During the Cold War, outrage at the idea of “moral equivalence” animated the neoconservative critics of non-interventionism. How dare those leftists hold up the Soviet occupation of Hungary and all of Eastern Europe and equate it with, say, the American occupation of Korea, US dominance of Latin America, or our penchant for overthrowing regimes around the world (e.g. Mossadegh in Iran) that somehow displeased us? Don’t they realize that the US and the Soviet Union are not morally equivalent? We are talking about the heirs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson versus the heirs of Lenin and Stalin: to hold them up to the same standards, to even utter their names in the same breath, is a moral obscenity. Or so the argument went. There were certain problems with this lofty view, however, that were never acknowledged or answered by the neocons, such as: if we act like them, then how are we different from them? Shouldn’t the heirs of Jefferson be held to a higher standard than the heirs of Stalin?
Oh, but this was just “liberal” fuzzy-mindedness, at best, fellow-traveling subversion at worst: did we want to hamstring the Good Guys and bring about their defeat? The Cold Warriors knew better, of course: we were in a life and death struggle with the most dangerous, most powerful adversary the US had ever known, and practically anything é yes, even nuclear war é was justified in pursuit of victory. “Better dead than red” was a decision Cold War conservatives were more than willing to make on behalf of the rest of us.
When the Cold War ended, however, these arguments went out the window. The gulags were opened up, and emptied: the heirs of Lenin and Stalin were humbled, forced to confess (if not pay) for their crimes, and largely chased out of power. It was no longer possible to cite the requirements of a life-and-death struggle to justify and explain away the unfortunate “excesses” of US foreign policy: the neocons could no longer get away with the doctrine of “moral equivalence,” which they had formerly used to dismiss opponents of our foreign policy of global intervention as tools of Moscow and Beijing. Now, finally freed from the constraints imposed by the 50-year “emergency” of the Cold War, the West is free to live up to its self-appointed role as moral exemplar for the rest of the world: the US and its allies are to be judged, at last, on the same plane as all the other nations of the world, held to the same standards, and the neocons can drop the rhetoric about “moral equivalence” é because we’re free to be our wonderful moral selves. Right?
Not quite. Writing in David Horowitz’s Frontpage, Ronald Radosh denounces “The New Moral Equivalence” in an entirely new context, and brings back an old concept in a big way. In the bygone days of the Cold War, he writes, pundits and the media would constantly commit this heresy in regard to the Soviet Union, and now they are committing a new but very similar sin, to wit:
“The Soviet Union no longer exists, but the pundits still are engaging in the same illogic é this time, however, the focus of their analysis is the growing conflict between the free and democratic state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Yassir Arafat.”
And so the parameters of the new paradigm are set from the start: “democratic” Westernized Israel versus the Asiatic despotism of Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Never mind that Palestinian homes are routinely bulldozed to make way for Jewish settlements, or that the Israeli state is founded on a religio-ethnic exclusivism entirely antithetical to the free society: it is enough that Israel has elections. So what if most of the original inhabitants of the land have been driven out and, not having the “right of return,” are ineligible to vote? Still, in Radosh’s view, this “democratic” character elevates Israel so far above the Palestinians and their makeshift Authority that any attempt to shift even part of the blame to the Israelis amounts to an impermissible act of “moral equivalence.” Radosh writes of his outrage in viewing a television report that seemed to him to embody this pernicious doctrine:
“It was simple, we were told. Both sides were upping the ante and resorting to unrestrained violence. As news footage was shown of the moving funerals of some of the nineteen killed in last week’s Jerusalem bombing of a pizza parlor, including the funeral of a New Jersey pregnant woman; the images shifted to Palestinian mourners carrying aloft amidst throngs of cheering crowds the photo of the suicide bomber who was responsible, and the bodies of other terrorist leaders who were assassinated by targeted Israeli missiles.”
Selectivity is the hallmark of the literary artist: he must home in on details, choose one storyline over another, and selectively represent reality to present a fictional world by means of stylization. The same stylization is the mark of the propagandist: he is very selective in his focus, choosing to highlight only those factoids that support his own preconceived view. It works with fiction, but is disastrous when it comes to writing commentary or journalism. Radosh focuses on a single day’s events, which happened to include these two particular images. But a wider focus could have easily yielded far different images: say, the broken body of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, shot dead for throwing stones, or a bulldozer leveling yet another Palestinian home.
In the Middle East, there are more than enough atrocities to go around. In order to make one side look like angels, and the other like devils, it is necessary to narrow one’s focus down to a few hours, at most, so as to get a snapshot that will reflect ideology rather than reality. As a tribute to Radosh’s skills as a propagandist, I note that here he employs the snapshot technique so subtly that only the most critical reader will notice.
