Having the Wrong Debate the Wrong Way

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In business, it’s one thing to be bad at a job that has to exist, or to be good at a job that doesn’t need to exist, but it’s hard to justify keeping a worker who is bad at a job that shouldn’t exist.

On a slightly related note, that’s kind of how I feel about the recent escalation of rhetoric around Israel/Palestine that seems to be limited to the Peirce atrium.

To be sure, I certainly don’t think that the debate, in general, isn’t worth having – this is one of the more affectively-charged issues that American political discourse has to offer and a lot of people have significant and legitimate interests in it. The issue raises salient questions about religion, history, liberal democracy, international relations and other areas of study that we as Kenyon students come into contact with on a regular basis. However, I do think that, especially at Kenyon and in central Ohio more generally, this is an issue on which there is zero efficacy to be had, which means that it isn’t necessarily useful for the modal amount of political activism on this campus to be directed towards seeing who can plant flags on the highest moral, historical, religious and/or political ground halfway around the world. When we do this, we first lose sight of issues staring us in the face and then we forget how to have an intellectually serious conversation altogether.

Consider this: right now, Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) has more members than Student Council had candidates for next year’s campus government, and it isn’t as if there aren’t that many positions to fill. Those students are going to be making decisions that will affect housing prices, on-campus parking, servery hours and regulations that can make or break the viability of the student groups we are all members of. I’m glad that so many students are involved in KSJP, but I find it incredibly troubling that we don’t take our own self-governance more seriously.

And just down the hill from us, East Knox High School can’t afford to keep its lights on because 56 people didn’t show up to vote to fund the district’s public schools. More generally, the arcane (and unconstitutional) way in which Ohio funds its public schools means that basic funding of public education is an ongoing issue in Knox County.

Basically, there are plenty of opportunities for political discourse and activism in our community that deserve a greater share of our attention than they currently receive. I’ve named a few, and there are many more. Instead, rather than taking serious interest in making actionable and positive change in our own community, our most politically active students have instead turned the bulk of their focus to an issue that the best minds in international relations haven’t been able to figure out for literally the last six thousand years.

Of course, intractable problems with global attention are fun, and this issue does have real and serious implications for some on this campus, so I will at least accept the premise that talking about Israel/Palestine at Kenyon makes sense. My issue isn’t that we’re talking about it at all. Instead, I worry that the priority we place on this issue divides up our social capital in ways that aren’t as useful as they could be. There are some seriously powerful activist-oriented minds here who could be doing a lot of good in our immediate surroundings; that so much of this energy is being directed away from our own community seems like a shame.

But if we’re going to have this debate, we would do well to adhere to a few norms and get a few things straight before we start making very serious claims about oppression and terrorism. That way, the energy we do expend on this issue can at least be more productive.

1. Focus on outcomes

I should start by laying my own cards on the table. I identify as a cultural Ashkenazi Jew, religious atheist and political agnostic when it comes to Israel/Palestine. This means a few things:

First, it means that I am your audience, your proverbial “swing voter.” I pay just close enough attention to this issue to know what’s going on and just little enough attention to not have formed a coherent slate of opinions. If you want to do more than see who can post the most provocative literature in Peirce (looking at you, Kenyon Students for Israel), you’re going to have to find ways to address people like me instead of the people who already agree with you.

Second, it means that I am unimpressed by appeals to religious determination, one-upsmanship over degrees of historical injustices and utopian fantasies concerning universal moral goods. I understand that it’s impossible to fully detach religion and history from this issue, but when religion and history are made to be part and parcel with justification it’s a good sign that the conversation isn’t oriented towards an agreeable solution.

Third, to reframe that point, it means that serious arguments about agreeable solutions – claims concerning what we should do now to set the conditions for a better, more peaceful future – will have my attention.

2. Take the other folks seriously

I considered calling this point “assume good faith,” a term I have heard used by others who are frustrated with Israel/Palestine discourse on this campus, but I think that “take the other side seriously” covers slightly more ground. Readers can pick one; I like them both.

This isn’t a game of Occupiers and Terrorists, however much this week made it seem to be. This is a conversation between Kenyon students, most of whom are friends with each other, and such a conversation can’t take place if anyone comes to the table under the assumption that the people they’re dealing with are racists or anti-Semites. I know most of the people who have been called those names in recent weeks; the labels apply to none of them.

But going beyond mere assumption of good faith, this conversation will only be productive if each side attempts to be able to understand the other’s case better than their opponents. “No Terrorism = No Barrier” isn’t a serious argument, and neither is the comparison between the barrier and the Berlin Wall (Berlin is a city, not a territory, after all). Both presuppose an ignorance in the Kenyon student body that I think we can all agree isn’t justified.

