Israel could pretend to hold the moral high ground – not in the Muslim world of course, but certainly in the West – from 1948 until the Six Day War in ’67. But whatever might be said of the Palestinians caught west of the ceasefire line post-Naqba, after ’67 Israel became the occupier, in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. And once the occupier, there goes the moral high ground!

Why? Because try as he might – though the Israelis never tried very hard – the occupier cannot keep his hands clean. Occupation invites resistance, resistance invites greater and greater repression, and eventually that repression escalates to atrocity. The occupier might prefer that the occupied waive his right to resist, and might feign high dudgeon when instead he asserts that right. But whinging when the occupied fight back is at best unseemly, and at worst unmanly.

By contrast, no matter what he does the occupied have clean hands. This is not because the occupier has somehow forfeited his right to self-defence. It’s because there’s no correlative duty to respect it. If Israel wanted to resurrect that duty it need simply end the Occupation. But it won’t. 

Some have argued that it won’t because it can’t. Even if Israel had no further territorial ambitions – though clearly it does – the justification of the Occupation is to ensure that those who were displaced in ’48 and ’67 remain disarmed. So if there were to be a Palestinian state, it would be a state in name only, not unlike the so-called ‘homelands’ in Apartheid South Africa. 

As the Germans discovered in Norway and France, governing an occupied people directly is like herding feral cats. And it’s very expensive. So the smart money goes to setting up Quisling regimes. That’s worked well enough in the West Bank, because, not unlike Johannesburg and Soweto, Israel needed cheap labour, and Palestinians needed work. But because Gaza is beyond commuting distance, the same arrangement hasn’t worked in Gaza. And since the demand for Palestinian labour has largely dried up post-1991 with the flood of job-seeking Jews from behind the former Iron Curtain, the Palestinians in the West Bank are none too pleased with their Quisling leadership either. Hence the now-predictable Intifadas.

Israel seizes another chunk of Palestinian land. The resistance reacts. Israel pummels the reaction. Over the next few years the resistance repairs itself. And then the whole cycle starts up again. ’Twas always thus and always will be, until there’s no longer any Palestinian land to be seized. 

This is hardly the first time one people has been displaced by another. It’s just that we’re living in the process rather than commenting on it in retrospect. How else do you suppose the West was won in America? “Nature red in tooth and claw!” offers no exceptions for human beings. ’Twas always thus and always will be. Moral arguments, deployed by either side, make about as much sense as complaining that when a dog humps a bitch, it certainly doesn’t look consensual.

Only the psychopath is unmoved by the pictures of dismembered children that have been coming out of Gaza this week. I’m not a psychopath. I’m as susceptible to moral outrage as most of my co-religionists are not. “Be a philosopher,” counselled  Hume, “but also be a man.” So I guess I can be forgiven this inconsistency.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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4 replies

  1. “In every system of morality, … I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. … [So] let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.” — David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Book III, section I, p. 469.


    • Hume’s point here is that one cannot derive an ought from an is. Elsewhere in the Treatise he goes on to argue that moral statements are reports on what he calls the sentiments. That, in other words, absent fellow feeling, moral judgments couldn’t get off the ground. Critics of Hume counter that a psychopath can and does make meaningful moral judgments absent any these sentiments. Of course they won’t have the umph they have when accompanied by those feelings. But, they argue, they would count as moral pronouncements nonetheless.


  2. Therefore, lacking these sentiments, the psychopath’s decision to abide by some moral pronouncement indicates an ulterior motive, correct? This ulterior motive need not be incompatible with our own motivating sentiments, but would be still ulterior by definition, even if by our own fault of assuming that the psychopath is operating accordingly based on sentiments we typically think accompany moral behaviour. Though, I imagine, a psychopath who’s effective at assimilating would be well aware of this disconnect and would, for the very purpose of assimilating, thus seek to encourage this assumption on our part. Hence the difficulty in building reliable trust with known psychopaths, another necessary quality of moral relations, as ulterior assimilation is a tough act to follow… even for the same performer.


  3. Nay, especially for the same performer!


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