Academics sometimes use words in ways that may not correspond to how they’re used among the hoi polloi. For example, I’d have thought that to discriminate means to ascertain a difference and act accordingly. But among the unwashed it means to treat someone unfairly. In this case there’s little danger of being misinterpreted. No one would mistake my claiming to have discriminating taste in women, which I do, for my fessing up to penalizing my female students for being female, which I don’t.
But in other cases misunderstanding is almost guaranteed. For example, in teaching political philosophy I need to contrast the views of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. But to do that I first need to compare them. To compare two things is simply to put them side by side to see whether or not they can be likened. But to the rabble to compare, say, Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler, is to have likened them.
As with Netanyahu and Hitler, more often than not comparing two things – or in this case two people – eventuates in our finding they’re in every relevant respect unlike each other. What do we mean by relevant? Well, any two things are trivially alike in that they’re both things. But their being things is pretty much all most things, dandelions and nuclear warheads for example, have in common. Apples and oranges, on the other hand, have several properties in common. But not their both being suitable filling for a pie.
Now then, I’m on record as having compared the fence around Gaza to the wall around the Warsaw ghetto. And having compared them, I likened them. The Warsaw ghetto was there and then. Gaza is here and now. The two do not share spatio-temporal properties. A wall is opaque. A fence is not. So with respect to what do I claim they’re alike? With respect to their function. They’re both designed to keep people on that side of the barrier from crossing over to this side of it.
But hang on. In that respect the fence around Gaza is as akin to the barrier between Tijuana and San Ysidro as to the wall around the Warsaw ghetto. And surely I want to draw a moral distinction between the Warsaw ghetto, which I see as a concentration camp, and the US-Mexico border, which I see as, well, a border, akin to the border between the US and Canada. So where’s the distinction between a border and a concentration camp?
That a border is designed to keep people out, whereas a concentration camp is designed to keep them in.
To maintain this distinction I need to say that the land mass from Tijuana to Terra del Fuego is not, in this sense, a concentration camp, whereas the Warsaw ghetto was. Its purpose was threefold: 1) To bar its internees from accessing any of the resources required to further the interests of the Reich. 2) To prevent its internees from giving succor to their co-religionists or other enemies of the Reich outside the ghetto. And 3) to facilitate their eventual extermination. The first two can be said of the barrier between Tijuana and San Ysidro. But surely not the third.
And defenders of the fence around Gaza argue that neither is there a Wannsee-esque plan to exterminate the Palestinians. Moreover, though the IDF controls the getting into and the getting out of Gaza, the Palestinians in Gaza, unlike the Jews in Warsaw, are generally free to leave. They’re just not free to leave via Israel.
Well, people who live south of the Rio Grande are free to leave. They’re just not free to leave via the United States.
Nor, perhaps, via any other country. But if we say that freedom to emigrate entails a right to immigrate, then we’re all in a concentration camp. And to say that is to render the concept of a concentration camp meaningless.
The moral difference then – if moral difference there be between Tijuana and Gaza – and the moral similarity – if moral similarity there be between Gaza and the Warsaw ghetto – must fall on the question of one’s entitlement to cross from there to here. The argument seems to be that the people currently south of the Rio Grande weren’t driven there from north of it, whereas the people in the Warsaw ghetto were herded there by a program of ethnic cleansing, and the people in Gaza were driven there by the events of 1948.
Well, one might argue, what of it?! Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t seen one people either exterminated or colonized or displaced by another. We Europeans did a bit of all three to the indigenous people of North America. And when one people displaces another, very often the second has to displace a third. The Germans wanted the Jews out of Europe, the Jews want the Palestinians out of Palestine. People are animals, and animals compete for territory. It’s “Nature red in tooth and claw.”
If it’s not the way God wanted it to be, He would have designed both the world and those of us who live in it very differently. He certainly wouldn’t have ordered the ethnic cleansing of Canaan, and the wholesale genocide of the Amalekites.
But, it seems, sometime during the last millennium we decided we knew better than God, and though we continued to commit genocide, we thought we should at the same time condemn it. And then, sometime during the last century and a half, we decided that neither colonialism nor displacement were politically correct either. So because the Palestinians are, like the Jews, a displaced people, and, like the Jews, a people with no place else to go, some people think that since they’re both morally entitled to the land, they’re both morally required to share it with the other.
Unfortunately neither of these two peoples seems to share that view.
Both sides acknowledge that there was a war in 1948. The Palestinians see the Naqba as a straightforward case of occupation and ethnic cleansing. When the bullets start flying responsible people get themselves and their children out of harm’s way. And when hostilities cease, they return to their homes and their lemon groves. But so long as the enemy remains in occupation, and the hope of dislodging him remains alive, hostilities have not ceased.
For their part the Israelis agree that it was precisely (what turned out to be) the vain hope their armies would dislodge the occupiers that the Palestinians did not return to their homes and hillsides. But, they argue, either the Palestinians who fled the fighting thereby forfeited their title to those homes and hillsides, or it was taken from them by conquest. Either way, they’re not getting them back! And, in fact, the process of expropriation and resettlement will continue until longevity of possession makes it as ridiculous to remove the Jews from erstwhile Arab land as it would be to remove us from erstwhile indigenous land here in North America.
Is there a fact of the matter about who’s right about who’s in the right? Of course not. As Hobbes put it, in a state of nature, what’s rightfully mine is whatever I can get, and only for so long as I can keep it. All other rights are negotiated between those wiling to honor them. And only for so long as it’s to their advantage to honor them.
What the Palestinians are to the Jews, and what some indigenous people still regard themselves to be to the ‘white man’, the Celts were at one time to the Normans. Today no one in England can tell the difference. But apartheid can postpone that process of de-differentiation almost indefinitely. The Afrikaaners managed it quite nicely from 1945 to 1989. We do our best at it here in Canada. But the Israelis make both Afrikaaners and Canadians look like our hearts really aren’t in it. If you want to keep people apart, you have to keep them hating each other. And the way to do that is to provoke the other into the periodic slaughter of innocents, preferably, though not necessarily, masquerading this terrorism as collateral damage.
I came to consciousness about this conflict in ’56, at the time of the Suez War. Two major wars since, ’67 and ’73, the invasion of south Lebanon in ’82 and its occupation for eighteen years thereafter, a number of intifadas (depending on how they’re to be counted) and a far greater number of ‘retaliations’, followed by yet another round of the same … This is not a war that’s going to be over in my lifetime. And probably not in yours either.
George W. Bush thought he could end the war in Iraq by unilateral declaring it won. That was sixteen years ago. Some Israelis think that since the Palestinians were soundly vanquished in four consecutive wars, they should behave accordingly. Some do. Others do not. Much as the occupier would like to think otherwise, a Quisling regime speaks for the occupier, not the occupied.
It seems to me that this war can end in one of only two ways. As with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, one or both sides can simply exhaust itself and let discretion prove the better part of valor. Or the Palestinians could acquire chemical, biological, or a half dozen nuclear weapons, deploy them throughout Israel-proper, and offer the Israelis a choice between making Palestine the homeland of both peoples, or rendering it the homeland of none.
Given that choice, one would think most Jews would opt for the former. But having talked to some of my more rabidly Zionist co-religionists, one could be mistaken about that.