Friday, March 03, 2006

Threat Construction

Phoebe Maltz's (self-described "Francophilic Zionist") coverage of anti-Semitism in France is precisely what I would have written if I were as intelligent as Phoebe Maltz. From earliest to latest, here, here, and here. The latter is particular appealing to me, as it eloquently lays out how I think Jews are viewed around the world--but I think in Europe and academic circles particularly:
Or, to put it somewhat more clearly: It cannot possibly be that fantastic to be a Jew in France at the moment. Just as, way back when, Jews were seen as rich and thus evil by the poor because they were associated with the aristocracy, and yet were never able to really join the aristocracy because, well, they were Jewish, today's Jews are considered to be at once the enemy of the downtrodden and a part of a Semitic, non-European, anti-Western population invading France. Jews get to be symbols of the West to those such as Halimi's torturers, and of the East to the pork-soup crowd.

In the 19th century, it was well documented that the aristocracy portrayed Jews as rabble-rousing communists, while rabble-rousing communists shouted that Jews were bourgeois. Same thing today: we're simultaneously the privileged Westerners and the barbaric, sub-human Orientals.

Phoebe's post also clarifies a point of contention lodged by Ampersand at Alas, a Blog on my original post on the subject. The Chicago Sun-Times editorial I linked to said that the French government was downplaying the anti-Semitic element to the attack, Amp said that, well hold it, French government folks joined a massive march against the anti-Semitism that motivated the attack. According to Phoebe, the solution to the discrepancy appears to be that universal political attribute: flip-flop. At first, the government minimized the role anti-Semitism played in the assault, but faced with growing outrage in the Jewish community they made an about face. Also, before I forget, nice catch on the issue of Steyn's credibility--though to be fair he's not the only source I've read raising alarm at the rise in anti-Semitism in France.

I will defend Steyn on the point that saying "Israel is the greatest threat to world peace" is an anti-Semitic view to hold. Amp argues that it is plausible to think that "the most likely hotspot to directly or indirectly cause WW3 is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank." Maybe...but I have two objections to that line of argument. First, I don't think most people answer the question in that particular mode, nor do I think that the questioners intend it to come off that way. I could say that America is the greatest threat to world peace simply because we have the most potential to do harm and are the target of a lot of dislike. But to me, that question is more designed to get at "which country is most likely to go out an aggressively start an international conflict," to which I think Iran or North Korea are far and away clearer choices than Israel. That ties in to my second objection, which is that no matter how you cut it, the answer to that question has normative implications for the named country. Let's say that I buy that the West Bank controversy is the conflict most likely to spill over into WW3 (and I'm not sure that I do). That doesn't necessarily make Israel the greatest threat to world peace. To do that, you need to answer two more questions, which I think are progressively more absurd. The first is that the West Bank conflict is unambiguously Israel's fault. If they aren't the blameworthy party, then the peacebreaking effect of the West Bank shouldn't be laid at their feet. Second, I need to agree that the injustice of the occupation is worth sparking an international conflict over. If it isn't, then I should feel more threatened by the radical imams or whomever who are making a particularly stubborn border conflict into the most likely nuclear holocaust scenario.

So really, there are three statements I need to affirm before I can get at that answer, each one a bit harder to plausibly argue than the one before. The first is that the occupation is the most likely hotspot to spark WW3. The second is that this conflict is primarily Israel's fault. The third is that this is an injustice worthy of war. If I answer no to the first statement, then my answer to the survey question shifts to North Korea or something. If I answer yes to the first but no to the second, then my answer becomes Palestine (or, if I feel they're roughly equal at fault, then "Israel and Palestine"). And if I answer yes to one and two, but not three, then my answer becomes "whoever made the crazy decision that the West Bank occupation was worth plunging the world into darkness and despair over," which almost definitely isn't Israel but could easily be Iran or the Arab League. Say what you will about Israel's settlement policy, but the folks who think that Israel harbors global territorial domination ambitions (*cough* Hamas *cough*) have crossed into the realm of paranoia. Put bluntly, even the most anti-Israel interpretation of Israel's interests can't seriously argue that Israel wants the Palestine issue to turn into a global war--and if it does go global, it's going to be some other actor making the push. And since "the Jews [want to] control the world" has a pretty well-developed history as an anti-Semitic myth, I don't feel bad about accusing said paranoids of being anti-Semitic.

