January 14, 2009

Breaking the rule

My series of posts last week on the events in Gaza caused unease for some readers because of their strong criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government and military, such as the siege that had been going on for years and the massive assault that has been going on the past month.

The unease was expressed in one comment by HRK who said:

I've been a long-time reader of your blog, but I have to say, I'm somewhat confused by this latest series of posts. Although I understand - and to a large extent agree with - your basic idea that the Israeli policies are self-destructive, I don't understand why you seem to be giving the Palestinians a free pass on this one. I know plenty of other sources don't, but as that your basic stance seems to be that civilian deaths are an unnecessary evil, wouldn't it be better to point out the lack of regard for it that both sides have shown in the past?

HRK was quite perceptive in sensing that there was something slightly out of kilter and I can understand his/her confusion. It arose because I had broken the rule regarding how one comments on particular issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The rule in the US is that whenever the actions of the Israeli government are criticized, it must be immediately preceded or followed by equal or harsher criticism of the Palestinians. Otherwise one is deemed to be 'not responsible', or biased, or worse.

Moreover, the rule requires the opposite behavior when the parties are switched. Harsh criticism of Palestinian atrocities against Israelis need not be accompanied by a similar balancing act, such as pointing out equivalent or worse acts by Israel. In fact, attempting to do so immediately opens one up to criticism, the charge that one is 'excusing' the atrocity, or implying 'moral equivalency' between the two sides. (Read journalist Robert Fisk's experiences with this.)

HRK's confusion about what my stance was is an indication of how much this rule has been internalized, so that it is assumed to be the norm that everyone must follow. Anyone who violates the rule is immediately subject to having his or her motives questioned.

I do not choose to follow that rule and will criticize actions that need to be criticized on their own merits without worrying about what motives may be imputed to me. Anyone who has read my writings will know that I think that tribal allegiances based racial, ethnic, religious, and national identities are not only stupid but even evil, and that the resultiing wanton harming of civilians that is a consequence of these allegiances is also an evil, whether done by al Qaeda, the US, Israel, the Palestinians, the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers, or whoever. Life is precious and ordinary people have the right, wherever they live, to be free of the fear of being the victims of political power plays.

The implication that 'moral equivalency' is necessarily a bad thing is another symptom of how these kinds of rules are internalized. It seems to imply that 'our' side because of our very nature, by virtue of who we are is morally superior to 'their' side. Hence 'our' actions can never be evil by definition, but must be due to mistakes or accidents or unavoidable events. Meanwhile 'their' actions, even if identical to 'ours', are intentionally evil, carried out with cruel deliberation. So again, by definition, there can never be moral equivalency between acts committed by 'us' and 'them', even if the acts themselves are identical.

This kind of thinking is endemic and can be found in discussions of almost all conflicts, not just with Israel and Palestine. Uri Avnery tellingly describes how the dominant power uses its propaganda power to shape the narrative structure.

Nearly seventy ago, in the course of World War II, a heinous crime was committed in the city of Leningrad. For more than a thousand days, a gang of extremists called "the Red Army" held the millions of the town's inhabitants hostage and provoked retaliation from the German Wehrmacht from inside the population centers. The Germans had no alternative but to bomb and shell the population and to impose a total blockade, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands.

Some time before that, a similar crime was committed in England. The Churchill gang hid among the population of London, misusing the millions of citizens as a human shield. The Germans were compelled to send their Luftwaffe and reluctantly reduce the city to ruins. They called it the Blitz.

This is the description that would now appear in the history books – if the Germans had won the war.

Absurd? No more than the daily descriptions in our media, which are being repeated ad nauseam: the Hamas terrorists use the inhabitants of Gaza as "hostages" and exploit the women and children as "human shields", they leave us no alternative but to carry out massive bombardments, in which, to our deep sorrow, thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed and injured.

IN THIS WAR, as in any modern war, propaganda plays a major role. The disparity between the forces, between the Israeli army - with its airplanes, gunships, drones, warships, artillery and tanks - and the few thousand lightly armed Hamas fighters, is one to a thousand, perhaps one to a million. In the political arena the gap between them is even wider. But in the propaganda war, the gap is almost infinite.

