Saturday, December 03, 2005

Chomsky debates Dershowitz on I/P

John F. Kennedy School of Government. November 29, 2005.

This ought to be good! Haven't watched it yet, but I think it'll be a far better match-up than Christopher "I Wish I Were Orwell But I Don't Want to Actually Get Shot in the Throat Because the Whisky Would Leak Out" Hitchens vs. Galloway.


OK, I watched this. Holy Cannoli. Ya gotta check this out. I was not expecting such a heated discussion. Here are some quick thoughts which could be titled, “How and Why to Forget.” All comments welcome, of course.


After all is said and done, it is remarkable how close the two are in substantive ways, when you consider the here-and-now and the near-future. Both agree that Taba would have been a decent solution, though they disagree on who fucked it up. There is a large degree of agreement on the value of the Geneva Accords -- they are certainly within shouting distance of each other on that.

What remains is whether the Sharon/Peres party, or any other, will actually make the moves necessary. Ditto Abbas or whomever wins in, I think, the January elections in Palestine.


It is interesting to see the blinders in operation on both sides. I should say that I am not at all a fan of Dershowitz and I'm obviously a huge fan of Chomsky ("fan" is shorthand for "agree with their positions," of course). I have read quite a bit of Chomsky (linguistics and politics), and not so much of Dershowitz. Stephen Jay Gould, whom I had the pure contingent luck to have known fairly well since he and my father grew up together, taught classes with Dershowitz and seemed to admire him. I did and do admire Gould's scholarship, but I don't particularly admire Dershowitz's scholarship, which has been under pretty severe attack -- although accusations of plagiarism are dicey in scholarly fields because people tend to reject the possibility of quite similarly stated views independently arrived at, which can occur a lot more easily than you might think if you haven't done scholarship.

Much as I loved and respected Gould, when, at his memorial ceremony at Harvard, Dershowitz held up Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory and literally yelled into the microphone that it was the greatest scientific work since Darwin, he was just plain wrong and silly, and I'm fairly certain Gould would have disagreed had he been there, and not out of false modesty. So, that's kind of what you get with Dershowitz -- a lot of lawyerly emoting and declarations designed to sway a jury. He's very good at it.

I do admire and acknowledge Dershowitz's intellect. How could one not? He's brilliant, if a bit too enamored of the lawyerly-sleazy ad hominem attack -- that Peres-vs.-Peres Center non-jab was laughingly embarrassing. That notwithstanding, as per usual, I will take his support for a real solution if he's actually giving one now regardless of whatever he wrote, thought, or said in the past.

Chomsky is far more the scholar. However, he would have done much better by taking on questions about Palestinian terrorism not only by stating that the death ratio has only recently closed a bit (Israeli terror:Palestinian terror), but also, and far more relevantly, by saying, "Yeah, what do you expect? Sure, it's wrong in some strictly moral sense, but that's what the powerless do. You can end it by empowering them, and that's what's always happened in these types of situations. Walls and targeted assassinations won't do it -- you either live together or try to exterminate the other." That was implicit in what he was saying -- and the last bit was his explicit point (“the two options”) in his closing remarks -- but I see no reason for Chomsky not to acknowledge Palestinian terrorism head on. He did say, in response to the question, that it is "one half of a very important question," but then moved right back to the Israeli half. He might have done better to talk a bit more about both, especially how each fuels the other. That is the dynamic that has to be broken.

I think one problem is that to talk about both sides is understood at some level to mean an equivalent amount of pain, responsibility, and immorality on both sides. In my experience, for many American Jews (and Israeli Jews, but less so), that subconsciously registered notion of equivalence hits the Holocaust tripwire. I think much of the animus of this debate, and the larger debate on I/P, is traceable to how one responds to the Holocaust, more obviously for Jews, but also for non-Jews, including Palestinians. Dershowitz, and many other neocons, say, "never again," and the existential threat to Israel is uppermost in their minds. Chomsky, and many other lefties, also say "never again," and mean that to apply to all peoples, and are quite upset to see that Israel and Jews are doing some pretty awful things. I think even Chomsky suffers from this a bit -- and it's a strange inversion of the kind of "Jewish exceptionalism" he rightly decries. As Mark Twain pointed out years ago, Jews are not only no worse than any other group; they're also no better. I don't think that's at all debatable, though many will debate it on either side, pro- or anti-Jews or pro- or anti-Israel.

Jewish exceptionalism (in itself a completely unexceptional mode of ethnic or national self-regard) is just one side of a coin. The other side is anti-Semitism. Both notions separate a group, and any member of that group solely by virtue of perceived membership in that group, from the rest of the species. Both are ridiculous, of course, and, of course, each fuels the other (or should I write, the Other?). Again, determining who is “responsible” for the origin of this state of affairs is a pointless exercise. Humans are social primates that form groups. Groups of humans tend to fear and hate any other group of humans they regard as different. "Different" = "Threat." Let’s stop being shocked, in the Casablanca sense, by this universal feature of human behavior. Let’s just fight it.

