational person, “His prime endeavor is to conceive things as they are in themselves and to remove obstacles to true knowledge [and hence to freedom, virtue, and “blessedness”], such as hatred, anger, envy, derision, pride, and similar emotions….”

Also, “Therefore he who aims solely from love of freedom to control his emotions and appetites will strive his best to familiarize himself with virtues and their causes and to fill his mind with the joy that arises from the true knowledge of them, while refraining from dwelling on men’s faults and abusing mankind and deriving pleasure from a false show of freedom.”

Completely ignorant … hatred angerenvyderisionpridedwelling on men’s faultsabusing mankind … deriving pleasure from a false show of freedom.

Remind you of anyone?

Douglas Den Uyl, in his God, Man, & Well-Being: Spinoza’s Modern Humanism, writes, “The spiteful, the envious, the small-minded, and the jealous are particularly grievous under Spinoza’s philosophy. These negative emotions or patterns of conduct retard both the individual as well as the society around her.”

Have we a better description of Donald Trump? Indeed, the man who occupies the White House is the personification of Spinoza’s passive, weak, and hence self-enslaved man.

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Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism: The Invidious Conflation

I and others have warned that enactment of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act now before Congress would threaten free speech and free inquiry on America’s college campuses and beyond. As I’ve explained, this bill incorporates a conception — a “definition” plus potential examples — of anti-Semitism that conflates criticism of Israel’s founding and continuing abuse of the Palestinians with anti-Semitism for the purpose inoculating Israel from such criticism. Anti-Zionist Jews and others have objected to this conflation for over 70 years.

What makes us so confident in predicting a threat to free speech?

We are confident in part because Donald Trump’s assistant secretary of education for civil rights, who would enforce the legislation, is Kenneth L. Marcus, whose record makes him the poster boy for the invidious conflation.

Dima Khalidi, founder and director of Palestine Legal, writes in The Nation:

If this definition [of anti-Semitism] were adopted and implemented as Marcus would like, the DOE would be empowered to conclude that universities nurture hostile, anti-Semitic environments by allowing the screening of a documentary critical of Israel’s 50-year military occupation of Palestinian lands such as Occupation 101, a talk critical of Israeli policy by a Holocaust survivor, a mock checkpoint enacted by students to show their peers what Palestinian life under a military occupation is like, a talk on BDS [boycott-divestment-sanctions] campaigns for Palestinian rights, or student resolutions to divest from companies complicit in Israel’s human-rights abuses.

These aren’t hypotheticals. These speech activities were the subject of real legal complaints, filed or promoted by Marcus and his Brandeis Center against Brooklyn College (2013), University of California Berkeley (2012), and University of California Santa Cruz (2009). The complaints were filed to the same DOE office which Marcus has been nominated to head [and to which he has since been confirmed].

Crucially, all of these complaints were dismissed. Both a federal court and the DOE made clear that the activities at issue were not harassment against a protected group but constituted speech on matters of public concern, and therefore were protected by the First Amendment.

Marcus founded and ran the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (not affiliated with Brandeis University), which declares on its website, “In the Twenty-first Century, the leading civil and human rights challenge facing North American Jewry is the resurgent problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on university campuses. This social problem requires an immediate, effective, and coordinated legal response” (emphasis added).

Note the conflation. How could anti-Israelism on campus or anywhere else pose a “civil and human rights challenge to North American Jewry”? If Judaism values universal justice, which the great prophets admonished the ancient Hebrews to honor, attention to the systematic injustice that Israel inflicts on the Palestinians qua non-Jews should be welcomed rather than feared by all, including Jews. As I’ve argued, there is no reason to view even foundational criticism of Israel through a presumption of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the Center itself claims that “the civil and human rights of the Jewish people are inextricably bound to the pursuit of justice for all peoples.”  Unfortunately, that sentiment turns out to be mere lip service; it is not reflected in its actions — unless Palestinians are to be regarded as non-people. Alas, that seems to be the case.

The Center is not alone in this belief or activity. Similar programs are carried out by the Canary Mission (an anonymous website), which “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses,” and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the self-identified “school of political warfare,” which through its Israel Security Center headed by Caroline Glick stigmatizes criticism of Israel as the “mainstreaming of anti-Semitism” and smears professors who are Palestinian or who express sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight. An assortment of other individuals, such as former student activist Bari Weiss, now a New York Times writer and editor feted for her courageous advocacy of free speech on campus, have also made it their mission to smear Palestinian sympathizers as Jew-haters.

Marcus previously worked in the George W. Bush administration’s Education Department, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

As assistant secretary of education, he would have the power to move against colleges and universities that in his view failed to discipline pro-Palestinian student activists and professors on grounds that their statements and activities create a hostile climate for Jewish students and thereby violate their rights under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

However, even the lead author of the notion of anti-Semitism embodied in the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has bridled at its use to police debate on campus. Kenneth Stern has written articles and given testimony in Congress warning against such use. As Stern wrote to the House Judiciary Committee in 2016, when a similar bill was under consideration and was eventually killed because of First Amendment concerns:

I write as the lead author of the … “Working Definition on Antisemitism,” to encourage you not to move “The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016,” which essentially incorporates that definition into law for a purpose that is both unconstitutional and unwise. If the definition is so enshrined, it will actually harm Jewish students and have a toxic effect on the academy….

Antisemitism – like all forms of bigotry – has an impact on some campuses. The worst way to address it is to create a de facto hate speech code, which is what this bill proposes to do.

