15 February 2010

Can We Consider Israel a Decent Society?

"What is a decent society? The answer I am suggesting is roughly the following: A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people. I distinguish between a decent society and a civilized one. A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate one another, while a decent society is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people." ~ Avishai Margalit
Jewish Settler Throwing Wine at a Palestinian Woman,
Shuhada Street, Hebron

Photograph © Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times.

This image was given third prize in the General News category of the World Press Photo competition this year. I posted on the announcement of winners several days ago. I will come back to the way such images are understood in a subsequent post. Here I want to use this image to examine some important questions.*

For starters, imagine if the caption read: "Israeli Thug Desecrates Purim by Assaulting and Terrorizing a Palestinian Woman." Then let's note that according to the photographer this thug was not alone. Outside the frame are his complicit companions, none of whom, as far as Castelnuevo reports, did a thing to stop his attack. Did they all have a good laugh at the woman's expense?

Apparently, we have an image here of gratuitous, socially sanctioned cruelty. It is easy enough to see such behavior as what Margalit would call uncivilized. Does it indicate that Israel has lost its decency too? Perhaps. One would have to ask whether the policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians and the effects of the institutions of Israeli society - ranging from indifferent to violent, including complicity with settler violence - provide the context or atmosphere that makes a young thug like this assume it is just OK to attack a Palestinian woman. After all, Hebron is in the Palestinian territories and still the young thug seemingly acts with impunity. Is he at all worried that the authorities - Palestinian or Israeli - might hold him to account?

Margalit is a subtle thinker. He is clear that the sort of humiliation he has in mind is normative not psychological. It is not just that I feel humiliated (like "tea baggers" in the U.S. who, taking the election of an African-American president as an affront to their self-respect, demand that someone give them their country back) but that I have good reasons to think social and political institutions assault and damage my self-respect. Might the woman in this picture have reason to think that Israeli institutions and policies do just that?
* It should go without saying that one might use other images of other bad behavior in other places to raise similar questions. That this should go without saying doesn't mean that I don't need to say it as a way of pre-empting the charge that I am picking - unfairly - on Israel. I have argued here before that the way to engage Israel and Israelis is to engage them. That is what I am doing. This image, unlike those of military violence and its consequences seems to be a better vehicle for the task.

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Blogger Ian Aleksander Adams said...

It's really hard to judge a country by an individual or even a subsection. For a small place, there is still a huge variety of opinion, just like any place.

Having been there, it didn't seem much like most of the pictures I've seen of it (which seem to focus on the conflict and people who seem to seek conflict.) There are places where there seems to be very little conflict and very little desire, or need, for conflict.

15 February, 2010 14:10  
Blogger tinkerbell the bipolar faerie said...

The photograph and your accompanying post embody my feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Ian does make a good point. Perhaps its easy for me to judge, based on photographs and news reports, but I have never been there. Still, I'm inclined to think of Palestine as an occupied country, an occupation that's been allowed to continue because it suits the Western world.

15 February, 2010 21:20  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I appreciate both of your comments. Thanks.

The problem is that we are not just talking about the mis-behavior of a thug or two. There is pretty massive, ongoing violence by settlers against Palestinians in the territories. And the Israeli government's policy toward the Palestinians is pretty appalling. The former is inexcusable as the settlements are plainly illegal and politically inflamatory. The latter is perhaps understandable given what passes for 'leadership' among the Palestinians and the too frequent (and inexcusable) resort to violence on their part.

I acknowledge that there is a range of political opinion among Israelis - and have noted it here pretty frequently.

The issue, however, is whether the institutions of a society are structured in a way that humiliates people in a regular systematic way. I am afraid that I have a hard time seeing how Israeli institutions don't do precisely that. Sure, the claim might be that Palestinians are not citizens of Israel and so inhabit a 'different' society. I think that that claim would be impossible to defend.

15 February, 2010 23:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Jim on the basis that Israeli institutions govern an occupied Palestinian people who did not elect them. They do this notwithstanding the craven Palestinian political scene. The pass system when looked at in conjunction with settler activity (and wide-ranging settler freedoms and protections) fairly gives the lie to the notion that Israeli institutions are not inhumane in their treatment of governed but unrepresented Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Ariella Azoulay writes about this incredibly insightfully - as does Amira Hass.

16 February, 2010 03:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Still, I'm inclined to think of Palestine as an occupied country, an occupation that's been allowed to continue because it suits the Western world."

Palestine is not an occupied country. Palestine is an ancient name that describes a geographic region that ranges from Syria to modern day Israel. The equivalent in the U.S. would be something like Appalachia. There never existed a "Palestinian country." The Palestinians live in two territories known as the West Bank and The Gaza Strip. The latter is controlled by Hamas and is not occupied by anybody. The former has been occupied by Israel since the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel went to war with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria -- and won. Prior to this war, The Gaza Strip was "occupied" by Egypt and The West Bank was "occupied" by Jordan. It was only in the late '60s that the Palestinian identity was invented and the Arabs who live in these territories got the idea of having their own country.

There are no innocent victims in this absurd conflict. Everyone did their part to inflame the situation.

16 February, 2010 10:50  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D ~ You have put your finger on the heart of the mess. There were no "Israelis" prior to 1947 (and that is in large measure the result of colonial - British - policy and war). There were no "Palestinians," as you say, until roughly the end of the 67 war. But Palestinians are now a "people" in part because the Israelis treat them as one! Like most identities, these are artifacts of political and military conflicts. (The 'Scots' with their tartan plaids were invented by a wool merchant in the late 19th C.)

I really am with Amos Oz on this, I think. What we have is conflict over real estate. It is impossible to unravel the causes and multifarious nastiness of who has done what to whom. There is plenty of blame to go around. And we ought to start with the European Christians who drove the Jews out with their antisemitism. The issue is whether we can ever get to the point of treating the conflict as one over real estate instead of identities.

16 February, 2010 11:04  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, I agree with you. The root of this conflict is real estate. Unfortunately, this conflict has become insanely entangled with identity -- Israelis vs. Palestinians, Jews Vs. Muslims, Western civilization vs. Eastern civilization, etc, etc. I can't stand that stuff.

I do think, though, that there's a lot of confusion and ignorance about what is Palestine. Many people who don't know anything about this conflict think that one day the Israeli military stormed the borders of a sovereign country called Palestine, demolished its govt., and has been occupying its citizens ever since. That's not what's going on here.

16 February, 2010 11:26  
Blogger Stan B. said...

You can't judge an entire country by the actions of one individual, just as you can't judge one on the perceived tranquility of certain areas.

I was amazed to find how seemingly tranquil and "normal" Belfast appeared when I arrived there- until I saw the look of abject fear so clearly etched on the face of a solitary British soldier.

16 February, 2010 11:36  

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