Personally, I'm not sure if I buy one, I definitely don't buy two, but to the extent that I do buy one (and assuming arguendo that I buy two, which I don't even think I have to for the purpose of the claim that I have to make), since I don't think that the I/P conflict comes close to justifying another world war (and I do think it's possible to justify one--WWII was a just war, in my view), the "greatest threat to world peace" becomes whatever actor turns said conflict into a global conflagration. The wildly obvious answer to that query is Iran. Which means that, even starting from the premise that "the most likely hotspot to directly or indirectly cause WW3 is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank," the conclusion I'd logically come to is that "therefore, Iran is the greatest threat to world peace."

So to sum up briefly: saying that a country is "the great threat to world peace" is inherently a normative claim. So to say that Israel is said country, you have to believe a) that the West Bank is the hotspot most prone to global escalation b) that Israel is completely or primarily at fault in the region and either c) that those who would push this conflict from local to international are right or d) that Israel is the one making that push. Since this syllogism is illogical bordering on irrational, I think it's fair to question whether or not it's adherents might have adopted some anti-Semitic sentiments from their travels in our lovely (Jewish-controlled) world.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just don't trust that Steyn has necessarily given an accurate translation of the survey. I'd like to know what the survey said, and more importantly how much freedom respondents were given to frame answers (were they allowed to make free-form answers, were they told "pick one: France, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Sudan," or something between these two extremes?). You're assuming some very nuanced arguments in your argument here, but you don't even know if the respondents were allowed to incorporate any nuance into their answers, or if the question they were asked has been translated accurately by Steyn.

I do think that antisemitism in France is a serious problem. And I also think an irrational tendency to fixate on Israel on the cause of all the world's problems exists. But I'm not sure that being irrational about Israel requires hating Jews.

Finally, it's also the case that bigotry against the French, especially among American conservatives, has become a problem in recent years - not as serious as a problem as antisemitism, but real enough to make me skeptical of claims about how horrible the French are, especially coming from a right-winger who doesn't name his sources.

For example, you wrote: First, I don't think most people answer the question in that particular mode, nor do I think that the questioners intend it to come off that way.[...] to me, that question is more designed to get at "which country is most likely to go out an aggressively start an international conflict..."

Unless you have solid info about the survey which you're keeping to yourself, there's simply no way you can know this. Even assuming Steyn's translation is accurate (not a safe assumption), we have no idea how the survey framed the question, and that can make a huge difference.

The first is that the West Bank conflict is unambiguously Israel's fault.

A proposition I'd bet large numbers of European Jews would agree with.

Second, I need to agree that the injustice of the occupation is worth sparking an international conflict over. If it isn't, then I should feel more threatened by the radical imams or whomever who are making a particularly stubborn border conflict into the most likely nuclear holocaust scenario.

I don't think it's safe to assume that the survey's format was freeform enough to give "any of several countries who might overreact unfairly to Israel" as an answer.

As for antisemitism in academic circles, which you mentioned in passing, I wonder what you think of the ADL survey showing that the least antisemitic place in America is a college campus?

Ampersand said...

I wrote: For example, you wrote...

I didn't mean you are an example of a right-winger, of course; I meant that your writing was an example of assuming something we can't know for sure about the survey's contents.

The probligo said...

Ampersand, I agree.

“So to sum up briefly: saying that a country is "the great threat to world peace" is inherently a normative claim. So to say that Israel is said country, you have to believe a) that the West Bank is the hotspot most prone to global escalation b) that Israel is completely or primarily at fault in the region and either c) that those who would push this conflict from local to international are right or d) that Israel is the one making that push. Since this syllogism is illogical bordering on irrational, I think it's fair to question whether or not it's adherents might have adopted some anti-Semitic sentiments from their travels in our lovely (Jewish-controlled) world.”

Your “inherently normative claim” therefore must apply to every instance of attributing “greatest threat to world peace” to any nation including your own. I think not...