In years past various Title VI cases were brought asserting that a hostile environment was created in substantial part by anti-Israel speech. All of them lost….

Students should not be harassed and intimidated and threatened. But a campus must be a place where students are challenged by difficult – and yes, disturbing and even hateful – ideas.

In testimony before the committee, Stern said it is not true that “antisemitism on campus is an epidemic. Far from it. There are thousands of campuses in the United States, and in very few is antisemitism – or anti-Israel animus – an issue.”

At the Mondoweiss website, civil-rights advocates Abed A. Ayoub, Phillip Agnew, and Harper Jean Tobin write that, while at the Brandeis Center, Marcus “abused the OCR complaint process by pushing frivolous protests that only serve to harass and stifle the speech of students he disagrees with.”

Losing cases did not deter him, however. As he wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 2013, “These cases – even when rejected – expose administrators to bad publicity.”

Harassment is a nice word for that kind of behavior. Why aren’t such activities called racism? (Marcus suggests that his complaints were exclusively against assault, physical intimidation, and the like, but the OCR dismissals say otherwise.)

Marcus continued, “Just last week, I heard from a university chancellor who is eager to work with the Schusterman Center for Israel studies at Brandeis University to avert the possibility of a civil rights complaint.” In light of the threat from the Brandeis Center, I doubt the chancellor was likely to err on the side of free speech and free inquiry. What one perceives as a hostile environment is highly subjective, but some believe that the mere perception of something as anti-Semitic is sufficient to make it anti-Semitic. Intentions and truth are irrelevant.

“As Assistant Secretary,” Ayoub, Agnew, and Tobin write, Marcus will “be able to wield the threat of bad publicity in an attempt to force universities to restrict the rights of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine.”

That’s a good reason to favor defeat of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: it would enable Marcus, in Khalidi’s words, to “try to do from the inside of the DOE what he has failed to do from the outside.”

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Defining Anti-Semitism, Threatening Free Speech

In May the benign-sounding Anti-Semitism Awareness Act appeared before the U.S Congress “to provide for consideration a definition of anti-Semitism for the enforcement of Federal antidiscrimination laws concerning education programs or activities.”

No big deal? Let us see.

S. 2940 is sponsored by Republican Sen. Tim Scott and has four co-sponsors: Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrats Ron Wyden, Robert Casey, and Michael Bennet. The House sponsor of H.R. 5924 is Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, with 41 cosponsors, 30 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Both bills remain in committee. (The Senate passed a similar bill two years ago, but it never reached the House floor.)

Right off the bat, the legislation seems odd: under what Republican Party theory of limited government does Congress proposes definitions of words simply for consideration for educational purposes? And I thought Republicans don’t like federal involvement in education. We’ll see that the answer is steeped in irony: the stated purpose is to help education agencies to combat racial discrimination.

While the act is directed at education, the resulting law would reach beyond that realm because it would officially stigmatize as anti-Semitic any speech and activity, public and private, said to fall within the definition. Since this would at least chill the open marketplace of ideas, advocates of free speech should be concerned about the content of the definition and its revealing support material. We must not assume that merely because the definition is said to brand something anti-Semitic that it is actually anti-Semitic.

The act states that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin” (not, mind you, religion) but that “both the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have properly concluded that title VI prohibits discrimination against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other religious groups when the discrimination is based on the group’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics or when the discrimination is based on actual or perceived citizenship or residence in a country whose residents share a dominant religion or a distinct religious identity” (emphasis added). Hence, those departments have managed to shoehorn religion into a statute that does not mention religion.

The proposed definition directly comes from a 2010 State Department Fact Sheet, which in turn comes, with some modification, from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition of Anti-Semitism.” The IHRA has 31 member countries, including the United States, and Israel.

Anti-Semitism, according to the IHRA “working definition,” is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This may seem less than helpful — history professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at London’s Birkbeck, University, calls it “bewilderingly imprecise — so the IHRA furnished examples (couched in conditional terms such as could and might and to be interpreted by “taking into account the overall context”). And here the problems continue. Writing in the Guardian, Feldman, says of the 11 examples: “Seven deal with criticism of Israel. Some of the points are sensible, some are not. Crucially, there is a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not antisemitic” (emphasis added). That should be of concern.

Among the possible examples of anti-Semitism quoted from the IHRA document in the State Department Fact Sheet, but with some modification, are:

  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, the state of Israel, or even for acts committed by non-Jews. [Emphasis added.]
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.

Two things are worth pointing out here. The phrase “the state of Israel” in first example above does not appear in the IHRA list; that version says only, “Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.” The IHRA does go one to say later that “manifestations might [emphasis added] include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” but immediately cautions that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The Fact Sheet, which, again, the legislation incorporates, adds, almost as an afterthought, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic” (italics in original).

Second, the last example differs from the similar IHRA example, which reads, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” (emphasis added). I am unaware of criticism of the Fact Sheet or legislation for this key modification. A similar modification has landed the UK’s Labor Party leadership in hot water. (More below.)

As we’ll see, the inclusion of criticism of Israel in the examples is where much of the danger of this legislation lies. Indeed, Antony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in Britain, who traces the origin and promotion of the IHRA document to the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, both of which routinely conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, says it was designed to “equate criticisms of Israel with hatred of Jews.” Of course it was; today, being a good anti-anti-Semite, like being a good Jew, means little more than being unswervingly pro-Israel and pro-Israeli repression of Palestinians.

