Thomas R. Dew was a president of the College of William & Mary. He was also an eloquent defender of immorality. “Look to the slaveholding population of the country,” he wrote in 1832 while a professor at the university, “and you every where find them characterized by noble and elevated sentiments, by humane and virtuous feelings.”
Clearly, even a professorship and some rhetorical skill don’t guarantee ideas that merit thoughtful debate. There is, after all, an entire website dedicated to “Scholars for 9/11 Truth,” and yet The New York Times has not once published an op-ed by the Texas A&M professor emeritus who expresses doubt that Boeing 767s were flown into the Twin Towers, or by the University of Colorado mathematics professor who similarly sees a conspiracy in the events of September 11. Their ideas are simply beyond the pale.
Nor has The New York Times offered space in its coveted opinion pages for debate about whether the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which is entangled in border disputes and burdened by extremism, should be annulled, folded back into India from which it was carved. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the newspaper promoting arguments in favor of the elimination of any recognized, democratic country. Such ideas, too, are beyond the pale. Except, of course, when it comes to Israel.
Not for the first time, The Times has published what amounts to a call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The latest piece, which appears on the cover of the Sept. 15 Sunday Review section and is written by University of Pennsylvania professor Ian Lustick, argues the current state of Israel should be replaced by a unitary country that includes its neighbors in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
The column is not all that different than an op-ed the newspaper published a few years ago by Muammar Qaddafi. And while that New York Times contributor is now remembered as a ranting madman who butchered his own people, and although Lustick is most definitely neither of those, the only real difference between their pieces is that Qaddafi’s op-ed calling for an end to Israel is less long-winded than Lustick’s 2,431-word piece, is more coherent, and at least sounds more moderate.
But never mind the tone and the drone of Lustick’s piece. And never mind the weakness of both the dictator and the professor’s arguments. The more important issue is that The New York Times seems intent on putting the very idea of Israel’s continued existence, the idea of real and functional Jewish national self-determination, up for debate. In effect, the newspaper has repeatedly raised the question of whether we should rewind history and return the Jewish people to the dark era in which being a Jew meant everywhere being an ethnic minority, subject to the decisions of often-hostile majorities. And it’s not only Jews who stand to suffer. Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar, both affiliated with the American Task Force on Palestine, say Lustick’s views are “harmful” in that they encourage “an open-ended struggle in pursuit of impossible goals” and “reflect dangerous phantasms and fanaticism.”
In short, Lustick wants to discourage peace negotiations that most Jewish and Arab Israelis support, and instead have the world sit back, watch the bloodshed he says is inevitable, and hope for the disappearance of the Jewish state. This should be beyond the pale.
The central problem isn’t that Lustick’s argumentation is weak (though it certainly is). It is that his argument is immoral. It is time that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal use the discretion that his office practices every day in sorting through hundreds of op-ed submissions, and desist from promoting this unjust idea.
That being said, let’s have a closer look at Lustick’s arguments.
His bottom line is that the idea of separate Jewish and Palestinian states is an “illusion.” Lustick seems to understand that the Jewish majority in Israel will not volunteer to become a minority, especially in a region where xenophobic Arab leaders have long encouraged anti-Jewish attitudes, warfare and terrorism. And he surely knows that most of the world recognizes Israel. (The German chancellor said this just a few days ago: “For those who share my view that the Jews as a people have a right to self-determination, Zionism as a national movement of the Jewish people is the embodiment of this very right which its opponents want to deny.”)
This is why the professor, notwithstanding his own argument that a two-state solution should be opposed because it is not “plausible,” devotes so much of his op-ed to arguing that sometimes in international affairs “the impossible suddenly becomes probable.” He tells readers that “history offers many such lessons,” citing the division of warring Britain and Ireland into two states, and the separation of the ethnically distinct France and Algeria into two sovereign countries, and the breakup of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, and the end of the Soviet project that had tried and ultimately failed to encapsulate several diverse republics into one state.
Maybe Lustick doesn’t realize how thoroughly the history lesson destroys his case for joining two distinct, adversarial nations into one state. So he continues.