To be fair, Kenyon Students for Israel’s (KSI) summary flyer, which was loosely distributed and not posted, does seriously address the issue and weighs security against sovereignty in a way that I feel is fair. However, those flyers didn’t last long, and what remains in Peirce are gaudy, provocative snippets of an otherwise-cogent argument that do not do the group itself justice.

3. Get real about the situation on the ground

When KSI says “No Terrorism = No Barrier” they’re making a blunt, callous and sound point: Israel is in a state of war and has a quantifiable security interest in keeping particular Palestinians out. What’s more, the barrier has probably saved both Israeli and Palestinian lives, since there are no more retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza in response to suicide bombings that no longer occur.

There is a serious conversation to be had as to the wall’s effectiveness and whether or not its benefits outweigh its costs, but the general point still stands that Israeli citizens face far greater threats to their general wellbeing than citizens in any other NATO-allied country.

However, this means that Israel has an incentive to do some fairly unsavory things in the name of security, and you cannot invoke this security interest while in the same breath claiming that Palestinians or Israeli Arabs enjoy the same rights as those living in a Western liberal democracy. Pro-Israel students on this campus (and everywhere else) frequently call foul when the Israeli government is criticized for transgressions that seem rather minor compared to the actions of Israel’s neighbors – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, etc. – pointing out that the freedoms enjoyed in Israel are unparalleled as compared to other countries in the region.

Fine, but if one is to choose those countries as a point of comparison, one is tacitly admitting that they would rather Israel be compared to Iran than to the countries militarily obligated to come to its aid in the event of an Iranian attack. Israel is held to a higher standard because it claims to be able to meet a higher standard. If this is no longer the case, let me know and I’ll lower my expectations and take the Iran comparison seriously.

All of this is to say that, as much as I cringe in admitting this, Damon Linker of all people seems to have hit the nail on the head when he articulates the tension that inevitably arises between Israel’s status as a Jewish state and its status in the community of world democracies:

Israel is indeed a democracy, but its status as a “Jewish state” makes it less liberal than most of the world’s democracies. To state the obvious: Liberal democratic governments normally strive for (while often falling short of complete) neutrality with regard to the ethnic and religious attachments of citizens.

Israel is different, with Judaism granted special status due to the Zionism intertwined with its founding and embedded in its legal system. That doesn’t make it evil. But it does make it less classically liberal than the United States and most other liberal-democratic nations — and that can be grounds for legitimate criticism (as opposed to criticism motivated by anti-Semitism, of which there is plenty).

This tension makes the pro-Israel argument particularly difficult at a place like Kenyon given our intrinsically American and particularly Millennial aversion to the idea of a religious state. To be sure, it’s an argument that I think can be made, but I’m still waiting to hear it publicly articulated in a way that doesn’t sound like something to the effect of, “If those terrorists would only stop bombing us this would be a whole lot easier.” Security is part of this story, but it definitely isn’t the whole thing. I understand that this week’s debate unfolded in the context of the barrier wall, which is an issue based in security concerns, but the next time a debate unfolds on our campus over this issue it will likely be over a different facet of the conflict, and participants should keep that in mind.

4. Talk

If the above three conditions are met, then actually sitting down and talking about this stuff instead of hiding behind competing one-pagers will be somewhat productive. It’s all too easy and not very interesting to say this in the empty “why can’t we all get along?” kind of way, which is why I’m making this point last. If discourse isn’t oriented towards solutions and grounded in reality under the assumption of good faith, there really isn’t any point in doing anything other than repurposing trees in the Peirce atrium.

But if I know anything about Kenyon, I know that we’re usually pretty good at arguing without having a fight, even if we sometimes have to exhaust other alternatives before realizing that sitting down over a beer would go a long way towards ironing out our issues. Before the mock wall went up, there was even some talk of a public discussion like this taking place. If it’s going to happen, let’s do it the right way.

4 comments on “Having the Wrong Debate the Wrong Way”

  1. Thank you, Jon Green. The war of misleading and inflammatory handouts is tiring and embarrassing. A polite, direct, and MODERATED debate is what these two organizations should be engaging in, not a poster-powered pissing contest.

  2. Hey John,
    Thanks for writing this article.
    Just a quick clarification… Israel still does do airstrikes on targets in Gaza. I remember reading of a recent attack that left one child dead but I can’t seem to find it at the moment. Here are two other examples though: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25838376, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/05/world/middleeast/israeli-airstrike-gaza.html?_r=0
    I’m not making a judgement call in terms of whether or not these attacks were justified. I mean, Israel believes that it is at war and the IDF does believe that they are ensuring safer borders by launching these strikes either preemptively or in retaliation. The US does the same thing with its drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  3. Kudos to Jon. His well-reasoned and beautifully written essay shows Kenyon at its very best.

    Disclosure: I am a (proud) Kenyon parent.

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