By way of additional background and contrast, the legislation cites a 2010 U.S. Department of Education “Dear Colleague” letter on religious bigotry to state and local educational agencies stating that they “must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring.” However, the legislation states that letter “did not provide guidance on current manifestations of anti-Semitism, including discriminatory anti-Semitic conduct that is couched as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist” (emphasis added). That’s right: the Education Department did not mention Israel or Zionism in its letter about combating anti-Semitism. So the authors of the legislation seek to “correct” that “shortcoming.”

The legislation goes to state that “anti-Semitism, and harassment on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics with a religious group, remains a persistent, disturbing problem in elementary and secondary schools and on college campuses.”

Is that so? It doesn’t ring true. The Pew Research Center “finds that when it comes to religion, Americans generally express more positive feelings toward various religious groups [including Jews] today than they did just a few years ago. Asked to rate a variety of groups on a ‘feeling thermometer’ ranging from 0 to 100, U.S. adults give nearly all groups warmer ratings than they did in a June 2014 Pew Research Center survey.” For all age groups, atheists and Muslims rank far below Jews. (In another survey, Muslims ranked below atheists.) For Americans 30 years and up, Jews rank at or near the top, and the score has risen since 2014. For Americans 18-29, Jews rank just below top-ranking Buddhists, Catholics, and Hindus. No religious group scored more than 69 “degrees” except for, among people 65 and older, Mainline Protestants, Jews, and Catholics, who scored in the 70s. Where’s the widespread anti-Semitism?

And where’s the evidence of growing anti-Semitism on college campuses? The legislation “finds” that “students from a range of diverse backgrounds, including Jewish, Arab Muslim, and Sikh students, are being threatened, harassed, or intimidated in their schools,” but it would be interesting to see the groups broken out. One suspects the atmosphere on campus is more hostile to Arab and Muslim professors and students than to Jews. (See examples here and here.) And we cannot discount the likelihood that criticism of Israel is simply interpreted as criticism of Jews qua Jews. Indeed, the lead author of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, said last year in congressional testimony that it is untrue that “antisemitism on campus is an epidemic. Far from it. There are thousands of campuses in the United States, and in very few is antisemitism – or anti-Israel animus – an issue.”

Anti-Semitism exists, of course, but it’s clearly confined to the fringes of American society. It is so disreputable that people have shied away from criticizing Israel for fear of being accused of Jew-hatred, which can destroy careers and friendships. The legislation seems designed to reinforce that fear, which fortunately has been fading in recent years, especially among younger people, in light of Israel’s periodic military assaults on the essentially defenseless people of Gaza. Every so often the word goes out that anti-Semitism is on the rise, but it’s hard not to notice that those alarms follow the broad international criticism of Israeli systematic brutality against Palestinians resisting the 51-year occupation of their property. As Norman Finkelstein, who monitors this phenomenon closely, writes, “Whenever Israel commits another atrocity, its propagandists stage a revival of the ‘New Anti-Semitism’ extravaganza to deflect or squelch global condemnation.” (See Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.)

I won’t try to define anti-Semitism; let’s just go with Stephen Sedley’s definition: “Shorn of philosophical and political refinements, anti-Semitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews.” I’ll only add that it has something to do with seeing all Jews as members of a malignant and world-controlling racial or ethnic entity, with each member being responsible for any wrongdoing, real or imagined, by any other Jew. This is rank collectivism that no liberal individualist will accept. We must note the irony, however, that many Jews themselves believe that all Jews without exception constitute a genetic entity, though this is patently absurd. Jews are of many races, ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures and until a couple of hundred years into the Common Era, Judaism was a proselytizing religion with many successes at converting whole kingdoms, nations, and tribes. In other words, many Jews today are descendants of people who converted to Judaism, sometimes unwillingly, and who never were in the Land of Israel.

Note further the irony of the legislation’s condemnation of those who conflate all Jews with the state of Israel. Israel’s recently passed Nation-State Law declares that the “land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people.” That includes all Jews no matter where they were born, where they live now, or whether they ever set foot in Israel. In other words, the government of Israel claims to speak for all Jews, which is an affront to any Jew who does not wish to be spoken for by a foreign government or who no longer regards himself as a Jew. (If the Jewish people are not a racial or ethnic entity but a diverse religious group, one can stop being a Jew.) It would be wrong for anyone to presume that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks for or acts on behalf of American, British, French, and other non-Israeli Jews, but that is what Israel’s Basic Law claims. (Former Meet the Press host David Gregory once addressed Netanyahu on the air as the “leader of the Jewish people.)

And this claim, which predates the Nation-State Law passed, is what has given rise to the (dual) loyalty suspicion. So we have yet another irony in The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act’s condemnation of statements “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” A great way to dispose of the loyalty issue would be for Israel and its supporters to stop pretending it represents all Jews (and former Jews) everywhere.

As noted, the legislation says that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” is anti-Semitic. But what about denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination on land taken from its rightful owners, as Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionists have long denied? And when will Congress get around to condemning those who deny the right of Palestinians to self-determination? The Nation-State law says that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” So Palestinians are lesser people than Jews? What’s the word for that attitude?

The condemnation of people who “apply[] double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” is also filled with problems. The first is that Israel’s unconditional defenders themselves are guilty of applying a double standard. If any national group treated another group the way the Zionists and Israelis have treated the Palestinians, they would have been condemned by liberal-minded Jewish Americans along with most other Americans. Second, where is the double standard in the criticism of Israel? Name another country that occupies other people’s land, recognizes no rights in the occupied population, systematically discriminates against 25 percent of its “citizens,” gets billion in military aid every year from American taxpayers, has a highly influential lobby ready to smear any critic, claims to be the most moral military in world, and insists it’s the only democracy in its region? When we have another country like that we’ll see if Israel’s critics apply a double standard.

