Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lily Galili: “Regaining Our Moral Compass”

Every once in a while an op-ed is published in Haaretz that expresses almost precisely what I feel. Lily Galili, a veteran Israeli journalist, says it best in her own words here and below. Israelis, especially the so-called Israeli left, has to regain its moral compass. Her barbs are accurately directed against the Zionist left, i.e., Meretz and some left-leaning Labor members. Of course, terms like "left", "center", and "right", have recalibrated meanings when speaking of Israel. Here, the "left" denotes the center in the rest of the world, the "center" denotes the right and the "right" is ultra-right.

Where I disagree with Galili is the nostalgiac view that there was a time when the Israeli left had a moral compass. What she should have said is that there was a time when at least some individuals cared about the moral dimension of Israel's policy. That tradition goes back in Zionist circles to Ahad ha-Am and Judah Magnes. There were never more than a handful, and they were always marginalized in Zionist circles, even among the Zionist left.

I also disagree that there are no prophets in Israel today. There may not be any among the Zionist left, but there are among the human rights organizations.

Regaining our Moral Compass

Lily Galili

It is hard to remember when exactly moral discourse vanished from our public arena. It happened sometime during the second intifada, as even Israel's left replaced morality with a value system of pragmatic justifications. It is no longer about what is permitted and what is forbidden, even in the context of a bloody conflict. It is about which actions are worthwhile and feasible. Morality became something for nerds, a label the left is afraid of.

The deal Israel's left made was also splendidly pragmatic: It would market the two-state solution to the public and in return make "the other" disappear. Thus the limits of morality were replaced by the limits of power, and universal values were exchanged for the winning argument: "It's good for the Jews." The ultra-scrupulous, who have felt a certain discomfort about having the moral lobe excised from their brains, squirm and say: "It's not that I love Arabs all of a sudden, but ..." Such thinking is on par with the annoying cliche: "It isn't that the Arabs have suddenly become lovers of Zion."

This distorted situation has been perpetuated to the extent that it has become impossible to remember that there used to be a different reality. This is what things look like today: Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman is proposing to move Israel's Arab citizens to another country. The counterargument: This isn't practical. The siege on Gaza is starving its inhabitants. The counterargument: They're just going to launch more Qassams. Jews are launching pogroms against Arabs in Hebron. Not a good idea at all - it'll just prompt reprisal actions.

The list is long and astounding. And if revoking citizenship were practical, and if Arabs were to swear on the Koran not to respond to the siege and the pogrom, would it be morally right to carry out all those actions?

Assuming that the answer is no, no one is going to say so aloud. It is hard to find anyone in the public arena, and certainly the political arena, to sound a moral voice and propose clear norms of good and evil. To use a technological metaphor - the moral compass has been replaced by a practical GPS. And for those who prefer metaphors from a different conceptual realm: It has been a long time since the prophets disappeared from our lives - the prophets of wrath and even the false prophets. Today no one even has the pretensions of prophesizing. This is, after all, the role of intellectuals in the modern world - to discern the boundaries between good and evil, between what is permitted and what is forbidden. In short, to be prophets. However, if we return to Ahad Ha'am's distinction between a priest, who serves the people and gives them what they need, and a prophet, who chastises and rebukes, our intellectuals serve as translators into the language of the possible and the worthwhile - a reality that we understand in any case. What a waste of their talents.

It should be noted that we have an abundance of priests. We don't need Amos Oz to declare resoundingly that the Labor party's historic role has come to an end - for that we have pollster Mina Zemach. But this, too, has already become tradition. Oz, sometimes by joining an impressive duet with A.B. Yehoshua, has proposed several unity governments over the years and has established and dismantled coalitions using advice whispered into the ears of pet politicians. It is not clear who bestowed this role on the two novelists, a role usually reserved for political bigwigs. Yet it is perfectly clear that they have betrayed their role as trailblazers and identifiers of morality and justice. In the choice between priest and prophet, they chose to be priests.