Almost all the Western media initially repeated the official Israeli propaganda line. They almost entirely ignored the Palestinian side of the story, not to mention the daily demonstrations of the Israeli peace camp. The rationale of the Israeli government ("The state must defend its citizens against the Qassam rockets") has been accepted as the whole truth. The view from the other side, that the Qassams are a retaliation for the siege that starves the one and a half million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, was not mentioned at all.

The kind of thinking decribed by Avnery illustrates the worst kind of tribalism, where we demand to be judged by the good intentions that we say lie behind our actions, while we judge 'them' by their actions alone and the intentions that we get to assign to them. To look at the actual acts and use the same standard of judgment for those committed by both sides is to commit the sin of moral equivalency.

The propaganda system can only work if we internalize the rules of discussion set by the dominant forces and follow them unthinkingly. It is encouraging that more and more people are breaking them.

Next: Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

POST SCRIPT: Israel's clout with the US

In this report that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (January 12, 2009), we see that not only can the Israeli prime minister order George W. Bush about, he feels free to brag publicly about doing so.

The Security Council resolution passed on Friday calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza was a source of embarrassment for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who helped prepare it but ultimately was ordered to back down from voting for it and abstain, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.

Rice did not end up voting for Resolution 1860, thanks to a phone conversation Olmert held with US President George Bush shortly before the vote, the prime minister told a meeting of local authority heads in Ashkelon as part of a visit to the South.

Upon receiving word that the US was planning to vote in favor of the resolution - viewed by Israel as impractical and failing to address its security concerns - Olmert demanded to get Bush on the phone, and refused to back down after being told that the president was delivering a lecture in Philadelphia. Bush interrupted his lecture to answer Olmert's call, the premier said.

America could not vote in favor of such a resolution, Olmert told Bush. Soon afterwards, Rice abstained when votes were counted at the UN.

As John Cole says: "I am not sure what Israel has on us that they can extract billions of American taxpayer dollars every year and dictate our foreign policy, but it must be something pretty good. The craziest thing about this is the silence of the jingosphere. Had this been any other nation bossing around Bush’s Secretary of State, or, god forbid, France, can you imagine the wingnut Voltron that would have been formed in outrage? As it is, crickets."

Juan Cole tries to understand why Israel's prime minister would so openly boast about his power over the US president and US foreign policy.


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HRK was quite perceptive in sensing that there was something slightly out of kilter and I can understand his/her confusion. It arose because I had broken the rule regarding how one comments on particular issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Possibly. It's also possible that the confusion arose because it's difficult to find any criticism of Palestine whatsoever in what you had written. That could easily give the impression that you think Palestine is innocent. You can avoid that sort of confusion by giving some criticism of Palestine, while still criticizing Israel more harshly.

Posted by Paul Jarc on January 14, 2009 09:59 AM

Paul: Nobody with guns and rockets is thoroughly innocent. But but yourself in Palestinian shoes: your people are blockaded, denied medicine, and being starved to death; would you roll over and take it, or launch rockets into buildings hoping someone in the world takes notice of your plight and helps? Isn't guilt against an overwhelming power preferable to death?

Keep in mind that the war is extremely one-sided. Israel has new and modern tanks, jets, missile launchers, and assault rifles, much in thanks to US taxpayer money. To my knowledge, Palestine has old soviet AK47s and whatever explosives they can obtain through trade; they have no air force, no tanks, and no massive first-world sponsor. The overall historical death toll is about 10:1 last I heard.

Full disclosure: I have no family, financial interests, or history near the middle east whatsoever, and I think Jews and Muslims are equally nutty for thinking they have some religious claim to that particular land.

Posted by Brock on January 14, 2009 12:31 PM

Brock: I feel like your "well, geez, wouldn't you get pissed off and do the same?" argument is a bit much. It doesn't change the fact that the Qassam rockets are hitting random civilian targets in Israel. From my standpoint, that's an unacceptable evil. It's not like what they're doing is analogous to Umkhonto wo Sizwe's actions during apartheid-era South Africa - they're just killing more innocent people. I'm not saying Israel is blameless in this (the invasion is deplorable), but the "try to understand" argument is a dangerous one when you're dealing with factions with little regard for civilian deaths.

