Thursday, July 8, 2010

Length Matters

One of the classic arguments against critics of Israel' human rights record is that other countries do worse, so why pick on Israel? There are many responses to that argument, and I have given some of them in this blog.

But one response is to bite the bullet and say, "Of all the major players on the scene since WWII, Israel has become the greatest human rights violator."

On the face of it, that response seems absurd. Genocide in Darfur? Massacre in Rwanda? Even if one allows that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is bad, does it come anywhere near in scale to what others are doing?

So how can one even begin to argue that Israel is the worst human rights violator in the world, at least today?

It seems to me that one would need to make several assumptions.

First, that there are worse things than death, and the deprivation of liberty is one. The Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are not free people. They are not citizens of their own state; they are not masters of their destiny. They have little freedom of movement and no possibility of movement between the two largest concentrations of Palestinian. They are entirely dependent on the charity of others, including the benevolence of those who control their life. If they behave, they will be rewarded. If they are naughty, they will be punished. Their inalienable human rights are sharply diminished. Of course, not all of the problems are due to Israel, but most are.

Second, one needs the assumption that human autonomy is a supreme value, and that a happy, well-fed slave is morally inferior to an unhappy free man. If you are a utilitarian, it is hard to trump genocide as a maximier of pain. And, of course, genocide often implies the dehumanization of the victim. But my point is that even if the Palestiians are better off economically than others, this does not mean that the crime against the Palestinian people is a less one. That depends on one's moral outlooks and values.

Third, and most important, is the assumption that when making moral assessments, the duration of injustice shoud be taken into account. Length matters. Those who are not absolutists will tolerate a temporary infrigement of liberty, or at least see it as justifiable. But what happens if that infringement, though relatively minor in its own right, continues over generations? What happens if the Japanese American citizens, who were placed in camps during World War II (a crime in its own right) had to stay there for over forty years?

It is a no-brainer that murder is to be considered more immoral than slapping someone in the face. But what is worse – death or being continually slapped in the face without respite for over forty years? Or repeatedly raped? Or systematically humiliated?

Israel's control over the Palestinians' life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is by no means genocide, either physical or spiritual. But at what point does it become a rival to extreme immorality? In the Nazi war against the Jews, millions of Jews lost their lives in ways that attempted to dehumanize them. It was an extreme of suffering over a relatively short period of time. But within 10 years of the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish people had a state of their own for the first time in centuries. For many Jews this was a source not only of pride but of dignity, self-worth, of being masters of one's destiny. All those who love the State of Israel, who are proud of its achievements, indeed, of its very existence, were raised from the pits to the summit in a dizzying short period.

But what of those who have been stuck in much shallower pits for a much longer period of time, and with no end in sight? And what if our staying at the summit necessitates their remaining in the pits indefinitely – unless they prefer to commit national suicide or accept a demeaning and humiliating surrender in the guise of "peace".

I don't think we are at the point yet but we are converging on it. If moral intuitions are notoriously tricky, moral theories are even more so. What we all should guard against is the use of moral theories to rationalize our biases and preferences. Is the IDF more moral than Hamas because it claims that it doesn't target civilians? Or is Hamas more moral than the IDF because its militants kill much fewer civilians? Can we decide this question by having deontologists slug it out with consequentialists?

It is far better to insist on fundamental human rights (or capacities or capabilities) for all, and to distribute goods (and justice is one such good) in a fair and equitable manner to both peoples. Whatever your own solution to the Israel Palestinian mess may be, you should evaluate it according to those two parameters.


Anonymous said...

"Is the IDF more moral than Hamas because it claims that it doesn't target civilians? Or is Hamas more moral than the IDF because its militants kill much fewer civilians?"

I've had serious arguments with myself over this. Leaving aside the numbers, where Israel is clearly worse (and which show they are either targeting civilians or don't care who gets hurt or both), how do Israel's denials help or hurt its case? On the one hand hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue--by denying that it targets civilians, Israel is acknowledging that killing civilians deliberately is wrong. That's better than bragging about it. On the other hand hypocrisy has a bad name for a good reason--you'll notice that Israel can keep right on killing civilians and as long as they deny they intend to do it, their supporters eagerly embrace their claim and then supply them with more weapons.

