Discover more from Building the Builders
Israel and Hamas—through a builder’s lens
A conversation with two friends.
Readers of this Substack know I generally stay away from politics in my writing, for many different reasons. It's not my area of expertise, and it has a way of provoking the kind of reflex, emotion-driven reactions that can stop thinking short, whereas here I am trying to promote thinking from first principles.
Then again, my relationship to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza today goes far beyond politics. It connects to my most personal strivings as a psychologist and a builder of builders; to my life story as a Jewish refugee who might just as easily have ended up in Israel if our U.S. Visas didn’t happen to come through when they did; and to my fundamental convictions about the nature and proper goals of human existence.
So, with that said, I recently sat down for an impromptu podcast conversation with my friend and colleague Greg Salmieri, a philosopher, and our mutual friend Elan Journo, a Middle East foreign policy analyst, to put words to what we were all thinking and see if we could arrive at some constructive conclusions.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, which we have collaboratively revised and reorganized around the questions most relevant to the themes of this newsletter.
Introductions and framing
Greg Salmieri: This is an episode of Choose Your Issues, the podcast of the Objectivist Program in the Salem Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm Greg Salmieri. I'm a senior scholar of philosophy in the Center and I teach philosophy at the university.
Joining me today first is Gena Gorlin, who teaches in the psychology department and is an affiliate of our Program. This episode grew out of a conversation she and I were having last week; about whether we have anything to say about an issue that's on everybody's mind now, the horrific attacks by Hamas on Israel—and, more generally, the longstanding conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Gena, let’s talk briefly about our thinking on this, and why you want to do a podcast episode, and then we’ll bring on a guest to help us delve further into the issue.
Gena Gorlin: Thanks, Greg. When Ukraine was attacked by Russia, that was my probably one other departure from the nonpolitical restriction I generally put on myself, because, as you know, I'm from Ukraine. I felt so personally connected to what was happening there, and it was so salient to me that, wow, Ukraine has become a country of builders in a way I hadn't appreciated. Suddenly, through this really devastating crisis, it became a shining example in a lot of people's eyes around the world that Ukraine is (at least compared to its neighbors and to its past) now a country where technology and freedom, and the kind of modern ambitiousness and scrappiness and entrepreneurial thinking that I write about, are flourishing. I wanted to defend that; to support and promote it.
In some ways, I feel even more personally connected to Israel: I've been there, I have friends there, I have family there; but also, from a builder standpoint, I use a bunch of their products. My life is better because of Wix.com, and because of Teva Pharmaceuticals, which makes the medication without which I wouldn't function. And it feels like a beacon of civilization in certain ways, of just the sort that I'm trying to bolster, that I'm trying to support. And it's under attack.
Greg: This idea of builders and building has been the dominant theme in your work recently. The specific language of “builders” comes from Marc Andreessen expressing something essential to the Silicon Valley subculture, but the idea that human beings create, produce, make, build, and that this is part of what’s best in us, is a more general Enlightenment heritage. It’s been a theme in my writing on Ayn Rand, who saw creative work as central to human life and saw productiveness as a major moral virtue—and on Aristotle, from whose ethics these elements are conspicuously absent.
I do think that Israel, in ways that will come out more over the course of this discussion, is a paradigm of a productive, entrepreneurial society. I don’t think that’s the case with Ukraine, but certainly it compares favorably in this respect to Russia, especially when we think about the ways the two countries are developing.
But how does all of this relate to moral assessment of a conflict? You might think that, even if having an entrepreneurial culture is a good thing, its presence or absence doesn’t tell you who is right in a conflict. Even if one person is more industrious than another (and even if that’s good), that person can still treat the other unjustly, and be at fault for the conflict between them. And, indeed, there are cases where the lack of achievements that might make us think of the second person as less industrious than the first might really just be a result of their being a victim of the other’s injustice. If that can be true of two people, it could also be true of two societies. So just knowing that one side seems to be more productive or entrepreneurial—or even that it really is so—doesn’t necessarily tell you who’s right in a conflict between them, even on the premise that building is an important moral good.
How do we think about all of this in the case of Israel and the Palestinians? It's such a contentious issue in so many people's minds, that one of the things I want to think about is: what can we know about this without being experts?
We've asked a friend to join us who is an expert on this issue, Elan Journo, who I’ll bring on in a minute. He's written a book on what justice demands on the Israel-Palestine conflict. One of the things that I value about his book is that it takes a strong stand while addressing itself to people who aren't already partisans. It doesn't take it for granted that you are going to agree with him or be a member of his tribe. He is trying to give you the information you need to be able to tell that his stand is the right one, and he makes a real effort to be sensitive to people’s different contexts on the issue. That makes him one of the clearest voices on this issue today. Elan, welcome to our program.