Taking moral stands on historical events, however justified one feels in taking them, leads back into the quagmire of totting up the "score," so to speak. Since there's much to tot up on both sides, the debate becomes an endless pain-and-suffering match based on nearly infinite case evidence, which can be debated infinitely. While whatever immorality does exist continues.

Frankly, I don't care which side is "right" or "more right" or whatever. Whether Israel or the Palestinians are totally at fault, or which side is "more" at fault, is utterly irrelevant. I have my own opinions, and they tend towards Chomsky's view -- but, again, who cares? How does that help anything? Life, essentially, is not fair. But we are here, and we have the power to shape future life to an amazing extent, in all areas, including I/P. So, let's get going, already.

I think it's much better to remain publicly agnostic on moral judgments of history, or even of current political reality, and talk exclusively about the political dynamics of present-day extremism on both sides, whatever the sources (US support of Israel or Muslim support of Hamas, or whatever), and concentrate on how to disincentivize extremism. I’ll return to this point later.

It's amazing how quickly even a neocon (or near-neocon) like Dershowitz and an anarcho-syndicalist like Chomsky converge when the scorecard of history is dropped, once you filter out all the historical/moral verbiage -- if you are very strict about it, relative to your own views, whatever they may be. After the need to score the game is dropped, after you edit out all the heated back-and-forth on who did what when and who is more responsible for whatever, you find them both pro-Taba, mostly pro-Geneva Accords, and not nearly as far apart as you would have thought. Or at least as I would have thought. This fact alone is quite interesting, and I hope it is true of the actual populations involved and their elected leaders. That includes us, of course.


Tony Judt is right on -- forgetting the past might be the key to overcoming it, if by "forgetting" he means (which I think he does), consciously sequestering one's morally-tinged memory of past injustices from one's future plans and actions. Of course, this goes against the "never forget" mantra that is subconsciously believed to hold together the Jewish community. I actually have to state now, as per public American dialogue, that I am culturally Jewish (though secular) and lost family in the Holocaust (my mother was born in Kazakhstan in 1944, hiding out from the Nazis in Soviet territory, and then grew up in a DP camp in Berlin, coming to the US with her immediate family only in 1948).

I haven't "forgotten" in the literal sense, but since I was about 10 I have been unsurprised by the Holocaust. Why should anyone be surprised? No one has any right to be. The usual human capacity for destruction plus modern technology placed in a contingent set of encouraging political circumstances can equal genocide. Neither Jews nor Israelis are immune from this tendency, unless they are somehow deemed superhuman. The historical and philosophical nature of the Holocaust must be separated. Historically, many Europeans helped the Nazis (Germans, Austrians, and others) murder about 12 million people, about half of whom were Jews. The rest of the world pretty much didn’t care, the US included. So, what else is new? Philosophically, any group of human beings, given the right historical background and political situation, could, has, and will do the same—or at least strive for it. There goes Goldhagen’s thesis, which mixes up the historical and philosophical nature of the Holocaust.

So, I have no taboo, unlike Dershowitz, in calling apartheid apartheid in Israel. It’s not genocide (yet), but, sure, Israel could be capable of genocide. So could the US. Or France. Or any other nation or party or mob, as long as the planets align, so to speak. Anyone shocked by this is most likely afraid to take in the undebatable fact that Nazis were as human as we are. So was Mozart, Sinan, Michelangelo, and Michael Jordan. One’s view of human potential has to encompass all that humans have done.

Ask yourself this: Had you been born into a pro-Nazi family, would your views likely be the same as they are now? Would you be speaking English, too? It’s very nearly the same question, with very nearly the same answer, and that is what frightens people.

The obvious rational response to the Holocaust is to structure society such that Thanatos is disincentivized, to put it in Freudian terms (sub in whatever analogous term you like).

Anyway, Israel’s apartheid might or might not be as "bad" as South Africa's. It might or might not deserve the name “apartheid.” Why quibble over words? The reality is, it ain't fun to be a second-class citizen, whatever the label. And, of course, what is the point of the comparison, except to pass judgment, which leads right back into the black hole of totting up the moral score card? Historically minded though I am, there is sometimes a tremendous value in viewing a problem synchronically, structurally, and functionally, with as little reference to history as possible.

So, again ironically (is there any other valid mode for describing human history?), a particular kind of Judtian "forgetting," a public "amorality" (in a very specific sense) about the past, and a full acknowledgement of the difference between the historical and philosophical reality of human destructiveness could go a long way toward getting more folks behind a real peace plan. Peace is not impossible—not too long ago, if you take the long view, French and English were slaughtering each other like pigs. For, literally, centuries. Now, they’re the best of friends, Iraq notwithstanding. C’mon, people, drop your illusions! This is how history works. If France and England had decided to “remember” every injustice, they’d still be slaughtering each other. None of us has the luxury any longer of satiating our self-righteous bloodlust before considering peace because we have the ability to destroy everyone nowadays.

