Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Rationalism, Context, and Blaming Israel

When debating the Israel-Palestine issue, it is essential to first establish with whom you are debating. Your arguments will likely be irrelevant unless you know where you share, or don't share, common ground. For example, if one side privately holds that Israel has no right to exist, there is no sense in the other side arguing that Israel is defending itself. An "invading colonialist aggressor" has no right to self-defense, therefore arguing over what qualifies or doesn't qualify as defense is pointless. The goal would be to bring this viewpoint into the open so that the debate can shift towards the actual point of contention.

Establishing common ground and context is basic debating 101, yet it is no longer done in most debates that I've seen nowadays. Assuming both sides are being rational, this can make all the difference towards understanding exactly where you agree and disagree. More importantly, it's like trying to build the second floor of a building before the first floor is ready. This is absolute futility. If we break down the above example, self defense assumes that you have a right to exist because there is no justification for protecting something that shouldn't be there in the first place. If this foundation is skipped, one side will keep arguing that Israel is protecting its citizens from evil terrorists, while the other side will accuse Israel of doing evil things to resistance fighters, while, in actuality, the problem in this debate is Israel's existence. Aggression is only evil if it is unjustified and it is therefore the justification that must be debated, not the outcome and its interpretation. These two sides are not talking the same language; each is based on a different ground floor and assumption, and they are not arguing the assumptions but their consequences. Therefore, as is common today with many debates, matters could rapidly devolve to mudslinging and yelling, each side accusing each other of being evil, due to both sides living on different planets.

This is not always as obvious at it seems until the logical foundation of an argument is explicitly exposed. To reiterate using my example, "Israel is defending itself" versus "Israel is the aggressor committing crimes against Palestinians" may initially seem to be two statements that directly relate to each other, interpreting the same events in opposing ways. However, if you think about it, you should notice that there is no way to prove which side is correct. This is because they are simple statements, not arguments; they are based on underlying assumptions and it is these assumptions that must be attacked, which will also provide a possible coup de grĂ¢ce with which to conclude the debate.

Of course, Israel's right to exist may depend on further underlying assumptions on which you disagree, which will force you to shift the argument further down the premise chain.

Similarly, the question of whether the war in Gaza involves evil often revolves around the foundation of whether Gaza was being occupied unjustly. If Gaza was free, then any attack from Gazans is an act of war and Israel is defending itself. If Gaza is occupied, or at least occupied unjustly, then a Gazan attack is an act of resistance. Once again, the debate must shift to underlying assumptions and only then the debate could potentially reach conclusions. Otherwise, people would only be throwing the words 'resistance' and 'defense' at each other with no hope of resolution, and no thoughtful material is provided over which an audience can deliberate.

Therefore, a few basic questions and definitions should precede any debate on specific issues: Does Israel/Palestine have a right to exist? When you say that Palestine will be free, which part of the territory are you talking about? Precisely what does this freedom look like for Jews currently living there? Are you willing to share land and equal rights with peaceful Jews/Arabs? What about non-peaceful ones? When you say 'war crime' does this mean any killing of a woman or child, or are you referring to international law and its precise definitions? What is your definition of 'apartheid'? 'Occupation'? What are the minimum requirements for genocide? And so on.

Further down below, I will be presenting what I think is the most common and definitive context missing from rational debates on Israel.

Of course, all this assumes that your opponent is being rational, is listening and not driven by blind hate, not dismissing you as a propagandist before you even open your mouth, and there is an actual chance that your words will reach their intended target, even if they don't convince. Otherwise, why are you wasting breath on such a debate? The first question should be: "Since I am pro-Israel, is there any chance that I will speak the truth, or am I pure evil?". Then again, this would start the debate on awkward footing.

While it is perfectly possible that the other side is indeed a propagandist and knowingly lying through their teeth, the more important question is whether you are listening carefully to what they are saying, as well as to what they are not saying. Understanding the foundation upon which an argument is based is the key to dismantling it, as I explained. If you wish to undermine their argument, you have to find their ground floor.

On top of all this, online debates may be even worse if the debaters are talking to the audience instead of each other. When this happens, they merely heave random inflammatory statements designed to provoke emotions instead of searching for the ground floor or even exchanging words that actually relate to each other.