Elan Journo: Thank you for having me, Greg and Gena. It's a pleasure to be here. And I was really excited when you reached out to me because of the angle that you often talk about—this theme of builders—I think that's a really good way into the topic, and to connect it to the moral question which you raised as well. And I just want to say one thing to build on your description of my book, it definitely is not a book that has a choir to which it's preaching. It is a book that has offended Zionists, and it's a book that's offended pro-Palestinian people, because it belongs to no tribe. And one of the things I try to convey in the book is that it takes real thinking, to understand, disentangle this complicated issue. And what I tried to do in the book is take a moral framework that I think is one that many people, if they value life, if they value progress, if they value freedom, they can sign on to. And they can use that to understand the essentials of the conflict. So my hope is that people who engage with it, will be able to approach it from that perspective.
What are the socio-political preconditions for being able to build?
Elan: One way I think about the criteria that we should apply to different countries, and how we evaluate the region and Israel in particular, is: how well do particular countries enable individuals to flourish, to build, to grow, to develop, to innovate, and to become the kind of people that I know Gena's work is really focused on? And that to me is a clear standard that if you care about progress and life and freedom, that's a way into this, and it really helps disentangle a lot of the confusions that people have. And I think it's an objective way of evaluating things. And in my view, the virtues of Israel are not rooted in its religious or tribal character. Those are definitely part of its character, but I don't think they're its fundamental virtues. The reasons to side with Israel have to do with its political character, and the fact that people who are builders are able to do the work that they want to do, and to flourish.
Gena: So just to build on what you’re saying, Elan, it seems crucial to both of our frameworks—the framework that underlies both of our work—that builders of any ethnic background, builders of any religion... individual builders, whatever their group membership or origin, can thrive and can build themselves a life worth living. That seems key, in terms of what's that metric on which we're going to gauge a given country and its political system. One of the points you make in your book that really resonates with me, is that if you want to disagree, if you want to criticize your own government, if you want to have really heated debates with, you know, Zionists about why they're so wrong to dismiss other ideologies, you're actually freer to do that in Israel than in the rest of the Middle East. And I think that's something a lot of people miss. But even with that being the case, I can imagine some of our listeners/readers responding that “not everyone is free to build and flourish in Israel; just ask the Palestinians living in the occupied territories.” What would you say to this criticism?
A tribal perspective thwarts progress and building
Elan: I think it's important to say a few things about the kinds of grievances that have arisen [against Israel], the kinds of things that are seen as injustices, and then to think about how to sort them out. The way I think of the grievances of Palestinians is, it's a mixture of some real injustices, some of which you could rectify, some of which you can't because of the passage of time (and we’ll say more about some of these shortly); but as bad as they were, these individual-level injustices could not in themselves explain anywhere near the level of animosity we’ve observed on the political scene.
The other kind of grievance, which I think really just goes to the sort of philosophical and psychological aspects you guys are interested in, is there's a way in which you can see a development and filter it through a kind of collectivized or tribal perspective, and view it as a grievance, when, if you really valued progress and freedom in your own life and opportunities, you would view very differently.
To give you an example, back in the early 20s, 30s, 40s, when the political community leaders in the area that was under British rule we call Palestine, as they were trying to accommodate and figure out "what do we think of these newcomers from Europe who are trying to build a Jewish homeland? What do we think of them? What are they doing?"
Some of the reactions were “great—here, let me sell you my land, let me make a ton of money"—and there was real rejoicing at the huge amounts of money people were making selling land. These were often landlords who had tenants, and the tenants got really upset about this, and so there's real ways in which you have to think about, well, who's been treating me badly, my landlord or the guy who bought the land from him? And there's complicated situations that arise like that. One kind of reaction you could have is "wow, if I go and work in this factory I can earn 10 times what I earned on the farm", and what you actually see is lots of people from the farms moving into the cities, because that's where there was a lot more opportunity to earn money and to grow and succeed. And I think that's a healthy reaction, because if you asked me "do you want to labor on the farm? Or do you want to earn 10 times more in a factory", I think it is really appealing to earn more in a factory—safer and so forth. That's one kind of reaction you can have to the fact that when the first settlers came, they built infrastructure, they built power plants, they built factories, and shops and industry and then real growth. And there was also growth on the Arab Palestinian side, they were able to grow things as well.