Dr. Singham: Although I understand your point regarding moral equivalency, I have to say that in this case, I disagree. Your approach seems to imply (at least, this is the vibe I'm getting) that historical events are discrete, whereas I believe a more holistic approach is in order. Either way, thank you for addressing my confusion.


Posted by HRK on January 14, 2009 01:06 PM

HRK: Oh, I agree. I'm not trying to excuse the rocketing of civilians, so I apologize if it came across that way. It IS unacceptable.

My point is that it's a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the blood shed by the Israeli armament. Palestinian violence shouldn't go unnoticed. But right now the overwhelming majority of resources (say, 95%) should go into stopping the overwhelming war capabilities, which happen to be in the very willing hands of the Israelis. Again, nobody is blameless, but priorities and perspective are crucial if we want it to end.

Posted by Brock on January 14, 2009 01:47 PM

You're certainly right about this, Mano. I for one have always felt it difficult to criticize Israel, for I am sensitive to the suffering that Jews experienced in WWII and at other times in history (events I know you recognize as well). But this does not excuse Israel, or give its military a "green light" to kill hundreds of civilians whenever it feels the need. As you have so eloquently pointed out, Israel's behavior in Gaza is precisely that of a terrorist organization, and goes far beyond that which can be rationalized by any civilized society. Killing is killing, and no amount of lobbying or concessions from the US Government can alter that fact.

Posted by Norman Nason on January 14, 2009 05:23 PM

(I'm not a regular reader; I've visited occasionally, but I received a link to this entry specifically. I hope you don't mind my commenting.)

@Brock: The problem is, every action has a cause. Israel is striking at Hamas targets because Hamas has been shelling for months; Hamas is shelling … well, in part they're shelling because they hate Israel and still refuse to recognize it's existence, but in part they're shelling because Israel and Egypt have been blockading Gaza; Israel and Egypt have been blockading Gaza because Hamas is very good at using every opportunity to smuggle in weapons; Hamas smuggles in weapons because it needs those weapons for most of its activities (both terrorist and otherwise); and so on. Obviously the situation is unacceptable, but it's too easy to say, "I blame side X" or even "I blame both sides." Given that bilateral peace is not going to happen instantly, you have to give some thought to what a given side should do to end things on its side. Israel stops striking at Hamas, then what? Hamas declares victory and steps up its attacks? History has shown that unilateral steps toward peace need to be thought through very well, or they won't work.

@Dr. Singham: I disagree with your premise that in the U.S. people always criticize Palestinians more harshly; in my experience, news stories always make a point of describing thing in a very balanced way, as though everything is a tit for a tat. This happens both when the news item is something a Palestinian group has done (which is always claimed to be a response to something Israel did, no matter how little sense that makes) and when it's something Israel is doing (likewise). Look up news stories about Israel pulling settlers out of territories — it's usually hard to understand what the stories are even talking about, because journalists don't know how to present events in Israel in any way besides "peace threatened actions by Israel and Palestinian group X".

Posted by R. on January 14, 2009 09:42 PM

By the way, there's a strange straw man here. Israel never defends its actions by reference to the Holocaust, but those attacking Israel always either (1) minimize the Holocaust, or (2) take pains to clarify that they're not minimizing the Holocaust.

The Holocaust ended more than sixty years ago. Israel isn't still locked in some concentration-camp–survivor mentality. Elements of Israeli society are still locked in a Yom-Kippur-War mentality, when Israel realized that Arab powers still wanted to destroy it and could definitely have done so if not for help from the West (a situation is that is very different now that Israel has peace treaties and normal relations with many of its neighbors), but that's a totally different thing. When Robert Fisk brings up the Holocaust, it's because he knows it's a straw-man argument that's easy to attack. (President Ahmadinejad did the same thing when he visited the U.S. last year.)

Posted by R. on January 14, 2009 09:57 PM

Correction: I wrote, "those attacking Israel always either […]", but should have written, "those attacking Israel often either […]".

