A couple of weeks ago, I assigned paper topic #1 in my political philosophy class here at Al Quds University. Here is paper topic #2 in (Facebook) translation. There were two options, and the students were to pick one and write a short paper on it. Oddly, the directions for the assignment don’t seem to have come through in the Facebook translation. Here is what did:
This is what respect in research or the topic II..
1. A plan no uprising for the liberation of Palestine. They should include special paper:
• A description of the goal your year.
• A description of how it will be an attempt to reach the goal.
• is the use of violence? If it does, why and how? What are the boundaries that were placed on the use of violence?
• was machiavelli or Luke useful in planning your uprising? Explain.
The goal as described in a paper that can be long-term one, but he doesn’t have to be realistic: it must be achieved by means of mankind in a specific period of time. I have to assume that the Palestinian side has a weakness, and that the Israelis will use all its advantages to resist any uprising.
2. Write an essay about the theory of John Luke property.
• First, summarized the theory.
• Then explain whether you agree with the general principles of ownership, Luke.
• and then discuss the implementation of the principles of Luke a specific example. What example teach you about the theory of Luke?
Here’s the original:
Pick one of the following topics and write an essay of about 500-750 words (2-3 pages) responding to it. You should submit your paper in class on August 1. You can write your paper either in English or Arabic, at your choice.
- Create a plan for an intifada to liberate Palestine. Your paper should include the following:
- A description of your overall goal.
- A description of how you would try to reach the goal.
- Would you use violence? If so, how and why? What limits would you put on the use of violence?
- Were Machiavelli or Locke helpful in planning your intifada? Explain.
The goal you describe in the paper can be a long-range one, but it has to be realistic: it has to be achievable by human means in a specific amount of time. It must assume that the Palestinian side has weaknesses, and that the Israelis will use all their advantages to resist any intifada.
2. Write an essay on John Locke’s theory of property.
First, summarize the theory.
Then explain whether you agree with Locke’s general principles of property.
Then discuss an application of Locke’s principles to a specific example. What does the example teach you about Locke’s theory?
Yeah, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
I can’t resist mentioning that in his discussion of the State of War, Locke claims that it’s “lawful” to kill those who put us in this state (ST 18.10ff), adding that slavery is an example of the State of War (ST 24.2), and asserting that a person under slavery can permissibly commit suicide to escape it (ST 23.13ff).
I drew the inference in class that the view in question commits Locke to suicide bombing in certain circumstances: if you are under the equivalent of slavery, and your putative owner is not a lawful conqueror, then you can either kill him in order to resist him or commit suicide in order to escape him. But if we grant the preceding conditional (as ex hypothesi Locke does), it seems plausible to think that a conjunctive version of the consequent would also be true: if you are under the equivalent of slavery, and your putative owner is not a lawful conqueror, you can surely kill him and commit suicide (or kill him via the commission of suicide) in just those circumstances in which doing so would be the best or only way of both resisting and escaping him. I reserve comment on whether any of that applies to actual suicide bombings, whether in Israel/Palestine or anywhere else.
Interestingly, when Locke discusses conquest, he tells us that those victimized by it have a right to resist an unjust conqueror:
Whence it is plain that shaking off a power, which force, and not right hath set over anyone, though it hath the name of rebellion, yet is no offense before God, but is that which he allows and countenances, though even promises and covenants, when obtained by force, have intervened (ST 196.20-25, my emphasis).
“Shaking off” is an exact translation of the Arabic word intifada, and the advice Locke gives is an exact description of an accusation commonly made of the Palestinian leadership: that its “promises and covenants” are mere “hudnas” or temporary truces, insincerely offered in order to gain tactical advantages. Again, I reserve comment on the application to actual cases, whether in Israel/Palestine or anywhere else.
Unasked extra credit question: Is John Locke the grandfather of Hamas? I guess it’s a rather odd family if Locke is the grandfather, Ahmad Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantizzi are the joint “fathers,” and Mosab Hassan Yousef is the “son.”
Alternate title for this post: “Use the Force, Luke.”
You might want to be careful broadcasting to the world that you are in Palestine asking Palestinian students to plan an intifada (and then giving them feedback about how sensible their plans are). Just sayin’.
Well, I’ve been careful not to break any laws–insofar as there are any laws here. But I’ve come to think that the dangers of self-censorship are more threatening than the consequences of saying “the wrong thing.” I mean, what exactly could go wrong? A rough exit interview at Ben Gurion? A visa denial next summer? If that’s the way they want to play, fine. But I can’t sacrifice candor to some bureaucrat’s conception of “security.” Pedagogy is not, after all, supposed to be a species of covert operations. I’m not inciting anyone to do anything. I’m candidly asking them to be candid with me and telling them what I think. I don’t mind broadcasting that to the world, or at least to anyone who’ll read about it.
The funny thing is, last semester I had my Felician students write papers on the ethics of drone warfare. Most of what most of them wrote was pure shit. They hadn’t even bothered to read the book, and if they did, hadn’t managed to get it right. After weeks devoted to the subject, they didn’t know the difference between Palestine and Pakistan, didn’t know who the Taliban were, didn’t know what a “signature strike” was, etc. etc. But with mind-numbing regularity, they were sure that drones should be used “to kill the bad guys”–whoever the “bad guys” ended up being.
In cases of this sort, I’m required, for lack of a better alternative, to tolerate my students’ “performances” with bemused, resigned tolerance: “Oh, forgive our pure innocent, ignorant children, willing to destroy the world because they don’t know any better! Luckily, it was just an academic exercise…No actual people were hurt by it…” When it’s all over, I shake my head, give them their passing grades, field their grade complaints, and move on.
It’s time to equalize the playing field. My pedagogical intifada here at Al Quds? It’s just an academic exercise. No actual people will be hurt by it. If Felician students can make lethal prescriptions for drone warfare, Al Quds students can be asked to plan (a potentially peaceful) intifada.
Anyway, every hour my students spend on my paper is an hour they can’t spend throwing rocks at the IDF (not that I’m saying they do). So frankly, Shabak should be grateful to me.
I knew you’d say something like that, which is a lot of what makes you admirable. I was thinking more about getting yourself on the no-fly list, though of course I was also being somewhat ironic. I mean, I wouldn’t broadcast it to the world, but I’m a coward; I think the worst consequence you’d be likely to face is that some people would read your blog post and decide that you are a bad person, which, I have reason to believe, would not matter to you in the slightest.
Meanwhile, I’m the sort of guy who assigns paper topics like “Are Socrates’ theses in the Apology about death true? Are his arguments successful?” “Does Aristotle’s conception of happiness meet his criterion of self-sufficiency?” “Should we adopt the Stoic principle that nothing beyond our control is genuinely good or bad for us in our own lives?” “Between Plato, the Stoics, and Augustine, who has the most satisfactory account of mental conflict?” Hardly changing the world here, or asking anything that would lead random people on the Internet to think I’m a bad person (well, ok, I guess I can imagine some reasons…). This coming semester I’ll be teaching an introductory Greek “civilization” class and a class about ancient philosophical theology; I doubt those paper topics will be any more, ehm, life or death, shall we say?
Granted, I teach rather different material. But I think your paper assignment is a fantastic way to get those students in that place to think with the material you’ve been teaching and to think about things that they’re doubtless already thinking about, no matter what sorts of thoughts they’re inclined to have about it. It’s not just that I’d defend your choice; I think it’s among the best sorts of assignments you could set. You’re not to blame for its being a live question, and you’re not responsible for getting them to think about it in the first place; if things go well, you’ll have helped them think more clearly about something that is of unparalleled importance in their lives. I’m not sure what else the goal of teaching is supposed to be.
I may well lack commonsense altogether, but I find it hard to imagine being put on a no-fly list for posting a writing assignment on a notional intifada. Then again, in a world where things like this happen, I guess anything goes. We’ll see.