The example of anti-Semitism allegedly found in “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is also worth examination. Is it really the case that Israel’s rulers are incapable of acting like Nazis, even when it seizes Palestinians, including children, in the dark of night, holds them indefinitely without charge; tortures them; shoots them or break their bones when they protest their oppression peacefully; requires internal travel permits; maintains military checkpoints; bars them from much of the land and Jewish-only roads; and destroys homes as collective punishment or to clear land for use by Jews only? What’s the theory underlying that claim? Do the oppressed never become oppressors?

And here’s another question: are Jews who make that comparison also anti-Semites? The fact is that Jews have repeatedly made that comparison, for example, the late Hajo Meyer, a Holocaust survivor, and Yair Golan, the former deputy chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Force. Indeed, in 1948 Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and other Jews sent a letter to the New York Times expressing concern over the emergence of the Israeli “‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.” That party and the Irgun were led by Menachem Begin, who became prime minister of Israel in the 1970s. The party merged with Netanyahu’s Likud party in 1988.

Yet one more question: if neither Jews nor non-Jews may liken Israeli policies against the Palestinians to some Nazi policies, why are Israelis and their supporters allowed to claim that any and all perceived adversaries (Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, and Ahmadinejad and the Iranian ayatollahs, for example) are reincarnations of Adolf Hitler?

Since Jews as well as non-Jews often commit the “offenses” specified by the IHRA, maybe the congressional legislation should have been called the Anti-Semitism and Jewish Self-Hatred Awareness Act. Or perhaps only men and women with Jewish mothers are to be permitted to do what is forbidden to others. That would be odd view indeed.

No, the Israeli regime does not operate death camps, but it does things that resemble what the Nazi and other totalitarian regimes did to Jews and other groups. Gaza, where the more-than-decade-old Israeli blockade causes two million Palestinians, half of them children, to be undernourished and forced to drink polluted water, has been called a concentration camp and a ghetto by Jews.

Real anti-Semitism is ugly and execrable. And that’s why diluting the concept with extraneous elements is what’s really dangerous. Sure, some of Israel’s critics could be anti-Semites, but some of Israel’s biggest fans are too. I would be suspicious of anyone who was eager to pack my bags and shuffle me off to Tel Aviv. There simply are no reasonable grounds for a presumption of anti-Semitism about opponents of Israel, certainly not in people of good faith. Conflating anti-Semitism even with foundational criticism of Israel makes anti-Semitism seem not so bad in some people’s eyes. As Antony Lerman wrote, “Rather than make it easier to identify antisemitism, the promotion of the ‘working definition’ and the entrenchment of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’ have so extended the range of expressions of what can be regarded as antisemitic that the word antisemitism has come close to losing all meaning.”

Why would anyone want to encourage that outcome? Lerman also points out that “if … only ‘antisemities’ would dissociate themselves from the ‘working definition,’ this places a significant number of highly respected Jewish and non-Jewish academics working in the field of antisemitism research in the dock.”

Those who continue to lobby for this conflation are unwittingly pursuing an evil course even on their own terms — unless they intend such an outcome. (Real or imagined anti-Semitism can be useful in deterring Jewish assimilation and disillusionment with Israel.) Moreover, they are encouraging organizations that harass students and teachers sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight. Free speech and inquiry must be protected. As the ACLU said about the legislation:

The overbroad definition of anti-Semitism in this bill risks incorrectly equating constitutionally protected criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, making it likely that free speech will be chilled on campuses. The examples incorporated into the bill’s definition of anti-Semitism include actions and statements critical of Israel, including many constitutionally protected statements. As a result, the proposed legislation is likely to chill the speech of students, faculty, and other members campus communities around the country, and is unnecessary to enforce federal prohibitions on harassment in education as such protections already exist under federal law.

As the ACLU letter opposing the legislation notes, even the lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, a self-described Zionist, “has himself opposed application of this definition to campus speech.” In a 2016 op-ed opposing South Carolina’s adoption of the definition, Stern wrote,

It is really an attempt to create a speech code about Israel. It is an unnecessary law which will hurt Jewish students and the academy…. It was never intended as a vehicle to monitor or suppress speech on campus. But that’s what some right-wing Jewish groups and individuals behind this legislation seek…

[The legislation advocates’] intent is clear: to have the state define a line where political speech about Israel is classified as anti-Semitic, and chilled if not suppressed….

If the definition becomes law, campus administrators will fear lawsuits when outside groups complain about anti-Israel expression, and the leadership of the university doesn’t punish, stop or denounce it….

[I]f the anti-Semitism definition is enshrined into law, what professor will want to walk into this minefield, fearful that the selection of certain texts or the expression of certain opinions will put his or her university’s funding in jeopardy?

Indeed, if certain expressions about Israel are officially defined as anti-Semitic, pro-Israel Jewish students will be further marginalized, having gained the reputation for suppressing, rather than answering, speech they don’t like.