But the kind of reaction that I think is really problematic, and it's sort of psychologically unhealthy, and morally, I think is wrong, is to say the following, which [some of them] did say: "How dare these foreigners come here. How dare they encroach on our historical land. And how dare they buy up the land that used to belong to my ancestors. They're just evil people, and we have to fight them". Now, that is really bizarre. Because if you think about the opportunity being created, what will be a natural, healthy response is okay, maybe I don't like them because they sound different, or they look different, or they behave differently from what I'm used to, but this is going to make this place so much better to live in. And in fact, it did. I mean, the standard of living really rose, the kind of endemic diseases really went away because of medical facilities, and just the proliferation of clinics and doctors and the availability of all those things. So when you filter through a kind of tribal perspective, and a perspective that resents progress, as opposed to embracing it, that sees it as a threat, that sees it as "well, why do I have to deal with this kind of thing? Why should I have to change my ways? Why are you coming in here disrupting our traditional ways?" When you have that kind of reaction, and you foster it in other people, and you convince them that that's a fundamental injustice to them, not because their land has been stolen from them. That hasn't happened. It's because “their culture is being destroyed.” And we hear a lot of that in today's immigration debate in the US, like "how dare you have immigrants, they're going to destroy our culture". Well, that's essentially the kind of thing you heard from some of the Arab Palestinian leaders is "these people are bad for our culture, they're stealing our society".
Gena: I'm imagining some of my readers hearing you describe these movements and their overarching goals and motivations and actions, as political players on this global stage. I'm trying to imagine, from the perspective of an individual person, an individual farmer, an individual student or person trying to build a startup, a Palestinian person living in Gaza, or in one of these occupied territories, and saying: what good does any of this do me as someone who can't cross over these barriers to get home to my family or to trade my wares? You know, I would really be feeling a lot of this restriction on my life and livelihood. And what do we have to say to those individual people who didn't choose—whether or not they voted for Hamas—but I mean, we're also talking about children, we're talking about people who may or may not even have voting rights, but they're living with the situation. What would we say to them?
Elan: I think there are two things that come to mind. One is to just rewind the history a little: there are two territories that are considered the Palestinian territories, that would be a state in the future if all those sort of political plans fall in place. One is the West Bank, which borders Jordan. And the other is the Gaza Strip, which borders the Mediterranean and Egypt. And when those territories were under Israel's military occupation—this is a 25-26 year period when that was the case, this is a change from when it was under Jordanian or Egyptian rule—so Israel occupied these territories, and it oversaw them. I don't think occupation is anyone's vision of a good society, but it was so much better comparatively to what was the case under Egypt or Jordanian rule. Those societies were flourishing compared to other nations. So I mean, one of the measures that people look at is gross national product, and in the 1970s, and this is under a military occupation so it's not an ideal society, those territories were growing faster than Israel. And they were growing at a rate better than most of the neighboring Arab countries. And that's partly because the people living there had some amount of freedom to go into Israel and trade, and work, and build, and gain employment. And so that was a constant commuter business, basically. That's an important piece of context for thinking about what's going on in those same territories since 1993, and 2005. So 1993 is a watershed because there was a US sponsored peace agreement that gave both of these areas to the Palestinian Authority. And then in 2005, the Gaza Strip falls under Hamas control during an election, and then there's a civil war. So what happens to both of these areas since 1993, and 2005? Their economies crater, because what happens is that the Palestinian cause becomes a government. And it's just like most of the Arab governments nearby, which is authoritarian. It doesn't allow freedom in the way that Israel did. So less freedom than what they had under occupation.
How destructive/exploitative political regimes hinder building
Gena: So for example, I'm a person living in the Gaza Strip. Before and after, what would be different?
Elan: Yeah, so let me give you an actual person, not a hypothetical person. So there's a businessman from Qatar who came to found a bank, because he felt really connected to the Palestinian territories. So he came in and he invested and he decided to build this bank knowing that finance is a huge engine of progress. And what happened to him is that he fell afoul of what is in effect, the dictator of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Yasser Arafat- this is in the 90s. And basically the PLO factions have multiple police forces, they show up and they say "well, we want to be part of your bank. You need to pay us.” It's a protection racket. So it's criminals running a government. And he refuses and so what happens to him is that his business is expropriated, over $100 million worth of assets are seized, and it becomes the property of the thugs who run the Palestinian Authority. So this is one person who's coming to build something, and who faces a regime that's there to exploit people, as opposed to leave them with the freedom and the rights to their property. There are necessary conditions, and this is a well recognized fact, in any country, that without that necessary condition, you cannot thrive.