I've dealt with some of these inflammatory, over-the-top accusations in some of my previous articles, and the truth is, they are generally easier to dismantle and undermine because of their extremism. For example, in the case of genocide, as I argued, the primary challenge when using that word is that even war crimes and millions of horrible war tragedies still do not qualify as genocide, therefore proof of genocide would have to be equally extreme or deal with the elusive proof of intent. I've also argued easily against the claim that Zionism is racism, and dismantled many of the contradictory claims against Israel's right to exist and Israel's alleged evil actions. On the other hand, the more subtle claim that Israel is going too far in the Gaza war was more difficult. All arguments of this type would be a waste of time if the intention is not to discuss but to destroy Israel with the help of inflammatory remarks. The problem, however, is that even rational people may be swept away by irrational, hateful people and their passionate accusations, and then one has to argue these points logically and systematically. When millions of irrational Palestinians around the world accuse Israel of deliberately killing their children, rational people tend to listen. Emotional conviction is contagious, and latches on to rationalizations.

Even with extreme, irrational arguments, however, the ground floor is important: When I watch online debates, no matter how rabid one side may be, I listen very carefully to every word. If I hear an argument or fact I have not encountered before, I will always perform research. Even if I don't agree with their conclusions (in most cases, they wildly exaggerate or distort actual facts, extracting whatever their biases dictate), I do learn many new things and discover problems with my side of the debate. More importantly, I learn how to dismantle their arguments; but this is only possible by listening carefully. In a rational debate, I would expect my opponent to do the same.

But let us return to sanity and rational arguments. Since this article is one-sided and not a debate, I am going to define my own opponent based on a viewpoint I've seen countless times: You believe Jews do have a valid claim for the land of Israel, and you do oppose Palestinian terrorism, but see Israel as the culpable aggressor throughout much of history, and wish it had a different government and mentality. You think that if only Palestinians had gotten their state, things would be different, and extremism wouldn't be rampant. You disagree with extremist Palestinians and condemn Palestinian terrorism, but blame Israel, or at least its controlling political elements, for fermenting and provoking these extremists. Like me, you listen carefully to what people say, but always remind yourself of this historical context of Israel the aggressor and obstacle to peace. Whenever Palestinian atrocities are mentioned, you think of aggressive actions by Israel that preceded these, especially failed or blocked peace agreements for which you blame Israel and/or the USA. You understandably, firmly believe that all this defines you as rational, humanist and fair.

Allow me to attempt to undermine your ground floor; I am going to tell you a true story:

Once upon a time, there lived a country that was brutally invaded by powerful countries much bigger than itself. This extreme war lasted six years, resulting in between four and five million military deaths, and almost half a million civilian deaths within this invaded country. If we use a rough estimate of 20% for children, this means roughly one hundred thousand children were killed by the invaders. Obviously there were also countless wounded. Even after the war, hardship continued for several years with millions of refugees not only within the invaded country, but also for its people in other countries, resulting in an additional estimated 0.5-2 million deaths. This country was not only invaded but occupied for 45 years after the invasion, controlled with military force as well as foreign governance and management, the invaders not allowing the country to self-determine for decades.

Those of you with basic historical knowledge may have realized that I am referring to Germany in WWII and may think I am playing a dirty trick. (The post-war German refugee problem causing 1-2 million deaths is a lesser known aspect of WWII). Nevertheless, the point I am making is worth contemplating at length because it is more subtle than it seems. In this story we see a horrifying number of dead children and civilians, brutal bombing campaigns by the Allies, some of which are debated until today as to whether they constituted war crimes, an incredible number of dead civilians due to expulsions, and an occupation that lasted 45 years. There were also many cases of civilian deaths caused by US/UK/Soviet soldiers, and many reports of rape. After the war, even Germans that had lived in foreign countries for centuries were expelled, and some were subjected to violence, forced marches, and confiscation of property. Germans were even used for forced labor by all of the Allies as reparations. Some of these actions could be seen by some as war crimes today, and indeed, the Geneva Convention was established based on events in WWII. 