In 2017 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Stern elaborated:

The proponents of the legislation have made a business model of seeking out speech they believe transgresses the Department of State Definition. They will hunt for such instances and then press administrators to either suppress or condemn such statements, threatening Title VI cases if they don’t act, with the added weight of a Congressionally-endorsed, campus-focused definition behind them…. Armed with a congressional determination that effectively says campus anti-Zionism is antisemitism, … professors will correctly see themselves at risk when they ask their students to read and digest materials deemed anti-Zionist, whether the writings of leading 20th century Jewish thinkers who were skeptical of Zionism, such as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber, or of contemporary Palestinians. Professors do not get combat pay. It will be safer and wiser for them to teach about Jews in the shtetl than Jews in modern Israel, and Zionism as a concept from the late 19th century, rather than how it plays out today…. My fear is, if we … enshrine this definition into law, outside groups will try and suppress – rather than answer – political speech they don’t like. The academy, Jewish students, and faculty teaching about Jewish issues, will all suffer.

The definition has also been faulted, as Lerman put it, for its “go-it-alone exceptionalism as the way of managing heightened fears of antisemitism, rather than pursuing open-hearted collaboration with other minority groups to fight the resurgent racism that blights society.”

If the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act passes and is signed into law, it would threaten free speech in the academy and beyond, notwithstanding it obligatory “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to diminish or infringe upon any right protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

Moreover, it will make political campaigns even less meaningful than they are now. As it is, American politicians are afraid to defend the Palestinians against Israel or to question the huge annual military appropriation that enables the brutality; candidates have much to lose both in campaign contributions and reputation. Those who slip, like Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will have hell to pay and will likely be more careful in the future. (Sanders has had his ups as well as downs.) The UK Labor Party and its leader, the life-long anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn, are learning the same lesson.

We must hope that things do not get as bad in the US as they are in the UK, where a hysterical smear campaign against Israel’s critics has conjured up the term “political anti-Semitism targeting Israel” (in contrast to “racial antisemitism targeting Jews”) and alarm in some quarters about the alleged “existential threat to Jewish life in this country [Great Britain] that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.” The Labor Party’s National Executive Committee has been accused of Jew-hatred because its new code of conduct on anti-Semitism allegedly failed to incorporate the entire IHRA definition of anti-Semitism — hence, its apparent cowardly retreat. Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian tweeted, “So Labour have rejected a definition of antisemitism accepted by UK, Scottish and Welsh govts, 124 local authorities, gov’ts around the world and most Jews.”

Note the authority Freedland, like others, vests in the now-holy IHRA definition — as though it were an amendment to the tablets allegedly handed down at Mount Sinai.

But Lerman shows that Freedland’s charge is utter rubbish; the executive committee’s code explicitly incorporates and quotes the definition, but the authors modified some of the IHRA’s examples and (like the State Department’s Fact Sheet) removed from another the phrase “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

But can it be anti-Semitic to call Israel a racist endeavor when leading Israeli intellectuals such as historian Benny Morris acknowledge that ridding Palestine of the indigenous Palestinians — that is, ethnic cleansing — was intrinsic to Zionism?

Lerman also shows, as already noted, that by its own word choices, the IHRA suggests that its illustrations may or may not qualify as examples of anti-Semitism depending on the context. Lerman notes that defenders of the definition make opposing claims — that the examples both are and are not part of the definition — depending on which position is convenient at the time.

Clearly, the Labor Party leadership stands accused of anti-Semitism purely for adopting a code of conduct that distinguishes anti-Semitism from criticism of Israel.

Is this sort of smear campaign store for members of Congress who vote against the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act?

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For the Love of Reason

Far be it from me to divide humankind in two, but were I so inclined, I’d divide it into those who love reason and those who are indifferent if not outright hostile to it. Members of the first group adore the reasoning process and their own reasoning faculties. The others find the process burdensome and discomforting, something that threatens long-held beliefs and intuitions. When I say the members of the first group adore their own reasoning faculties, I do not mean that they are arrogantly confident in their intelligence or immunity from error. Quite the contrary: the love of reason contains within it humility, doubt, an awareness of one’s limits and fallibility, and a recognition of the inherently social nature of reason (and language) and the growth of knowledge.

The thing to read in this regard is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a paean to the free and competitive marketplace of ideas. Mill wished to establish that this marketplace was indispensable to learning or at least to approaching the truth. My favorite line, which admirably summarizes most of the little book, is this: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

Taking that proposition to heart puts one in the right frame of mind to engage in argument. It’s tempting to approach an argument like a high-school debater: I have a proposition to defend, and, damn it, I intend to do just that. This need not imply a willingness to lie or to make dubious moves; rather, it merely implies an overinvestment in the proposition, a sense that, if I lose the argument, I have lost something big, something like a piece of myself. This is understandable. Beliefs form a worldview; a belief shaken is a worldview shaken, and that’s not easy to take. Losing could also mean being or feeling obligated to do things I would rather not do or stop doing things I’m fond of doing.

But, in my view, that’s a bad attitude. I try to think of argument the way I think of trade: both sides gain no matter how the interaction comes out. (Think of what John Stossel calls the “double thank you” moment that occurs at the store checkout counter.) How can that be?

Mill’s sentence tells us. If you “win” the argument — and you can do this even if the interlocutor doesn’t seem convinced — you will likely have learned more about your own position simply by hearing it criticized. Being required to answer counterarguments will prompt you to plumb the depths of the topic you’re exploring, and you are likely to think of things you might never have thought of otherwise. That’s good! You’ll know your own position better because you know at least some arguments against it. Since you don’t know whether other counterarguments exist, you can look forward to the next intellectual joust as an opportunity to find out.

On the other hand, if you “lose” the argument, you still gain because you have shed an erroneous belief and are now closer to acquiring knowledge that you lacked before the argument. That’s good too.

It’s win-win, just like trade.

