Chaim Feder

Ignorance and Values

Ron Hassner is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. On 5 Dec, he published the results of a poll in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

“When college students who sympathize with Palestinians chant “From the river to the sea,” do they know what they’re talking about?” 250 students from across the US were polled. “Most said they supported the chant, some enthusiastically so (32.8%) and others to a lesser extent (53.2%)”.

Other questions were: Which river and what sea? Who was Yassir Arafat? In what decade were the Oslo Accords signed? For the percentages of correct and incorrect (and some responses are utterly ‘awkward’), try to get to the article. Hint: Hassner comments that “There’s no shame in being ignorant, unless one is screaming for the extermination of millions”.

There may, however, also be shame! Activist group members who support Palestinian positions also assume, I think, that they have an instinctive and deep (and superior?) understanding of required moral behavior in war. In this moral universe, Israelis are damnably immoral.

There are many levels of  ‘frightening’ here. After all, there are many serious students, ones who are not the most ignorant and who actually do know something and do explore the morality of the situation. I assert though, that they are generally moral pygmies when compared to a typical IDF-serving 19-year-old who has been involved in the last 70 days of call-up duty and involved in actual fighting for well over a month. These youngsters need to deal with immediate ethical quandaries many times daily, and they make moral decisions that most Americans (British, German, French, etc.) will never confront.

I also maintain that typical Israelis (religious or secular) are brought up in Israel’s cultural tradition, rooted in basic Jewish values and in its own Declaration of Independence. They pay much attention to Israel’s own seminal understanding of the sacredness of human life (קדושת החיים), as well as its concept of “Purity of Arms” (טוהר הנשק). Tikkun Olam (תיקון עולם) is neither foreign nor unfamiliar here.

In this cultural heritage, International Laws of War and humanitarian protocols provide needed detail to principles taught and trained from childhood in Israel. Yes, there are sporadic serious errors, and boy does Israel have their extremists, but they run counter to who and what Israelis are. The extreme does not define Israel. And frankly, I don’t care whether ignoramuses believe it or not.

Think a bit of the chorus of opposition that was reflected in the 10 months before the war, of demonstrations of hundreds-of-thousands in Israel to the attempts of their extremist government’s attempts to undermine the Supreme Court, among the world’s most respected by those who really know. Israelis take law, its traditions and what it guards, and democratic values, very seriously indeed.

Also worth mentioning, I think, are memorable non-Israeli personalities of which pitifully few (including Israelis) are aware: Raphael Lemkin (conceived of and defined Genocide), Sir Hersch Lauterpacht (he of drafting “Crimes Against Humanity” principles for Nuremburg Trials) and Rene Cassin (Nobel Prize for co-authoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) were all deeply identifying secular Jews. I would argue that they emerge from a similar cultural core as Israel.

Thus, these values are hardly foreign, even to despised Israelis. They actually constitute core principles of Zionist ideologies. And surely, active concern for human life, including the lives of Palestinians, is not the exclusive dominion of students, even those of the most prestigious universities, many of whom Hassner finds to be less worldly than they should be.

About the Author
Chaim Feder is a retired educator who specialized in global Jewish-Zionist education. He came on aliyah in 1977. Chaim is married to Irith and they live in Modi'in. The two boys, Uri and Roi, their wives and five children live in Modiin; Tal and her husband and four children live in the Yishuv Har Amasa, by Ya'ar Yatir.