According to Radosh, what was so terrible about this particular television report é and media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian feud in general é was that
“Each side’s actions, viewers were told, equally led to escalation, and each revealed that both Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli government’s response to terrorist attacks were on the same moral plane.”
The problem with this equation, Radosh believes, is that it puts an equal sign where an unequal sign ought to be. Forgetting that pre-teen boys, old men, and even babies, for God’s sake, have been the victims of Israeli “anti-terrorist” actions and settler vigilantes é forgetting the long prelude to the Intifada, and dropping the entire context of the present crisis é Radosh tries to pretend that the Israelis have always gone after “known terrorists” to the exclusion of all else, while the Palestinians randomly target innocent civilians.
The trouble with the snapshot technique, however, is that it is geared to the typically short attention span of the average reader. But to anyone who has followed this ongoing tragedy for more than a week’s time, one fact is beyond dispute: the Holy Land is such an unholy patchwork of conflicting sects and peoples é peopled, moreover, almost exclusively by sinners of the most egregious and unrepentant sort é that any settlement of claims and counter-claims must inevitably come through war. Hatred seems to well up from the very soil, in place of water, permeating the place like a poisonous fog. None are unaffected, certainly not the Israelis, and anyone who claims otherwise is an out-and-out liar.
Aside from the obvious point that there are haters on both sides of this moral equation, it seems to me there is something unsavory in this business of putting some on one moral plane, and some on another, lower plane, due entirely to circumstances of birth. What happens to the ordinary Palestinian mother trying to raise a large brood of children in a refugee camp, while her sons look longingly in the distance at land they believe has been stolen from them? Why, the same thing that happens everywhere and in every era to victims of ideology run amok: they get bulldozed, run over by messianism, fanaticism, and every other rampaging “ism,” their lives crushed beneath the sheer weight of history. Ordinary people have no place in the grand designs of ideologues, whether they be Marxists, democratic capitalists, Zionists, or advocates of Technocracy. Their place is that of extras in mob scenes, as backdrop for the dramas enacted by gods and heroes, the rulers and self-appointed vanguard parties charged with enforcing and implementing the grand blueprint.
In Israel, this blueprint involved a massive project of displacement, population transfers, and an organized influx, the end result of which was a formally “democratic” regime that took on many of the characteristics of a full-fledged theocracy. That God granted the land of Israel to the Jews is a dogma upheld by Jews and many Christians alike: so who is this ordinary Palestinian mother to stand up to the authority and majesty of God Himself? What does her suffering or her fate matter, in the face of God’s will? Why shouldn’t she suffer é if God wills it? He, after all, works in strange and mysterious waysé.
Israel is being asked to show restraint, including by the US State Department, and it just isn’t fair, why, it’s that dratted “moral equivalence” syndrome again, because, writes Radosh, what it boils down to is this:
“If your home were attacked by criminals and, rather than call the police, you were asked to enter into a dialogue with them, would you?”
The prism of ideology not only colors everything, but also has built into it certain blindspots. Because it is a kind of madness, an unbalanced obsession with order that distorts all perceptions, the ideological mindset cannot imagine any view other than the “correct” one. Let’s widen everyone’s horizons, then, with a variation of Radosh’s little thought experiment, albeit one far more relevant to the true history of Palestine.
What if someone came into your house, told you that God had given them the deed to your home, and proceeded to kick you and your entire family out on the street? Furthermore, what if it happened not only to you, but to everyone on your block é what would you do? Would you sit there and take it? Would you say, “Oh yes, you’re so right: God did indeed grant you the deed to my home, and so I’ll just be on my way, nice and peaceful like é and have a nice day”?
Capitalism is exploitation, race is all, scientists must rule, the proletariat must rule, God gave Israel to the Jews, Allah is the only god and Mohammed is his prophet: among these competing and conflicting ideologies, none can allow the reality or humanity of its rivals, or even of its own adherents. The benefits these ideologies were supposed to confer on ordinary people é Israelis, Palestinians or whatever é never materialized, but such failures have long since ceased to matter. For the ideology é and its physical manifestation, the state é is, by this time, an end in itself, over and above that of any individual, friend or foe. The problem, in the Middle East, is that soured utopianism has turned murderous, and, what’s worse, its acolytes are so deluded, so drugged up by their ideological vision, that they barely even notice the carnage. They have long ago tuned out anything that might reflect badly on Israel.
It’s funny that Radosh should bring up the old Soviet Union, and the bygone days of the Cold War, in the context of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is playing in the US. For the response of American friends of Israel to any criticism of Israel’s rulers, even a plea to show a little restraint, is akin to the ferocious response of the old friends of the Soviet Union to any critical remarks directed at the “worker’s fatherland.” As Radosh is all too well aware, the Left looked on critics of the Soviet bloc and Cuba as traitors to the cause, and it seems to me that anyone who dares to criticize Israel is, today, treated much the same way é and by many of the same people.