Now let's take a different example. So someone who's not going to open a bank. How many people are going to open a bank, you might say. So one of the things that happens after 1993 and 2005 is the Palestinian movement decides that its strategic goal is to increase the attacks on Israel. So in the 90s we have an Intifada as an uprising. And then since 2005 the Hamas takes over Gaza, and it uses that territory to launch rocket attacks, because that is part of its mission, its charter, its founding document, is to wipe Israel off the map. And not surprisingly, the Israeli say "well, we can't live like this. We can't have people from Gaza, the West Bank coming in to work, because we don't know who you are. We don't know if you're wearing a suicide belt". So then you see the checkpoints proliferate, you see clamp down. So for many years, people who used to come in to work in Israeli factories or Israeli restaurants and shops and so forth, they couldn't do it. And so the economy suffers as a direct result of a movement whose goal is aggressive, and in retaliation Israel puts up a wall because it realizes a simple border crossing isn't enough. And you can argue about the wisdom of the strategy as a defense step, but this is the genesis of Israel's so-called barrier or wall, which many people have seen pictures of because it looks ominous. And when you look at it from that perspective, what happens is, it is not at all surprising the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are economically much worse off than they were decades ago. And they're just missed opportunities. In 1993, when the world cheered the beginning of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, they saw the potential. Just an incredible, very large community of people, and their neighbors in Israel really wanted to trade with them. And the way people thought about the Gaza Strip was—and particularly the West Bank too—these could be like Taiwan. These could be like what was in the 90s seen as these highly economically dynamic countries that are small, but mighty—we saw some of them in the Far East. Nothing like that happened. And nothing like that happened because politically, the regimes that were created are imposed by force, by the Palestinian movement, [and] are calculated to destroy people's freedom to do those sorts of things.
…[Another way to think about it is:] if either side got to fulfill their ambitions, their political economic ambitions, what kind of society would it look like?...And I'm not saying every Palestinian supports this, but the movement that speaks for them, or that claims to speak for them, and speaks for many of them which we know, what does its success look like? And what do its actions look like? And then on the other side, what does Israel's fulfillment look like? And I think Israel is basically fulfilled, it's a state, you can evaluate it, it's in real time. And the contrast, I think, is what is important here. So in the book, I asked people to think where would you rather live? And I give some examples of Israel versus its neighbors. And I think the point of that- and the same thing applies to Israel versus the West Bank, Israel versus the Gaza Strip—If your concern about life is building the best kind of life you want, and really building, whether you're in business, whether you're in academia, whatever field you're in, if you want to build a life, and you want to be free to do that, in the present tense… If I parachuted you into one or the other of these societies, where would you rather be, knowing the kinds of conditions that we're familiar with as supportive of human flourishing? And you might not know the history, and the history is very hard. I've spent 10 years on this. It's not like someone couldn't come along and give me six facts that oh, boy, this guy, and that village didn't get what he said [they would], and so on.... But the present tense evaluation is the one that I think anyone can come to. And [that] you [can] connect to the values in your life. And Gena, you were talking about Teva, the pharmaceutical company. And this isn't a kind of tribal celebration of "oh, the Jews did this, the Israelis did this”, this is about values that really enrich all of our lives.
What does it take to build a country of builders? And why is it so hard?
Greg: I want to break in here with an observation and a question. Elan, you talked about leaving people free to do various things, but freedom isn’t a default condition that a group of people finds itself in until some government comes to take it away. No one is free under anarchy, where local warlords or tribes or clans dominate. Real freedom—the kind of freedom it takes for people to build businesses and lives on a grand scale—the kind that makes individuals secure in their lives and property—that is a real achievement of civilization. There's no freedom without government to secure it—to secure individual rights.
So freedom is a civilizational achievement, rather than a condition we’re all in until someone removes us from it. And this fact helps answer a question that I think your description of the Palestinian Movement would raise in a lot of people’s minds. How could there be this movement, with broad popular support, that’s out for something that would destroy and impoverish its own people—including the people who support it? It could sound like some cartoon villain, or like some figment of Israeli propaganda—like the description can’t possibly be right. How can any movement really be like that? Surely, what happened is that there were these put-upon people, the Palestinians, who were in a bad way and who gathered together to try to protect themselves and better themselves. And where do we then get off blaming them? And it’s definitely true that the Palestinians are in a bad way, and they do think they’ve been wronged. To see how an evil and destructive movement can arise out of this, we need to recognize how difficult it is for any political movement to get it right—how difficult it is to come up with and support a form of government that really does secure a peoples’ freedom and make it possible for them to redress their grievances. The base for all political movements—the most evil as well as the good and neutral—has always been people who are suffering and aggrieved. But suffering and being the victim of perceived injustice (or even real injustice) doesn’t give a person or a population the wisdom needed the right the situation, and so many (I think most) movements are movements in the wrong direction; they don’t make things actually better for the people they represent, and often make things worse.