There is no one who will preach morality to us on behalf of the Palestinians, Israel's Arabs, the handicapped, the poor and all the "others." The latest report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel shows crystal clear that we have already exacerbated all the damage we can do to them. The drama is turning into a real social and political tragedy, as the prophets are slowly being replaced by the messiahs. As a result of this process, a large public is finding itself trapped between priest and messiah, a deadly combination in an environment lacking clear moral criteria.

Obviously it is difficult to talk about morality in a reality of corrupt governments and a distorted division of the world into the axis of evil and the rest. But now, precisely now, a window of opportunity for correction has opened. Barack Obama's election as U.S. president has immediately changed the atmosphere, and the global economic crisis is restoring some moral consideration to economic discourse. Israel's government is about to be replaced and a new leftist party wants to take over the leadership of "the camp." Such a move must be accompanied by a semantic change and a revised consciousness - including, for example, explicitly saying that some things aren't done, not because they don't bring any gain, but because they are immoral. To use such language does not turn the speaker into a "sucker" - it transforms him or her into a human being. The left has done its share in the transformation of morality into an expression of weakness; now it has a chance to restore morality to its natural place as an important element in the nation's strength.

However, right now, it doesn't seem like this is going to happen. On arid earth where there is no morality, no new left will grow.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

In Israel your "center" is far left.

Morality always has to come second to survival.

Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

Jerry Haber said...

"Morality always has to come second to survival."

Spoken like a true idolater, or a Jew imbued with Hellenism in the bad sense of the term.

Unfortunately, all of Jewish tradition -- and halakha -- disagrees with that statement.

The halakha says that if you are ordered under the threat of death to commit an act of immorality -- such as murder or incest -- you are commanded to die first.

So much for "survival first" and "just having to do what you have to do."

Indeed, you must die rather than to offend the honor of a Jewish women -- even if that offense is nothing more than talking to someone you lust for behind a screen. I would add, al ahat kamah ve-kamah the honor and human rights of people, who are born in the image of God.

True, Hillel said, "If am not for myself, who will be for me."

But he went to say, "If I am only for myself, *what* am I?"

Answer: a sick Jewish zealot, a Mafia moralist, who spits on the Torah, and whose actions desecrate God's name.

Shuvu banim shovevim!

Anonymous said...

True, Hillel said, "If am not for myself, who will be for me."

Also I must say if you don't exist to promote your morality your morality won't exist either.

If you are eradicated from the face of the earth because you obeyed some higher code then that code dies with you.

Survival first - then morality.

And yes, sometimes you have to burn the village to save it.

Jerry Haber said...

"If you don't exist to promote your morality, your morality won't exist either."

Tell that to Aristotle, Kant and Moses. Or, for that matter, Rabbi Akiva, who preferred martydom to his survival.

Look, I didn't say that you couldn't have a mafia morality. I just say that Judaism teaches that there are some things higher than personal survival -- like kiddush ha-Shem, for example.

Disagree with Judaism, if you like. But if you think that your survival is a supreme value, then you are swimming against the stream of every religion and theory of ethics I know of...except mafia morality.

By the way, I don't have to tell what group claimed that a certain people has to exterminated for the sake of the survival of the German people, do I?

Who determines whom is a threat to survival?

And in the Middle East, the only people whose survival is threatened are the Palestinians, who have been thrown off their land, out of their country, and have held stateless for sixty years. If that is necessary for the survival of the state of Israel -- then the state of Israel is not worth preserving.

Anonymous said...

That tradition goes back in Zionist circles to Ahad ha-Am and Judah Magnes. There were never more than a handful, and they were always marginalized in Zionist circles, even among the Zionist left. I also disagree that there are no prophets in Israel today.


And we remember, with the exception of Jonah who prophesied to the goyim, what was the fate of those who prophesied to us Jews. As best their words were recorded and ignored.
-Ploni

Anonymous said...

Do you live in Israel?

If you do, commit suicide.

For then that would be one less Jew they would have to drive into the sea.