In relation to your three points, I see them thusly;

a) The West Bank alone? No. As the touchpaper to the whole region? Yes. See the definitive statements made by OBL since 9/11 on just how he and AlQaeda see Israel in the Middle East. See too, the rhetoric from Iran, from Syria, and put them into the perspective of a potential religious war between Islam and Christianity/Judaism. What is the future potential for a Shi’a Iraq to join that chorus? How strong could Islamic solidarity become in the face of a call to arms against the West? Enough to bring Indonesia and Pakistan in?
b) Agreed. That creates the touchpaper. Include in this question the ability of the US to prevent Israel undertaking a pre-emptive nuclear strike at some future time and it becomes clearer. Include in this question the possibility of a first strike nuclear attack on Israel to prevent counter-strike and it gets even worse.
c) Those who wish to push the Palestine / Israel conflict to international status do not have to be right. This is the third point where your syllogism fails. By making that assumption, you have overlooked the potential for parties to act in their own interests… exactly as the US has done. The more that Islam is isolated as “the bad guys”, the greater the potential for the barrier between co-existance and outright warfare to be broken. Further, your syllogism seems to assume “conventional” warfare. That has been shown already (by direct experience) to be a fatal flaw of logic.

So, I believe that “Israel as a great threat to world peace” is not the failed syllogism that you claim. The danger exists as a consequence of Israel, not necessarily out of any direct action by Israel. The danger exists because of the attitudes of other nations toward Israel. That does not make Israel’s actions, nor those of its enemies, right.

And I totally fail to see how that can be construed as “anti-Semitic”.

To describe Israel "as the greatest threat to world peace" is nothing more than realism.

David Schraub said...

I guess since I don't understand your objection my normativity claim, I don't understand your subsequent attack. I'm fine with applying the normativity standard to America (why wouldn't I be?). And I think realism is an idiotic paradigm because it is impossible to divorce moral questions from "pure" social ones.

Let's try this another way. Israel cannot, by itself, be the greatest threat to "world peace." At the very least, it needs a "world" whose peace is threatened, otherwise the statement makes no sense. In other words, the statement in question is inherently social--it implies the existence of several relevant actors. So let's say that our prediction is that Israel and the rest of the world are going to go to war tommorow. If one believed that, then one could say that Israel is "the greatest threat to world peace." But (and here's where my normativity argument kicks in), one could also and equally say that "the rest of the world" is the greatest threat to world peace. To use the cliche, it takes two to tango (also, apparently, at least two to threaten world peace).

Why do we say one and not the other? Because we find one blameworthy. That's why the question is normative. This dynamic gets even worse for your side when one looks at the "real" Israel situation (which, thankfully, isn't Israel going to war with the rest of the world). You have a ton of actors playing around in this maelstrom. I listed Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the Arab League, to name some. You added in the US possibly engaging in a nuke first strike on Israel, which I think is an absurd hyperbole, but whatever, throw that in too. So let's construct our doomsday I/P conflict --> WW3 scenario.

Hamas uses its status as the official government of Palestine to launch official, state-sponsored attacks on Israel. Israel retailiates by completely reoccupying the West Bank. Iran announces that this aggression is intolerable, and points its newly developed nukes at Israel, but Israel intelligence got advance wind and thus undertakes a "first strike" on Iran. The Arab League, unable to ignore the "street" protests, declares war on Israel. American security treaties mandate we defend Israel, the AL cuts off our oil, and thus we descend.

Of all of our little actors, which one do we tag as "the greatest threat" to world peace? One could say "all of them equally", but the question didn't allow that, and somehow people managed to "tiebreak" for Israel, so clearly they think something's up there. But why not Iran, or Hamas, or the Arab League or America? The syllogism I put together is the only plausible way to "tiebreak." Since all the actors played a part in making the war happen, simply asserting that one particular player is the be-all-end-all is insane. It wouldn't have happened if Israel hadn't occupied the West Bank, true, but nor if Hamas hadn't attacked, nor if Iran hadn't threatened to blow Israel off the earth, nor if Jordan hadn't attacked Israel in '67 to start the occupation (to go the other direction), nor if the Arab states had just recognized Israel in 1948...etc.. That's why realism can't answer this question, that's why "consequentialism" can't answer this question (the causality chain is infinitely reductive in both directions), and why I think the "realist" answer is just a cover for whatever country we dislike the most amongst our players. But we can assign primary fault. The primary fault, in my opinion, is not Israel's if the conflict isn't their fault (and I don't think it is), OR either they aren't the escalating party OR the escalating party we agree was wrong to escalate. Iran may be acting "in its own interets" to escalate the conflict, but its still their fault that they did, and thus I think we blame them. That's why "blame" is the only paradigm by which we can evaluate this question, and thus my syllogism holds.