For a movement to actually right wrongs and to produce a better society is a rare accomplishment—all the rarer the bolder its aspirations. And it’s in this light that we should look at both Zionism and the Palestinian movement.
Elan, you spoke of Jews in Europe having grievances and individual people of Arab descent in Gaza or in Israel or having grievances. But I think what goes into these movements is more than that. It’s more than that some Jews or some Gazans feel aggrieved. There’s the idea that they’re being victimized because they’re Jews or because they’re Arabs. This gives them a common plight, and so a reason to work together for a common interest—defense against the same persecution. So there’s a need for the group to band together against the people who would do them harm. This is the story of human history, people come together to defend themselves against other people, within and without, who are harming them. And they need to do that. But it’s hard to do it well.
In any situation where there’s mistrust and fighting between groups of people, members of each group band together for defense against the other and it usually results in extended feuding between the groups and in leaders of each group using the threat of the enemy group as a justification for exploiting members of their own group.
This is the pattern we see everywhere that leads to tyrannies and protection rackets. Think of not just of the PLO, but just of the Italian American Mafia (at least as presented in popular films like The Godfather). You had these Italian immigrants who were persecuted, and the police didn’t protect them adequately, so they had to form their own organizations to protect them, and very quickly it becomes protection rackets and murder incorporated. It’s the same story with the Crips and the Bloods, and with countless other groups in different places and times. People who are insecure because of a real or perceived threat from others group together for mutual security and redress, but the group they form exploits them and endangers others. That's what a mafia is, and that's what most governments have been like. So if the PLO is like this, and if Hamas is like this, that's no aberration in history and it doesn’t stem from any particular quality of the Palestinian people. That’s just how history normally goes, because forming a society and redressing injustice is something it’s really difficult to get right.
Gena: It's the default. Death is the default. And I think, you know, political discord is the default.
Greg: One thing that follows from all of this is that, if the Zionist movement got it even semi-right in Israel—if they built a government that's not just a protection racket, that's a real achievement, whatever flaws it may also have. Likewise for the American Revolution, and for other movements and developments that lead to societies that secure for many people the freedom they need to live well, even if these societies also include major injustices. The getting it right (even when it happens only in part) is something rare, that we need to focus on and understand, if we want more of it. If we focus too narrowly on the injustices in these societies, we’ll misunderstand why they’re injustices, and our attempts to redress them will only worsen them, because instead of expanding what works about these societies and making it available to those who are excluded (and, where appropriate, making reparations to the people who have been treated unjustly), we’ll end up tearing down the achievement and returning everyone to the default state of feuding tribes.
So take the case of America. Something profoundly good happened here. A political order was built that enabled many people to survive and flourish on a scale never before seen in human history. But, of course, there were profound injustices. The worst was slavery, which was a central problem for the country from the beginning. Yet what stands out about early America from a historical perspective is not the slavery (which, in one form or another, was ubiquitous in world history), but the fact that so many people were free to live and produce and create and explore and develop their human potential in a new way. This led to world-historical achievements of all kinds, including to a historically unprecedented internal pressure to end slavery and many of its legacies. It’s a mistake to be Whiggish about all this and to say that everything in American history has worked out fine—it hasn’t, and it’s not guaranteed to do so. And it’s a good thing to look unflinchingly at what’s unjust in one’s society and work strenuously to fix it. But one cannot do that well or justly unless one does it in the context of a real appreciation for what’s right about one’s society—especially if one is living in one of the (historically rare) societies which secure for most of their members the freedom human beings need to create all the things we need to prosper.
So we need to ask: Is Israel a country like that? Did the Zionist movement create a country that (whatever flaws it may have, and whatever injustices it may commit) secures for people the freedom they need to prosper? Clearly, in the case of Israel, the case is yes. We also need to ask whether this sort of freedom and prosperity is what the Palestinian movement is aiming at for the people it represents. If not, this isn’t a bizarre aberration we need to explain. It’s the norm throughout human history that most movements to redress grievances or found new societies are as bad or worse than the regimes they seek to replace.
Elan: One thing I just want to put on the table because I think it'll be helpful for thinking about the question you're raising, which I agree with, is it's hard to build a country… [and] Israel's bizarrely successful. If you think about the same year Israel was founded, Pakistan was founded. Pakistan is not the kind of country you want to immigrate to. It's not the place where you think about high tech being a characteristic. It's torn, it's a very broken country. So it's really an unusual accomplishment.
…So how did they do it? And who are “they,” anyway?
