Hannah Gal

Thomas Sowell wisdom sheds light on Israel at war

Golda Meir. WikimediaCommons

Israel is a microcosm of the world

“What can Jews themselves do to stop antisemitism? Fail – because as long as you succeed you’re going to be hated.” Thomas Sowell.

Described by Netanyahu as “the worst assault on Jewish people since the holocaust”, the Black Saturday atrocities, mark a historic global turning point. A time of reckoning for Israeli society and the Western world. So barbaric and cruel, the assault led to many self confessed, lifelong Leftists, ‘see the light’ and abandon the peace at all cost dream. It saw ultra religious Israeli Jews volunteer in droves for army service, and Westerners the world over experiencing a rude awakening. 

Most importantly, the inhuman, brutal savagery, shocked Israel into the fierce determination to bring the battle with Hamas to a conclusive end. “The current middle east conflict is unlike any that preceded it” Professor Mordechai Kedar told me, “Israel, the region and the world will never be the same again, what we are witnessing is a historic landmark not just for Israel, but for the whole world, Israel is a microcosm of the world, fighting the West’s war against radical ideology – whatever transpires over the coming weeks and months will impact the whole world.” 

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

Unlike the many conflicts that preceded it, this one threatens to erupt into a third world war involving Iran, Russia and the US. Unlike others that were triggered by a military attack on Israel, this retaliation was sparked by a savage atrocity on unarmed Israeli civilians in their homes, including children and babies. 

Here I look at certain aspects that are common to all the conflicts – a patten that emerges every time an Israeli conflict strikes.

I turn to the wisdom of economist and noted commentator Thomas Sowell, who over the decades has addressed the issues of sofa activism, cease fires, the Left and Right divide, public opinion, proportional response and the ever-present plague of antisemitism. 

The reflections below are not commentary on the specifics of the current conflict. Rather, they are intended to provide a better understanding of the dynamics of wars and conflicts in general – what is the real effect of cease fires? What is meant by a proportionate response? Do public opinion and mass protests sabotage a conflict resolution? How does the conflict of visions between Left and Right ideologies manifest itself during war time, and more.

Sofa Activism

Sowell points to people all over Europe and the US, who are quick to cast a judging eye over unfolding events, even when they hold little to no knowledge of the warring parties, the region’s history or culture. 

“There is something grotesque about people living thousands of miles away, in safety and comfort” noted Sowell in 2014, “loftily second-guessing and trying to micro-manage what the Israelis are doing in a matter of life and death. Such self-indulgences are a danger, not simply to Israel, but to the whole Western world, for it betrays a lack of realism that shows in everything from the current disastrous consequences of our policies in Egypt, Libya and Iraq to future catastrophes from a nuclear-armed Iran.” 

The 2023 Gaza war is no exception. As soon as the world learned of Hamas’s attack and Israel’s retaliation, an endless barrage of opinions and suggestions hit the ether. Countless individuals with little to no knowledge of Jewish history, the Middle East, Arab culture or the region’s turbulent past, casting a judging eye, often demanding government intervention.

“If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image”. Golda Meir

Golda Meir. WikimediaCommons

But world opinion is a powerful force. Golda Meir has famously stated that “if we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.” But not every leader can withstand the public opinion storm. “So-called world opinion has been a largely negative factor in this situation” argued Sowell, “nothing is easier than for people living in peace and safety in Paris or Rome to call for a ceasefire after the Israelis retaliate..calls for ceasefire and negotiations lower the price of launching attacks, this is true not only in the Middle East but in other parts of the world as well. During the Vietnam War when American clergymen were crying out stop the bombing they paid little attention to the fact that bombing pauses made it easier for North Vietnam to move more ammunition into South Vietnam to kill both South Vietnamese and Americans. After Argentina invaded the Falkland islands, if British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had heeded calls for a ceasefire, that would have simply lowered the price to be paid by the Argentine government for their Invasion. Go back a 100 years before there was a United Nations, and before world opinion was taken into account, an Argentine invasion of the Falkland islands at that time would have risked not only a British counterattack to retake the islands but also British attacks on Argentina itself. 

Anywhere in the world attacks such as those on Israel today would not only have risked retaliation but Invasion and annihilation of the government that launched those attacks. Today so-called World opinion not only limits the price to be paid for aggression or terrorism it has even led to the self-indulgence of third parties talking pretty talk about limiting the response of those who are attacked to what is proportionate. 

By this reasoning we should not have declared war on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor, we should have gone over to Japan bombed one of their harbors and let it go at that – does anyone imagine that this would have led to Japan’s becoming as peaceful today as it has become after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? or is the real agenda to engage in moral preening from a safe distance and at somebody else’s expense? Those who think negotiations are a magic answer seem not to understand that when A wants to annihilate B this is not an issue that can be resolved amicably around a conference table.”

Thomas Sowell. Image courtesy of Basic Books


One of the vilest things to raise its head with every conflict involving Israel is antisemitism. As soon as Middle East troubles erupt, Europe sees a sharp rise in the number of antisemitic incidents, as protesters burn Israeli and American flags. Latest protesters chillingly chanted ‘gas the Jews’, as the Swastika made a sobering appearance. So potent were the protests that London’s Jewish schools closed for days, and an alert went out over the weekend for the general population to be vigilant. This wave of antisemitism, like all that preceded it, shocks people into the realization that antisemitism is ever present. But where does the hatred for the Jews come from?