Complicating any attempt to compare Hamas to Israel is that I've noticed that on occasion Hamas (and maybe Hezbollah, but I forget) denies that it targets civilians. It's touching really--the two sides are coming together and Hamas is learning to speak our language, that special mix of high explosives and hypocrisy that mark a civilized Western culture. (I forget the details--it might have been a denial that the rocket fire was aimed at civilians. I don't remember if any Hamas figure has claimed that suicide bombing wasn't aimed at civilians.)

On the rest of your argument I agree--duration matters and the deprival of dignity matters and I'd add the pretense that Israel craves a just solution if only its victims would behave themselves just adds insult to more physical forms of injury.


Tord Steiro said...

I think there is another, powerful, approach to why it is important to comment on the continuous Human Rights abuses by Israeli governments: Israel pretends to be a western democracy, and its governments demands to be respected that.

Sure, the Saudi regime is worse against Saudi women than the Israeli regime is against Palestinians. But Israel demands a place in the sun of Democracy, while the Saudi rulers are quite happily crawling around in the darkness of totalitarian gender-based apartheid.

The last thing current Iranian rulers would like to be associated with, is western ideas of democracy and human rights. They openly despise it.

Abe Lincoln commented on similar issues regarding the US, that:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

This hypocrisy is why we are obligued to single out Israeli government actions rather than that of Sudan. Not because Israel is necessarily worse per se, but because of the "base alloy of hypocrisy".

Anonymous said...

I don't see how this answer helps you. In fact one can argue that the Syrians, Egyptians and many other peoples around the world that have been living under tyrannical regimes even before 67 are suffering way more than the Palestinians according to the criteria you give.

In fact, your argument leads to the conclusion that countries that are not free, even though they are not occupied by foreign forces, are suffering just as much as the Palestinians if not more.

Scott Permut said...

Dear Jerry,
Your comparison of the the situation in Rwanda or Darfur with that of the Palestinians is insulting-to the people of Darfur and Rwanda.The absurdity of you argument is is further compounded by the fact that the Palestinian's current situation is most certainly the direct result of their own racism,aggression brutality and unsuccessful attempts at genocide against their Jewish neighbors over last century.While I take no pleasure in the sufferings of others,only one who has truly lost his moral compass would blame the intended victim of repeated aggression for the consequences suffered by the frustrated aggressor.Only some one with no knowledge of recent history or some axe to grind would make the absurd claim that Israel is the worst human rights violator since WWII.Have you never heard of the Vietnam War, Iraq War?Are you aware that that new champion of human rights, Turkey has killed 30,000 Kurds in the last 10 years?I guess the bigger the lie the more people will believe it.Shame on you!

Jerry Haber said...

Donald, I invite you to cowrite my blog with me. I hesitated over the formulations ("Israel claim it doesn't target civilians") especially because of the Gaza business. There is a difference in the state-of-mind of one who deceives himself in thinking that he is not a murderer, and one who simply lies about it. Hamas has also claimed that it does not target civilians; it targets military installations but simply has no accurate weaponry. Of course, that will not work for suicide bombers, will it. But, yes, Hamss seems to have learnt from the Israelis the art of prevarication.

Tord, why do you say that the Saudis are worse to their women than the Israelis are to the Palestinians? That is not at all the case. How many thousands of Saudi women are languishing in Saudi jails. How many thousands of Saudi women have seen their lands taken from foreign invaders. I am not denying their are serious human rights abuses in Saudi Arabis.

That goes for you, Anonymous. None of the cases you mention, serious though they may be, come close to what the Palestinians have suffered under a foreign occupation. For better or worse, Syrians are citizens of their state; ditto for Egypt. Their imperfect democracies are better than no democracy at all, which is the case for Palestinians, who are ruled over by foreigners.