I’m not saying the process is one of unmitigated joy. We human beings naturally become attached to our beliefs, intuitions, and conclusions. We can develop a proprietary interest in them. As a result, we are not eager to see them rendered worthless. The reasonable person is not one who never feels that attachment but rather one who puts the attachment aside for the sake of learning. Like an Aristotelian virtue, openness to intellectual challenge can become second nature as one strives to make a habit of it. Practice makes virtue, and discomfort fades.

It’s no coincidence that argument resembles trade: it’s a form of trade, even if it doesn’t always feel like one. The marketplace of ideas is like the marketplace of goods and services. (Of course, access to an idea can be a marketplace good.) In both cases, people assert propositions — goods embody propositions — and they’ll find out whether better alternatives are available. In the commercial marketplace, sellers present their case that their goods at the asking price offer the best way for potential buyers to accomplish their objectives. Competing sellers make counterarguments. Prospective buyers weigh the arguments, looking for flaws. Thus the epistemological case for a free market in goods and services is identical to the case for a free market in ideas. We learn important things about how to flourish that we would likely otherwise not learn. (This was Ludwig von Mises’s and F. A. Hayek’s argument against central economic planning.)

Finally, the libertarian philosophy of full individual liberty — which includes the right to justly acquired material objects — embodies the love of reason as I’ve described it. The libertarian ethic — the nonaggression principle or, as I prefer, obligation — holds that, if you deal with others, you ought to deal with them through reason, not just for their sake but for your own. Persuasion is the opposite of force, though I acknowledge that someone people’s discomfort with reason stems from their conflating the metaphorical compulsion of a good argument with the actual compulsion of a government command. The libertarian philosophy embraces Athens — reason and persuasion — over Jerusalem — revelation and commandment.

I think this provides a case for the free society that is in a sense Cartesian. Descartes of course wrote that one can doubt everything except the existence of doubt and the doubter. (I’m not saying I agree with Descartes.) Applying something like this method to ethics and politics, we may say that, while one may reasonably doubt propositions about how society ought to be constituted, one cannot reasonably doubt the value of doubt and thus the freedom to doubt.

So stated, my proposition might win something broad assent, so I’ll push it further. If one should have the freedom to doubt — call it the right to doubt — then one should also have the right to express doubt. Expressing it is necessary to ascertain if it is reasonable. And if one has the right to express doubt, one has the right to acquire the physical means of maintaining one’s life and of expressing doubt. I’m using right to mean a valid claim to be free from aggressive force and to defend against such aggression, so naturally one’s exercise of this right cannot entail the use of aggressive of force against others, who also have the right. Needless to say, respect for such rights will generate a variety of humane institutions.

Any doubters out there?

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Depopulating Palestine, Dehumanizing the Palestinians

One might have thought that, in the wake of the Nazi regime’s systematic crimes against humanity last century, dehumanization would have become unthinkable once and for all. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. It has shamefully continued unabated, the assorted perpetrators including, with tragic irony, those who themselves were victims of Nazi dehumanization.

Dehumanization is an apt term because it consists of more than merely murder, massacre, torture, blockade, dispossession, humiliation, and the like. It consists of the very denial of the humanity of the victims and their cultures; it may include attempts to wipe them from the archives and from anyone’s memory. This denial makes simple physical destruction easier: cruel treatment on a mass scale would seem to require that the victimizer view the victim as subhuman, as verminous, as something that infests the surroundings, as something unworthy of the consideration one normally gives even strangers about whom one knows nothing.

The case of the Palestinians is hardly the only case of dehumanization in the post-World War II era. Off the top of my head, I think of the African victims of the European powers (the mistreatment of whom got underway well before the 1930s), of Maoist China, of South Africa, of Rwanda, of Darfur, of Cambodia, of the Central African Republic. What seems to distinguish the Palestinian case (which of course began before World War II) is the sophistication, duration, and outside support of the effort to deny the very existence of people, Muslims and Christians, who have lived for a long time south of Syria and Lebanon and north of Saudi Arabia between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

No one better vocalized this denial better than a former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, who famously said:

There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.

A libertarian approach offers a perspective that tends to get overlooked by conventional analysis. Examining whether the Palestinians as a group constitute a “people” deserving of “national” self-determination or liberation can yield useful information, but that question cannot be fundamental because whether or not “Palestinians” qua communally conscious people lived in “Palestine” before the Israeli statehood movement (Zionism) got underway, we do know this: individual human beings who were not recent European Jewish immigrants legitimately owned property there.

We have no good alternative to methodological individualism; human beings come in individual units. So the individual and his or her rights — including the right to land justly acquired — must have primacy. However important a person’s identification with an ethnic, racial, or national group, or lack thereof, may be, it has no bearing on the question of rights. A “Palestinian” can have no more rights than an unattached atomistic individual or one who identifies as an Asian, an Arab, or a Nabulsi. Therefore, individual self-determination must precede communal self-determination if the latter is to be valid because group rights make sense only if they extend from and are consistent with members’ individual rights.

Morally, we have rights by virtue of our personhood, not by virtue of our inclusion in a subgroup of persons. The idea of rights not rooted in the individual literally is nonsense. Among other things, this means there is no Jewish land, Palestinian land, or land with any other ethnic, racial, or religious qualifier. There is only legitimately and illegitimately acquired land. (In this connection, see this remarkable video of Khaled Sabawi, which focuses on his attempt to reestablish individual property rights in the West Bank through formal registration.)