In his book, Commies, a compelling autobiographical account of his days on the Left, Radosh goes into great detail describing the mental and political gyrations of leftists who sought to rationalize the crimes of their overseas heroes in Moscow, Havana, and Managua. Like many who write for Frontpage, and who identify as neoconservatives, Radosh is an ex-leftist who had “second thoughts” about the movement to which he had dedicated his life. In Commies, he charts his own growing disillusionment with the Left due to its peculiar blindspots, its unwillingness to acknowledge the many crimes committed in its name. The great irony is that, in having “second thoughts,” it appears that Radosh has merely exchanged one set of blindspots for another. The ideological mindset remains intact, in spite of its ostensible transformation, except that, in this case, the object of adulation and apologias has shifted from the Soviet Union to Israel.
I was struck, in reading Commies, of the story Radosh tells of his trip to Cuba, when he and his delegation of earnest Fidelistas visited a state mental institution. Gee, doc, asked one of the delegates, how come the patients are so, uh, calm? How do you manage to keep them so well-behaved? It was a softball question, more than a little obsequious, but Fidel’s American fan club was shocked to hear the doctor’s proud answer: “Oh, we lobotomize them,” he proudly informed them, “according to the latest scientific techniques.” Radosh and several others were horrified, but one stalwart Commie defended the Cubans by loudly insisting “we have to understand that there’s a difference between a capitalist lobotomy and a socialist lobotomy!”
This is what the partisans of every ideology are invariably required to do: defend the indefensible. They inevitably take refuge in contradictions: when they do it, it’s an atrocity, but when we do it, it’s not only okay but an act of heroism. This is what Radosh é a scholar of high intelligence and great sensitivity, as evidenced by his books é is, in the end, reduced to, as he tries to prove the moral superiority of one brand of terrorism over another. Doing this requires a kind of do-it-yourself lobotomy, the destruction of all critical thought and adherence to a strict party line é and, in Radosh’s case, that is a sad sight, indeed.
The idea that the Palestinians and the Israelis are not “morally equivalent” is a dangerous doctrine because it is so easily misunderstood. As Radosh intended to mean it, the idea refers to the concept that the Israelis are merely fighting a defensive war, and that therefore their war aims and methods are entirely justified. But this lack of moral equivalence can also be taken to mean that Palestinians, for some reason, just do not exist on the same moral plane as Israelis, and that is why their claims are invalid. One could believe this for a number of theological or political reasons, all of which find no real audience outside of Israel, save with a certain variety of fundamentalist Christian. But inside Israel such a line has real resonance, and finds a receptive audience among Zionist fanatics, particularly among the semi-militarized government-subsidized settler movement.
This alleged lack of “moral equivalence” could also be taken to mean that the Palestinians are lesser folk, they don’t matter, God gave the land to us, and therefore they should be expelled, all of them. This was the program of the late Meir Kahane and his fringe Kach movement, a view officially excoriated by Israel’s supporters as “extremist” é and yet, now, the logic of Zionism impels its supporters to embrace Kahanism in practice. Kahane truly believed that there can be no moral equivalence between Arab and Jew because the latter are God’s Chosen People and the former little more than animals. While I am sure that Radosh does not hold this view, I am also sure that his arguments against “moral equivalence” could well be employed in ways he would never endorse.
I do not valorize the Palestinians, or their leadership: my view is that the US must stay well out of the conflict, and must not be any kind of “broker,” honest or otherwise. Our intervention é billions of dollars per year in “aid” to Israel, and unconditional military support é has created the problem in the Middle East, and the region doesn’t need more of it. American supporters of Israel who claim that the defense of Tel Aviv is as important to the US as the military security of, say, Long Island, have yet to make a convincing case to the American people. Yet we are funding the Israeli war machine so lavishly that it may as well be the fifty-first state. If this is “moral equivalence,” then I hate to think what a seriously unbalanced bias in favor of Israel would look like.
Radosh and Israel’s amen corner in the US have conniptions at the slightest implication that Israel may be playing just a little rough when it cuts down stone-throwing children with real bullets. If I were them, however, I would quit whining, and keep a low profile: the American people have a real penchant for underdogs, and they don’t like bullies. If and when they believe Israel has gone too far, the backlash will begin, and all the clever arguments about “moral equivalence” and even accusations of “anti-Semitism” will no longer suffice to discredit Israel’s critics. At that point, after the plug is pulled on the foreign aid gravy train, I hope the Israeli government is ready to go it alone: because it will have no choice.
Mr. Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com