Monday, June 05, 2006

Blast from the Past: Context is everything

This piece was originally published as "Context is everyting: American libertarians and Israel" in Rational Review. I've gone back through and corrected a couple of spelling and punctuation errors, but have otherwise left the piece exactly as written, despite noticing one tiny error of factual description (the Shia are not and were not an "ethnic or religious minority" in Iraq), in the interest of honesty/continuity.

Why re-publish it now? Three reasons: I'm involved in a couple of discussions to which it is relevant; I recall that at least one libertarian offered, some time back, to debate the subject of Israel v. the "Palestinians" and figure this is as good a place to start as any if he's still interested; and, after more than two years, I'm starting to think about writing the promised second part. So, enjoy.

Context is everything: American libertarians and Israel, part 1

Libertarians are by nature a contrarian lot, and I've yet to see a real-world issue that we can't mangle beyond recognition with a little debate. Nonetheless, the question of the Arab-Israeli conflict holds pride of place among vexatious issues that divide the freedom movement.

In a recent article, published in Liberty For All, Carol Moore makes a valiant attempt to frame the Arab-Israeli conflict -- and, more importantly, the implications of that conflict for the United States and for the freedom movement in the United States -- in terms of universally applicable libertarian principles. My intention with this article is not to argue the validity of those principles. I stipulate to them. Instead, I intend to attempt to place the Arab-Israeli conflict in context, both with regard to the principles themselves (part one of this series) and to the practical application of those principles by an American freedom movement and, more specifically, the Libertarian Party (coming soon).

A disclosure of interests is first in order: On balance, I consider myself to be a supporter of Israel. I do not mean, by this, that I support the Israeli government per se (I'm an anarchist; the Israeli government is a state; you do the math). Nor do I mean that I support each and every claim that might be made by that government or its supporters. I do, however, believe the following things:

  • That, by comparison to the Arab states surrounding it, including but not limited to the "Palestinian Authority," Israel is an oasis of freedom and respect for human rights, including the property rights of Jews and Arabs alike.

  • That Israel's response to attacks upon it -- both of a military and terrorist character -- has been, if anything, restrained by comparison to those attacks.

  • That the people -- as opposed to the state -- of Israel have valid claims to live where they live and as they live, generally speaking. That is to say that while claim to title of this house or that farm may be the subject of legitimate dispute, there is no valid claim that "Israel is stolen land," with the Israelis playing the part of armed robber to the Arab's hapless victimhood.

I will attempt to defend those claims in the argument below, but that defense will be interwoven with a more general response to Ms. Moore's article in its entirety.

Ms. Moore begins with a cautionary quote from George Washington.

"Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other," said America's first president upon the occasion of his retirement from public life. "Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests."

Cautionary indeed, both as Ms. Moore intended to apply it and in another way. Israel's is not the only party with its advocates and lobbyists. While the power of the Israeli lobby in the US is formidable, the fact is that the Arab cause has its uncritical defenders as well. On any campus, at any leftist gathering, in any political debate, Israel's opponents may be found "actuate[d] to see danger only on one side," and denominating their counterparts as "odious." So let us set aside the notion that libertarians who take one or the other side (or neither) where the Arab conflict is involved necessarily function as "tools and dupes" -- or accept the notion that while one side may, the other side may as well.

"[T]here seem to be mounting accusations of anti-Semitism by self-described libertarians, Jewish and gentile, towards libertarians throughout the movement who have criticized the state of Israel or its partisans," says Ms. Moore. "Included for particular criticism are those who speak up for the property and human rights of the Palestinians." This phenomenon does, indeed, exist. So does its counterpart, that being the characterization of libertarians throughout the movement who have defended Israel or criticized its enemies as being bigoted against Arabs, or even as active agents of Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party, the Jewish Defense League and so forth.

Once again, the coin has two sides. The whole issue unleashes temper and exhausts patience on all sides. It is, perversely, simple enough that it inherently draws people to one side or another, yet complex enough that the arguments of each side quickly become incomprehensible and therefore subject to not undeserved characterization as sophistry by those on the other side.

From her initial, and not unreasonable, recital of the current state of the argument, Ms. Moore proceeds to the enunciation of libertarian principles, followed by a summary of "libertarian criticisms of Israel."

Ms. Moore's first stated principle is "individualism not collectivism." She accurately summarizes that principle thusly: "Libertarians believe only individuals have rights. We do not recognize the right of religious, ethnic, racial or ideological groups, governments or groups of governments to use either private or state violence to enforce some collectivist vision on the life, liberty or property of others. ... we do not defend the sinister machinations of nation states, especially when their claims of 'self-defense' are plainly bogus."