Elan: I think the first thing to know is that both the Palestinian cause is a movement, it's an ideological, political movement. Those things are hard for people to think about. It's just not obvious how to think about movements… And on the other side, what we have is Israel, which is the fulfillment of another ideological political movement, which is the Zionist movement, which again is a complex thing to disentangle… The Zionist movement was a mixed bag to begin with, but it was reacting to a real problem arising in Europe, which is that at the turn of the 20th century, the beginning of the 1900s, what you see is that people who are of Jewish background… were subjected to prejudice, persecution, bigotry, and it just mounted and grew worse… And I'll just flag that the Zionists themselves met numerous times to figure out "what are we about, what are we trying to solve here?", and they had an understanding of the problem, [but] they didn't have a clear view of the answer. And what you get is a conglomeration of better elements—the influence of people like Theodor Herzl, who is the sort of the spearhead of this movement, in many ways, who was a classical liberal, anti-theocracy, very much oriented towards building and production—the flag that he envisioned for a Jewish state was seven stars to symbolize the seven hours of the workday… And then you also get various kinds of religious groups who are part of the Zionist movement, each of them pulling in different degrees towards "Well if we have a country in this historic territory, it needs to be more Jewish, it needs to be more religious". So there's a real infighting around what the solution might look like. And the outcome… is a country that reflects a lot of those tensions and contradictions.
But there's enough of a respect for freedom in the country, and it gets better over time, [with] the major court cases that liberate free speech, that liberate the economy…. And in the end, you get a society that in its political character resembles the United Kingdom, Denmark, France... So then the Zionist movement becomes something in the background.
And what about the Palestinian movement? What were its origins and ideological influences?
Elan: The other side is the Palestinian movement or cause… [which began as] a reaction to the beginnings of what is [now] Israel. So when people start immigrating to the area, known as Palestine, at the time under the British rule, there is both a welcome reaction—that people get jobs who live there, they're able to sell their land to the newcomers—but there's also recoil. This is the more traditional elements of society, the more religious elements of the society. They don't like the foreigners coming in, especially not the Jews, because there's just long standing animosity towards Jewish people in the Middle East, for a number of reasons. And what arises is a movement that isn't what we know today as a Palestinian movement, it's slightly influenced towards nationalism, it's led by people who want to be dictators, so the kind of leaders that you would see decades later in Jordan and Iraq. The real birth of the Palestinian movement as we recognize it today is really in the 60s and 70s. And this is an outgrowth of Arab regimes surrounding Israel that did not want Israel to come into being. They fought a couple of wars to try to abort the founding of Israel. And when they realized they couldn't do it, they put their bets on what was an incipient guerrilla movement of Palestinians who said "these regimes weren't able to do the job of wiping Israel off and removing the Jews from our lands"- so this is a sort of tribal perspective- "and what we're going to do is we're going to fight them." And in the background, you get the funding of countries like Syria and Egypt, essentially training these militias, and arming them, and giving them safe harbor. And what emerges is a shift into the Palestinian movement [being] seen as a scrappy, freedom fighting movement. That's the rhetoric they gave. And it's also a national liberation movement. And so it integrates with the intellectual currents of the 70s and onward, if you think about the kind of perspective that people brought to Latin American freedom fighters and the way they were seen. But essentially the Palestinian movement—so we think about movements as a complex thing of numerous factions, just as the Zionists had numerous factions—but one thing that's differentiated about the Palestinian movement is uniformly, whether they were secular Marxist, or Marxist Leninist, or watered down Socialist, or Arab nationalists, what was uniform about them was the absence of classical liberal… or any kind of individual rights respecting ideas. Just sort of uniformly they were tilted towards collectivized, dictatorial goals. If you gave them the territory—what would [they] build? What kind of society would [they] build? It's just variations on the kinds of regimes you see in the Middle East, which are authoritarian, dictatorial, theocratic. And that's sort of the cluster of the Palestinian movement, which takes shape under the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
The big turning point [in the late 70s] is when the Palestinian movement goes from being this cluster of socialist, nationalist, and authoritarian groups, to an Islamist movement. Now, the Islamists came to dominate- now Hamas is the chief faction within this… 1979 is a turning point in Middle East when Iran becomes an Islamic regime and sort of inspires countless other factions to go in that direction. You see the Palestinians as a movement going from "well, nationalism didn't work for us, but the way of Allah does work for us", and there's key figures where that's sort of a transformation for them. Hamas and Islamic Jihad become rivals in terms of who's going to lead this movement… Then it becomes essentially a variation on the theme of ISIS, or Taliban, or Saudi Arabia, which is a religiously motivated movement, where the goal is some sort of religious authoritarian or dictatorial regime.