Just as I really don't care what anyone on either side did to the other in the past -- Sharon oversaw slaughters; the PLO and Hamas certainly don't have clean hands -- I don't really care what Dershowitz (or Chomsky) might or might not have written or believed or supported in the past. I think the key point is what one of them said (can't remember), quoting Peres, which is that one shouldn't be too much a fan of history, and this is the core of the value of Dershowitz's rhetoric, if it's nothing else. Looking backward will only forestall progress. I do agree with Chomsky that one must understand how one got to where one is in order to know how to justly move forward, but that doesn’t necessarily entail explicit moral judgment on the past.


No one in that debate spoke at all about the inevitability of fanatical terror on both sides the closer I and P move toward peace. It's about as close to inevitable as anything in future human relations can be (which are notoriously difficult to predict), and the notion that "all terror must stop" before the Israelis will deal with the Palestinians is ridiculous. I really don't care whether Palestinian terror (or "terror," depending on one's views) is totally justified or totally unjustified or anywhere in between. It will continue, but will hopefully drop off as a viable alternative way of life is increasingly realized. And they “forget.” Ditto Jewish terror -- and I use "Jewish" on purpose because the folks who killed Rabin and take potshots at little girls self-identify as "Jewish," so I will refer to them as they prefer. I'm not talking about the IDF (which is another story); I'm talking about settlers and wackos who fly over from the modern, self-imposed shtetl in Brooklyn to chain themselves to Gazan homes, &c. Those folks will kill people, too, and they, too, simply have to be both ignored and deterred. But the terror on both sides will absolutely rise as peace nears, and not to realize this is either self-serving or idealistic or just plain stupid.

What to do about it is what matters. People on both sides whose power is based on terror will lose that particular form of power in any peaceful solution. Some will give it up gladly for a more civilized form of power, some begrudgingly, others not at all. Such is life, but the tiny minorities on both sides can't be allowed to dictate what happens.

I wonder whether Dershowitz would support targeted assassinations of Jewish terrorists by the IDF -- it worked, he claims, when applied by the IDF to Palestinian terrorists. Why not, then? I wonder whether Chomsky would favor divestment from a future Palestinian state if human rights abuses occurred. (I actually think he would.)

Anyway, it's very easy and quite satisfying to yell and scream about who's morally right, who's morally wrong, who comes out ahead on the balance sheet of atrocities, and so on. None of that gets anyone anywhere, as it only raises hackles on all sides. Everyone has their view: mine is that everybody's hands are dirty, and the reason we have a problem of such intractability is because both sides have valid points and grievances and existential concerns. Either both sides will live together, or one side has to exterminate or eternally subjugate the other. I'm for the first option, and so is just about every other sane person, no matter where they lie on the political spectrum. Chomsky does not want Israel exterminated; never has that I've read. Dershowitz wants a Palestinian state, at least as of this debate’s date. Depending on your politics, you can question one or the other’s motives till the cows come home, but they both fall into the first option, publicly.

It wasn't too long ago, as Chomsky rightly points out, that even to breathe a word about the validity of a Palestinian state was anathema in the US. Now we have Bush, Sharon, Dershowitz, et al, on board. Sure, it could be all rhetoric, but rhetoric has a way of trapping the rhetorician into action. This is not guaranteed, of course, and I'm not saying I trust Bush or Sharon. I don't think it matters too much -- political pressure based on what they each have publicly stated is accumulating and concerned people ought to be increasing that pressure.

To me, the greater problem is those who are actually acting for the second option. If that turns out to include Sharon (still, that is), well, so be it. If it doesn't, great; I'll take it. Rabin was not exactly the Lennon-like dove he's now remembered to be. And Arafat was, by all accounts I've read, a corrupt and awful leader who capitalized on his symbolic embodiment of the Palestinian dream of a state to the detriment of the Palestinian people whose love he served ill. Maybe I'm wrong. Who cares? He's dead, and the bluff of the US and Israel has been called (i.e., we won't talk to Arafat). Rhetoric has painted both nations into a corner, and the Iraq debacle has, in my view, increased pressure on the US and Israel to do something about I/P. Many taboos have been broken, and that's the first step: make it publicly sayable, and the potential exists.


I very much doubt that history was discussed all that much in Geneva; and based on an interview I heard on NPR a ways back with an Israeli and a Palestinian representative from the Geneva Accords, a, if not the, major reason those accords could be reached at all was, ironically, because it wasn't official. Neither side had to play to the home crowd, because neither official power structure took it seriously. Paradoxically, the negotiators were free to help people because they were isolated from those people -- they didn't need to come out and give press conferences on progress; they didn't need to do what will be necessary to rein in extremists: jail your "own" and risk being branded a traitor to your "own." Here's the NPR piece I was talking about (I think).

In any event, it was a brilliant move on all sides, because the Geneva Accord exists, and basically was flown in under the radar. I think it will ultimately be pretty close to any eventual solution, if such occurs, so those people are to be congratulated for both their courage and their political savvy. We ought all to follow their example.

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