Readers, he argues, should consider what they “see vividly” across the Middle East. What they see, we know, is horrific bloodshed in Syria, where the unified state has fractured and where Sunnis, Alawites and Christians live in fear of each other. They see a Lebanon, a country in which an internationally designated terrorist group holds veto power, and which barely manages to withstand the centrifugal forces that have separated Shiite, Sunni and Christian Lebanese into violent enemies. They see car bombs exploding seemingly every day in Iraq, where the two main branches of Islam fail to coexist.
And he continues to make his case: “Strong Islamist trends make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government,” he writes. But the Jews of Israel should intertwine their fates with, and put their futures in the hands of, these very fundamentalists? We’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere what fundamentalist Islamism envisions for non-Muslims. Just one day after The New York Times gave Lustick his platform, the newspaper reported that an Islamist-dominated village in Egypt has “witnessed the most horrific sectarian violence in Egypt” since power changed hands a few months ago. A 1,650-year-old monastery, the village’s churches and dozens of Christian homes have “been burned or ransacked.” A Christian resident was recently murdered and dragged through the streets.
And still, Lustick’s piece concludes by urging those with a stake in negotiations, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to “see and then adapt to the world as it is.” Yes, he’s referring to the same world in which Arab Sudan was separated from non‑Arab South Sudan to spare the sides continued bloodshed.
To be fair, the author is right about one thing. There are observers who question the likelihood of a negotiated two-state solution. But if he agrees with them (he does), and if he wants dazzling geopolitical change (he does), what would make more sense: Watching while “blood” and “conflict” and “magic,” which Lustick envisions as a prerequisite to his one-state Utopia, does or does not fuse Israel and the Palestinian Authority into a single peaceful country, or joining the Gaza Strip and Egypt, two regions that overlap ethnically, religiously and culturally and which once coexisted with little dissent under the same rule? He doesn’t consider this option. This isn’t to recommend a Gaza-Egypt union, but merely to point out that even if one accepts Lustick’s gloomy diagnosis, his prescription does not necessarily follow.
And things aren’t actually all that gloomy. Realist professor Efraim Inbar recently made the case that the country looks to have a bright future:
Despite not everything being perfect in the Holy Land, long term prospects seem bright. Israel is a vibrant democracy that prospers and maintains strong social cohesion. Its international status has improved while support in the United States, its main ally and still the foremost international power, has remained very high. Moreover, the Jewish state is widely recognized as an entrenched reality, even by its Arab and Muslim rivals. It has built a mighty military machine that can parry all regional threats, and the IDF remains the most capable military in the region with the motivation, equipment, and training to overmatch the conventional capabilities of any regional challenger. Israel has managed to contain terrorist activities and has built an effective shield against missiles.
Inbar concluded that “While peace is desirable, it is not a necessary condition for survival.”
Lustick’s dire prognosis also depends on misinformation. Israel’s version of two states, he insists, envisions “huge Jewish settlements, crisscrossed by Jewish-only access roads.” But this is utter nonsense. The West Bank is not currently crisscrossed by Jewish-only roads, and no credible Israeli proponent of a two-state solution calls for creating such roads, either in Israel or in a future Palestinian state. Lustick has seemingly dug up the old canard that describes roads on which Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians can freely travel, but to which Palestinians have restricted access, as being Jewish only. Major media organizations that have made that mistake have subsequently published corrections.
But again, the key problem isn’t Lustick’s ridiculous argumentation or his dangerous vision, both of which he is entitled to, and both of which he has shared before. The real issue is with The New York Times decision-making. As Shmuel Rosner correctly pointed out, the foolish idea that the disenfranchisement of the Jewish people is up for debate is “based solely on the fact that a widely read and respectable publication has decided to print it.” It is an extremist concept that the newspaper is trying to push into the mainstream.
Times opinion editors will surely protest that they publish diverse views, and that they don’t necessarily agree with what is published. To some extent this is true. But this boilerplate defense does not justify the publication of anything and everything. No op-eds have made the case that the slaying of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was actually a “false-flag” conspiracy. None have promoted female genital mutilation. None have revived the outrageous debate about the right to freedom for blacks in America. And none should revive the old debate about the right of the Jewish people to determine their own destiny in their ancestral homeland.
In other words — at least when it comes to issues that don’t involve the world’s one, small Jewish-majority country — free speech is not conflated with desirable speech. Arguments in The New York Times normally fall within the bounds of good taste and basic decency, and this guideline must be applied to the conversation about Israel, too.