Posted by R. on January 15, 2009 10:31 AM

R is this the same balanced media that gave such a balanced and critical analysis of the US going to war in Iraq? The media in Australia is much like the US in many respects and does make some attempts at balance but overall falls way short. Tell you what maybe you can help me out with US media links to stories about the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or maybe we could compare carnage pictures in the US media with that in other countries. I’m sure as hell if we had hundreds of Israeli kids dying and being injured we would have no end of media coverage. Let’s put this way the BBC while not perfect does a hell of a better job at looking at both sides, and frankly it is only until a media outlet gets accusations of media bias against Israel before one knows it is getting anywhere near the truth.
BTW I’m more than ready to criticise Hamas once the blockage is lifted sea, land and air, illegal settlements removed as well as the ‘security’ wall on Palestinian land, and checkpoints in the West Bank are gone with peace keepers instead let in. I think it would be quite easy to isolate Hamas if Israel were serious about peace and the US even handed.

Posted by SimonJM on January 16, 2009 06:14 AM

Mr. Mano Singham,
It's nice to see that not all the ppl are afraid to speak out the truth about messed up US foreign policies against the Middle East in this case, against Palestine. I am a Muslim American and I know our govt lies a lot about Muslims and Middle East. I knew President Bush was looking for war with Afghanistan and Iraq even b4 the 9/11 and they just needed excuse to make to the public to justify their means to invade Muslim lands for their national interest. It’s amazing how the Bush Administration, the American biased Media and US politicians just follow whatever Israel wants no matter how wrong it may be bc our politicians sell their souls to AIPAC b4 they can be elected into office. And whatever AIPAC wants, it gets. Israel can do no wrong and Muslims can do no right by their standards. And they always try to scare the public and brain wash them by constantly reminding them about the suffering of Jews in WWII, the holocaust and yet it’s ok for Israel to put Palestinians in concentration camps, steal their land, put sanctions on them , deprive them of any rights, threaten the Muslim neighbors with sanctions and military force to comply with Israel and not help Palestinians, give no weapons or rights to Palestinians to defend themselves and then this govt and media have the audacity to talk about Hamas as terrorists while our govt openly gives weapons and money to the terrorist state/govt of Israel to bomb the civilians and Palestinians in their concentration camps and inhumane conditions. I am so sick and tired of hearing in the news and by all unilateral support of US politicians who only get elected if they accept AIPAC’s foreign policy and sign their souls to it and keep saying Israel has the right to defend itself. But Muslims don’t have the right to defend themselves, bc if they do, they are labeled as terrorists. Muslim govts are bought out by western powers as puppet regimes to only comply in the special interest of their western masters with no regard for rights of their people and then we wonder why all these groups of civilians start fighting for those people and defending their rights and our US govt suddenly labels them as terrorist organizations. Yes, US media is biased bc they never show you the real dreadful situation in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq bc they don’t want the US public to see the atrocities caused by their govt and the Bush Administration. And US and Israel are excluded from following any UN rules and no one can hold them accountable for war crimes they commit against the world but US is quick to point out any other country for its faults. If Middle East has no right to arms and nuclear powers, so shouldn’t any other country. Bc why should the Middle East trust the western powers who bully the Middle East into everything and get away with it while expecting Muslims to just sit there and watch as they steal the resources from right under them , kill their civilians and make sure we don’t unite by perpetrating fights between groups and blaming one another. What we fail to realize is that no govt is innocent in this, but it’s always the civilians who suffer. Israel does have a hand on US govt that’s why it’s blindly supported by this govt and it’s all controlled by their foreign agent AIPAC, formerly the American Zionist Council, who makes sure US, always supports Israel and spreads lies about Muslim nations to justify the injustice they do in the Middle East. Our govt lies about spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East, but if they really cared for the ppl, those ppl will be praising US govt for the Iraq war and killing its thousands of civilians in the name of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and WMDs. But it was only to strategically place themselves to steal the Iraqi oil, to keep Russia at bay, have their eyes on Caspian Sea oil, the real reason for invading Afghanistan, as you can see with Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Exxon Mobile and all the US corporations for doing business after US destroyed the Iraq’s infrastructure and killed so many ppl there. And