What is (and is not) a builder’s approach to dealing with injustice?
The Palestinian response to (perceived) injustice
Greg: I can hear people alleging "but it's not equal in Israel, Israel is an apartheid state, Israel is an ethno state." We can come back to the question of whether these allegations are true, but I want to think about what a proper response to injustice looks like. We all have grievances against other people, and many of us have some grievances against the governments under which we live. What kind of a response to injustice—even to evil—is virtuous? And what does the way people respond to what they take to be injustices reveal about them?
The attacks that we saw from Hamas—parachuting into a country and shooting up a bunch of young people, breaking into the nurseries and Kibbutz's and decapitating babies, raping women and proudly sharing videos of it—these things rightly horrified the world. It’s not even just terrorism, where you're terrorizing the civilian population, but the particular focus on children and on defiling victims. This seems like pure, naked evil. And yet there are still people posting things like "I stand with Palestine." I’m sure some of these people think that these acts aren’t representative of the Palestinian cause or even of Hamas. But are they? Or is this what Hamas, and many of the Palestinian people and their European and American supporters, actually want?
So much of the world has recoiled in horror from this, recognizing the evil of these attacks. That created a moment of reflection, where people are asking what caused this, and how we can understand the context for it. I think that, ultimately, you have to connect it back to what's good or bad about Israel, and what's good or bad about its adversaries. There's just something specific and brutal and horrific about these attacks. And I think we should spend some time thinking about what it is, and whether anything like this could be any part of a moral response to injustice that’s aimed at redressing the legitimate grievances of an oppressed people and establishing a better future for them.
: …What I argue is that while there are actual injustices that individual Palestinians can point to, and there's questions about how you resolve those injustices, there is not a grievance that justifies creating an authoritarian or dictatorial regime. There's no Palestinian grievance, however justified, that warrants creating an ISIS-like regime or Iran-like regime that is a religious theocracy. If that's your goal, if your goal is to exploit people and tyrannize them, it isn't surprising that terrorism has long been a chosen means to advance your end... it was a deliberate choice from the beginning, both under the sort of nationalist, ethnic, and socialist factions, but even more so under the radical Islamist, because their goal is not about creating a society for people to live and thrive. The goal is to create a society that exploits and dominates, and subdues and tells people not to go and build but [to] obey and bow.
Gena: And destroy?
Elan: Yeah, and destroy, because it's unavoidable that if that's the kind of society you're building... I mean, I just read an article before we came on today about this. There was a very small startup company, a little incubator in Gaza, and it's destroyed because of what Hamas is doing to that territory. So it's not that Hamas is trying to create a good society and failing or falling short. It is not trying to do that, its goal is exactly the opposite. It's about destroying people's lives and dominating them.
A political system based in positive vision
Greg: One thing I was stressing earlier is how hard politics is. The political wisdom needed to create a state that's not just a reaction against an earlier order, but actually secures the freedom needed for people to live well. I'm very skeptical of self-professed liberation movements in general because hardly any of them ever liberate anyone. If all you know about a movement is that they see themselves as about getting out from under the turn of someone or other, you don’t yet know anything to their credit, because every political movement sees itself that way. That includes even the Nazis who felt that the German people were being misused by the victors in World War I and (of course) by the Jews. So if all I know about a movement is that it fancies itself a liberation movement, I expect that it will just end up brutalizing people without accomplishing anything good. But, of course, there have been movements that really did liberate people. And we need to understand what differentiates them.
Part of it is the sorts of political structures they aim at putting in place—do they want rule of law or of men, what sort of constitution have they drafted, etc. But I think there’s an issue of orientation that’s even more fundamental than the movement’s specifically political goals. And here, I think the issue is analogous to how we as individuals respond to injustices in our own lives. Everybody has suffered injustices, whether trivial or profound. Everyone has been put upon in some way or another. And it is a real legitimate value to redress them—first protect oneself against the perpetrators of the injustice, but also to get back at them, to punish them or even destroy them. There’s something right about slogans like "there is no peace without justice." It’s wrong to just roll over and let people have their way with you.
Gena: And on the flip side of that there's the slogan that "hurt people hurt people". Which is meant to normalize and to really explain, perhaps in some cases excuse, but certainly explain the tendency to get so fixated, so preoccupied with that defense goal. With taking revenge, with getting that justice, that you forget the why and wherefore.