I would be thrilled to discover that Shabak reads my blog (and highly doubt that they do). If they did, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some questions for me at my exit interview at the airport. But I don’t think such an interview would be motivated by worries about me. It would be motivated by considerations of general intelligence-gathering: they’d want to extract information from me about my students. That’s why I’m telling the students to hand their papers in as hard copy, and why I’m discarding them before I leave. As I said, I mean this assignment to be an academic exercise, not fodder for an intelligence operation.
Irony aside, as I’ve said before, it is an open question what you can and can’t say around here. It’s also an open question what “can” and “can’t” mean. Living here has been an object lesson in the value of having something like a First Amendment. The First Amendment isn’t perfect, but given its place in the U.S. Constitution, and the history of case law behind it, when I’m home, I always know that it “has my back.” I happen to find American law overly constraining, but at least I know what it says.
Here, things are just a complete mystery. This article suggests that the Israeli authorities are targeting pro-Palestinian protesters on Facebook. I’ve read this article over and over and still could not begin to tell you how its claims apply to my own situation. I don’t know what Sohaib Zahda said, I don’t know what counts as “incitement,” I don’t know whether an American citizen is held to the same legal standards as a Palestinian, and I don’t know whether what I have said will have any ramifications for me one way or another. So the operative passage in the article is this one:
That could be the slogan of the whole Arab-Israeli conflict: the conflict rages, but the relevant details are almost always off-limits.
I’m at the point in my visit here where events are happening too quickly for me to process them all, much less write about them. I tend to reserve my Facebook posts for joking around about serious subjects, and my blog for slightly more (slightly more) serious explorations of serious subjects. But what I really think about the most controversial or fundamental issues is not something I’ve committed to print–at least not yet. It’ll take me months to understand the implications of everything I’ve seen, and months beyond that to put it in print (whether at PoT or in serious writing). For now, I’m just focused on trying to see as much as I can before I have to leave. Which is more than enough to handle.
Starting Monday, I teach Mill: “Of Liberty of Thought and Discussion.” The more time I spend here, the more I appreciate it.
Wait a minute. Did you just suggest that your contributions to PoT are not “serious writing”? I feel betrayed.
I realize I’m giving a totally serious answer to a question that wasn’t intended that way, but: I’ve come to adopt a three-fold division of labor in my writing. I use Facebook somewhat narcissistically as an aide-memoire. To the extent that its aide-memoire function is of interest to other people, that’s fine, but if not, not. To lighten the mood, I couch everything (including completely serious things) in humor: almost nothing I write on Facebook is intended very seriously (qua FB post). It’s nearly impossible to have a serious discussion of anything on Facebook. It’s just not designed for the purpose. So for the most part, I don’t try.
The blog is one step up from Facebook–somewhat worked-out arguments, but in rough, preliminary form.
Given my schedule, I rarely get beyond the blog stage, but the idea is to use the blog as a springboard for coming up with some “serious” publications. Of course, there are times when the blog becomes a scheduling problem of its own. I keep telling myself that things will be different this year. And maybe they will. But with a 5:5 load and two sets of conferences to organize, there probably isn’t any reason to think that things will be different. The audacity of hope.
Seriously, though, man, you need to write a book about this stuff that is part abstract philosophy, part applied, historically sensitive political argument, part narrative of personal experience. There is so much potential there, not least an exploration of the challenges of negotiating the relationships between theory, action, and experience — plus, as I’ve said before, your perspective on the Palestinian conflict is, if not quite unique, distinctive and provocative in all the right ways. I don’t read on the topic nearly so widely as you or others who are equally concerned with it, but to me your writing on it has a kind of presumptive authority that comes from its unparalleled authenticity. The authenticity is only partially a product of your refusal to countenance bullshit; it’s at least as much that your weird ass background as a Pakistani-American, former Muslim, sometimes right-wing / Randian, sometimes appreciative student of as non-right-wing/Randian a person as MacIntyre, always non-ideological person with a very unusual quasi-insider/quasi-outsider with intimate personal experience of life in Palestine, coupled with your philosophical and literary virtues, makes your views, unlike virtually everyone else who has a lot to say about the issue, thoroughly underdetermined. I mean, I don’t even bother to read most stuff about Israel/Palestine because I can usually predict its conclusions from my knowledge of the author’s religious/political background, and so little of what I have read manages to convey the impression that there is even the slightest bit of complexity involved — it’s always just either “terrorists bad, Islam evil, need to defend selves against barbarian suicide bombers” or “Israel racists, ethnic state, Jews evil, er…no, no, not all evil, because that sounds like Hitler, so Zionists bad, but most Jews Zionists, and your obliterated babies deserved it, grrr….” Or, occasionally, there’s the kind of thing that is the best I can muster: “well, it’s really fucking complicated, and neither ‘side’ is especially praiseworthy…” Though even that can be hard to find.
You are just clearly in a better position to write about this stuff than 99% of human beings alive.
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I do need to write “this” up. Every summer I spend here produces a new upheaval in my thinking, but (for lack of time) I never quite get to articulating what it is, or how or why it’s been an upheaval. I’d guess that maybe 5-10% of what I want to say makes it to the blog, but that is probably the most superficial layer of thought. Much of what I want to say (and never get to say) is about meta-level issues at a fairly distant remove from the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. I spend a lot of time here thinking about the point of political philosophy, and reflecting on the amazing parochiality of Anglophone political philosophy (and of the “Western” tradition we’re trained to study). Also about the nature of cultural conflict, about religion, about property–about a lot of things.
I take the compliment in your comment, and would acknowledge that there’s a certain element of truth in it, but (as I was telling Michael off-line) I’ve also come to realize that my background and perspective is also a real liability here.
The element of truth in your comment is that as someone with a Muslim background, I have first-personal knowledge of what it it’s like to be a Muslim, and despite my own irreligion, I have a sympathetic understanding of the attractions of a life led in adherence to Islam. I don’t have to fake that understanding; I really have it. And as someone who’s lived a decade in a Jewish household, I have at a least a sense of the same for Judaism. But despite being pretty pro-Palestinian, I really don’t have a tribal sense of identification with either side in the conflict. I’m an unapologetic anti-Zionist, but that’s because I’m an anti-nationalist generally, and that goes for Palestinian nationalism, too. I don’t find the sight of the Palestinian flag particularly stirring. In fact, I find the valorization of Palestinian nationality pretty tiresome and irrelevant.
For all those reasons, while I can sympathetically identify with the aspirations of the parties to the dispute, I’m not likely to be co-opted by their nationalist or religious agendas. Those agendas have no pull on me, whether in favor of a Jewish state or a specifically Palestinian one. I have a distance on them that most partisans lack. (One thing I’ve come to realize is that I’m not just opposed to American nationalism; I’m actually kind of anti-American!)
So that’s by way of self-praise. But there’s a huge downside here as well. For one thing, there’s the problem of the language barrier: I neither speak nor understand Arabic or Hebrew. (My Arabic is a little better off than my Hebrew–I can catch the drift of a conversation in Arabic without being able to speak it–but I’m not functional in either language.)
Second, as an outsider, I lack the kind of everyday experience that insiders have. I simply don’t know how things work here, whether we’re talking about everyday life, or about the mechanics of large-scale politics.
Example of the latter: I was at a roundtable discussion yesterday on Israel’s Master Plans for Jerusalem. Most of what was presented was common knowledge to the participants, but all of it was new to me. I had to struggle to absorb it all and keep up. So there’s a huge learning curve. I estimate that it would take six consecutive months of intensive study to achieve professional-level on-ground knowledge of the Arab-Israel conflict (of the sort needed to write at a publishable, professional level). But I don’t have six consecutive months at my disposal. I only have two months a year for as many years as I can manage. So I guess I might start to know what I’m talking about by August of 2017.
I’ve also made an interesting epistemic discovery that’s worth developing in detail at some point. The Israel-Palestine dispute is a dispute between two sets of partisans, each with its own nationalist identity. Each side in the dispute clings zealously to certain facts and formulations that serve to reinforce a commitment to their own identity and to de-legitimize the other one.
Example: Palestinian news reports will refer to “Israeli kidnappings” of innocent people in a given place. Israeli news reports will refer to the same acts as “arrests of Palestinian terrorists responsible for planning or carrying out such-and such terrorist act.” (The two hyperlinked items don’t refer to exactly the same act, but you get the picture.)
Put more neutrally, these are arrests, by the Israeli military, of presumptively innocent Palestinians suspected of crimes, where the arrests take place without procedural safeguards of any kind, where the suspects lack procedural rights of any kind, where the people arrested include people loosely “linked” to the crime, but where at least some of the sought-for persons often has committed the crime in question–which is a crime if (but only if) you bracket the legitimacy of armed resistance to the occupation. So there’s an element of truth in both partisan descriptions, but each one is also deliberately misleading. Each side insists on putting things in a way that obscures the truth in the claims of the other side.
The sheer length of the neutral account helps to explain why partisans prefer the more elliptical expressions, but there is more to the issue than a mere desire for verbal economy. There’s a premium here not just on partisanship, but on expressing one’s solidarity for one’s fellow partisans. And one does that by talking a certain way. The use of certain expressions–“Settler Colonialism,” “Zionist Entity,” “Undivided Jerusalem,” “Ingathering of the Exiles,” “Judea and Samaria,” etc.–is a way of signaling affiliation. It’s really no different from what gangs do when they expect their supporters to wear their colors, or when they tag a neighborhood, or use some sort of coded, in-group sign language. In short, rhetoric signals partisan affiliation.
The thing is, each party to the conflict controls access to certain significant facts about the conflict. Israelis control access to facts about what the military does, or what the Israeli government is doing, or what the settlers are doing. Palestinians control access to facts about what, say, the resistance is doing. If you are an outsider lacking sympathy for either nationalist affiliation, you will lack access to facts controlled by nationalist partisans–unless you not only speak but adopt their rhetoric. The refusal to do so will put you at a disadvantage relative to both parties. In other words, if you don’t sound like a Zionist or a Palestinian nationalist, then as far as Zionists or Palestinian nationalists are concerned, you lack a discernible political identity. And lack of identity entails denial of epistemic access to the facts that either side controls.
When I showed up at the mini-riot here in Abu Dis the other day (that I mentioned on Facebook), the stone-throwers suspected me of being a spy. I told them I wasn’t one, but I didn’t go out of my way to express great enthusiasm for what they were doing. I didn’t show up with a keffiyeh or a Free Palestine t-shirt, much less with stones in my hands. I was there to observe, not to cheer-lead or participate. So they tolerated me (grudgingly), but they ignored me. For that reason, I had no direct epistemic access to the action of the rioters. I watched what they were doing from afar, but much of it was lost in the fog of battle.
Certain journalists have the relevant kind of access, but those journalists have earned their right to access by expressing their solidarity for the specifically identity-reinforcing parts of stone-throwing. They’re not just journalists; they’re Palestinian journalists. When they report from the inside on a clash in (say) Abu Dis, we have to take their word for whatever happened, not because we can be independently confident that what they say is accurate, but because they’re the only ones with full access to the action. They’re the ones who know how many people were involved on the Palestinian side; how many injuries there were; and what happened. When I was there, all I saw was kids throwing stones and Israelis shooting back at them. I had to read a news story the next day to figure out what I’d seen–this despite being “there.” And despite being “there,” I have no way of verifying half of what’s asserted in this story.
Precisely because I’m skeptical about the value of these clashes with the military, I will never get access to the front lines. To get access, I have to earn the right to access by overcoming my skepticism and expressing solidarity. I have to make the identity-affirming leap of faith that says, “Yes! The Palestinian resistance requires stone throwing! The intifada advances by each stone thrown by the shebab. Long live the resistance!” But I don’t believe that. In fact, I don’t believe anything in particular about stone throwing, except that it’s not obvious to me that it accomplishes anything worthwhile, and it’s obvious to me that little kids shouldn’t be doing it. But such views are not a recipe for access.
Meanwhile, Israelis and Americans put complete stock in the official pronouncements of the Israeli government. The presumption is: if the IDF said it, well, it must be true. I not only don’t believe that, I have trouble understanding how anyone could believe it. But partisans of Israel clearly do believe it, or at least act and write as though they do. Read almost any news item in, say, The New York Times, on a violent clash between Israelis and Palestinians. The preponderance of the testimony comes from Israeli officialdom. The implicit presumption is that Israeli testimony is in the ballpark of being correct; that Palestinians initiate violence; and that the IDF merely responds to violence initiated by Palestinians–leading, alas, to a disproportionately high number of Palestinian casualties. This is the stock formula behind the entire Israeli-American narrative on “Palestinian violence.” On this view, violence here is primarily Palestinian. The Israelis are just doing what any civilized people would have to do if faced by such barbaric violence. Hence Israeli military actions are not violence. They’re something else.
Do we have independent reason for thinking that such claims are correct? I don’t think so. We just end up being induced to believe them because we have nothing else to go on. And anyway, the reporters in question all seem “civilized,” and “balanced,” just like “us.” The truth is that they’ve earned the right of access to Israeli officialdom by an analogue of the Palestinian journalists’ right of access to the Palestinian resistance. They’re all Zionists of one form or another–and have to be, to get access to the spokesmen of a Jewish state. They’re not radically pro-Palestinian “fanatics,” and make conspicuously clear that they’re not. They’re nice, centrist American-style liberals with nice, middle class American-type lifestyles (which is only possible on the western side of the Green Line). I’m sure that the average reader of the Times would have trouble believing that its reporters are anything but objective. So Zionist centrism becomes the default mode of American reporting on Israel. Put it this way: you can’t get access to Israeli officialdom by writing anti-Zionist polemics and/or polemics in favor of BDS. Denied access, you can only rely on the claims transmitted by those who have it. (Chris Hedges is a partial exception to and partial illustration of this point.)
By the way, it’s amazing how many New York Times correspondents here have children in the Israeli military. It’s somehow impolitic or even “anti-Semitic” to point this out, but apparently we’re supposed to take the following in stride: correspondents for the American newspaper of record, many of them presumably Americans themselves, have children serving in the military of a foreign nation–and just happen to be covering the news in that same nation, where the news they’re covering essentially involves…the actions of the military. We’re supposed to ignore the many oddities of this situation, and simply assume that such people can be perfectly objective about Israeli military affairs. I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a case of SMH-level absurdity.
Another example of the same phenomenon: I find it remarkable that Jeffrey Goldberg, the supposed Israel/Palestine expert at The Atlantic (a high prestige outlet), got his expertise on Israel/Palestine by being a prison guard at an Israeli detention camp for Palestinian prisoners during the first intifada. I actually met Goldberg the other day (we were introduced by a mutual acquaintance), prowling around the American Colony hotel in Jerusalem with his laptop and his Bose headphones.
What are the chances that this asshole* is going to get access to, say, the Center for Freedom and Justice in Beit Umar, a Palestinian center for non-violent resistance to the occupation, run by a Palestinian activist who spent seven years in an Israeli prison, and has been shot five times by the IDF? What are the chances that the Popular Resistance would welcome him into its midst? I wouldn’t welcome him into my midst. Lacking inside access to th eplace, what are the chances that the work of the Popular Resistance will figure in his journalism?
Questions of inside access aside, what are the chances that Goldberg would just use his prerogatives as a journalist and go to Beit Umar to cover the activities of the popular resistance, whether they welcomed his presence or not? Judging by his journalism, the answer seems to be “very low.” No, it’s just easier to write shit like this: an attempt to understand Palestinian violence by refusing to engage with any actual Palestinians, and refusing to confront the conditions of the lives they’re leading. The point is, you don’t have to leave the American Colony to write an article of this kind, and having written it, you can know ahead of time that your American audience will lap it up. Never mind that it practically flaunts its ignorance of conditions on the ground. Conditions of the ground don’t matter when the people living on that ground don’t matter. And as far as Jeffrey Goldberg et al are concerned, they don’t.
