Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ayn Rand Institute Champions Israel

I went to the Objectivist Club of Berkeley on Tuesday to a lecture called, "What is America's stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict?" The lecture was given by Elan Journo, a writer at the Ayn Rand Institute. As a preface to Journo's lecture, I must first explain Objectivism, Rand's philosophy. The main premise is that human beings are without instincts to serve our self-interests, therefore we must be guided by a set of moral principles. Journo's argument, constructed using Rand's philosophy, is a moral one. In fact, the subtitle of the event was, "a talk on the moral defense of Israel."

Personally, I think moral arguments are weak. But I also think nobody is objective, so maybe Journo's argument was weaker than a logical one, but also more honest.

The first thing I noticed coming into the room was that there were campus police officers present. I don't know if this is standard practice for lectures at Berkeley, or if the officers were present because this pro-Israel lecture occurred smack in the middle of Israeli Apartheid Week on campus (during which protesters urged passerby to take BDS actions against Israel).

Journo's lecture opened with a description of the high hopes held by all after Rabin, Clinton, and Arafat finished the Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority, in 1993 (Rabin and Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize for these actions). This portion of the lecture was brought to a close with a sad story about an Israeli boy who was emotionally traumatized when a qassam rocket landed near his house. Then he said pointedly, "A lot of people have died." I wondered why he didn't mention how many Palestinians have died in the conflict (four times as many as Israelis). I began to suspect that he would not bring up any counter arguments, and that he could not answer them if he did.

Next, he discussed Hamas coming to power in 2006, and launching war against Israel, together with Hezbollah. He painted Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, and virtually all Arab leaders with the same brush, describing these leaders as corrupt, dangerous, violent, and against freedom. In fact, he even referred to the UN as "a corrupt organization." He especially emphasized these groups' violence toward their own citizens and said that there is no civil control, "with people killing each other in the streets."

I wondered if he had ever been to any of these places and thought to myself that this seemed antithetical to everything I know about Arab culture.

Then he painted a very different picture of life for Israelis. He characterized Israel as a land of freedom, democracy, choice, and equality. He emphasized the freedom of press and speech that Israelis enjoy, while the residents of the West Bank and Gaza do not enjoy any such freedom. His argument was that Israel has the moral high ground, and therefore should be the victor in this conflict. But again, he left counter arguments completely off the table, which left gaping holes in his argument.

Of Israelis' freedom of speech, he said, "They don't have to fear the knock at the door at midnight." Because he was not taking questions, I was not able to raise my hand and ask, "What about the Palestinians? Should they fear the knock at the door?" The question would have been rhetorical anyway because I know that Palestinians often do find Israeli soldiers knocking on their door in the middle of the night. Sometimes the aim is simply to discombobulate the resident, sometimes they come to arrest someone. In fact, from what I know, arrests are rarely made during the day, unless they are made during a protest.

He then cited the court decisions regarding the separation wall as proof that Israel's judicial system is morally sound, uncorrupted.

Residents of the West Bank have been complaining for years that the wall separates them from their own lands, families, and workplaces, and have been trying to get the route of the wall moved to accommodate these realities. Journo was right when he said the Israeli high court ordered the wall moved. But he did not mention that this decision has still not been implemented and that other measures designed to reappropriate Palestinian land are still under way in full force (settlement expansion, home demolition, crop burning).

He mentioned the financial success of Israel's start-up companies as proof that the Israeli government helps its citizens, that the free market is thriving, and that Israelis are more motivated to succeed. He did not mention that companies in the Palestinian territories are not allowed this opportunity- by Israel. The territories' borders are controlled by Israel and exports to other countries are severely limited. The free market is not alive and well in Palestine, but that is certainly not a result of laziness.

Journo ended his litany of Israel's moral superiority with the story of The Disengagement. In 2005, Israel evacuated all its settlements in Gaza and relocated those citizens. Because there were no longer any Israeli civilians in Gaza, the world believed Israel had truly left Gaza to its own devices- to succeed or fail on its own merits. Journo argued that because the disengagement only led to the firing of more and more qassams, that pulling out had, in and of itself, only encouraged Hamas to be more violent.

I hear this argument against "land for peace" often- the disengagement didn't bring peace so giving up West Bank settlements won't do any good either. This faulty logic ignores two factors:

  1. Gaza was basically made into a bantustan with no autonomy or access to the outside world. Israel controls who gets in and out, and which supplies are allowed in. Gaza is a welfare state.
  2. Gaza and the West Bank are one country, even though they are not contiguous. They are the same people. As long as one is occupied, some people in the other will be militant.

Of the basic moral difference between Israel and Palestine, Journo said, "One side seeks war and destruction and tyranny and one side does not." His argument is that the state with the moral high ground should have power. He cites Israel's free speech and democracy as that high ground, but ignores the double standard- equal rights are not afforded to Israel's Arabs.

As the lecture ended and the Q&A period began, I thought I might amuse myself by asking why he chose to make a moral argument- since these are the hardest to settle. I didn't stay to ask, though. The first question was from an earnest boy in the second row who asked how Israel could have the moral high ground when so many people believe it was established by taking away the homes of the Palestinian residents. Journo responded by assuring the boy that no Palestinians were forced to leave at all. Rabble went up in the back of the room by the keffiyeh crowd and someone yelled, "Never happened!"

Even though I know that there are people who don't believe in the expulsions- nakba deniers who are characters in my eyes on par with holocaust deniers- I am still surprised to hear their fervent denials each time. When the world has instant access to the exact words of the Israeli leaders who ordered these expulsions, how can they continue to deny? At 1:30pm on July 12, 1948, Rabin himself (then a lieutenant colonel) gave the following order, "The inhabitants of Lydda (now a city in Israel called Lod) must be expelled quickly without attention to age." The residents of this city and nearby al-Ramla were forced to walk to Ramallah with nothing but what they could carry.

I didn't stay to hear any more.


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