In the "criticism" section, I do not find any argument to this principle other than the assertion, made without elaboration, that the Israeli treatment -- specifically, forced relocation -- of Arabs constitutes "ethnic cleansing." I am willing to stipulate that forced relocation of people based on their ethnicity meets that definition.

It is here, however, that context becomes critical -- for, if the forced relocation of populations based on a collective designation of the individuals in that population is "ethnic cleansing," then Israeli conduct of that activity, while odious, is no more odious than the same activity is when it is conducted by other entities against the same population. Yet the accusations of "ethnic cleansing," on the part of anti-Israel libertarians, are reserved exclusively for Israel. No mention is made of the fact that the 55-year diaspora of an arbitrarily designated population of "Palestinians," many of whom have never set foot on the land they refer to as home, has been lived largely behind barbed wire erected by ... the Arab states.

Throughout the Arab world, "Palestinians" remain a people apart, collectivized perhaps to some extent of their own accord, and to some extent by the state of Israel, but also by Arab states. A "Palestinian" who has lived in Syria, Jordan, Iraq or Egypt since 1948 -- or who, perhaps, was even born in one of those countries -- is not an individual in the eyes of those states. He is a "Palestinian," whether he is born in Cairo or Kuwait City ... the latter being unlikely for some time now, given the collective expulsion of those so designated by the Kuwaiti government following the 1991 war.

The astute reader will note, of course, that this is no defense of Israel. If "ethnic cleansing" is wrong when Arab states do it -- and it is -- then it is equally wrong when Israel does it. The key point here, however, is that among libertarians who oppose Israel, short shrift is given to the fact that all parties are equally wrong. Condemnation is reserved to Israel and Israel alone; the plight of the "Palestinian" population is entirely the fault of Israel, and no one else is to blame, in any respect, for that plight.

In this matter, the affair is a wash. Yes, the state of Israel has, in some cases, treated Arabs wrongly. Yes, the Arab states have, in some cases, treated an arbitrary collective of fellow Arabs wrongly. The matter does not provide a clear answer to which side is wrong, because, in this area, all sides are wrong. So, while libertarian principle might mandate condemnation of Israel on this point, it mandates an equal condemnation of other states -- a condemnation which is not typically forthcoming, or at the most is presented and then minimized, on the part of anti-Israel libertarians.

"Property rights should be inviolate," is Ms. Moore's second stated principle. "Property rights are created when individuals or voluntary associations either trade for land or homestead unused or voluntarily abandoned land (as opposed to land whose owners have been driven off in recent times by war, massacres or empty promises). Libertarians support everyone's right of return to unjustly confiscated land. And they have little sympathy for individuals or governments who use force and fraud to confiscate property and then claim the right to defend their stolen loot."

Once again, a fair summation. And, once again, an unclear case.

It is indisputable that a number of Arabs have been displaced from land to which they held defensible title. Who did the displacing and for what reasons, however, is something that must be considered on a case-by-case basis. "Individualism not collectivism," remember?

The libertarian case against Israel in this respect has been made on many grounds, some defensible and some not. Some go so far as to blame the state of Israel for displacements and attacks which took place before that state even existed (as with the Deir Yassin massacre). Others, pointing to the threats of Arab states against Palestinian Arab inhabitants in 1948 -- the subtance of which was "if you live in peace with the Jews, we will kill you with them; if you leave, you can come back after we've driven them into the sea" -- hold that the decision to leave constituted abandonment of the land, especially insofar as those fleeing continue to cleave to the goals of the states which made those threats.

The fact is that many non-Israeli Arabs may have defensible claims to property now held by Israel or inhabitants of Israel. How many such valid claims may exist, I do not know. Neither does anyone else. The Israelis and the Arabs continue to attempt to deal with the matter via a collective approach that can never work, and the well has been poisoned by the passage of time and by proven, patently false claims made by people on all sides. Notable among these claims was that of "Palestinian" advocate Edward Said, who described in great detail his childhood and family home in Jerusalem, from which his family was "displaced by the Israelis." A convenient fiction, eventually exposed -- Said was raised in Egypt, and his family neither resided in nor claimed to own the home in question.

Can individual land claims be hashed out? It seems unlikely at this point, that most of them can. Palestine has been a crossroads, a land of war, absentee landlords and dubious titles since time immemorial. The 1948 conflict was not the beginning of the Palestine land disputes, nor, obviously did it end those disputes. It merely complicated a situation that was by no means clear to begin with -- as the British Mandatory authorities no doubt found when they took it over from the Ottoman Empire, which had in turn inherited it from Rome via the birth canal of several hundred years of Crusade and counter-Crusade.