My point is, lack of access presents a huge set of epistemic obstacles to surmount. I’m more likely to have success at describing the obstacles than surmounting them. That’s an interesting topic, to be sure, but a rather depressing one, and one at some distance from the official object of inquiry.
*Asshole litmus test assertion (from “A Brief Introduction to Pro-Holocaust Twitter,” The Atlantic, June 8, 2016).
Reading this, I’m inclined to think that the basic credential one needs to function as a pro-Israeli journalist in the US is the capacity to make unsubstantiated accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who challenges the basic premises of Zionist ideology. The more free you are in making accusations of anti-Semitism, the farther you’ll go, professionally speaking. What Goldberg is telling us is: either you internalize and ratify the norms of his favorite sectarian state, or you’re a racist. The accusation doesn’t even require argument. It’s just supposed to be self-evident, and we’re supposed to accept it in that guise. In other words, well-poisoning is just part for the discursive course. We accept it, and take things from there.
I think you’re right about not having the languages being a liability, but I’m not so sure the other sort of epistemic limitation you talk about is quite such a serious obstacle. For one thing, if you’re right about it, then it is virtually impossible for anyone not to lack access to some important features of the situation, because it is virtually impossible for anyone to get insider status on both sides. But even so, I’m not sure it’s such a dire limitation. As a historian of sorts, I think about the epistemic obstacles to knowledge of pretty much anything that went on in ancient Greece or the Roman world. Nobody has genuine insider status, because we’re a whole lot of centuries removed from the stuff. The written evidence we have is almost entirely written by elites who made up an even smaller portion of the overall population than political and intellectual elites do today. Only rarely do we have multiple, detailed accounts of the same events or phenomena written by people who experienced it first hand and represent widely divergent views (and on the occasions where we do have something like this, what we’re seeing is still an internal dispute between members of the ruling class). We can’t experience the stuff ourselves, we can’t talk to anyone who did, and in most cases we can’t even compare the details of conflicting first-hand accounts. These are limitations, to be sure, but despite them historians still know an awful lot and can form reasonable, plausible, defensible judgments and theories about a whole lot else. We’re not left just having to take the insiders’ word for it.
In the present case, you may not be able to get direct access to either ‘side,’ but you can get indirect access by talking to and reading people who have direct access. In that respect, you’re in a considerably better epistemic position than ancient historians will ever be. There may be some sense in which you will never achieve a fully secure knowledge of certain things, but that’s less a liability that you face than it is just the way things like this work.
But precisely because you aren’t ideologically committed to either ‘side,’ you’re well placed to make precisely the epistemological points you’ve been making without them appearing as special pleading. Those points alone are a worthy contribution to the whole ‘debate.’
Ultimately, your epistemic position isn’t so awful that you take yourself to be unable to form a responsible judgment about the injustice of the occupation. I, for one, am still inclined to find your outsider status more a strength than a weakness. There would be many major challenges to writing a book about this (even if you weren’t teaching a 5:5 – I don’t know if having you teach a 5:5 is better or worse than hiring an adjunct to teach 1:1 and giving you 4:4). But the epistemic limitations aren’t an insurmountable obstacle so far as I can see.
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I wouldn’t call the limitations I mentioned “dire,” but they’re serious and frustrating. I agree that the way things are set up, no one can have insider access on both sides, but that situation condemns even the inquirer with the best intellect and most assiduous commitment to tracking the truth to failure. If you’re trying to determine whether A has aggressed against B or vice versa, but the facts crucial to the determination are either in A’s or B’s hands, and neither will give you access to the relevant facts, there is no way your inquiry can get off the ground. At some point you have to trust both parties on matters on which both have a strong incentive to deceive you.
That’s why the analogy to ancient history only goes so far. The ancient sources may well be trying to mislead you about what happened, but thankfully, if they are, the authors are dead. They can’t engage in an active, ongoing effort to deceive you. But when you deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict, you’re dealing with insiders who may want to exploit you, blackmail you, deceive you, and deceive themselves all at once. If I go on a tour of some controversial and unfamiliar place, I am at the mercy of my guide. He could in principle mislead me systematically about everything he says. If his opposite number also misleads me, I’m now intellectually shadow-boxing with two sets of deceptions. When you do ancient historiography, you don’t face an equivalent of the question, “What if my source is working for Shabak?” Or, “What if my source is brilliant but self-deceived, and answering every question I ask with a view toward reinforcing both his deception of me and his self-deceptions?” A dead source can’t do things like that.
That said, for all the reasons you give, I’m a bit of a skeptic about our knowledge of the distant past.
That seems to imply that we have knowledge of a disjunctive set of hypotheses about the past, i.e., that some disjunct from a set of plausible disjuncts is likely to be true (=is best supported by the available evidence), without our being able to pin down exactly which one is true. But if knowledge entails truth, that’s not going to yield knowledge of very specific historical claims (specific enough, say, to decide a dispute like the Arab-Israeli dispute).
Ultimately, I think indirect access is the best I will ever achieve, but it’s hard to explain how frustrating it can be. There are times when one has conversations here with people who speak so tendentiously that 30 seconds into a conversation with such a person, you find yourself wishing that the conversation had never begun. It’s also hard to have conversations with people who don’t share your desire to see both sides of an issue. The minute you try to see the other side of the issue, they accuse you of missing the point: the point is their side of the issue! Then you go to the person on the other side of the issue, and he does the exact same thing.
In other words, to pull this off, you have to be one-third philosopher, one-third therapist, and one-third diplomat. I guess it helps to be single, to be willing to get your ass kicked, and generally, not to have a life.
Gee–maybe I am the right person for this job.
That seems to imply that we have knowledge of a disjunctive set of hypotheses about the past, i.e., that some disjunct from a set of plausible disjuncts is likely to be true (=is best supported by the available evidence), without our being able to pin down exactly which one is true. But if knowledge entails truth, that’s not going to yield knowledge of very specific historical claims (specific enough, say, to decide a dispute like the Arab-Israeli dispute).
That’s not quite what I had in mind. I’d say rather that for many claims, we have the strongest sorts of grounds possible in historiography for thinking that we know those claims to be true. For many others, and most of the sort that are more interesting and more parallel to your case, we aren’t in a position to claim that level of conviction. But that hardly warrants skepticism; it warrants recognition that the accounts we offer are not the only plausible ways of interpreting the evidence. But that is true of many areas, and is not remotely special to history, however well consensus blinds us to the availability of coherent alternatives. Knowledge entails truth, yes, but only insofar as if I know that P, P must be true; it does not entail that if I know that P, P must be the only coherent and plausible interpretation of the evidence. If one wants to insist that ‘genuine’ knowledge requires knowing with certainty that one knows that P, then there’s not going to be much knowledge in the world. I’m inclined to take that as a reason to reject the requirement, but we don’t have to. We can then just say that we have to make do with something less than genuine knowledge in the vast majority of cases, and that that is no reason to suppose that everything that falls short of genuine knowledge is of equal epistemic rank.
None of that tells against the reasonable frustrations you have. Nor do I mean to suggest that there aren’t special problems when it comes to knowing what is really going on in the Palestinian conflict. It’s just to say that even those difficulties don’t seem to preclude the possibility of reaching reasonable conclusions. You’d better agree with that much, because you certainly hold some strong views on the subject, despite emphasizing the obstacles. I don’t feel sufficiently well informed to assess whether you’re right about the details, but I’d have to learn some very surprising new facts (or become convinced of a very different set of moral and political views) to become convinced that your basic judgments about the injustice of the occupation are mistaken.
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Fair enough. On the first point, as long as we acknowledge the existence of a hierarchy of epistemic rank, and put certain knowledge at the top, I’m willing to accept what you say in the first paragraph–with the proviso that the jump from top rank to second rank is a big one. It’s not that I’d literally deny that non-certain knowledge is in some sense knowledge. What I’d insist on is that certain knowledge is the real deal, the paradigm by reference to which everything else is knowledge by multidimensional similarity to it. And certain knowledge entitles its bearer to a degree of confidence not warranted by second-rank knowledge.
