The Moral Vacuity of Pro-Palestinian Social Justice

In August, Florida State University was one of several universities to have adopted the now widely accepted IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, signaling that university leaders and others outside of academia have begun to see the wisdom of having guidelines by which to identify and, hopefully, eliminate hate from their respective institutions. Not surprisingly, some progressive groups—including even Jewish ones—have condemned the IHRA definition, claiming that it will chill their speech and punish their ideology, even though the use of the definition does nothing of the sort. Israel-haters and anti-Semites can still continue to defame the Jewish state and single it out for opprobrium, condemnation, and slander but now they can be called out for their behavior.

Something called the Progressive Israel Network (comprised of Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair World Movement, Jewish Labor Committee, J Street, New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel, and Reconstructing Judaism and T’ruah, left-leaning groups all) felt compelled to announce that, while, of course, they were all for defeating the world’s oldest hatred, they found the IHRA definition to be particularly unhelpful in their relentless quest to demonize Israel and critique the Jewish state. The IHRA definition, they announced ominously, is actually being weaponized to suppress progressive efforts to attack Israel, that the definition “is being misused and exploited to instead suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions, and advocacy for Palestinian rights.”

IfNotNow, another group whose mission seems to be to hector lawmakers into distancing themselves from Israel and embracing the Palestinian cause without question or conditions, even hosted an event in January to discuss “how the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been destroying the progressive movement” by “criminalizing the BDS movement and “squashing free speech” of progressives obsessed with signaling their loathing of Israel and their tireless efforts to fight for social justice for the ever-aggrieved Palestinians.

That has meant that students, and left-leaning faculty, as well, are urged to advocate for social and economic goals described in decidedly liberal intellectual formulations such as “social and economic justice,” “distributive justice,” and “the global interconnections of oppression,” this latter view ideal for conflating, at least in liberal imaginations, the shared complicity of America and Israel in their long-term oppression of the indigenous people of the fictive nation of Palestine and the alleged “occupation” of their land.

What are the defining characteristics of those well-meaning, but often misguided individuals who promiscuously proclaim their commitment to social justice? A number of tactics and behaviors are common to their efforts:

  • Social justice warriors are commonly infatuated with their own virtue, which manifests itself in very public “virtue signaling,” a way that self-described activists indicate that they have taken the high moral ground, that they stand for racial equality and the aspirations of the oppressed, and that they single-mindedly fight for the rights of, and make excuses for, the oppressed state in which their victims find themselves.
  • Economist Thorsten Veblen identified an emerging social phenomenon in which an increasingly more affluent middle class used spending and material acquisition as a way of signaling their economic—and social—status. Social justice warriors use the same psychological device of announcing to others their self-righteous ideology through what could be called “conspicuous moral consumption,” part and parcel of their virtue signaling.
  • The rectitude of students and faculty enthralled by social justice and pushing for condemnations of Israel manifests itself as what has termed “moral narcissism,” the tendency of members of the well-meaning, (although incompletely) educated elite to align with causes and ideological positions which are based, not on the actual viability or worthiness of a cause, but on how the moral narcissist feels about him- or herself by committing to a particular campaign or movement. Like other members of the academic left, who believe their worldview is correct because it seeks to create a world in which social equanimity will be realized by the downtrodden, members of the SJP, Black Lives Matter, LGBT, Occupy, and other victims’ rights grievance groups and movements are content to support such intellectually dishonest campaigns as the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement because it enables them to denounce Israelis as “white,” imperialistic, colonial, racist, militaristic oppressors of wholly innocent “brown” Palestinians dispossessed and victimized by the Jewish state’s very existence. The moral narcissist’s reasoning may defective, ahistorical, counter-intuitive, or just wrong, but he still feels good about himself. But in this worldview, there can be only one enemy of justice, and Israel is that enemy.
  • In debating the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, social justice activists, of course, demonstrate their hypocrisy by endlessly dwelling on the many evils of Israel without bothering to examine or measure the Palestinians’ own central role in contributing to the many pathologies endemic to their civil society and institutions. Like many Western elites do when choosing sides, social justice warriors infantilize the Palestinian victim and assume he has no agency to ameliorate his own conditions. In reality, pro-Palestinian activists seem to care very little about the actual self-determination and state-building of the hapless Palestinians. As is frequently the case when speaking about the Israeli/Arab conflict, the discussion often glosses over the real problems of Palestinian culture, politics, and society (including its cult of death, terrorism, and martyrdom), and targets all criticism on the perceived defects of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish power. All of the blame for the conflict is placed on the so-called occupation, the “apartheid wall,” Jewish racism, the oppression and militarism of the “Zionist regime,” and the brutal humiliation, collective punishment, and even “slow-moving” genocide Israel is said to mete out on a daily basis upon the wholly innocent Palestinians. This is a clear example of another underlying factor in the social justice effort, the soft bigotry of low Palestinian expectations.
  • Many academics in the humanities and social sciences, including activists as disparate as Black Lives Matter, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the National Association of Women’s Studies, increasingly find a linkage as they seek to affirm the rights of the victimized and name the villains responsible for this oppression. The more that seemingly unrelated instances of oppression can be conflated, it is thought, the greater the ability to confront these oppressors and dilute the negative effect they have on their specific victims and on society at large. This trend has been called “intersectionality,” and it has meant that someone who is a gender studies professor, or queer theorist, or American studies expert can, with no actual knowledge or expertise about the Middle East, readily pontificate on the many social pathologies of which he or she accuses Israel, based on its perceived role as a racist, imperialist, colonial oppressor of an innocent indigenous population of Arab victims. For social justice warriors, to know one victim group is to know any victim group—with Israel being a tempting and habitual target of their opprobrium. Thus, for instance, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have often linked racism and police violence “from Ferguson to Palestine,” as their placards have announced, making Israel somehow complicit in American racism and police brutality, and even recently proclaimed in its recent platform that Israel is practicing “apartheid” and is engaged in “genocide” against the Palestinians.  
  • Social justice warriors are intent on using “weaponized intolerance,” the willingness to abridge speech and human rights of opposing groups in the campaign to seek social justice for the victim. Moreover, so sure are they of their moral uprightness in denouncing white-privilege and conservative thought, that the social justice warriors will not even deign to collaborate, negotiate, or even tolerate the views of those groups and individuals they have decided are essentially unworthy of having their options heard. The New York City Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, announced proudly that, “We reject any and all collaboration, dialogue and coalition work with Zionist organizations through a strict policy of anti-normalization (anti-engagement) and encourage our comrades in other organizations to do the same.” Similarly, a leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University Students for Justice in Palestine chapter revealed that members would never be required to even engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups on their campus, they would be prohibited from “engaging in any form of official collaboration, cooperation, or event co-sponsorship with [pro-Israel] student organizations and groups,” and members “shall in no manner engage in any form of official collaboration with any student group which actively opposes the cause of Palestinian liberation nor with groups which have aided and abetted Zionist student organizations,” meaning, of course, that the so-called intellectual debate that universities purport to promote in exactly this type of discussion will never take place when SJP is involved. That type of behavior violates the concepts of academic freedom and academic free speech—rights that campus radicals prefer to exploit themselves while denying the same freedoms to others and deeming speech with which they disagree “hate speech.”  

This nearly total rejection by those seeking justice for the oppressed of any recognition of goodness on the part of Western countries (and particularly Israel), favoring without hard judgments severely flawed societies of the Third World is, according to commentator Melanie Phillips, symptomatic of activists’ belief in their own moral superiority, a feature which, at least in their own minds, gives them a more genuine, principled, and valuable worldview. “In the grip of a group-think that causes them to genuflect to victim-culture and the deconstruction of western morality and the concept of truth,” Phillips wrote, “a dismaying number of our supposedly finest minds have been transformed from people who spread enlightenment to those who cast darkness before them.”

And we should be careful that, despite their own claims to a moral uprightness, the truth is not being lost in the intellectual darkness created by these self-appointed purveyors of social justice.

Photo: Times of Israel