That Israel should be doing things it has not done to address the claims of displaced Arabs is a reasonable argument. Its collective approach, itself eminently reasonable in terms of how such things are done -- Israel offered faux "Palestinian" leader Yasser Arafat 95% of what he'd demanded on behalf of "his" people (he's another Egyptian, born and raised in Cairo) some years back -- has obviously failed. However, Israel's Arab counterparts have not attempted to deal with the sitaution on an individual basis, either. Their perpetual demand has been that Israel's entire population, without regard to any legitimate claims members of that population might have to particular parcels of land, walk into the Mediterranean and learn to breathe saltwater. That proposal can hardly be considered the basis of a just or reasonable settlement.

So, once again, we are at an impasse. Yes, property rights matter. No, neither side has found a way to come to terms with the other on the basis of respect for such rights.

"Might does not make right," says Moore. And she is absolutely correct. And while rights are not additive on the basis of the formation of a collective, wrongs often are. The Israeli response to Arab aggression -- to pogroms, to the seizure of lawfully purchased and improved land, to riots in the streets of Jerusalem -- from the beginning of the 20th century on was, indeed, a response. That it has taken on a life of its own is not surprising. Once again, we see that all sides in this conflict have employed collective might to seek resolution of individual problems.

It cannot have escaped Ms. Moore's notice that the response to David Ben Gurion's 1948 declaration ofa policy of respecting Arab property rights and according Arabs the same human rights as Jews in the new state was the invasion of Israel by no fewer than five Arab armies, all sworn to confiscate properties owned by Jews and to soak those properties in their owners' blood.

So far as I can tell, the problem that anti-Israel libertarians have with the Arab-Israeli conflict is not that might has been used, but that Israeli might has fairly consistently prevailed over Arab might.

Next, Moore moves to the holding "Military non-interventionism and no entangling alliances." Strictly speaking, non-interventionism is not a libertarian principle -- it's a policy that arises as a consequence of libertarian principles when they are applied to specific contexts.

To wit, current systems of government violate libertarian principle at both ends of intervention: They use stolen money ("taxpayer money") to finance their interventions, and they aggress against innocents in the course of those interventions.

If government didn't initiate force to finance its interventions, and didn't initiate force as an effect of its interventions, no libertarian principles would be violated by those interventions. Removing a savage dictator, or whatever, would be the equivalent of defending little old ladies from muggers, which could hardly be said to be "un-libertarian." Whether or not it reflects sound policy is another question entirely.

That said, I'll stipulate to Ms. Moore's implied claim, that being that US intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict violates libertarian principles. It is financed with taxpayer money and, at some point or another, it undeniably takes the form of initiating force. There's no way it can avoid doing so -- even if I were to argue that the Israeli government never uses money to violate rights, the US also gives billions to Egypt and hundreds of millions to the "Palestinian Authority" each year. At one point or another -- and in all probability at several points -- the US is acting as the financier of thugs.

However, there's one problem with Ms. Moore's invocation of this principle: Nobody seems to disagree with it. The main villains in Ms. Moore's piece -- Ilana Mercer and the late Irv Rubin -- are both clearly on record as supporting an end to US aid for Israel. Moore tries to hedge her bet by asserting that some pro-Israel libertarians oppose aid because they want to see Israel left unrestrained in activities she deems aggressive, but that's a red herring. It doesn't really matter why someone advocates a policy prescription implied by libertarian principles. It matters that they do so. If that were not the case, then Ms. Moore would be guilty of being "un-libertarian" in every case where she was non-interventionist even though intervention would be supportive of the "right" side of a conflict.

Ms. Moore's fifth articulated principle is "Political self-determination and secession." "Libertarians believe everyone, no matter their religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc., has the right to secede from any political union or colonial or occupied territory on their justly acquired land and to self-govern themselves on it," she says. And she's correct. Of course, when Jews in Palestine attempted to do exactly that (the formation of Israel was preceded by half a century of peaceful immigration and land purchase/development), they found themselves attacked at every juncture.

When the British offered the Palestinian Jews a tiny strip of land, consisting almost entirely of already Jewish-owned land along Palestine's coast -- with provisions for buying the rest of it -- they accepted. It was the Mufti of Jerusalem who fomented riot and rebellion to prevent this "political self-determination and secession."

When the United Nations dictated partition -- dual Jewish and Arab states, guaranteeing the civil rights of each others' citizens and clearly allowing for all to choose the government under which they would live -- the Palestinian Jews accepted the proposal ... and five Arab armies invaded to drive the Jews into the sea rather than accept their right of "political self-determination and secession."

