June 9, 2003

Why Israel and Palestine are not morally equivalent

Right now, my opinion of Israel is pretty low, even by my standards. I have been watching the news on the Israeli response to the Bush "Road Map." The good news: Sharon is offering lip service to it. The bad news: nothing but lip service is being offered. But Sharon, for all his faults, is at least understandable. He knows when he's talking shit, and he's been talking shit today. Today's act of tactical assholery: "Speaking to Likud's Central Committee, Sharon said no peace plan with Palestinians was possible unless they ended "terror" first."

Now, remind me, exactly how many troops does the Palestinian army have? Oh yeah, none whatsoever.

There is a very simple notion in political science, one that goes back to Max Weber: A state possesses, by definition, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and it protects that monopoly. When a state is unable to protect that monopoly, it isn't a state. There is no Palestinian state, and a non-existent state can not have a monopoly on violence. There is no possibility of anti-Israeli terrorism ending until there is a genuine Palestinian state with a monopoly on legitimate violence to protect. Any decision not to negotiate or make concessions until the violence abates is nothing but a cheap rationalisation for maintaining the status quo indefinitely.

Decades of Israeli repression have not made Hamas or Fatah or any of the other terrorist groups go away. Extremists are usually well equipped to resist. Unless it has a monopoly on legitimate violence, no Palestinian authority has the power or the slightest bit to gain from trying to make them go away. If there were a Palestinian state, armed organisations like Hamas would represent every bit as much a threat to it as to Israel. Such a state would have an excellent motive to make them go away, and if they had the power to do so, would doubtless do away with them. The only possible way out is to negotiate despite continuing violence. There simply is no alternative except the status quo.

However, it seems that there are quite a few people who seem to think that "the Palestinians" are responsible for terrorism, and that making concessions to them is giving in to terrorists. This article, for example, by an author who appears to suffer from the double stigma of being both a Likudnik and a Randroid, suffers from this sort of thinking. It is just like believing that "the Jews" control the banks. This kind of thinking derives not so much from a false belief as from a confusion between ontological categories.

To explain this, I need to talk a bit about the basic theory of collectives. Margaret Thatcher once said that there is no such thing as society. She was right, although unsurprisingly for all the wrong reasons. Society does not possess the ability to have mental states, goals, intentions or to undertake cognition. Society is just a collection of people.

Any bunch of things can be a collection. Collections may not have clear definitions. They may be fuzzy or ambiguous. They need not be Aristotelian sets. The Americans are a collection. The Israelis are a collection. The Jews are a collection. I need not be able to identify precisely who is an American, an Israeli or a Jew to identify those things as collections. I just need to assert that there is more than one person or thing that is American, Israeli or Jewish.

Collections are not entities capable of cognition or coherent action. They do not plan, consider possibilities, have needs or goals, or take responsibility for things. There are, however, groups that can have needs and goals, that can plan, undertake cognition and take purposeful actions. They are called collectives.

Firms, armies, states, governments, unions, churches, clubs and many other kinds of groups are collectives. They can be identified as collectives because they can be recognised as having needs, goals, and intentions, a capacity for cognition, and the ability to undertake coherent, meaningful action. Collectives can, therefore, be responsible for the actions they undertake. Collections can not.

One linguistic test for separating collectives from collections is that we can speak of a collective in the singular. "America wants peace in the Middle East." "France is the enemy." "Israel is illegally occupying the West Bank." This is in line with current thinking in cognitive linguistics and touches on parts of Marxist psychology and linguistics. How we talk about things betrays how we think about them, and how we think about things reflects how we interact them. We interact with a collective as a single entity, but we can not easily conceptualise a collection as a single thing.

One of the advantages of this theory is that it scales. People themselves are also collectives - collectives of cells. Trees are also collectives of cells. That is what distinguishes an organism from just a bunch of cells, that it can have intentions and undertake cognition. Of course, all collectives are not equal. Trees have very limited cognitive powers and very few needs. In the same way, a state has a very different set of intentions and abilities than a person. Furthermore, a collective's cognitive abilities are determined by the way it interacts with the rest of the universe. People interact with other people and things in much more sophisticated ways than trees do. States interact with the world just as differently.

The true problem with the statement that "the Jews rule the world" is not half so much that there are plenty of powerless Jews and powerful non-Jews, but that Jews are not a collective. They are just a collection. I suppose it is possible to say that a conspiracy of some Jews rule the world without making a category error. If such a statement were true, then that conspiracy would constitute a collective. Of course, such a collective is not that same thing as "the Jews." It makes a poor case for anti-semitism to say that some small group of Jews might be up to something you don't like.

Now, this is the key point of this whole post: The Palestinians are a collection, and are therefore incapable of being responsible for terrorism. Hamas is a collective. Fatah is a collective. Al-Qaeda is a collective. They are capable of bearing collective responsibility for terrorism. The Palestinians are not.

That is why there is no moral equivalency between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel is a collective. It is an entity capable of cognition, intentional action and responsibility. The actions of the IDF, the state of repression that prevails in the West Bank and Gaza - Israel is responsible for those things, whether justified or not. The Palestinians, because they are not a collective, are not responsible for terrorism, even when it is undertaken in their name by some collective entity.

The Palestinians are not even a member of the same category as Israel, and thus no moral equivalency is possible. Letting up in the West Bank and Gaza and making concessions that lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state are not concessions to terrorists. The first reduces the misery of the Palestinians as individuals. The second offers them the possibility of forming powerful collectives other than Hamas and Fatah.

I cringe every time I hear someone talk about how they can't trust, or can't deal with "the Palestinians" and how that justifies whatever asinine thing they think ought to be done. That sort of statement is an excellent indicator of who the bad guys are. I imagine the same category error must occur in Al-Qaeda or Hamas. You need do little more than turn on the news to hear someone in the Arab world saying that "the Americans" and "the Israelis" are responsible for whatever injustices they feel aggrieved by. It's easy to get from there to concluding that you are justified in killing Americans and Israelis in response. If they said America and Israel were responsible, I wouldn't be nearly so bothered. Sometimes, I might even agree. It's a lot harder to go from America is doing something bad to Americans must die.

That's one of the big reasons why I hate nationalism. It makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a battle between two "nations" - two of the same sort of thing - instead of what it really is: a conflict between the Israeli state and a bunch of people called Palestinians. It helps people to confuse collections with collectives. It encourages "us vs. them" sorts of thinking, preventing people from recognising how their conflicts are with collectives rather than with groups of individuals. The outcome of that sort of thinking is obvious enough: repression, collective punishment (which has to do with punishing collections for actions taken by collectives), ethnic cleansing and, in the most extreme cases, genocide.

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Posted 2003/06/09 0:36 (Mon) | TrackBack