A false equivalency of false equivalencies?

I get a lot of interesting responses to the postings on the Ibishblog, but those regarding my last posting on the UN Goldstone commission of inquiry into the Gaza war were particularly revealing. Both Arab and Jewish partisans tend to become enraged by any suggestion of equivalency between Israel and any group of Palestinians, particularly when it comes to conflict, warfare and armed struggle. Indeed, both the Israeli government and Hamas condemned the Goldstone report for the sin of "false equivalency," among other things. Both Jewish American and Arab-American readers have criticized my posting for pointing this out and committing — horror of horrors — a false equivalency of false equivalencies!

One of my regular Arab American readers was particularly upset by my suggestion that there was any kind of parity, even though the logic and the language were absolutely identical, between Israel’s objections to the Goldstone report and those of Hamas. He writes, "Do you actually believe that Israel attacked Gaza because Hamas was insufficiently decorous towards its tormentor? How do you account for the Israeli assault following a period of calm from Hamas? And why on earth would you spend even one millisecond suggesting that there is anything like parity between Israel’s behavior and that of Hamas?" Taking these three questions one by one: no I don’t think that on the first question; second, I think the chronology of who hit who first depends on who is doing the counting and when they start, however I think we can all agree that Israel is the occupying power and therefore has certain heightened legal responsibilities; and finally I would say that when there are interesting symmetries, for example the indistinguishable logic and language produced by both sides in the Gaza war in reaction to the UN report, that’s worth noticing and it’s meaningful.

On the broader question of the Gaza war and how it started, I’m not going to retrace all the positions outlined by the American Task Force on Palestine as laid out in our numerous commentaries, analyses and congressional testimony on the conflict. Anyone who likes can read them for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. But I would say that since we were able to predict in March of 2008 that the ever-increasing cycle of tit-for-tat violence between Hamas and Israel was leading inexorably towards a major Israeli action, and warned both parties against this cycle, perhaps we were onto something. I’d say overall both parties, against any sound judgment and their better interests, were itching for a fight. That may not include all Israeli and Hamas leaders, but enough of them combined to produce a critical mass of reciprocal violence to make the catastrophic war inevitable.

Throughout 2008, we warned that miscalculations and reckless actions on both sides would produce precisely the results it did produce. That doesn’t mean there is moral, legal or political parity between the two parties, because there are major distinctions between them at all kinds of registers. But it does mean that both of them contributed actively, recklessly and foolishly to a concatenation of circumstances that brought disaster upon the people of Gaza and which could and should have been avoided.

A number of Jewish and pro-Israel voices have similarly, but more privately, objected to my "false equivalency" in pointing out that the Israeli and Hamas responses to the Goldstone report were indistinguishable. People on both sides are convinced that their friends are the victims and the other side the immoral murdering gangsters. Indeed, pointing out this equivalency costs me with all parties, and it doesn’t really win me any friends at all. The Arab-American grassroots doesn’t like it, the Washington-based Jewish organizations don’t like it, and the US foreign policy establishment doesn’t like it much either. That’s not the point. This symmetry in reactions to the Goldstone report is not, in fact, a false equivalency of false equivalencies, it is a very telling parallel about the Manichaean and absolutist perceptions on both sides and the degree to which neither party to the Gaza war felt or feels constrained by basic rules of conduct or standards of responsibility pertaining to armed conflict. That’s a point worth making.

Arab-Americans like the reader who complained in the above quote will be outraged that I dared to draw a parallel between the occupier and the occupied. Jewish and other Americans who complained privately to me will be outraged that I dare to compare the government of Israel to a State Department designated terrorist organization. In fact, I haven’t compared either to the other. I have simply pointed out that at one register the two parties share a certain set of attitudes that helps explain how the Gaza war occurred when people like those of us at ATFP could see it coming more than 8 to 10 months in advance, and could also predict that it would be devastating to the people of Gaza and not advance the interests of either Israel or Hamas. This means that we are talking about a process that spiraled completely out of control. Recognizing and reflecting on the mirror-image reactions to the Goldstone report, perhaps, helps begin to explain how that happened when the disastrous consequences, both humanitarian and political, were quite obvious in advance.

For the record, let me state that interesting symmetries and parallels aside, the most salient feature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the radical asymmetry at its heart between an occupied and dispossessed people who are, at best, lightly armed, and a major nation-state with one of the world’s most powerful militaries and myriad additional resources and international support. If there were more symmetry of coercive power between the two parties, the conflict would probably already have been resolved. But I don’t think my reminding people that this is of the core of my entire analysis of the conflict and its resolution is going to mollify anyone.

What people object to is the notion of moral equivalency, when they are convinced that one side is moral and the other side is not moral. I definitely believe that the occupation is immoral and that the struggle to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state is a just one. But I think it is unrealistic to divide societies into good people and bad people, and assume that the ends justify the means or that the cause defines the morality of anyone and everyone on both sides, including during conflict. I demand the right, and I think everyone has the moral responsibility, to retain the capacity for critical judgment in spite of a moral and political affiliation with a certain cause (in this case, the cause of Palestinian liberation and national rights). If that commitment translates into an assumption that everything Palestinian is by definition moral, or more moral, than everything Israeli, which is by definition either immoral or less moral, or that one cannot agree with Judge Goldstone that both parties in a conflict violated the rules of war, or that they contributed to an unnecessary conflagration which benefited no one, then it is demanding an inadmissible suspension of independent thought and rational judgment.

This isn’t a false equivalency. It’s a correct equivalency: human beings should all be held to the same standards of moral conduct, especially when it comes to armed conflict, whether we believe their cause is just or not. That is a true equivalency of a true equivalency.