Peter Schwartz said...

Lots to think about here, Jerry.
I'm not sure I have a coherent view on this, but will try to make a few comments.

On the one hand, it SOUNDS like you're TRYING to find a way to claim legitimately that Israel is the worst human rights violator since WWII. This seems to me to eat away at the credibility of your enterprise from the start. If you want to make that claim, just make it and be done with you suggest.

I guess I'd point out, too, that many other offenders have been offenders for a long time too. It's not as though Russia, or Saudi Arabia, or China, or Iran, or Sudan JUST became human rights offenders.

Is this really true that Palestinians have been caged for 60 years? Seems to me that over the last 60 years, excepting the Gaza situation, Palestinians had freedom of movement and even freedom to prosper.

If you're going to take the period since WWII, then I don't think it's fair to leave out the large role the surrounding Arab states played in creating the situation. The refugee camps were in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt's Gaza. Cherry picking certain segments of time and certain actors seems key to predetermining the outcome of your inquiry.

I think torture is worse than death, but have the Palestinians REALLY been in a situation worse than death for these past 60 years?

If one of the strikes against Israel is the economic hardship it imposes, then shouldn't that count FOR Israel if, on that scale, Palestinians are better off than, say, Sudanese? Again, it feels as though you're looking for a way for the puzzle to come out the way you want it to.

I'm not sure quantity ever becomes a matter of quality. The problem with death is that it's the "worst" but it's also self-terminating. So the worst becomes "better" than what was considered much better a little while ago. Your description sort of posits a torture situation, where someone is constantly being slapped. But I'm not sure this is accurate. I've known many Palestinians who left and live here. Who left and live in other Arab lands and prospered. Are these people being "slapped"?

As to death, it's almost as though you're saying, "Yes, you're going to die, but the good news is, it will be over quickly." Can we say that the people who died in the Holocaust are STILL dead? The children they might have had are still unborn? The civilization that was erased is still gone? I don't have an answer because, in some ways, death is self-limiting. By definition, it's an end to something. Can an end keep on going?

You're ALMOST giving fodder to Zionist who would say that Israel didn't finish the job way back when. Then, it would be over.

Also, given what I take to be your views on how Israel came into existence, it strikes me as a bit disingenuous to posit Israel's creation as a balm to the horrors of the Holocaust when, I gather, you would have preferred it had the state not emerged. On the one hand, you want to say (I think) that the Zionism that prevailed equals racism; on the other hand, you want to claim that it was a boon to the Jewish people because it yielded a state that people on the left now claim is guided by a racist ideology. I think it's hard for you, or anyone to hold those two thoughts together at the same time.

Y Ben-David said...

"Syria is an imperfect democracy". I think that says it all about your perception of the world around you.

Tord Steiro said...


I don't think we disagree very much. OK, some of my examples are perhaps a bit silly, I agree with that. My point is that Saudi women, just like Israeli Arabs, are not, in practice, citizens of their state. With all the problems that causes. And none face equality to the law and individual legal protection from abuse in their respective countries.

I should perhaps not judge who is worse off. After all, I have not lived their lives.

But it doesn't really matter for my argument. The fact that the current state of Israeli affairs are built upon lies and hypocrisy to core western values (values that Israel demands to be respected for taking very seriously) obliges us to react.

You can hardly find a Saudi leader who makes any attempt to gain western respect for the gender policies of his state. There is little hypocrisy - they practice what they preach.

Jerry Haber said...

Todd, I wasn't talking about Palestinians who are citizens of Israel; they are second or third class citizens but formally they have rights and while they suffer foundational discrimination, I would not put them in the same category entirely as the Palestinians in the territories.

Not entirely, because both their national aspirations -- after they had been promised a state both by Great Britain and by the United Nations -- and the ownership of their lands were thwarted by Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

Scott, you wrote:

"The absurdity of you argument is is further compounded by the fact that the Palestinian's current situation is most certainly the direct result of their own racism,aggression brutality and unsuccessful attempts at genocide against their Jewish neighbors over last century."