My problem is that even when people are willing to acknowledge the preceding fact in principle, they rely on and discuss second-rank knowledge with a confidence that’s really appropriate to certain knowledge. In other words, people (historians) very often upgrade probabilities into certainties by lowering the epistemic standards for knowledge generally.
I don’t despair of reaching reasonable general conclusions about the Israel/Palestine dispute, e.g., that the occupation is fundamentally unjust. I do often despair about achieving certainty about particular cases. What exactly happened in the streets of Abu Dis on Monday, or in Sourif on Tuesday? In the strong sense of know, I’ll never know.
“…certain knowledge is the real deal, the paradigm by reference to which everything else is knowledge by multidimensional similarity to it.
I think that view would make better sense if the kind of certainty you seem to be after were actually attainable in more than a very small number of fairly trivial cases. In some sense it might be right that the ideal of knowledge involves not just truth, but seeing how the truth cannot be other than it is. But the range of propositions for which there is absolutely no epistemic possibility of falsehood is vanishingly small and does not include anything that relies on empirical evidence. Yet that’s no reason to think that we would be justified in refusing to believe those propositions or even in refusing to believe that we know those propositions to be true. I am, I think, fully justified in believing that I am typing this note to you right now, and even in believing that I know that I am typing this note to you right now. But it is not epistemically impossible that I am in fact not typing this note to you right now, for all the familiar reasons. If I am in fact typing this note to you right now, and my senses are functioning properly, and I am justified in believing on the basis of my senses that I am typing this note to you right now, then what sense is there to be given to the claim that I don’t really or fully know that I am typing this note to you right now? The mere possibility that I am mistaken does not show that my belief is false, inappropriately caused, based on unreliable doxastic mechanisms, or unjustified. But if it shows none of that, then what grounds does it give us for thinking that I don’t know that I am typing this note to you right now? At best it gives us reasons for holding that I cannot be absolutely certain that I am typing this note to you right now. But if absolute certainty is not required for knowledge in such a mundane case as this, why should we demand it in less straightforward cases, or think that the jump from absolute certainty to something less than absolute certainty is a big one, or even a jump at all rather than a mere step? Of course we might be better off epistemically if we could be more certain. But we can’t, and while that fact should surely lead us to be less confident than we would be if we were infallible gods, it doesn’t seem to give us any reason not to be pretty damn confident.
That point doesn’t really address your main worry, though, except insofar as you are too pessimistic about the possibility of knowledge on the grounds that your standard for knowledge is literally impossible. But your reasons for pessimism don’t depend on such an unrealistic standard, at least not wholly. For even if we adopt my less exacting standard, the cases you’re concerned about fall very far short of it. But to the extent that you’ve really identified an insurmountable barrier to greater certainty, lamenting that limitation seems a bit like being depressed that we can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yeah, we also shouldn’t pretend that we can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and too many people have the analogous epistemic pretension. But even supposing you’re right that you can never know some of these things and that being unable to know them makes it much harder to reach firm conclusions on crucial matters, I’m still not able to see how you’ve identified any insurmountable obstacles to knowing, or at least having a far more sensible assessment of the situation than the alternatives. What inaccessible facts would alter the big picture here? What is there that only a Palestinian could know, or only an Israeli could know, that would lead to a fundamentally different verdict about the justice of the occupation, the policies and activities of each ‘side,’ or the possible solutions to the problem?
Otherwise put, it would help me if you could point to some particular questions that you think you cannot possibly answer and that would, if you could answer them, have a dramatic impact on what we should think about the conflict. I don’t see how knowing exactly what happened on the streets of Abu Dis on Monday could make such a difference.
Your comment is split between a discussion of certainty and epistemic possibility, and a request for examples that would clarify what I mean when I say that some relevant knowledge about the conflict is off-limits to outsiders like me. I’ve focused here on giving examples, offering some epistemic commentary in relation to the examples without really discussing the epistemic issues in the abstract. So consider this comment an exercise in epistemology practiced in medias res. (When I say “off limits,” I don’t mean that I am certain of the impossibility of getting access to it, but simply that it is inaccessible, and that it’s reasonable to think that much of it will remain inaccessible, no matter how many times I visit the region, how hard I try to get access, and how well I master the relevant languages.)
The whole truth about Abu Dis-like clashes
Two Monday nights ago, there were clashes in the streets of Abu Dis between Palestinian youth and the Israeli Army. I heard them from my apartment, and managed to get to the “scene” of the clashes about half an hour after they started (or so I think). I saw a very partial fragment of the clashes from about 100 yards from what I took to be the “front lines” of the conflict–an hour’s worth of rock throwing by Palestinian youth, and tear gas and stun grenade “responses” by the Israelis. (I put “response” in scare quotes because it’s not clear who initiated the clashes and who was retaliating.) For obvious reasons, I couldn’t get a view of the whole scene, whether in space or in time. Temporally, I missed the beginning of the event. Spatially, I only saw part of it, from a distance. The protesters demanded that I turn off my camera, so I have no photographic evidence of what happened there, even relative to the circumscribed limits of what I saw. (The epistemic point is that that stricture made the event harder to remember.)
Suppose I want to give a moral evaluation of the event qua event. The epistemic difficulty I face is that I don’t have perceptual access to the whole event. But moral evaluation of the event qua event presupposes knowledge of what happened at the event (qua event). Absent the relevant information, I can’t talk or think about the event qua event, just the part of it that I saw. But the part of it that I saw doesn’t and couldn’t yield the kind of knowledge that would permit a moral evaluation of the event as such. Moral evaluation of a part of the event presupposes a moral evaluation of the whole event. For instance, I have to know who initiated the violence in order to know whether the swatch of violence in front of me is an act of initiatory or retaliatory violence.
Lacking direct perceptual evidence of the relevant facts, I have to rely on testimonial evidence. But now I face a new problem: there is no neutral testimonial evidence to be had. Testimony from the Palestinian side is bound to be partisan, as is testimony from the Israeli side. Putatively independent players present at the scene–paramedics, journalists, etc.–all turn out to be partisan in their own way. So, consequently, is the press coverage of the event that emerges a few days later.
A general problem with press coverage of Israeli-Palestinian violence: Partisans on either side of the conflict tend to be on the lookout for, and insist on covering, every single clash that ever takes place, but do so in a partisan way (focusing on malfeasances by the other side, and ignoring the ones on one’s own side). Meanwhile, the mainstream media ignores most of the clashes, covering maybe every 100th clash in an apparently neutral way, mostly because something about a particular incident fits the mainstream narrative and makes for good copy. The ultimate result is that a great deal of truth about Israel-Palestinian violence falls between the cracks of press coverage of the conflict, i.e., between the zealous partisanship of interested parties, and the indifferent complacency of mainstream reporting.
What this means is that there is no way of knowing what happened at the Abu Dis event, and no way of offering a moral evaluation of the event qua event. Other moral evaluations are possible–e.g., “children were too close to the front lines”–but not of the event qua event. So are expressions of skepticism with implicit moral judgments built into them, e.g., “It’s not clear why the army was obliged to intervene in a rally taking place in a Palestinian town.” But there’s a difference between a disapproving expression of skepticism about what the army has done, and a categorical denunciation of its conduct.
More concretely, the preceding means that there are no answers to the following morally salient questions:
• What exactly happened across the duration of the event, from beginning to end?
• What were the physical boundaries of the event?
• Who initiated the hostilities, and how? Did the Palestinians somehow provoke the Israelis, or was the Israeli incursion into Abu Dis simply a gratuitous show of force, intended to stop an otherwise peaceful march in a Palestinian town?
• How long did the conflict last, and why did it last as long as it did?
• Were any attempts at mediation made by anyone?
• How many injuries were there? How were they caused?
• How many people were involved on each side?