(I am not really saying you should do that, well you should only do it if you want to stick to the "morality" you extol).

Antoun said...

Allow me to state from an Arab perspective, as someone who was brought up to resent Israel using precisely the same argument:

"Israel and Zionism is a threat to our existence", or

"Zionism contends that Jews are superior to Arabs, therefore they will never live equally with us," I was constantly told.

Israel's colonisation of Palestinian lands, its invasion of Lebanon, its annexation of the Golan Heights, its refusal to commit to peace, all part of Zionism's greater plan to establish an Eretz Israel and expel any Arab or "gentile" roaming the lands they seek.

Flip the coin, and one sees many Israelis using the same existential arguments to justify their antagonistic stance towards their Arab neighbourhood.

But the reality remains. Israel created its state on Palestinian land, uninvited. The Israelis are laying siege to Gaza, building settlements on West Bank, and the Lebanese in the South are struggling to clean up the millions of Israeli cluster bombs.

Was what I brought up to believe entirely wrong? In 60 years of Israel's existence, there has not been the slightest indication that the self-imposed Jewish state wants to live harmoniously with its Arab neighbours, or that it doesn't view Arabs as inferior rabble.

Israelis refer to Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinians refer to the fact that most of the West Bank settlements were built under Labor, during peace time.

The only exception is the odd op-ed piece in Haaretz, and dissent among human rights conscious Israelis and Jews, who unfortunately, number too few.

From where I sit, morality never played a role to begin with.

Jerry Haber said...

Antoun, I agree with you, but not just about Israel; it may be that morality never plays (realists may say that it should never play) a role in the decisions taken by states.

But what is interesting is that Zionists always appealed to morality (what nationalist doesn't?) to justify their actions. And they tried to make moral distinctions. So for a Ben-Gurion, the massacres of Palestinians at Deir Yassin and Qibiya, among others, were moral atrocities (though he was ambivalent about punishing the perpetrators of the latter), but this did not prevent him from doing what he considered necessary for the Jewish state -- and offering moral justifications for that, at well.

Jabotinsky (and others) argued that although the establishment of a Jewish Palestine would involve denying the Palestinians self-determination, this was a lesser evil than the denying it to the Jews, since the Palestinians could easily be absorbed elsewhere in the Arab world. Jabotinsky, even more than Ben-Gurion, was concerned with presenting his positions as moral ones.

Moralism and moralizing have always been important to any national movement, especially to the Jewish one, because of traditional Jewish beliefs in their moral superiority to Gentiles (one can say the same about most peoples.)

One of the tasks of the moral critic is to rip off the mask of moralism from those who are acting immorally. If you want to justify immorality (cf. the comments of Anonymous), fine, but you won't be able to hide behind specious moral claims and arguments.

In an nutshell: once the Zionist movement focused on Jewish statehood as a goal, without any prior agreement with the natives of Palestine or their representatives, the consequences would be vast immorality. It justified this immorality by claiming that the very survival of the Jewish people were at stake. This was, at best, an untested claim, and subsequent history has shown that the State of Israel has endangered more Jews than ensured their survival -- because of the predictable, and justifiable, resistance of the Arabs to the statist claims of Zionism.

Anonymous said...

Another Jewish Professor was banned from Israel due to his ideas. This time it is UN Human Rights envoy to the territories: http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1046764.html
(Hebrew)

Anonymous said...

The Jewish state needs to protect itself against those intellectuals who put their academic constructs ahead of Israel's need to survive.

“There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.”

George Orwell(English Novelist and Essayist, 1903-1950)

Jerry Haber said...

Anonymous, who said anything about intellectuals? Lily Galili is not an intellectual; she is a journalist.The human rights activists are not intellectuals; they are activists, ordinary citizens who see injustice and protest against it.

Your appeal to Orwell would be described by him as "Orwellian."

Good to see that you oppose moral criticism of the State. You know what company that puts you in?

