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Against Jewish moral aestheticism on Israel

Some criticism of Israel does indeed apply sound moral logic and should be taken seriously, but much of it does not

The Global Peace Index recently came out with a report ranking Israel eighth from the bottom out of 158 countries. One notable country ranked higher than Israel in the Index was Eritrea, whose residents have been flooding Israel of late due to internal strife and oppression in their country. A nation’s peacefulness is determined by 23 factors, “ranging from a nation’s level of military expenditure to its relations with neighboring countries and the level of respect for human rights.” So a country that’s forced to defend itself from external enemies is ranked lower than ones that face no external threats and, in the case of Israel, lower than ones that systematically abuse their own people. What accounts for this astounding shallowness?

There has always been a tension between the moral sensibility and the aesthetic sensibility, between what is good or bad and what merely looks good or bad. Many Jews who should know better make the same conceptual error as the Global Peace Index and routinely engage in a pernicious form of “moral aestheticism,” especially in their exaggerated critiques of Israel. They mistake what looks bad with what is bad.

It’s not inherently good to write a pleasant thank you letter, it’s good manners. It’s not evil to eat with your mouth open, it’s a violation of social conventions. By the same token, publicly humiliating an unpopular colleague may seem perfectly socially acceptable but be decidedly immoral. Many people seem not to be able to tell the difference.

Larry King Live played host to a hilarious clash of moral and aesthetic sensibilities on the topic of eating animals a few years ago between renowned Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.

“There’s a certain kind of meat,” Foer said, “which is produced on factory farms, that is in every single way unconscionable. It’s unconscionable to feed to our children because of health. It’s unconscionable because it’s the single worst thing we can to do to the environment by a long shot. And it’s unconscionable because of what we’re doing to animals who are raised on factory farms.”

Bourdain countered: “My major area of concern is…supermarket quality, fast food quality, pre-chopped meat. The stuff they’re putting in these burgers would not be recognized by any American as meat. That said, I would counter Jonathan’s argument just with one word: bacon. It’s so delicious.”

While both oppose eating factory farm beef, Foer does so because it’s immoral and Bourdain does so because it’s disgusting. Whatever one thinks of Foer’s moral reasoning against eating factory farmed animals, he is engaging in moral reasoning. Bourdain, for his part, is the very personification of the aesthetic sensibility.

The Book of Genesis offers a powerful allegory of these disparate paradigms when Noah, lying drunk and naked, is assaulted by his son Ham. The two other brothers, Yapheth and Shem, cover their father and look away. One common interpretation among the rabbis is that Yapheth looked away in disgust at what his brother Ham had done, while the other, Shem, was offended on a deep moral level.

The bible has a penchant for imbuing names with powerful meaning. Ham, which means “hot,” is heated by his unchecked evil inclination. Yapheth, which is derived from the word for “beauty,” demonstrates the aesthetic sensibility in his repugnance. Shem, which means “name,” names the immoral act. It is worth noting that Jews, among others, are considered descendants of Shem. Hence the label “Semites.”

'Drunken Noah,' by Giovanni Bellini c. 1500-1515
'Drunken Noah,' by Giovanni Bellini c. 1500-1515

Notwithstanding a rich tradition of moral discourse, some Jewish intellectuals seem especially susceptible to confusing form with substance.

Marc Gopin, a George Mason University professor of conflict resolution, once posted a photo on Facebook of Israeli soldiers brawling with Jewish protestors, with the caption, “Apparently the IDF particularly hates Israeli Jews who join protests in the West Bank. Here is a picture of Jews beating Jews, in the name of Jewish security.”

The viewer has no idea of the circumstances under which these clashes occur. Did the soldiers beat the protestors without provocation? Did a protestor pull out a weapon? Were they even Israeli soldiers? For Gopin, incendiary photos are sufficient grounds for moral condemnation.

The quintessential form of moral aestheticism may be passing judgment on an entire society based on the congeniality of the head of state. It treats entire countries based on the brand of the elected leader. It’s an all too common form of statecraft, as when a democratically elected leader chums up to a petty despot with a winning personality, or scorns another democratically elected leader whom he dislikes. Foreign policy is reduced to personal diplomacy. A prime example is the senior President Bush’s shoddy treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and his obvious enchantment with President Hosni Mubarak, the unelected president of Egypt who systematically violated human rights. For Bush, Shamir was Israel and Mubarak was Egypt.

Moral aestheticism is appealing because it substitutes ill-formed impressions for critical judgment, allows for consistency, and relieves gnawing tensions. Once one renders that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Israel, he or she is free to hold the Jewish State alone responsible for the conflict and to ignore all exculpatory evidence. New Yorker editor David Remnick states that “The political corrosion (in Israel) begins, of course, with the occupation of the Palestinian territories—the subjugation of Palestinian men, women, and children—that has lasted for forty-five years.” Remnick conveniently forgets the Arab world’s rejection of peace with Israel and Israel’s repeated attempts to negotiate an end to the occupation. The occupation looks ugly; therefore Israel is morally culpable. Never mind that there’s unlikely a Palestinian partner willing and able to govern.

New Yorker editor David Remnick (photo credit CC BY-SA Martin Schneider, Wikipedia)
New Yorker editor David Remnick (photo credit CC BY-SA Martin Schneider, Wikipedia)

And finally there’s the tendency to recoil from inevitable casualties of a justified war. Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 after enduring almost daily rocket fire from Gaza. One-time supporter turned critic MJ Rosenberg pronounced, “The civilian dead were indeed civilians, and they are still dead. They are dead because the Israeli government decided that taking care not to kill innocents would put more Israeli soldiers in harm’s way.” Rosenberg does not bother taking us through the evidence of the Israeli decision-making process. Spouting his indignation suffices.

Just war theorist Michael Walzer points out that “Critics…are not being cautious at all; they are not making any kind of measured judgment, not even a speculative kind. ‘Disproportionate’ violence for them is simply violence they don’t like, or it is violence committed by people they don’t like.”

Of course some criticism of Israel does indeed apply sound moral logic and should be taken seriously, but much of it does not.

One can only conclude that the likes of Rosenberg and Remnick have lost their stomach for struggling with serious questions, grown tired of contending with the bad optics of self-defense, and have resolved their nagging tensions. Israel is guilty. Freed of all dialectical tension, they can now join fellow travelers in dissing Israel for its bad manners.

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Editor’s note: A response to this piece from the New Israel Fund’s Naomi Paiss can be found here.

About the Author
David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the representative voice of the Jewish community relations movement. Follow him on Twitter.