• Were the rock throwers organized by some otherwise invisible organizing body, or was the rock throwing entirely spontaneous?
• The entire event took place in front of the “Abu Dis Police Station.” What was going on inside the police station? Indeed, generally speaking, what does go on inside the police station? The Police Station is about 50 yards from an Israeli army base. Do the two sides coordinate their actions in cases like this?
I could go on generating questions. But if the Abu Dis clashes are typical of Israeli-Palestinian clashes (and I think they are), then such questions regularly go unasked and unanswered about Abu Dis-like events. That means that the nature of such events is ultimately shrouded in mystery, and that there is no real way of offer a moral evaluation of many of them. What we ultimately read about them in, say, The New York Times (when we do), is reporting taking place at several removes from the action, by reporters whose epistemic situation is even worse than mine. These are often enough reporters who don’t live in the West Bank, who pop into the West Bank from Jerusalem when things get really bad, who then have a quick look around, and file acontextual reports based in part on what they saw and what their sources think they ought to have seen. In practice, my sense (from reading the Times) is that mainstream American reporters simply regurgitate the Israeli version of any event, giving pro forma acknowledgement of the Palestinian version, but subtly characterizing the Palestinian version in a way that tends to de-legitimizes it. They almost never have first-hand access to facts that decide between two incompatible versions of a contested event.
Here are some background considerations to bear in mind about an event like the Abu Dis clash, considerations that cast doubt on almost any story anyone tells about the event qua event.
• What if both the Israelis and the Palestinians are lying about some aspects of the event? Or what if they’re just stretching the truth about it? Or omitting a lot that is adverse to their side?
• What if both sides have just played this rock throwing/tear gas game for so long that they’ve fallen into roles that require them to mouth the same mantras about every event, regardless of the facts on the ground?
• What if the people who know better about what’s really happening are afraid to speak out, for fear of being ostracized by their own side as traitors?
• What if, in order to have genuine knowledge of the nature of the event qua event, Israeli and Palestinian dissenters each have to break with their respective side, make common cause with one another as dissenters, share their experiences, make them coherent with each other, and produce an entirely novel account of what happens at such clashes? In other words, it may not be enough for individual dissenters individually to dissent. To get genuine knowledge of the nature of the event qua event, it may be necessary for groups of people working as groups to collate their (dissenting) accounts of the event in a self-conscious way with the aim of piecing together what really happened.
Each of the preceding “what ifs” presents a live possibility that vitiates the possibility of knowledge about the nature of such events simply by attending the event as I did. You could attend a million clashes and still not know whether each side was lying or telling the truth about what happened at places from which you were absent, at the times of your absence from them. That means that you could attend a million such events and never have full knowledge of what happened at a single one.
S‘s being certain about p requires the exclusion of relevant ~p alternatives to the truth of p. But the alternatives I have in mind are relevant in a stronger and more obvious sense than Cartesian worries about evil demons. An evil demon of the Cartesian sort is a nomological impossibility (Descartes’s evil demon is an omniscient mind reader, which I take to be nomologically impossible). But the epistemic obstacles I’m point out are not just nomologically possible, but likely to be operating. They’re not sheer conceivabilities dreamt up from out of nowhere, but probable possibilities whose operation could negate one’s claims to knowledge. In order to track the truth about Israeli-Palestinian clashes, I either need to exclude the “what ifs” I’ve identified, or confirm them. But I lack the power either to exclude or to confirm. To the extent that I lack that power, I can’t know the whole truth about a single Abu Dis-like event qua event. And that’s a significant epistemic liability.
The whole truth about Sourif-like events
About a week and a half ago, the Israeli army, seeking the killers of Rabbi Michael Mark, entered the town of Sourif, in the southwestern West Bank (in the vicinity of the South Hebron Hills). By all accounts, the IDF surrounded a certain house containing the suspects, hit it with anti-tank missiles, killed someone inside, and then demolished the house. (If you follow my Facebook posts, the house in question is the one directly behind me in the picture I took of the town of Sourif; the attack took place about a day after I was there–July 29.)
Israeli newspapers describe the event as follows: the army had the place under surveillance for weeks; they carefully planned the attack on the house; they targeted this one house (and only it), given the intelligence about it; the house in fact contained the relevant suspects; the suspects fired on the army, forcing the army to return fire; weapons were found in the house; the suspects were in fact guilty of the killing of Rabbi Mark; many of the suspects were members of extremist groups (Islamic Jihad, Hamas); one was a member of the Palestinian Authority police force; there were very few collateral damages; finally, in accordance with IDF policy, the “terrorist” house was demolished. All of this makes sense (we’re told) as a means of dealing with rampant Palestinian terrorism against Jewish civilians in the South Hebron Hills.
Palestinian accounts describe things as follows: the South Hebron Hills has been under siege by the IDF for the last month (by a conservative estimate); virtually every town is under some kind of curfew or closure; on entering Sourif for this operation, the Israelis cut power to all of the town’s residents and imposed a curfew on all of the surrounding areas; since they operate without procedures of any kind, the IDF marched up to the building in question, convinced from the outset of the suspects’ guilt; convinced of the suspects’ guilt, they went to the house with the intention of executing the suspects; the suspects, exercising a right of self-defense that even Hobbes would affirm, opened fire to avoid being summarily executed (cf. Leviathan, 14.29); the Israelis, having superior firepower, prevailed; upon prevailing, they demolished the house in question, ignoring the fact that the suspects were renters rather than owners, leaving the owner of the house destitute.
What we have here (on the Palestinian account) is one more instance of collective punishment under occupation, which puts the Israelis in the position of aggressors, and the Palestinians in the position of defenders. Since the settlers are effectuating a specifically military aim, they are not in fact civilians but agents of the Israeli military (misnamed the “Civil Authority”) and ought to be treated accordingly.
So we have two competing accounts of the same event. Some of the facts in question are accessible to anyone who searches diligently enough for them. But here are some potentially unanswerable questions:
1. How did the Israelis determine the guilt of the suspect?
2. Who fired first in this altercation?
3. How severe has the IDF siege against the South Hebron area been? What has it consisted of, and how has it affected people’s lives in concrete ways?
4. Did the Israelis in fact intend to execute the suspects (or the main suspect)? Put differently, did they have any plans to take the suspect(s) alive and merely arrest them?
5. Did the suspects have any plans to surrender peacefully? Or were they literally forced to fire at the army in self-defense?
6. Is the owner of the building in any sense culpable for renting his building to the individuals in question? Did he have any knowledge of their identity and actions?
7. Are settlers in any sense culpable for being instruments of Israeli military policy in the occupied territories? What exactly do they (really) think about their status in the West Bank?
The moral relevance of the questions seems too obvious to belabor. But it’s equally obvious that no outsider could get bona fide answers to very many of them, much less all of them.
In order to make moral judgments about events in Sourif, one has to rely on very broad normative claims, either about the in-principle legitimacy of the IDF’s militarized response to terrorism, or the legitimacy of Palestinians’ armed struggle against occupation, or simply the fact that armed conflict has to be constrained by moral principles that seem to have been violated in this instance. But questions (1)-(7) seek a more fine-grained understanding of the event than that. Good luck answering those questions, however. The problem is not just a matter of the amount of information required, but that much of the information is politically off-limits.
Examples: You can’t really ask the IDF, “So you say that you’ve established the guilt of the accused without having to put him on trial, but is any part of your case based on lies?” Or, “You say that you’re a ‘defense’ force, but isn’t your role in the West Bank one of an offensive force?” Nor can you strike up a conversation with a Jewish settler by saying, “I realize that you regard yourself as a perfectly normal person who happened to leave Millburn, New Jersey for an ‘authentically Jewish life’ in Kiryat Arba, but aren’t you just a tool of a militarized project of conquest, so that if someone puts a bullet in your head, you kind of asked for it?”
Examples from the other side: You can’t ask Palestinians what they realistically expect the Israelis to do about terrorism. In general, when I’ve asked Palestinians to take up the first-personal perspective of Israelis and ask them what they would do if they were in the Israelis’ situation, they have flatly refused to undertake the thought experiment, on the grounds that they would never be in that situation. They regard themselves as morally sullied by the very request to imagine themselves as Israelis. Alternatively, they regard the task of imagining themselves as Israelis as something beyond their imaginative ken.
But the truth is, even if the Israelis granted 100% of what the Palestinian negotiators have ever wanted, there will still be (some) terrorism against the Israelis, and the Israelis will still have to take quasi-military measures against it. What if some of those measures have to be as tough as the ones that the Israelis initiated at Sourif last week? Would they then be legitimate? I have not yet encountered the Palestinian willing to have a candid discussion of this question. But a person not willing to deal with that question is a person who doesn’t take Israeli security concerns seriously right now, so that anything she says about Sourif right now is likely to be affected by her indifference to that issue. You can’t really have a conversation with a Palestinian by saying, “So just to be clear–your downgrading of Israeli security concerns proceeds on the assumption that we don’t have to give a shit about the Israelis, right?” The implicit answer might well be, “Of course not! Why would we give a shit about them? They’ve never given a shit about us!” But no one would say that, because the conversation would never get that far.
Or take question (3). How many Palestinians would be willing to say, “Oh, ‘siege’ is the wrong word for how things have been here in the South Hebron Hills. The army’s closures have been a hassle, to be sure, but ‘siege’ overstates things.”
Or on question (6), how many Palestinians would say, “Well, of course the owner of the building knew that he was renting his building to operatives from the military wing of Islamic Jihad. And of course he knew that that means that they might well be using his building as a staging ground for attacks on Israelis. I mean, he sympathizes with Islamic Jihad, just like everyone else in town, so why would he have scruples about renting to a jihadi? In fact, he probably thought that doing so was meritorious.”
I am not saying that unless you have answers to my questions (1)-(7) about Sourif, you have to be an all-out skeptic about the occupation, or even about last week’s operation in Sourif. You can know enough to be justified in making some significant claims about Sourif (or Sourif-like events) with or without the answers to my questions above. But I think Mill is right to suggest that you don’t really have mastery of the subject matter until you’ve heard the answers to those questions. Perhaps your beliefs can be more justified than anyone else’s in the absence of answers to these questions, but until you’ve asked and gotten answers to the seven questions, you’re missing something important about Sourif-like phenomena. And “Sourif-like phenomena” are typical phenomena here.
Getting answers, however, is a pretty perplexing task. I don’t know how to go about it, and don’t know if I will ever succeed at doing it. That said, pursuing the answers is not like demanding the epistemic equivalent of “leaping buildings in a single bound.” That metaphor distorts more than it clarifies. Seeking answers to questions (1)-(7) is more like heading into terra incognita on the correct supposition that the answers to your questions require a journey through the wilderness–along with the apprehension that a journey through it might leave you stranded in it with nothing to show for your efforts. In other words, you may well head into terra incognita in the hopes of getting answers to the questions you seek–and end up years later, stranded, sunburned, hungry, thirsty, destitute, and (still) single, having gotten just 17% of the information you were looking for. Assuming you’re not eaten by leopards.
The truth about Jewish settlements and the principle of justice in transfer
On Nozick’s account of economic justice,
Suppose that you try to apply this schema to Jewish settlements within historically Arab neighborhoods or localities. In other words, for any given Jewish settlement, whether in Jerusalem or in the West Bank, you want to know: does the existence of this settlement satisfy a Nozick-type account of property entitlements?
In order to apply the Nozickian schema, you need to know at least two things about a given holding: (a) the history of that holding, going back at least a few decades, identifying transfers, parties to the transfer, and mechanisms of transfer across those decades; and less importantly, but still relevantly, (b) the property laws that confer title under the legal authority that operates within a given jurisdiction. In other words, you need to know what the transacting properties did, and the structure of the positive law they were operating under. In fact, information bearing on both (a) and (b) is astonishingly to come by.
I suppose (but don’t know) that you could get a handle on (b) within Israel proper by consulting a good Israeli property lawyer, but settlement activity takes place in Jerusalem and the West Bank, where “ordinary” Israeli law doesn’t have clear-cut application. So (b) will apply across multiple legal jurisdictions, including the Jerusalem Municipality (itself subject to constant expansion) and the “Civil Administration” within the military dictatorship of the West Bank. The content of the “law” in West Bank Areas B and C is partly a matter of military edict. It changes from day to day and even hour to hour. If a soldier decides to position soldiers on your “property,” and forbids you from crossing a certain line on your “property,” legally speaking, it is no longer your property. In Area A, property law is (contrary to widespread common belief) subject to both Israeli and Palestinian law. Given the complexity of the law, the multiple overlapping jurisdictions, and the vagaries of enforcement, I am not sure it is possible for an outsider even to figure out the basic mechanics of the legal process concerning property transfer, much less to offer a moral evaluation of that process in a given case.
But the real problem is (a), not (b). Suppose that I am a Palestinian, and I own a piece of land in a Palestinian neighborhood where Jewish settlers wish to settle. Culturally and in some cases legally, I am not permitted to sell my property to Jews; doing so is considered collaboration with the enemy both by the Palestinian Authority and by Palestinians generally. But Jews have a strong interest in buying such land, and I may have an interest in selling to someone, Jewish or otherwise–as long as I can’t be accused of collaboration if it ends up in Jewish hands.
The inevitable result of this situation is a byzantine arrangement of sales by middlemen who specialize in obscuring the process by which property is transferred from one party to the other. Suppose that I sell my land to a Palestinian middleman, who then (years later, after fictitiously “living” in the property) transfers it to Jewish owners. Suppose further that the Jewish owners fund the transfer from abroad, and live abroad, functioning as absentee landlords for Jewish tenants. And suppose that between the foreign owners and the Israeli tenants there is an organization that holds the property in trusteeship for the foreign owner. In that case, the transfer of title will take place in such a way as to enable me precisely to disavow my intention, as a Palestinian, of selling to Jewish owners. The chain of possession will (by design) be so convoluted that it will be impossible for anyone outside of the transaction to figure out who did what and when, and who owns what and how. Was the original owner defrauded, or did he intend to sell? Did he know that he was selling to settlers, or did he think he was selling to a Palestinian? Setting aside the principals, no one will know. And the principals themselves may not know.
The settlers with whom I’ve discussed this issue assure me that many Palestinians want to sell to Jewish settlers, but are pressured into not selling. The Palestinians with whom I’ve discussed the matter assure me that in general, Palestinians do not want to sell to settlers, but are duped into doing so by unscrupulous middlemen in the pay of settler organizations. One Palestinian with whom I discussed the matter (someone having severe financial difficulties at the time of the conversation, and contemplating the possibility of selling to settlers) lamented the difficulty of being caught between three competing imperatives–the need to sell out for financial reasons, the fear of being accused of collaboration, and the knowledge that the transactions in question would, if effectuated, unquestionably contribute to the settlers’ political domination of the Palestinians who remained in his town (including the rest of his family). In any given case, however, it is extremely difficult to determine what has happened and why.
It’s even difficult to test generalizations like, “Palestinians want to sell but are pressured into not selling,” or “Palestinians don’t want to sell, but are defrauded into selling.” Usually, when you confront generalizations in need of confirmation or disconfirmation, you set up a study and either confirm or disconfirm them. Easier said than done in a contested place like Israel/Palestine, whether in Jerusalem or the West Bank. It’s hard enough to set up a research program under a military government, but it seems to me that even the best research program would be confounded by the parties’ likely refusals to be candid with any researcher. Jewish settlers do not want to admit out loud that they’re engaged in a systematic stealth program of dispossession and domination of the Palestinians. As they put it, they’re just engaged in ordinary real estate transactions. Palestinians don’t want to admit that it sometimes benefits Palestinians to sell to Jews, and that some Palestinians sell to Jews with their eyes wide open about what they’re doing. For them, every transfer of title from Palestinian to Jewish hands is an act of treason. Talking about it is like talking about the prevalence of child molestation or incest within a culture. It’s a taboo subject.
