Why Israel Wins the Military War but Loses the Narrative
Israel supporters are struck dumb by what they consider to be the great moral inversion. In fact, as Jeffrey Goldberg writing in The Atlantic states, “Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel.” It is an organization committed to genocide. Hamas represents nothing of modern democratic political theory– religious tolerance, political participation, association rights, liberal values, etc. But to the chagrin of many Hamas is treated as if it were a legitimate political party committed to the interests of Gazans rather than itself. Hamas is fighting a war in which they are trying to kill as many of their enemy as possible (Israelis); Israel is fighting a war in which they are trying to avoid killing as many people as possible. The moral inversion continues.
John Kerry is currently struggling with a cease-fire agreement because he insists on granting Hamas various rights rather than treating it according to his own State Department’s designation as a terrorist group. Kerry’s defense is that Hamas is a reality that must be dealt with and I agree with that, but one does not cave in to a terrorist group’s demand for their own security, funding, and freedom of movement in order to secure a cease-fire. On the contrary, that would be a reward for the group’s behavior and will probably encourage future violence if such rewards are available.
So what explains this? Why is this violent anti-Semitic group being treated seriously while Israel takes a perceptual and public relations beating? Why do the Palestinians, who are equally as blameworthy for the failure of conflict management, win the narrative? Why are they the sympathetic underdog? Here are a few suggestions:
Imagine some tough guy big kids in your neighborhood who are teased and taunted by a bunch of little kids. The little kids throw rocks, break the windows at houses, and spread false or distorted stories about these big kids to others in the neighborhood. The big kids defend their houses and respond to the rock throwing with fistfights they easily win, and throwing back bigger and harder rocks. The big kids do more damage and bloody the noses of the little kids and are “blamed” for inflicting damage even though they were defending themselves and the little kids initiated the aggression. And so it is with the Israelis and Palestinians. It doesn’t seem to matter how the Palestinians or Hamas behave, the Israelis get blamed because they are capable of inflicting more damage. The big kids and the Israelis lose if they defend themselves and if they do not defend themselves. So Hamas wins the narrative battle every time they manipulate Israel into killing Palestinians. Israel cannot escape the paradox.
Secondly, the Palestinians have mastered the underdog narrative. During pre-state Israel, and even in the early days of the state, Jews were the underdog and the center of world attention and sympathy. But now the left has switched its allegiance to the newest minority group. There is a spectrum of the left that never met a minority group it did not consider oppressed and the Palestinians are a perfect example.
And third, the second point above is informed by the context of anti-Semitism. I dislike and reject the notion that anti-Semitism is everywhere and always the explanation for criticism of Israel. Surely Israel can be criticized without it being anti-Semitic. But sometimes the criticism of Israel is so bizarre, so morally inverted, that only anti-Semitism explains it. And new media has brought violent and vitriolic anti-Semitism to the forefront. Anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions during the Holocaust, completely unjustified by reality, and there are moments when I feel the same conditions returning.
Finally, everyone has to do more. Israel has to make its case better to the world. They need spokespersons and better public relations to be sure. But that’s only a small part of the problem. It is not a public relations problem but an argument one. It is incumbent on Israel to do a better job of explaining to the world who they are and what they are fighting against. Moreover, Israel has to begin addressing those issues where change is inevitable. Settlements, for example, are just not going to be there in the end – at least in their present form. The only way Israel remains a nation of Jews, for Jews, and defined as a Jewish state devoted to some sense of Jewish particularity is by allowing the Palestinians to do the same for themselves in their own state. Israel must make more aggressive progress toward this goal.
Until then, Israel will continue to win military battles and kill more of the other side (which is never a very good measure of anything), but lose the narrative battle.
Terminological note: I realize that drawing generalities about cultures and religion (e.g. “Islam” or “the West”) is perilous business and many distinctions and semantic nuances are either exaggerated or ignored. But peacemaking and problem resolution is called for nonetheless. I continue with this Islam-West distinction because it is characteristic of how the public formulates the conflict. Some will surely be critical of this supposedly simplistic distinction but it does represent the level at which the conflict is talked about. Funk and Said’s discussion of competing narratives categorizes the conflict as between “Islam” and “the West” and uses these categories as the level at which dispute in consciousness operate. It is also a better capture of the conflict then phrases such as “civilizational conflicts,” a terminology probably worth avoiding.
There is no escaping requirement that any genuine and diligent effort to resolve Islam- West differences must confront extremism and violence. The first step, and this will be difficult for many, is not to view extremism as confined to Islam but to view it as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Defining a problem relationally implies similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. The current cultural insularity means that each side establishes meaning and interpretations about the other independently and separate from broader political and historical frameworks. If there is going to be a compatibility perspective rather than a rivalry perspective, which is an initial crucial step toward ameliorating conflicts, then extremism must be confronted by each group and also avoid insularity. The current conflict is a clash of symbols (including headscarves, religious symbols, and clothing) that act like a clash of stereotypes. They represent simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. This process results in an intergroup pathology where both sides reduce their beliefs to a small subset of meanings which are difficult to communicate about. When this small subset is politicized the result is fundamentalism as each side works to seal off their beliefs and maintain control. For Muslims the fundamentalism gravitates toward puritanical religious ideology that defines offenses and outsiders. For Westerners fundamentalism equates liberal democracies with the natural flow of history and market economies as beyond criticism.
Intergroup images of the other must be replaced and counteracted. Consistent with a long literature on intergroup contact both ingroup and outgroup images must be modified. Dialogue is the mechanism for uncovering the existential reality of the other. In addition, a compatibility framework must appreciate similarities and differences in order to avoid militants and fundamentalist. If a provocation is responded to in a narrow and mechanical manner then fundamentalism is reproduced. Another simple truth is that we are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about Islam and the West. The availability heuristic would predict that we use and overemphasize information that is easily available to us. Since we can imagine images of violence easier than ones of peace and reconciliation, simply because these images are more available, we tend to think that such images and relationships are more characteristic of the conflict. And certainly the same is true of the negativity bias, which holds that negative information is more easily attended to and brought to mind than positive information. So when we think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we think of negative things such as violence, religious differences, and a whole host of tragedies that cause us to remember those more than anything else. These heuristics of negativity and availability can fundamentally define an intergroup conflict and contribute significantly to its intractability.
Still, there is a reason conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are called intractable. They are particularly resistant to resolution because an appeal to shared values and aspirations may not be sufficient. In fact, it would be naïve to think otherwise. The conventional discourse of the West and Islam is filled with assumptions that reinforce ingroup and outgroup mentalities. Security is not a private good but one that is achieved by developing consensus, and cooperation, and interdependence – all relational terms. Justice cannot be imposed by one side but must be a concept that binds the two sides into a just relationship. But neither the West nor Islam can thrive in the midst of extreme antagonism. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. Neither Islam nor the West can drift into deep bounded subjectivity that fixates on fundamentalism but must discover the active process of dialogue and deliberation capable of generating new forms of communication.
Language And Its Power
Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? Terrorists do not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting Al Qaeda and jihadist attacks against the United States as the work of “freedom fighters.”