Monday, September 17, 2012

The Right Argument for the Wrong Reason (and vice versa)

Hussein Ibish has an interesting piece up castigating the way in which the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands has recently emerged. Ibish does not deny that these people have valid claims, but he says that the Israeli government's recent embrace of the issue is being done in bad faith -- it isn't really about protecting these person's interests, but rather about neutralizing the potency of Palestinian refugees ("I'll see your refugee claims with one of my own!").

There isn't really any doubt that much of the Israeli usage of this issue has this tactical, political component. This is not really surprising: this is an issue that Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews have been trying to raise for years with little success, so it's hardly the case that the largely Ashkenazi Israeli political elite can claim to have always been possessed with a burning indignation over the issue. And Ibish is only helped by framing his piece in response to a Ben Cohen column which, as Ibish puts it, "systematically proves every point I make."

Nonetheless, I can't help but read Ibish's article and think "so what?" Ibish concedes that the Jewish refugees have valid claims; he only argues that the way the Israeli political elite is currently deploying these claims is cynical and not really calculated to actually vindicate these refugee's legitimate interests. The problem is that if one takes the set of legitimate issues Israelis and Palestinians might have, then subtract those which are deployed in a tactical fashion aimed primarily at scoring transient political advantage or otherwise making the other side look bad, you're left with ... zero issues. Every issue in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is deployed cynically for short-term tactical purposes. Does Ibish really think that most of the people talking about Palestinian refugee rights are primarily concerned with what rhetoric and stylings are most likely to actually give them some degree of recompense in their lifetime? Of course not. If we're going to commit ourselves to try and facilitate just outcomes to plethora of issues dissecting Israel and Palestine, the fact that these issues are often used by political elites in a cynical fashion simply can't be disqualifying. We'd be left with absolutely nothing. And what ends up happening is that arguments like this become ways of indefinitely shunting aside any discussion of these peoples' claims as "political".

But I'd tentatively go even a step further. I'm inclined to think that decision to use Jewish refugees as a counterweight to Palestinian refugees is not per se wrong. Part of compromise is recognizing that one's adversary, like oneself, has legitimate interests that deserve consideration and accommodation. If one doesn't believe that, the only reason one would compromise is because one is over the barrel. The issue of Palestinian refugees, for example, is important in part because of the tangible things they lost, but also in part because it cuts against the narrative of 1948 being about nothing more than a genocidal Arab pogrom that fortunately failed. Likewise, elevating the stature of Jewish refugees matters in part because they deserve compensation, but also because it checks the narrative of 1948 being about marauding Jews seizing land that previously was held in harmony by the indigenous people. In this way, the narrative of the underlying conflict is enriched and parties are less inclined to view compromise as akin to capitulation or an implicit guilty plea to the charge of being the villain.