Although the East/West German Republics and their governments were established in 1949 with some German sovereignty, the occupation continued for 40 more years until 1991. Allied forces retained military control over key strategic areas and infrastructure. While the Allied Control Council didn't function properly after 1949 due to the Cold War, the ACC continued to claim its rights and powers over Germany even in 1971, and the individual occupying countries continued to make key decisions affecting Germany's political, economic, and social spheres. Moreover, they imposed the Cold War on Germany, often raising tensions and clashes, making the local population suffer, and building the famous Berlin Wall in 1961. Germany's foreign policy was controlled and restricted, requiring approval by its occupying powers. All this should leave no doubt that Germany was occupied for 45 years.

And yet, despite all of this, despite the hundred-thousand dead children, expulsions, wall-building, and the decades-long occupation, nobody in their right mind sees the Allies during WWII as the aggressors. In fact, the occupation is seen as legal and morally justified.

While this may seem obvious, it firmly demonstrates the pivotal importance of context versus numbers. Even proven war crimes do not turn a country into the aggressor, nor does it prove intent to commit genocide, etc. based on the context. If, on the other hand, the UK were seen as the aggressor in WWII, how would the bombing in Dresden be interpreted in terms of intentions? Indeed, even thousands of military mistakes or war crimes can be put away in a box and dealt with as excusable or at least incidental and ancillary errors in judgements, mistakes or exceptions, thanks to context and the perceived intent of its perpetrators.

I'm sure by now you see where this is going, although you may be still adhering to your views that Israel is the aggressor. Before we get back to Israel, however, let us expand the story of Germany with an alternate imaginary history and thought experiment. After the end of WWII, German resistance against the Allies was very minimal. Although a resistance movement such as Werwolf was formed, its threat and attacks were largely insignificant and unsuccessful. But what would have happened if German resistance had continued fighting ferociously for decades after 1945 in the form of guerilla warfare and IRA-style terrorist bombings? What if German resistance not only continued to fight the occupying forces, but also escalated over the years, and even gathered support amongst the occupied German civilians?

Although this is speculation, it would be easy to imagine the realistic reaction by the Allies and Germans in this scenario: Attacks would continue year after year, Allied responses would consist of attempts at diplomacy and agreements as well as violent repression, raids, punctuated battles and incursions into belligerent locations in Germany. The occupation would become increasingly restrictive, intrusive and repressive as counter-insurgency policies were implemented. The occupation would not only last beyond 1991 until today, it would become increasingly violent and repressive. Many German children would die as casualties over many decades from these continuing bouts of violence, children that would die from bullets of its occupiers. And the occupying forces would be unable to withdraw from Germany for fear of a Fourth Reich taking control of Germany and eventually starting WWIII given the Nazi mentality of its insurgents.

Let us add a new character to our imaginary story: A university student from Europe, currently studying in Austria, exposed to a movement of pro-German students that inform her of the many dead children dying from UK/US/French guns for decades, and a never-ending occupation of Germans that only desire to be free and achieve self-determination. She learns of the atrocities in WWII committed by the Allies and the mass expulsions, she sees the faces of crying wounded children in German hospitals, the pictures of dead babies shot by French soldiers, etc. What would her inevitable conclusion be if she didn't study history properly or adequately observe the intentions of these neo-Nazi insurgents?

Never-ending occupations and dead children do not prove aggression. Neither do stronger powers bullying smaller countries; not if the country being occupied started the war, and continues to demonstrate aspirations for genocidal intent continuously over decades. The fact that dead civilians are innocent victims does not alter this equation. In our scenario, the stronger super-power Allies should and must continue to occupy a long-suffering Germany to stop the Nazis from rising for as long as Germans do not give up their murderous intentions and actions. This would be extremely justified if a large chunk of the civilians supported these 'insurgents' and no leader emerged that condemned them and fought the Nazis.

If pro-Palestinian students and rationalists only studied history, they would see and understand similar important facts that completely alter the context and therefore also their interpretation of Israeli actions.

Israel is not an outside colonial aggressor. Jews owned the land for centuries before Islam even existed, and have maintained a presence in Israel for 2000 years since then. The only reason Jews have not had a majority in Israel since then is because of occupying empires banning or massacring Jews. If Palestinian grandchildren of refugees deserve a Right of Return after 75 years, then why does this right not apply to Jewish refugees?