By the way, Israel has been around for sixty years, and its survival during that time has NEVER been at stake. Not in 48, not in 67, not in 73, and certainly not since. The Zionists may have brainwashed you to think otherwise -- especially with respect to "What if" scenarios in 1948 -- but Israel was not seriously threatened ever. In fact, it is hard to see any threat to statist Zionism at all, at least since the Balfour Declaration.

What one can say, though, is that war crimes, massacres, atrocities, land appropriation, expelling hundreds of thousands, and keeping 3 1/2 million natives in their own land stateless has been done in the name of Israel's survival.

The Zionists kept winning because they were -- and are -- the stronger party. So don't worry about Israel's survival from enemies without.

The only way Israel can destroy itself is from within...from continuing a settlement policy that ensures its evolution into One State for Palestinians and Israelis, or something worse than apartheid South Africa -- hafradah Israel.

Anonymous said...

Lily Galili a journalist?

Can't be a journalists and show such extreme biases.

Well I guess you can as most journalists do, but can't show such extreme biases and be taken seriously as an "objective" journalist.

And that is why so called journalists aren't being taken serious anymore.

"The only way Israel can destroy itself is from within..." Yeah, like allowing people like Lily Galili such a prominent public forum. Even a free country has it's limits. You wouldn't allow a neo-nazi to have a serious position in the national dialog. Even though you I assume believe in free speech you would recognize that would go too far and would harm the society that the principle of free speech depends upon to survive. So to save the principle in general you have to violate the principle in that specific case. Just like you need to do with Lily Galili.

Free speech does not give license to sedition. Don't recognize that and you will be destroyed from within.

"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague."

Anonymous said...

Lily Galili a journalist?

Can't be a journalists and show such extreme biases.

Well I guess you can as most journalists do, but can't show such extreme biases and be taken seriously as an "objective" journalist.

And that is why so called journalists aren't being taken serious anymore.

"The only way Israel can destroy itself is from within..." Yeah, like allowing people like Lily Galili such a prominent public forum. Even a free country has it's limits. You wouldn't allow a neo-nazi to have a serious position in the national dialog. Even though you I assume believe in free speech you would recognize that would go too far and would harm the society that the principle of free speech depends upon to survive. So to save the principle in general you have to violate the principle in that specific case. Just like you need to do with Lily Galili.

Free speech does not give license to sedition. Don't recognize that and you will be destroyed from within.

"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague."

Kathy said...

"Sometimes you have to burn the village to save it." And then Anonymous without irony quotes Orwell.

On to something lighter...

"Here, the "left" denotes the center in the rest of the world, the "center" denotes the right and the "right" is ultra-right."

Why, that sounds just like the U.S. of A.!

Jerry Haber said...

Anonymous, she was writing an op-ed. She's allowed to voice her opinions in an op-ed.

Kathy, I agree with you about U.S.A., but there is a difference.

In Israel, there is no category "liberal" (except for economic neo-liberalism). So anything to the left of conservative Republicanism (Likud, but not necessarily on social issues) is called "left". The only difference between Labor and Likud is that Labor still favors certain sectors (organized labor, mainly) and Likud does not. On security issues they are pretty much the same; Labor talks peace and makes war; Likud talks war and makes war. Both are part of what Haim Baram calls the ultra-nationalist center.

In the US, where there is very little Left, and almost no representation in national politics, liberals are often mistakenly called "left" I use the terms "progressives" and "liberals".

David L. said...

So let us come up with a new differential-Defenders of the National Community!

And in Israel that means having Moshe Feiglin in office as Supreme Leader. He alone has the moral resolve to save our blessed land and cleanse it from all of its enemies!

Abe Bird said...

I see Lily Galili "moral" claims as simplifying reality, incorrect and wrong doing.
The main stream Zionists politics is much more complicated than what she suggests.
Although some politicians considered to be sometimes sloppy the policy making' as expressed in Israel, is quite complicated and taking into ideas and actions into account considering their worthwhile and feasible along side with what is permitted and what is forbidden, especially in the context of a bloody conflict.