“From a number of places” explained Sowell, “these are people who have succeeded an awful lot in the midst of other people who have not. Years ago one official of one of the Jewish organizations in New York asked me what can Jews themselves do in order to minimize the hostility they face? I gave them a one-word answer – fail,  because as long as you succeed you’re going to be hated.” 

According to Sowell, the Jews are one of several middle-man minorities, of which they are the most prominent. “The hostility of these people in countries around the world is out of all proportion of that to any other kind of group, in terms of violence, the number of black, the number of Chinese killed let’s say in one year by mob action, exceeds all the blacks lynched in the entire history of the united states, and the number of Armenians killed in turkey during the first world war is greater than that. The number of jews slaughtered on a number of occasions in history, even before the holocaust, is greater than that, so that the question is why this particular kind of people are the targets so much, with such venomous hatred?

I think the answer is that they don’t only succeed, they succeed in a way which is a threat to the egos of other people – you can envy a Rockefeller but he’s no threat to your ego because you say anybody can be rich if he’s born a Rockefeller, but the guy who comes here let’s say from Vietnam or Korea and arrives here with little more than the clothes on his back and a few words of broken English, and a decade later he has his own little business and you see his son a few years after that getting ready to go off to Harvard or MIT you got to ask yourself, you’ve either got to hate yourself saying ‘my god I’ve been stagnating this guy was nothing and now he’s risen up or you’re gonna have to hate him, and most people when they have a choice between hating others and hating themselves, they hate others. But it’s not only the success, it’s the success starting in poverty as the Jews did in the United States and many other countries. There’s also the role they play economically has never been understood – they’re middlemen or they’re money lenders, and the argument is they’re really not producing anything you can’t see anything tangible that they don’t stand at a production line turning out widgets and so the argument is that they’re not producing anything, they’re simply gratuitously inserting themselves between the producer and the consumer and their parasites essentially, and this argument has been made again not only about the Jews but about similar groups around the world and a number of places they have expelled those people or force them out by mob actions force them to flee, and after they left the economy is collapsed but it never teaches the lesson to know they were doing something.”

A conflict of visions

Every conflict brings to light the bitter Left and Right divide over the peace process. One side continues to advocate for discussions, peace talks and repeated attempts of normalization, while the other calls for recognition of an unresolvable problem and greater use of power. 

But as Sowell explains, the Left Right divide is far deeper than disagreement over the issues of the day. “There is within humans everywhere a conflict of visions over different issues – the issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other, they may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. 

In his classic title A Conflict of Visions Sowell writes “one of the curious things about political opinions” he wrote “is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues the issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection, yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises often implicit-are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues.” 

Sowell narrows it down to two visions –  the constrained and unconstrained. Constrained argues that human nature is flawed but fixed – we operate within the constraints that human nature itself provides. We need to erect institutions that contain our flaws and permit us to live in the best possible society.

Unconstrained believes that human nature itself is malleable as stated by Rousseau’s “a man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” – the things that we suffer are because of the failure of other people to be as wise or as noble as themselves because there are no inherent reason for us to be unhappy. Constrained sees pain and hardship in the world as the way life is and it will never eliminated, so the prudent thing to do is create institutions that alleviate pain. The unconstrained vision however, looks at pain and suffering and says we must remake the world, and that there are institutions that are causing this pain and suffering.

Left vs Right view of war

Naturally, this conflict of visions also applies to the issue of war. The constrained vision sees war as originating in human nature and being contained by institutions, but those with the unconstrained vision view war in terms of hostile or paranoid emotions, raised to such an extent as to override rationality. 

The constrained vision is not surprised by war, but the unconstrained vision is astounded when a war breaks. “You can take this back to the Federalists where they said why do we think that the thirteen colonies will make war on each other if they’re not united, and the end the answer was because that’s what countries have always done. It’s not a question of just war – it’s war, its poverty, its crime all those are things which people with the unconstrained vision feel needs explaining, whereas people with a constrained vision think what needs explaining is how do we sustain peace? how do we have law and order, how do we have morality?”

It occurs to me that a conflict of visions exists not just between the Left and Right end of the ideological spectrum, but between different cultures and groups. Indeed it has been suggested by some that the atrocities executed in Otef Aza, including the burning of bodies and killing of babies, are proof that some visions are too far apart and can never be bridged. That the Western vision is in stark, fixed and deadly conflict with that of certain anti-West groups. 

Follow the facts, wherever they may lead

Perhaps the greatest of all Sowell’s lessons is to follow facts and evidence, rather than rhetoric, popular opinion or the latest ‘in vogue’ cause. Consider the history and actual track record of nations, peoples and conflicts. Next time a cease fire is proposed, or a proportionate response is discussed, reflect on how these played out throughout European, US and world history. When Left vs Right arguments rage, consider the issues but also bear in mind the implicit tendencies and innate differences that exist between the two camps.

About the Author
Hannah’s credits include Quillette, The Critic, The SpectatorUS, UnHerd, Creative Review, The Guardian (Art&Design) and The Jerusalem Post among others. Hannah’s posts have been kindly retweeted and shared by Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Warren Farrell, Sebastian Gorka, Will Knowland and Christina Hoff Sommers among others. Gal is a multi award winning documentary filmmaker.
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