Additionally, those arguing that most Jews were immigrants conveniently forget that 80% of Arabs in Palestine in 1948 were also new immigrants from the previous century.

Therefore, the picture of Israeli colonialists expelling an ancient indigenous people is blatantly wrong on several levels, as proven by basic history. And this is a history that is easily verified for those seeking the truth.

In addition, one must not forget the historical context that Palestine was temporarily managed, new territory administered by the British after the defeat of Ottomans in WWI, a territory that was not even called Palestine by its locals or by the Ottomans. The partition of the area into Jordan/Syria/Lebanon/Israel/Palestine was a brand new venture that attempted to take into account all locals and claims to the land, including Jews. It was not a violent replacement of one state with another, but an establishment of new states in territory that had been occupied by outsiders for centuries.

As I have previously argued, some Zionists indeed had expansionist aspirations and plans for population transfer, but attempted to implement this non-violently through land purchases and agreements. Even today, population transfers could be legal if done properly, and, at the beginning of the 20th century, they were seen by several countries as necessary hard solutions to hard problems, just like the India-Pakistan transfer of 1947. The violence, however, during the first few decades, was initiated exclusively by Arabs. This Arab violence happened mostly in the period between 1920-1948, but there were pogroms before then, and all of this happened before Israel existed as a state and before the war. Even when the war started, it took several stages before Jews shifted from defense to offense. The argument that Arabs reacted with violence due to Israeli aggression does not hold water due to all this context. There is not a single attempt by Jews to expel Arabs using force until 1948 (and even then the context is a war of self-defense). Arabs, on the other hand, regularly attacked Jews for decades. Additionally, Arabs started both the civil war in 1947 and the inter-state war in 1948. Later, both the PLO and Hamas charters called for the destruction of Israel. In the case of the PLO, their charter did this even before Israel occupied the territories of 1967. And finally, Palestinian polls regularly prove that a majority of civilians support terrorism and the destruction of Israel until today. This is all verifiable history.

As we demonstrated in the story of Germany, any subsequent Israeli war crimes, mistakes, questionable tactics and plans, expulsions, dead Palestinian children, necessary occupations, and even refusal to allow Palestinians their self-determination and sovereignty in their current state of mind, absolutely must be placed within this context. The primary aggressor must first be established, as proven by history. Once this is done, debates have a chance of sharing a ground floor. Once this uncontested history is known and clarified, we can then discuss whether Israel is making questionable judgements and war crimes, or whether Israel is merely defending itself. If this is not established, however, debates will be futile, as they will not be based on history and context.

To clarify, I am not claiming that this larger context excuses any crimes committed by Jews, nor am I denying that some Jewish actions were questionable or even criminal. What I am saying is that this context changes how these actions are perceived and whether they denote a top-down systematic policy and overall aggressive intentions. I am comparing this to the difference in the way we perceive a war crime committed by a German soldier following orders in WWII versus an identical war crime committed by a war-crazed UK soldier in WWII. One is a genocidal act, the other is not, even though they both targeted a civilian.

The UN, and various world diplomats continue to harp on about context when it comes to the Gaza war. Ironically, it is they who are ignoring the larger context. If the context starts with the Nakba of 1948, this is equivalent to studying WWII starting from the bombing of Germany. If the Allied occupation of Germany is taken out of the context of WWII while ignoring Nazi intentions, that would not be merely ignorance, but willful distortion. An endless occupation may not only be legal under such circumstances, but even a moral imperative if placed within proper context, as we saw in Germany. 

One must always start from the ground floor, and the ground floor consists of Arab aggression and refusal to accept Israel, not only in 1920 and 1948, but until today in 2024. Once this is kept in mind, the simple motivation behind Israeli political leaders that block a harmful peace process due to Arab ulterior motives will be understood. The occupation will be seen as the necessary evil that it is. And so on. All the 'cycles of violence' in Israel-Palestine originate from this context. Even circles originate somewhere; it only requires that you go further back in time. This is the context most overlooked or ignored by humanist rationalists. Whether they ignore this due to ignorance or wilful hatred and bigotry is another question.

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