When Palestinian Arabs fled the newly-founded Jewish state, did the sponsors of those five Arab armies honor their fellow Arabs' right of "political self-determination and secession?" No. They stuck their fellow Arabs behind the barbed wire of "refugee camps" (where they are kept to this day to parade before the cameras, thus illustrating the "evil of Israel"), denied them the ability to take citizenship in other Arab countries, and announced that the only acceptable area in which their fellow Arabs could acceptably practice "political self-determination and secession" was on that whopping 10% of Palestine where other people (the Jews) were already doing so.

Among the nations of the Middle East, Arabs have the most capacity for "political self-determination" in Israel, where they are represented in, and sit in, the Knesset. Secession, as with all states, seems to be right out, of course. Name a country on earth that has progressed so far as to honor the concept. It's hardly fair to single out Israel as particularly villainous on that count. "Political self-determination?" Ask the Kurds and Shia of Iraq, or any other ethnic or religious minority in any Arab country about that and see which country looks best by comparison.

"Support for due process and opposition to collective punishment." Or, as Moore puts it, "libertarians agree that people who bear no responsibility for a crime, be it done by governments of other nations, or by members of a family without the consent of the family, should not be denied due process or collectively punished."

Once again, Ms. Moore has a point. The Israeli government has violated rights in this way many times, not least by evicting the families of its attackers from their homes and destroying those homes.

However, as is becoming usual, I must point out that there can hardly be less due process, and more collective punishment, than is found in the slogans "Perish Judea!" and "drive the Jews into the sea!" When a bomb goes off in a Jewish store, is that not "collective punishment?" Once again, Israel is not unique among the parties to this conflict on this issue.

"Freedom of Speech." This is an area of major concern. Israel has a long history of censorship. That censorship generally extends to factual matters of military import, but it is censorship nonetheless, and evil. Once again, however, Ms. Moore completely ignores the habits of "the other side" in the conflict. The "Palestinian Authority's" censorship guidelines forbid "writing about the President and his family in a critical manner." They also prohibit the presentation of ideas from that president's political opposition. The censorship is enforced with arrest and torture (Source: Palestinian Human Rights Monitor).

"Freedom of speech," naturally, also includes the freedom not to speak. It's certainly arguable that Israelis, and Americans via the foreign aid their government pours into Israel, subsidize speech by their government that they'd rather not make. No refusenik should be forced to support the Likud party line with his taxes. On the other hand, how many Palestinians have been asked if they want to pay for the official press of the "Palestinian Authority" to be used for the multiple print runs of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf which are distributed among them as articulation of that "Authority's" views?

Once again, Ms. Moore fails in any way to demonstrate that Israel itself deserves to be singled out among the countries in the region for its activities. The fact that it's "almost as bad" as some of them doesn't make it "worse" than any of them.

Ms. Moore seems to have a broader interpretation of "freedom of speech" in mind, however. "Similarly libertarians defend one's right to focus on supporting the rights to property and self-determination of any of the hundreds of separatist groups on the planet, including those in the United States, without automatically being accused of supporting bigotry or terrorism."

Well, no. Freedom of speech includes the right to accuse others of supporting bigotry or terrorism. In point of fact, Ms. Moore accuses pro-Israeli libertarians of supporting bigotry and oppression. She's free to do so. That's what free speech means. It is not censorship to criticize anyone, or to hold that their views are bigoted or supportive of terrorism, oppression or anything else. "Freedom of speech" is not "freedom from criticism."

"The right to rebel against oppressors." Ms. Moore stresses her aversion to the use of violence in such rebellion when avoidable, which is laudable. And the right to rebel against oppressors is, indeed, important. However, it can hardly be said that legitimate "rebellion against oppressors" takes the form of bombing buses full of commuters on their way to work, or killing three-year-olds at ice cream stands. Once again, Israel is at least as sinned against as sinning, and probably more so.

Ms. Moore can point out Israeli transgressions all day long. Nobody, so far as I know, has held that Israel is perfect and justified in all its actions. What Ms. Moore needs to prove, in order to create a special place for Israel in the canon of libertarian criticism, is that Israel's behavior is somehow qualitatively more onerous than that of its opponents. If it is not, then the only feature to distinguish Israel from those opponents is: that its citizens are primarily Jewish. And that would bear out the allegations of anti-Semitism to which she objects.

In part two of this series, I'll address the remainder of Ms. Moore's article -- the history of the "Palestine question" in the libertarian movement, and what role that question should play in America's libertarian movement.

Technorati Tags: , ,
IceRocket Tags: , ,

No comments: