Monday, March 09, 2009

"Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?"

Roger Cohen has stepped up his efforts to win Acceptable Jew of the Year, showing more of his now-trademark "courage." Readers, remember, you either agree with his columns and are for Truth, or you disagree and are a partisan bigot. Here, the passage he wants angry Zionists to cite:

Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state.

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Israel, from the time of Ben Gurion, built its state by creating facts on the ground, not through semantics. Many of its leaders, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, have been on wondrous political odysseys from absolutist rejection of division of the land to acceptance of a two-state solution. Yet they try to paint Hamas as irrevocably absolutist. Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?

Rather than arguing with Cohen, telling him that Israel is always right (it's not, but by agreeing to this, I fail to live up to his straw-man standards for his opponents), or invoking Nazi Germany to tell him why he's wrong (as he expects his Jewish critics to do), I'd rather just look at how he sets up his argument.

The question he ends the key passage with - "Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?" - is an attempt to shift the entire Israeli-Palestinian debate in all sorts of useless ways. First, by suggesting that the conflict is not between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, or even between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather between "Arabs" and "Jews," he drags in millions of people not directly involved in the conflict. Doing so, he implies that anyone who sees Hamas as "absolutist" means to label Arabs generally as such. By setting the argument up like this, you cannot call Hamas absolutist without being an anti-Arab bigot. But by the same formula you also can't call the Israeli government absolutist without being an anti-Jewish bigot. But not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, goes the chorus, and the chorus is correct. What is Cohen trying to accomplish?

What he wants to elicit from readers is a knee-jerk, PC, guilt-filled response to the question, "Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?" He expects readers not to look too deeply at the question, and to just say, 'You're right! To say that would be racist! I don't think I'm a racist. But to be sure, I'd better agree that Hamas is no more of an impediment to Mideast peace than is Israel.' As though to think, in a given political conflict, one side is more the problem than the other, you'd have to be a racist, because as we all know, in every contentious debate, both sides are equally at fault. (Sarcasm, if this wasn't clear.) In all seriousness: it is entirely possible not to find Jews more essentially pragmatic than Arabs, yet to think that, for political and historical reasons, the Israeli leadership is more likely than the Palestinian leadership to accept compromise at this time.

If I find baseless accusations of racism especially off-putting, it could be because this morning, a man yelled at me for not agreeing to his request that I give him money for a cup of coffee, as requested, explaining that the reason for this was because "You're afraid of black people." Yes, that must have been the reason! (Again, sarcasm.) Far more likely than that I don't wish to give money to each of the dozen people (of all races) on each block of Park Slope and the Village who ask, or than that I found "a cup of coffee" not the most compelling of demands. Or maybe I'm a grad student who doesn't make much money, a stingy Jew, a haughty bitch. There are all kinds of possibilities -including unpleasant ones - far more likely than racial phobia.

But this man was, by all accounts, either very poor, insane, or some combination. His baseless accusation of racism could come from all kinds of places, from having dealt with racism in the past, from having noticed that being called 'racist' makes pale-skinned Park Slopers feel guilty and thus give money, or... who knows. Roger Cohen, on the other hand, has no good reason to presume that those who consider Hamas extremist think this not because of Hamas's charter or actions, but because of essentialist, Orientalist, phobic views of 'The Arab.' Again, if this is what he wants to argue, he's going to have to accept that this means defining all criticism of Israel as Judeophobia, which would, of course, get us nowhere.


sarasophia said...



Anonymous said...

great post. my own effort on a similar tack