Analysis from Israel

Israeli journalist Amira Hass has finally explained a mystery that long puzzled me: how the European Union manages to reconcile its policy on the Middle East with its self-image as a champion of morality, human rights, and compassion. In one short sentence, she neatly encapsulates the moral rot at the heart of the modern multicultural left: “We don’t rate suffering.”

The great European mystery is the fact that the Syrian conflict remains far below the Palestinian-Israeli one on Europe’s foreign policy agenda, even though on both moral and practical grounds, the Syrian crisis clearly deserves precedence. Not only has it killed more than 10 times as many people in four years as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has in seven decades, but it’s currently flooding Europe with refugees and creating, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, an even greater threat to European unity than the euro crisis. Nor can this order of priorities be excused by claiming Western helplessness in Syria: Pundits as ideologically diverse as COMMENTARY’s Max Boot and the New York TimesNicholas Kristof agree that no-fly zones could enable most Syrians to remain safely in their homeland. Enter Hass, a Haaretz columnist, red-diaper baby, and disciple of hard-left theory who is best known for her radical pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel views. Two weeks ago, she published a column that compares and contrasts the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba, a term she uses to mean everything Palestinians have suffered due to their conflict with Israel for the last 70 years. She graciously acknowledges that the two aren’t equivalent, inter alia because the Nazis perpetrated genocide while Israel has done no such thing. But then she explains why this non-equivalence doesn’t really matter:

No one has the right to compare in any way the suffering of peoples and human beings, or to quantify it, rank it, calculate it … We don’t quantify. We don’t rate suffering.

This, in a nutshell, is the moral abdication at the heart of today’s multicultural left: In its ostensibly noble desire to ensure that no suffering goes unnoticed or unattended, it has abandoned the very essence of morality – the ability to draw distinctions, which is essential to make moral choices.

In an ideal world, all suffering would be alleviated. But in the real world, with its finite resources of time, energy, and money, choices must be made. And there’s no moral way to decide which causes deserve priority without doing precisely what Hass deems morally untenable – rating suffering. Essentially, it requires a moral version of triage: Suffering we can alleviate merits greater attention than suffering we can’t; suffering that’s more intense or widespread merits greater attention than suffering that’s less intense or widespread; the suffering of innocents merits greater attention than the suffering of the guilty; and when these three indicators don’t all point in the same direction, they must be weighed against each other as well.

On the most basic level, we do this instinctively: If, for instance, a cop saw an attempted murder and an attempted robbery happening simultaneously, we’d expect him to focus on preventing the murder rather than the robbery. But at any level more complex than that, intellect comes into play. And the intellectual principles of the modern multicultural left dictate that, “We don’t rate suffering.”

But if so, then we have no moral obligation to alleviate the greater suffering rather than the lesser one, because we can’t determine which is which. And thus the left can justify resorting instead to a criterion whose immorality ought to be patent, but which has the virtue of being easily determinable: not how much suffering is caused, but who caused it. No moral person would deem an individual murder more or less important based solely on whether the perpetrator was, say, French or British. But it has become completely morally tenable in Europe to consider wartime deaths more or less important depending on whether they can or can’t be blamed on Israel (or America).

Since we can’t rate suffering, it’s completely reasonable for millions of Europeans to demonstrate against a war that killed 2,000 people in Gaza last summer but not against a war that has killed 250,000 in Syria. Since we can’t rate suffering, it’s completely reasonable for the Reykjavik municipality to decide last week that it will boycott Israel but not Syria or its Russian and Iranian enablers. Since we can’t rate suffering, it’s completely reasonable that when the EU’s top foreign policy official addressed the European parliament last week, her office’s website billed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as her top agenda item while the Syrian conflict didn’t even make the list. And on, and on.

In a fascinating article in The Spectator this weekend, veteran leftist Nick Cohen described “Why I’ve finally given up on the left,” sickened by the moral rot epitomized by the Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbin. But leftists like Cohen can’t combat the rot in their own camp without understanding why it has set in – the fundamental abandonment of moral calculus so aptly summed up by Hass. As a very different Israeli leftist, Amos Oz, presciently warned in June, “Anyone who cannot rank different degrees of evil may end up a servant of evil.”

Originally published in Commentary on September 21 2015

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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