An outsider can get a general sense of how the process works, but faced with a particular instance of a Jewish settlement, it is very difficult to decide between various hypotheses about how a given property has been transferred from Arab into Jewish hands:
• A Palestinian owner, having legitimate title to the property, transferred it by legitimate means to Jewish owners, who now have legitimate title to the property.
• A Palestinian owner, having legitimate title to the property, was defrauded into transferring it to Jewish owners, whose title to the property is rendered illegitimate by the fraud.
• A Palestinian owner, whose title to the property arose by the vicissitudes of war or violence, transferred it by legitimate means to Jewish owners….
• A Palestinian owner, whose title to the property arose by the vicissitudes of war or violence, was defrauded into transferring it to Jewish owners…
• A Palestinian owner, under pressure by a discriminatory legal system, is obliged to sell to Jewish owners…
Etc. There are innumerable variants. Settlers exploit the opacity of the situation to suggest that no wrongdoing is involved. Palestinian activists want to treat all settlement in blanket fashion as an “invasion” or act of “dispossession.” But in any given case, the truth is a moving target.
The details matter somewhat less in the West Bank, where the discriminatory nature of the legal system is obvious and all-encompassing, and a matter of record. They matter more in Jerusalem, where–given relative equality between the two parties–it is far less clear what is going on: there is more likelihood in Jerusalem than in the West Bank that what looks like an ordinary commercial transaction is one. Also, the taboo on Palestinian selling to Jews cannot be enforced by law in Jerusalem as it can in some parts of the West Bank. But given the “middleman” phenomenon, the status of any given transaction is always a bit of a mystery.
Jerusalem is an intensely contested place, and settlement is one of the most contested things happening in it. If I’m right, outsiders lack access to some of the most crucial facts concerning particular holdings in Jerusalem. We can comment in a general way on the dynamics of settlement, but it’s much harder to pinpoint the rights and wrongs in a particular case. So part of the truth is accessible, but the whole truth is elusive. To give up on getting the whole truth is a lot to give up on. So the difficulty is there, and remains a live one.
That all seems invincibly compelling. But isn’t the very fact that it is impossible for a neutral party to determine even basic facts in these cases itself evidence that injustice is being perpetrated by at least one and probably both ‘sides,’ and doesn’t it also suggest, at least broadly, some course of action in the form of revisions to Israeli policy that would bring greater transparency and accountability? It seems abundantly clear that the current arrangement is not one that can lead to sustainable peace or satisfy a non-partisan observer (who is not a conspiracy theorist) that Israel is not guilty of systematic injustice toward the occupied Palestinians. The cases you describe are indeed ones that far surpass even our ordinary inability to know with certainty what really happened. But not only does our inability to know just what happened there not seem to be necessary for us to conclude that the pro-Israel narrative according to which they are merely defending themselves against barbaric terrorists does not hold water, it seems like evidence that it does not hold water.
Last comment on this for now:
Of course. The course of action it suggests is a change to American policy, since we’re the only power in a position to make a demand for greater transparency: instead of handing the Israelis the biggest military aid package in American history, and closing our eyes to what’s going on here, we should be demanding transparency from them and making our support for them conditional on changes, e.g., to their settlement policies. But there is no chance of that. Trump, Clinton, and Johnson are all at one on this: Israel must not be questioned; it should be allowed to do whatever it wants. And the truth is that the Oslo Agreements, which we so proudly engineered, give Israel the legal right to do a lot of what it’s doing (however we cash out the justice of those rights).
Aside from a few left wing activists, I think the demand for greater transparency would fall on deaf ears here. The Israeli narrative focuses on Israel’s supposed over-generosity to the Palestinians: “We gave them everything they wanted at Camp David in 2000, and then we withdrew from Gaza, and what did we get for it? The second intifada and Hamas rockets. So we don’t owe anyone anything.”
Transparency on the military issues (e.g., Abu Dis, Sourif) would threaten what the Israelis regard as the relative efficacy of their security policies. For one thing, a security policy is easier to implement if you can do whatever you want without accountability or transparency (any policy is easier to implement that way, as any administrator knows). For another, transparency is a gigantic liability if your security policy depends on intelligence-gathering from a dense network of Palestinian informants and collaborators, as the Israeli one does. You couldn’t pull off an operation like this without such a network. The Israelis are not going to compromise that because a bunch of eggheads like us wants greater transparency from them. From their perspective, there is a low-level war going on here (they’re right about that), and they don’t have the luxury of being more transparent or constrained than they already are.
On the property transfer issue, once you understand the Israeli position, you can see why it’s flatly incompatible with greater transparency. If, as they claim, Jerusalem and the West Bank are full of Palestinians who want to sell real estate to Jews–but are at risk of death if they do–it becomes crucial to hide their identity. In other words, Palestinians who sell to Jews are going to need the real estate equivalent of a Witness Protection Program. But there’s no such thing as a transparent Witness Protection Program. So (the argument goes) such sales will have to remain opaque.
I don’t think there’s much enthusiasm for transparency among Palestinians, either. They don’t want transparency about the darker corners of the resistance, for the obvious reason that transparency would de-legitimize and/or compromise it.
But I don’t even think that they’re that enthusiastic about transparency from the Israelis. Many Palestinians I spoke with have the attitude that, being on the receiving end of the occupation, they already know what they need to know about it. Greater Israeli transparency wouldn’t add anything important to what they already know: the injustice of the occupation is already sufficiently transparent to any sane or rational person; the point is that something needs to be done about it. And the “something that needs to be done” has to take the form of pressure on the Israelis, whether violent or non-violent, or both. If you exert enough pressure on Israel, the system will crumble, and things will change.
But that’s just wrong–all of it. Personal experience of the occupation doesn’t entail conceptual understanding of what it is, how it operates, or what moral verdict to give on it. Even the professional Palestinian tour guides I dealt with tended to rely on vague, anecdotal accounts of how the occupation operated, based entirely on things they had seen or heard, but impossible to confirm beyond hear-say. There is this naive (or desperate, but still wrong-headed) belief on the Palestinian side that if we just get the right damning image of the occupation to go viral on Facebook, everybody will suddenly wake up and see the injustice of the occupation, and the walls will come tumbling down as they did in Berlin in 1989. It’s just a matter of finding the right image and getting the right number of hits.
Palestinian leftists here like to speak the language of “settler colonialism”: Israel (they say) is a “settler colonial state.” The religious nationalists just assume that Palestine is and must be an Arab Muslim state. Given those ways of talking, there tends not to be a need to demand greater transparency from the Israelis. Transparency is beside the point from either perspective.
If Zionism is a form of settler colonialism, then whenever Zionists make incursions into places inhabited by “the indigenous population,” they are guilty of injustice. We need not inquire into the specific mechanisms by which those incursions are taking place. The mechanisms don’t matter. What matters is the sheer fact of Zionist “penetration” of indigenous habitations (as they like to say). That’s why the words “settler” and “settlement” have come to acquire a kind of demonic connotation in pro-Palestinian discourse. If we “conceptualize Zionism through a settler colonial lens” (a direct quotation from a recent talk I attended), then settlement is evil as such, regardless of how it takes place.
Something similar will turn out to be true if you complacently assume that Zionism is bad because it’s the wrong sort of ethno-nationalist project for Palestine–the right sort being the Arab-Muslim project. On this view, Palestine shouldn’t be a Zionist state, it should be an Arab-Muslim state. In that case, once again, the problem is not that we lack fine-grained knowledge about the mechanisms of Israeli injustice, but that whatever the interloping Zionist state does is unjust because it’s at root a foreign, European transplant to what is and should always remain Palestinian (i.e., Arab-Muslim) soil and sovereignty over it.
Transparency is only important for people outside of those perspectives, whether Israeli or Palestinian. All five of us.
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