I want you to remember that once upon a time people believed in some "peace prophets" selling the public the vision of peace with the Arab Palestinians terror groups. The pain result was a continuous war, until these days, with that partner of peace. Pragmatism should go with vision and vice versa. And those who run into Oslo package didn't crochet the peace suit well.

Galili is too much simplifying her "self philosophizing" about governmental theories but actually says nothing relevant and concrete regarding the Israeli politics. Israeli politics is quite more sophisticated that she tries to paint because most of the people think other than she suggests.

The right wing and the left wing have their own moral codes, which mainly congruent each other in main topics. Each side emphasize it own priorities, while in the daily political debates people tend to be more practically. That doesn't mean that they are lacking moral argue and ideas, but they are pupated within the context and the surface of claims.

Galili sounds as complaining and crying, deserted far and small "new left" that can't grow up and influence hers ideas on the majority of the Israeli voters. Nice and shallow words won't help her.

You have been amazing me by your clearly false claim that "the only people whose survival is threatened are the Palestinians". While Israel never said or acted to annihilate any other nation on earth, neither the Palestinians Arabs, the Arabs themselves loudly have said through the last 60 years that Israel is a "foreign embodiment" in the Islamic ME. Some Palestinians, Syrians and even unofficial Jordanians and Egyptians, are saying it even today. Not to mention lunatic Iranians. You can't point on even one Israeli leader that doesn't recognize the Arab Palestinian political rights. The argumentation is how their right can be implemented without hurting the Israelis right, how the political solution will be executed. The political problem is that the Arab Palestinians don't accept the right of the Israelis to live in their own state within the clean Islamic ME. The Palestinians, and let say it frankly clearly, most of the surrounding Arabs (intellectuals as Islamic movements members) reject any idea of recognizing Israel and devotedly preaching to annihilate her.


Abe Bird

Abe Bird said...

Jerry Haber; you have surprised me by selling us the notion that Israel existence had never been at jeopardy. I know that kind of Falsetinain ProPALganda that only can sell snow to the Bedouins, if you know what I mean.

Attacking Israel in surprise by numerous armies is not as living in the Garden of Eden. Hearing the yelling of Arab leaders before waging a war against Israel is not leaving in Swiss. Sending various king of terror gang to attack Jews just because they are Jews is not as playing in a Casino. It's a war waged by Arabs against Israel for 60 years by various means. Even today most of the Arabs don't accept the right of Israel to survive in the Islamic ME. Israel was and is at steady stake Arabs see the ME as "Dahr el-Islam" the land, whole of Islam, which non-Muslims has no national rights. Those Muslims see the other Non-Islamic world as the "Dahr el-KHarb", the land of the sword, the land of war, The land that should be occupied by Islam in order to turn the entire world Islamic. The fact that most of the 1.2 billion Muslims think so makes that idea a danger to the world. Just ask Ahmadinajad and Hamenai.

Should Israel say "Sorry I won", as Ephrain Kishon wrote after '6 day war'?

You say "In fact, it is hard to see any threat to statist Zionism at all, at least since the Balfour Declaration." Do you mean that before that time Jews life in the land of Israel were under threat?
I sure reject all your conception on ME-Palestine politics, because it seems that you are not attached with reality.

The fact that you repeat the Falsetinain ProPalganda and even use their repulsive terms and idioms makes me think that you are shut to the truth and reality.

The Zionists are not whining but the Arabs do. The Zionists have a wonderful developed state although they had never have a one day of full peace.

Let me just tell you briefly that the real "hafradah" between both peoples should be made by making two states in Palestine and not three. The two states already exist: Jordan is a Palestinians state already and Israel should be the state of the Jews. The border is Jordan River. Those Arabs that will live in Israel will be Israel's inhabitant and a Jordanian citizen. Each person will continue to dwell at his place and the states will adopt the changes.

I'm sure that it is the only solution. Any other solution will drive both peoples to more clashes. Only a political division and not personal one will keep both states side by side not mingling nose by nose.