Thus, even had Golda Meir been right, the establishment of Israel as it took place would have been no less a crime against the territory’s indigenous inhabitants. Likewise, even if one could show that the non-Jews driven from Palestine at gunpoint in 1948 had only recently migrated from elsewhere in the Middle East (which one cannot), this in itself could not justify their expulsion.

But in fact, notwithstanding fabricated and wholly discredited “histories” of Palestine and Israel, it is now uncontroversial to state that the establishment of Israel saw hundreds of thousands of indigenous individuals driven from their ancestral homes and hundreds of others massacred by recent European immigrants (many of them atheists yet nevertheless claiming to be Jewish) with a tenuous connection to Palestine or ancient Israel. H. G. Wells posed a reasonable question: “If it is proper to ‘reconstitute’ a Jewish state which has not existed for two thousand years, why not go back another thousand years and reconstitute the Canaanite state? The Canaanites, unlike the Jews, are still there.” (Quoted in Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour, “Pseudo-Travellers,” London Review of Books, February 1985.) What did Wells mean? The Gilmours explain:

The modern Palestinians are a people of various ethnic origins, descended from the conquerors of Palestine since early Biblical times. Their ancestors are the Canaanites and Philistines who, unlike the Jews, were never deported. They remained in Palestine (which took its name from the Philistines) and their descendants formed, and still form, the core of the indigenous population. In the seventh century, the Muhammadan Arabs brought with them their government, their language and their religion, and a majority of the inhabitants accepted all three. Palestine and its people became Arabised. Yet they remained the same people. There was little racial change in the population because the Arab conquerors were so few in number.

Evidence for this comes from an interesting source, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president (and also an historian), in their 1918 book, Eretz Israel in the Past and in the Present. As quoted in Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi wrote:

The fellahin [Palestinian farmers] are not descendants of the Arab conquerors, who captured Eretz Israel and Syria in the seventh century CE. The Arab victors did not destroy the agricultural population they found in the country. They expelled only the alien Byzantine rulers, and did not touch the local population. Nor did the Arabs go in for settlement. Even in their former habitations, the Arabians did not engage in farming.… They did not seek new lands on which to settle their peasantry, which hardly existed. Their whole interest in the new countries was political, religious and material: to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes.

Sand tells us that “historical reason indicates that the population that survived since the seventh century had originated from the Judean farming class that the Muslim conquerors had found when they reached the country.” He then continues with Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi’s text:

To argue that after the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt Jews altogether ceased to cultivate the land of Eretz Israel is to demonstrate complete ignorance of history and the contemporary literature of Israel…. The Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil, which had been watered with the sweat and the sweat of his forebears…. Despite the repression and suffering, the rural population remained unchanged.

Sand comments that “this was written thirty years before Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, which asserts that the whole people was forcibly uprooted…. Although the ancient Judean peasants converted to Islam, they had done so for material reasons — chiefly to avoid taxation — which were in no way treasonous. Indeed, by clinging to their soil they remained loyal to their homeland.”

Sand notes that Ben-Zvi’s 1929 book, Our Population in the Country, took a more “moderate” position on who the fellahin were: “Obviously it would be mistaken to say that all the fellahin are descendants of the ancient Jews, but it can be said of most of them, or their core.” Ben-Zvi also added a second reason for their religious conversion: in Sand’s words, the “fear of being displaced from the soil.” Sand writes that Ben-Zvi’s later book

maintained that immigrants arrived from many places, and the local population was fairly heterogeneous, but the traces left in the language, place-names, legal customs, popular festivals such as that of Nebi Musa (the prophet Moses), and other cultural practices left almost no doubt that “the great majority of the fellahin do not descend from the Arab conquerors but before that, from the Jewish fellahin, who were the foundation of this country before its conquest by Islam.”

History supports this thesis. Sand’s book documents that neither the Romans in the first century CE nor the Arab Muslims six centuries later exiled the Jews:

It must first be emphasized that the Romans never deported entire peoples…. It did not pay to uproot the people of the land, the cultivators of produce, the taxpayers…. They definitely did not deport whole populations in the countries they conquered in the East, nor did they have the means to do so — none of the trucks, trains or great ships available to the modern world.

This stunning fact, support for which Sand found among historians specializing in the area, undermines the official narrative that the modern state of Israel was founded and peopled by long-wandering exiles who finally returned home. Sand explains in various lectures that when he was researching his book he was shocked to find no books about the Roman exile in the Tel Aviv University library. When he consulted the experts in the university’s department of Jewish history, he said he was told, “It wasn’t exactly an exile.” Thus was vindicated the American Reform Jewish movement, which declared in 1885 that it did not regard the Jews outside of Palestine as constituting a diaspora longing to return “home”: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” In 1841, Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism reports, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, spoke for his co-religionists when he said, “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.” In our time, the idea of a diaspora is disappearing. Jane Eisner, in the Jewish publication The Forwardsays “the negative connotation of ‘Diaspora’ formulated in classic Zionism is fading — with so many Israelis living in Los Angeles and Berlin, how could it not?” She’s pro-Israel, yet she writes, “Let’s leave behind the outdated notion of Diaspora.’” (A few years ago the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Berlin had the “world’s fastest growing Jewish community.”)

The early Zionist affinity for the indigenous population of Palestine faded, Sand writes, when people began to resist the encroachments by the European Jewish newcomers. Sand writes:

From that moment on, the descendants of the Judean peasantry vanished from the Jewish national consciousness and were cast into oblivion. Very soon the modern Palestinian fellahin became, in the eyes of the authorized agents of memory, Arabian immigrants who came in the nineteenth century to an almost empty country and continued to arrive in the twentieth century as the developing Zionist economy, according to the new myth, attracted many thousands of non-Jewish laborers.

