Notes From Beyond the Tinderbox

Contrary to the implicit and socially-imposed assumption of our era, it is not inherently antisemitic to disagree with, or even to soundly criticize, the policies or actions of the Israeli government, including during a time of conflict. The Israeli government is comprised of the elected representatives of the people of Israel. If Israelis themselves decided that they no longer trusted the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and voted him and his party out of office, would this mean that Israel had turned antisemitic? Obviously not. Then why must everyone who dares to cast doubt on the actions of Netanyahu’s (or any other Israeli leader’s) political faction be subjected to the smear of antisemitism? Does not this disingenuous “hate speech” charade, a politically dangerous trope which first arose under the advocacy of post-Holocaust Jewish organizations and has since become a generalized and universally-exploited blight on the moral and legal institutions of the developed world, amount to using illegitimate moral intimidation to corner everyone into assuming Israel’s (i.e., this or that Israeli government’s) righteousness and irreproachability in all matters?

Could Israel be wrong? Could Israeli policy toward the Palestinians be misguided? Could today’s ongoing approach to seeking retribution for the Hamas attack of October 7th be mistaken or excessive? More importantly, why must everyone be squeamish about merely asking such simple questions, the type of questions we never hesitate to ask about the policy decisions of any other government on Earth?

None of the above is intended to dispute the current Israeli methods in Gaza, or the appropriateness of the Israeli response under current circumstances. The fact that my words might feel to some like an anti-Israeli screed, or even seem to have an aura of latent or concealed antisemitism about them, is precisely my point. Only a propagandizing fool would suggest that criticizing Vladimir Putin makes one anti-Russian, or that criticizing the Chinese Communist Party makes one anti-Chinese. So why does the mere raising of a question about the elected government of Israel suggest that one is anti-Israel, and hence, by obvious implication, anti-Jew?

Nonsense. Public discourse is dead if only pre-sanctified opinions are permitted. And such pre-established certainties, with their corresponding pre-determined moral limits on thought, are implicitly grounded in the assumption and public enforcement of absolute certainty and official infallibility regarding certain practical questions or issues. An idea that cannot be questioned is bound to lose its legitimacy. A political faction that may not be criticized, due to its having been effectively identified with the people and historical truths it claims to represent, has become untethered from the tree of limited, representative government, which tree grows from indispensable roots of human fallibility and imperfectibility.

Should people in Western countries who praise Hamas today, or criticize or distrust Israel’s retributive actions in Gaza, be “cancelled,” lose their jobs, be expelled from universities, and the like? There is no universalizable answer for such a broad question, since context is everything in such matters — or rather it ought to be. 

Is every sympathetic word about Hamas evidence of a desire to wipe all Jews as such off the map? No. It might represent a general ignorance and naivety about the history or complexities of the Middle East’s regional problems, as, I suspect, in the case of most of those university students getting “outed” on social media for their “unacceptable” support of baby-beheading terrorists — as though these students (all of them) were genuinely in favor of beheading Jewish babies, and were not merely young people whose indoctrinated anti-rich attitudes and emotionally immature need to “belong” have sucked them into the vortex of the latest activist cause. Or it might be a case of longstanding empathy or personal attachment to the Islamic people of the region who live in poverty, and who, like so many people “trapped” in hardship, have learned through a lifetime of downtrodden and irrational politics to identify their wealthy neighbor as the immediate and intentional source of that hardship.

But it will also, in some instances, be a more pernicious form of ignorance, namely the stupid collectivism of anti-Jewish conspiracies, whether these be rooted in historico-theological rivalry (the endless medievalism of religious war) or plain material envy and scapegoatism (the self-loathing paranoia of “They own everything”). Even in these cases, however, while the radicalization of young people into willing weapons of war is always a danger, it is not an inevitable result of such attitudes, and therefore cannot simply be treated as violence itself, and hence punished as though these dupes of foolish ideas were no different from irredeemable criminals or terrorists. Bad ideas are, unfortunately, a normal and intractable element of public life and discourse which, sadly, modern communication technology has granted a means of broad dissemination, so that ignorance itself becomes a prominent, if not dominant, noise within the general chatter, thereby gaining outsized influence by its sheer ubiquity. But people can change, bad ideas may give way to better ones in the souls of the morally exploited or under-educated. Opinions, especially in the minds of the young, are in most cases surprisingly weak and shakable, which is part of the reason the young tend to be more vehement and vocal in their opinions, as they, more than the older and wiser, desperately fear the humiliation of being unmasked as ignorant, and therefore cling all the more maniacally to unsupported notions to which they have once given public voice.

The answer, in these latter cases, is education in the proper sense, a moderating of the indignation and fanaticism inherent in youthful enthusiasm, in favor of a more detached and sober examination of all angles, and hence a gradual weakening of the sense of unquestioning certainty that infests the activist mind. The necessary aim is to lead these individuals, who were unwilling even to truck with the presence of opposition, to begin, through the patient constancy of available alternatives, to see through their own angry certitudes, i.e., to see their own bare souls under the gradually receding layers of vitriolic dogma. The task may seem monumental at times, especially when the forces of cynical indoctrination stacked against you are so pervasive and influential. Nevertheless, when one considers the realistic and historically proven alternative to such an open-minded educational effort, namely the hardening of an excluded and indignant underclass of the envious, ignorant, and vengeful, one realizes that there is no other viable path in the long run.

In the preceding comments, I noted that the natural method of combatting bad and militant ideas, namely the sincere and complicating presentation of alternative and moderating ideas, is hampered by the cynical indoctrination of the young or confused that is so rampant today. This is primarily an educational problem. Hence, while it is absurd to condemn every young ignoramus or sentimentalist outright for the foolish extremes of ignorance — let he who has not sinned cast the first stone — it does not follow from this that there is no genuine and damnable culpability in these matters. There surely is, but not among the young, ill-informed, and enthusiastic. In a sane educational world, it would be incumbent upon, and also within the proper self-governing purview of, every university administration to have some general conception of what their mission ought to be, which is to say, at a minimum, which country’s well-being they ought to serve, and what principles of intellectual openness and rational discourse they ought to be espousing and encouraging. At a most basic level, this would involve an understanding, long dormant in the modern academic mind, that higher education is and must be precisely the antidote to, and societal bulwark against, the intolerant anger and unswerving certainties of the activist mentality. In other words, if education means anything, it means the fostering of young people’s passion for ideas as opposed to causes, eternal truths as opposed to historical traps, the fascination with the foreign as opposed to the hatred of all that is uncomfortably other, and the soul’s emancipation from the urgent rallying cries of “Today” as opposed to the body’s absorption into this or that temporal upheaval. But as long as the professoriate, viewed as a union of untouchable and self-reinforcing dogmatists, runs the entire academic system, the university — an institution more essential to the survival of the modern commonweal than law courts or free elections — will continue its collapse toward the wrong half of each of these oppositions, which in turn means the downward spiral into succeeding generations of increasing immaturity. In the case under examination here, this immaturity manifests itself, and is intended to manifest itself, as increasingly immoderate and indignant closed-mindedness; in short, violent and trigger-happy anger as the universal substitute for the animated but mutually respectful discourse upon which civilization and spiritual development depend.

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