You must be a newbie to this blog. I suggest you read some books on Israel/Palestine, and the history of Zionism. Your view of the happy Zionist settlers promising to share their wealth and the land with the barbarian natives (ah, where was the Palestinian Pocohantas?) strikes me as bizarre. But then again, I invite the Palestinians back to their homes and let us see what welcome the Israelis will have for them.

Peter, some of you points are well-taken. The Soviet Union was a serial human rights offender, but Israel has outlasted it, for the moment, anyway.

The real question is in what way was Israel a human rights violator against the Palestinians in the period post 48. Then you come to the thwarting of the Palestinian state, the refusal to let the Palestinian natives return to their homes, the ongoing theft and appropriation of their land. I grant you that things have gotten much worse for them, especially when they began to stand on their own two feet, as it were, and not rely on the unreliable support of their Arab brethren.

Jerry Haber said...

Peter, if you are a Zionist, you believe that the Jews suffered simply by not having a state of their own, by not being masters of their own destiny. Do the Palestinians in Detroit and Northern Virginia suffer because of the ongoing Nakba? You bet they do.

And at least part of their suffering is that Zionists like Scott make them into the perpetrators and not the victims. As if statist Zionism was not itself incompatible with the statist aspirations of the majority of the inhabitants of Palestine

Without the Holocaust I am convinced that the State of Israel would not have been created when it was created, and it is arguable that had it not been created then, it would never have been created. It is the true that Jews had the institutions for a state, but that is not the same thing as having a state, much less a recognized one.

Tobias said...

A very important point. Israel's apologists often try to defend the occupation by saying "Well, it's a military occupation, it's a normal procedure." Except that a military occupation is not 'normal', but instead a temporary disruption of 'normal'. And it's the occupiers' responsibility to make every effort to return to 'normal' as soon as possible.

It's basically like waging a decades-long, incessant cold war against another country without taking any initiative to achieve peace and diplomatic relations - which is basically what Israel complains about regarding the Arab world.

So, when Israelis ask "Are we not a normal western country?", the answer is a solid "No". Keeping another nation permanently under military rule isn't normal. Israel didn't make an effort to be a normal country for decades and only recently began baby steps towards normalization under intense external pressure. It still has a long way to go before being tolerated as a halfway normal country, and a much longer way to go before being accepted as neighbors.

Aron said...

Having read your most recent post, and the comments left here, I feel that either I am seriously deluded, or that you are.
As a qualifier, I'm a believer in the two-state solution as are the majority of Israelis and Palestinians. We could argue over whether or not one state with right of return for self-defined Palestinians would mean the end of a Jewish state or not, but since all surveys point to the findings that the majority of both Palestinian and Israelis support a two-state solution and we both believe that the will of the people should be followed, it would be a somewhat arbitrary conversation (JMCC).
Onto my comments: in my own experience, journeys and readings the facts speak for themselves.
Yes there have been guarded border crossings for many years but to this day there are passports issued by the Palestinian Authority; Gaza had an operational airport for three years; people do cross in and out of Israel and then go on to other countries.
Yes, this travel has of course been easier and more difficult at times but this has ALWAYS been reflective of the situation with terrorists on the ground.
On the grounds of moral equivalence, I invite you to investigate the historical conditions of the Tutsis in Rwanda or current conditions of the Fur and Zaghawa tribes in Darur, or Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. And then to ask the same questions of Palestinians in the West Bank and even Gaza. I'll help you pose the questions, to define agreed scope.
Then we can run a survey, anonymously, of the general population of the Western world, asking them under which conditions they would least prefer to live: like the former for 5 years or the latter for a period of 60.
Of course, I think we’d be wasting our time, because the results are so blindingly obvious, no sane individual would choose the fear the Tutsis faced against the current plight of the Palestinians.
But as long as everything were done anonymously every step of the way, which would give us the closest possible of honesty in regions that suffer a chronic lack of it, I'm game if you are.
One further, very important point to consider is what in fact freedom is- in my opinion freedom of speech (and therefore, of course, thought) is even more important than freedom of movement.
Throughout the existence of the USSR nobody was allowed to travel and there was zero freedom of speech, speaking against much less violent action resulted in death, imprisonment or labour camps. This is still the case in many Arab countries today.
Thus prior to your argument as to what is worse, loss of life or loss of freedom perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider what true freedom really is.
Then, having done so, to consider whether it is Israel or other Middle Eastern countries (or even the PA/Hamas) which truly restrict the freedom which has always been craved the most by political dissidents.
As a final point, if you are interested in a balanced viewpoint I suggest you invite someone who does not agree with practically your every word ('Donald') - who suggests I imagine that Camp David, Oslo and everything that has been done or said by the Israelis up to and including evacuating Gaza were mere sleight of hand to pretend the nation/government wants peace - to co-author your blog.
A true Zionist would want the continued existence of Israel and a true humanitarian would want a just solution to a complex conflict.
A true philosopher would consider the meaning of the word freedom and not make broad statements indicating lack thereof without first defining the word.
Oh and I nearly forgot, if you want a nice, easy examples of countries with worse human rights violations, more deaths and over a longer period of time we could consider North Korea or, dare I say it, China.
Of course, as a lowly businessman/software engineer these things may be beyond my understanding, but there were so many flaws in the logic of your post that I was forced to write these comments.

Jerry Haber said...


I asked in my post, what premises would be necessary to make the argument that Israel was (one of) the worst human rights offenders of the twentieth century.

I didn't bother to compare the citizens of communist countries to those of the Palestinians because nobody in his right mind would think that the former suffered more the latter. Take every abuse against citizens of those countries and add many more to them, and you get the plight of the Palestinians under occupation.

But most important, you missed the point of what I was saying. I did not ask you to say which would you *prefer*, being put to death or watching your loved ones arrested, your children killed in bombings, your lands be expropriated, your relatives thrown in jail, your lives being controlled without any rights to protest except to the courts of the occupier, which render verdicts according to the laws of the occupier.

There are, I am sure many people who would rather submit to multiple rapes than be killed.

I asked which is *morally* worse. And my main point was that length matters. Reasonable people can disagree as to which is morally worse. But most defenders of Israel assume that length doesn't matter because it never enters their moral comparison. Most defenders of Israel think that killing a thousand babies with no malevolent intention is better than killing a hundred with malevolent intentions.

Most defenders of X tailor-make their moral arguments to fit their X-tribal preferences. Unless they are Kantians.

And Aron, China and North Korea are indeed human rights violators, but the human rights they violate are of their own citizens, who consent to their being governed by them or are at least resigned to it. And yes, the human rights of the Palestinians are violated by Israel much more than the human rights of the Chinese by the Chinese and the North Koreans by the North Koreans.

I suggest that you educate yourself a bit more by reading B'Tselem's website, for a start. Than read the human rights reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

And while we are on the subject of China...I am surprised you did not mention Tibet -- you know that is the country that is occupied by China, whose inhabitants are considered citizens by the Chinese.

Unlike the Palestinians.

PS. I may not disagree with you but you are not anything "lowly" -- just a bit verbose. So I am, but this is my blog

Y. Ben-David said...

Finally, the pieces are fitting into place. It seems that you are finally telling us what you really think.

I then came across this article:

and came to the conclusion that you and the other "progressives" are at least partial devotees of this new "Purificationist" ideology, in which Zionism is viewed as the most evil movement in the world today-along with "globalist capitalism". Together they are responsible for ongoing genocide and all the problems people face in the world today.

Your statements that people in North Korea are "better off" than the Palestinians and that Syria is an "imperfect democracy" (what's imperfect about it?-Assad got 99% of the vote in the last election-it sounds like all the Syrians love him!) indicates to me that your perception of reality has been distorted by your adherence (whether conciously or unconciously) by this new totalitarian ideology.

I recommend the article with the link above to everyone in order to make sense of what we see here.

Anonymous said...

"And yes, the human rights of the Palestinians are violated by Israel much more than the human rights of the Chinese by the Chinese and the North Koreans by the North Koreans."

Jerry, this might be the first time I have had a serious disagreement with you. North Korea is a Stalinist nightmare--there have been famines, for one thing, and for another, the people are so cut off from the outside world it's hard to fathom. I once saw a story about a Christian man there who said that Jesus was great, but not as great as Kim Il Sung--for a Christian to say this is almost beyond belief. As bad as Israel is, they are not this bad. That's not praise for Israel--that's just saying North Korea is a hellhole.

(Incidentally, I think the US has committed enormous crimes against Koreans and so has the South Korean government in the not so distant past--the NYT had a story about some of our war crimes in Saturday's paper, crimes that historians like Bruce Cumings have been writing about for years, but which have begun to hit the mainstream. The Korean War was one where there were no good guys.)


Tobias said...

"As a qualifier, I'm a believer in the two-state solution as are the majority of Israelis and Palestinians."
Oh yes? So where do you stand regarding...
- Borders (be precise, use a map)?
- Water rights?
- Sovereignty over airspace, borders, military?
- East Jerusalem?
- Compensation for refugees?
For starters. Saying that you're for a two-state solution is as meaningless as saying you're for peace. And to imagine you complained that Jerry talked about something without properly defining it...

"Yes, this travel has of course been easier and more difficult at times but this has ALWAYS been reflective of the situation with terrorists on the ground."
In a word: Bullshit. Israel has never, ever recognized any basic right of Palestinians to freedom of movement. Palestinians in Hebron, for example, have less freedom to go to a neighborhood grocery store than I have to travel to Australia.

"asking them under which conditions they would least prefer to live: like the former for 5 years or the latter for a period of 60."
That's like asking a political dissident if he'd rather be shot or imprisoned for life. Somehow I don't really see the regime that merely imprisons the guy for life as much more humane.
In any case, Jerry already covered this in the blog post. I suggest you read it.

"One further, very important point to consider is what in fact freedom is- in my opinion freedom of speech (and therefore, of course, thought) is even more important than freedom of movement."
Sure. So, by that logic, a camp inmate has more freedom than a citizen of a country with libel laws, just as long as the guards let him say whatever he wants.
(And of course, Israel doesn't grant freedom of speech to the Palestinians anyway. See regular arrests for 'incitement'.)

"Oh and I nearly forgot, if you want a nice, easy examples of countries with worse human rights violations, more deaths and over a longer period of time we could consider North Korea or, dare I say it, China."
You can dare say it, but it's nonsense. As evidenced by the many Chinese I encountered on a daily basis in Japan, America and Europe, they can actually travel quite freely. They are not

Leaves North Korea. And leaves you the task to ponder what it says about Israel when the only worse offender of human rights currently in existence is North Korea.

By the way, you don't really need to look that far if you want definitions. We do have such a thing as a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this world, you know. Scarcely an article in there Israel does not violate on a daily basis.

P.S.: Irrelevant, but...
"Throughout the existence of the USSR nobody was allowed to travel and there was zero freedom of speech, speaking against much less violent action resulted in death, imprisonment or labour camps."
That's, by the way, bullshit. The post-Stalin USSR was of course, not a democratic or free country by a long shot, but its citizens had way more freedom and opportunity to lead a normal life than many Palestinians do. They could actually travel - freely within the Warsaw pact, and for other countries it was still much easier than for Palestinians today. The USSR didn't make a habit of imposing curfews on large populations, nor on welding peoples' homes shut and lot of other nice things Israel does on the West Bank either. And for all of its disrespect for private property, it did not habitually destroy or take it away as often as Israel does.
Not taking into account the killing of Palestinian civilians here.
None of this, mind you, is terribly relevant, since Jerry was referring to players which are still around, as I understood him.