The upshot is that since before Biblical times, people have lived continuously in Palestine. Every emissary who scouted the area for Theodor Herzl and his new Zionist project reported the same thing: Palestine was not “a land without a people,” contrary to the claim made in the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.

As the Gilmours point out, Ahad Ha’am, a “spiritual Zionist” who had spent time there, reported in 1891, “‘Palestine is not an uninhabited country,’ and has room ‘for only a very small proportion of Jews,’ since there was little untilled soil except for stony hills or sand dunes.” Ha’am and others warned the Zionist movement to respect the indigenous population.

Thus if there was to be a Jewish state, most if not all of the non-Jews would have to go. “Only in a very few places in our colonialisation were we not forced [sic] to transfer the earlier residents,” Ben-Gurion told the 1937 Zionist Congress” (Gilmours). His militias would “be forced” to transfer many more a decade later.

To repeat, it’s a secondary matter whether these individuals thought of themselves as “Palestinians” or whether they perceived themselves to be living in a country called Palestine. They were individuals with rights, and they were dispossessed and made into refugees when they weren’t murdered.

As individual human beings, they obviously cared about their homes and communities, whether rural or urban, and thus could be counted on to resist proposals that they be “transferred” — expelled — from their homes to somewhere else — even to places where people spoke a similar language (though the dialects might differ) and practiced the same religion. To assume otherwise is to see these individuals as less than human.

In fact, though, we can find signs of “national” (for lack of a better term in the context of anti-colonial resistance) self-consciousness at different times and in different stages of development. “Islam and the Ottoman Empire were the broadest and most meaningful socio-cultural and political entities, but there developed a type of proto-national sense regarding Filastin, as it was termed, from the seventeenth century on,” writes Khaled M. Safi, a historian at Al-Aqsa University. Safi quotes a distinguished historian of the Arab world, Albert Hourani (“The Fertile Crescent in the Eighteenth Century” in A Vision of History: Near Eastern and Other Essays, 1961):

Since the central [Ottoman] Government could no longer control the Empire, it could no longer serve as the focus of loyalty and solidarity. Thus we can observe in the course of the eighteenth century a strengthening of the communal loyalties which had always formed the basis of Ottoman society, and a regrouping of the peoples of the Empire around those authorities which could give them what the Imperial Government no longer gave: a defense against disorder and a system of law regulating the relations of man and man.

Hourani continued: “It was the pressure of these local forces which gave a new form to the relationship between the Ottoman Government and the provinces. All over the Empire, there arose local ruling groups loyal to the Sultan but possessing a force, a stability and to some degree an autonomy of their own. It was only through the mediation of these groups that the Ottoman Empire was still able to keep some sort of moral and material hold on its subjects.”

Palestinian consciousness, however, seems to have preceded the 17th century. The famous 10th-century Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi, who was born in Jerusalem, describes Palestine (or Filastin) in great deal, including its lush farmland and nourishing natural waters, in his book, Description of Syria, Including Palestine. Nazmi Al-Ju’beh, an historian at  Birzeit University, writes in “Palestinian Identity and Cultural Heritage” that Al-Muqaddasi “uses the terminology ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinian’ with the clear-cut meaning of geographic belonging and identity.”

Later, inhabitants of Palestine resisted Napoleon’s army and in 1834, peasants there rebelled, unsuccessfully, against the taxes and conscription imposed by the Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha. Such threats by perceived foreigners tend to create a communal consciousness. Safi concludes, “The revolt [against the Egyptians, that is, against other Arab Muslims] indicates the presence of an embryonic territorial and therefore social and political awareness.”

In the early 1920s, after the French (under the Sykes-Picot Agreement) forbade independent Arab rule of greater Syria, of which Palestine was regarded as the southern province, Arab leaders were determined to defend the independence of Palestine. The British of course would have none of that; it ruled Palestine under the League of Nations mandate system that incorporated the 1917 Balfour Declaration‘s endorsement of the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The victims of British and French duplicity, like their forebears, tended to develop, or rather increase, a communal identity. This identity was already solidifying as the Zionist plan for an exclusivist state became a reality on the ground through the eviction of fellahin and city dwellers from properties purchased by Jewish individuals and organizations; in Zionist eyes these were Jewish lands that had to be redeemed after their defilement by non-Jews. (Stephen Halbrook’s valuable “The Alienation of a Homeland” shows that only a small percentage of those properties were purchased from individual tillers of the soil. Most were acquired from absentee feudal landlords in Beirut and elsewhere who had never established ownership in a Lockean manner, that is, by mixing their labor with the land.)

The dehumanization of the Palestinians was manifest in the Western attitude that these individuals saw themselves merely as undifferentiated members of an Arab horde, indifferent to their immediate surroundings, that is, to their homes, towns, villages, farming communities, market connections, and ultimately their larger homeland, and thus would accept “transfer” to other Arab areas. No westerner ever thought of himself in such nonhuman terms, but thinking of Palestinians that way came easy. That’s the stuff of mass injustice, of literal and cultural genocide.

Realization of the dream of a Jewish state logically entailed the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians, who by the common standard of justice were legitimate owners of their land. Those who remained were made third-class citizens or even worsein the apartheid state. The countless micro offenses against those individuals were compounded by the macro offense: the destruction of their flourishing culture, communities, and country.

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