isn’t it so convenient that we always find Osama Bin Laden’s tapes surface whenever Bush Administration feels the need to justify another one of its ill actions against Muslims. Bin Laden maybe long gone and dead, bc I refuse to believe that with all the best technology and satellites of our govt and Israel they don’t know where Bin Laden is but they knew exactly where Saddam Hussein was when they needed to bring him to surface. And we made the Afghani govt, another US puppet regime sign the agreement in 2005 that US has permanent rights of its stay there. Isn’t it obvious that our politicians and govt tell the public that we are freeing the Muslims from their tyrant leaders and that’s why we go there to fight the terrorist, but really we go to put terrorist regimes to put in place for our selfish interests with no regard to the safety or concern of civilian life and then we just blame their leaders put in place by US as the problem ones after we’re done using them. If any Middle East country wants to elect ppl who care about them, we make sure we label them as terrorist bc obviously anyone in Middle East standing up for its people will be against the US foreign policies and injustice forced upon them by our govt. US politicians are no better than any other country’s corrupted leaders. They only care about power and fame by any means necessary. If we really had good leaders, the world would be a much better place. Instead of spending billions upon billions in killing ppl, we’d be helping them get educated, industrialize, value human life on earth instead of starving them bc we have to have the best of everything at the expense of the suffering of others. No one in the media ever asks why terrorist groups are formed.. could it be that our leaders are corrupted and treat ppl less than human with no regard or value to human life and put sanctions on countries to justify their means only to cause more rebellion bc they have nothing left except to fight for their freedom from their oppressors after they’ve destroyed their homes, starved them, killed their families, etc. There is so much to say, but it’s hard to describe everything one feels for u see the lies and atrocities being committed by the govt that supposed to represent u, but once they get elected, they only care about the greed and power and justify it by their twisted moral understanding of it. As long as AIPAC is in power and US and Israel continue to treat Middle East unjustly, there wouldn’t be any real peace in the Middle East , but peace can only be achieved when truth and justice comes from both sides. You can’t force Palestinians to comply by what Israel only wants while blaming them for not wanting peace when their rights aren’t even recognized by the US govt or Israel and UN is a joke bc it has no power over US and Israel. Who is going to hold US govt and Israel responsible for war crimes they commit against the world? Why are we supposed to only feel sorry for the Holocaust and atrocities of Hitler when the world quietly watches the inhumane treatment of Palestinians in Gaza committed by the same group that wants us to feel sorry for them for what they went thru? And I’m tired of US media keep blaming Hamas for the war when it’s been clear that Israel‘s the one that broke the cease fire first and started this murderous massacre against Palestinians. Maybe they wouldn’t be throwing rockets at Israel if Israel didn’t put them in concentration camps, put sanctions on them for everything and starved them. As if Palestinians don’t have any right to arms and defend themselves, only poor Israel does. What bigotry and lies our govt wants us to believe and the American public only cares about anything if it affects them directly. But if you keep feeding them and brain washing them with stories and movies on Holocaust, they will keep sympathizing with Israel to justify it means to cause havoc in the Middle East... Peace and love can only be achieved when both sides recognize and admit to their faults and stop acting like holier than thou and Nuclear power is taken out of the hands of all nations, not just Middle East. Who is US to think it is better than others to have all the weapons of mass destruction to use it as it seems fit while expecting the world to respect their wishes. No nation respects another by being bullied into it..And thus we will keep wondering why these groups of ppl take arms to fight us..bc as Mel Gibson in Braveheart said, ‘they may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom’.. Freedom at whose expense as everyone think they have the right to exist at the expense of the freedom of another, forgetting we all are going to die pretty soon and be accountable in front of God for our actions.. Isn’t it better to let everyone live peacefully and share the sources and food and help one another even if it means we live for a shorter time, but in peace.. Maybe God will bless the earth if he sees our peace. After all , we all originated from the same, why do we have to fight one another with injustice? Unfortunately, what’s right and wrong is defined by who has the power to force it upon another even when it’s unjust!! But u can’t change the mindset of a soul by unjust means no matter how much power u might have.

Thank you Mr. Singham for having the brain and courage to speak about the other side.

Posted by Marium on January 17, 2009 10:33 AM