Greg: I think the really significant philosophical question here (both for individuals and also for societies and movements that form societies) is what the relationship is between two things: (1) your positive goals for the life you want for yourself, and (2) your response to the injustices you’ve suffered. Suppose you've had injustices perpetrated against you. What is a healthy and moral version of “I'm trying to pursue my life including righting these injustices and take them seriously; I’m not going to trivialize them and say ‘Oh, they don't matter, so long as I can find a way to earn a living or something’. But I'm also not going to become like Captain Ahab fixated on some vendetta that swallows up my life and everybody else's”? That's a hard thing to do, and what can we say about that in the context of Israel-Palestine?
How not to react to injustice
Elan: To me, there's a real question when you think about injustices and how people react to them, you really have to think hard about what am I reacting to? Is this an actual injustice? If it is, what would it look like to solve it? If it isn't, why am I viewing it this way? And if what you're doing is bringing in a kind of tribal anti-effort anti-progress mentality, that's condemnable to me; that is not a valid position to hold, "well, I don't want progress, and when people come here and they build a factory, I hate it, and that's an injustice against me." And my point is not that that was the uniform view; my point is that was a prevalent view. And it was a view that was encouraged and fostered. And it became the basis for a kind of grievance mentality that then gives rise to a "well, then what we have to do is slaughter them. Well, what we have to do is go sabotage them. What we have to go and do is put every roadblock possible in their way, because they're destroying our kind of cultural heritage, collective identity" perspective, as opposed to "well, we had rights, they weren't protected, let’s figure out what to do about that", which is a very different kind of analysis. And in some cases, that was true, you might say this person's rights were violated. That wasn't the predominant phenomenon, the predominant phenomenon was people were pushed into a view of injustice that I think is not well grounded.
Gena: Yeah, I can't help but draw a parallel between a lot of what I hear you describing, Elan, and the populist, pro-Trump movement in America. I mean, so much of what you're describing, the kind of xenophobia, the defining oneself in terms of this aggrieved minority whose rights have been trampled, and that has to be the kind of defining feature of our politics and our day-to-day investment of resources. You know, "let's tear down those wokes, let's build our wall and protect ourselves against the enemy that's going to destroy our culture. Let's make America great again, by returning to our tribal roots". There's so much of it that feels analogous, and the psychology feels analogous in terms of where you get pulled. And I think we see it on both sides of the culture war, where people get sucked into not just the victim narrative, but a defensive, destructive narrative, where being a victim and aggressing back becomes your motivational center. More so than, what kind of life do you want to be building? What do you want for you, for your children, for your family? What do you want to be about, what useful things do you want to do, what sort of joy do you want to experience in your life?
Greg: You can connect it to various factions in current politics, and maybe most factions in most politics at most times are like this. In almost every faction, you could find elements of it. So if one party is better than the other at a given time, no doubt, you'll still find some bit of the party that functions in this way, that's how politics tends to go, and it's an achievement for it to go differently. But I want to flag, Elan, in what you're saying is, first, the role that contentious questions of political philosophy play in all of this? And, second, how can we think about that, when we might not know the answers to some of those questions?
For instance, if you were dubious of private property, if you thought property and land is somehow communal, or civilizational, then you would see Israel’s pre-history as one in which rich capitalist Europeans exploited the indigenous people. You won't be convinced that the Jewish settlers are within their rights to buy and build on the land, and you wouldn’t regard grievances against their having done so as misplaced. So then we can go back and argue about what's the right political philosophy, and what is the nature of property. Of course we can have that argument. I teach a whole course on Political Philosophy in which we talk about the different positions philosophers have taken on such issues and their reasons for these positions.
But one way to check your political philosophy and the views it implies about whether grievances you think you have are justified, is to think about what role these grievances are playing in your own life and in your political activism. If your views about the nature of property and about how your people have been ill-used lead you to think that you need to be perennially at war with a people until they’ve been wiped out or driven wholly out of a region where many of them have made lives for themselves—if your views leave open no means of resolution or reconciliation, short of extermination or resettling whole populations, then that’s a big reason to check your premises—whether your premises about the fundamental nature of land rights, or your premises about the history of the situation. And I think that's part of what's going on here.
Elan made the point earlier that we need to evaluate Israeli and Palestinian society in their present state (rather than focusing exclusively or primarily on the historical record). There’s a concrete here that I find very telling, which has to do with the role of grievances in how each party functions now. To set it up, let me first say something about a type of moral thought experiment I find very useful in lots of cases (unrelated to this specific conflict).
I think about a party—a person or faction—that I’m trying to assess, and I consider all of their professed premises and purported goals. If I don’t consider it self-evident that the premises or goals are irrational and couldn’t be honestly held by anyone (no matter how confused), then I assume them for the sake of the though experiment, and I ask myself: If I held all of these premises and goals, how would act and what would my reasons be for acting that way? For example, how would I act if I thought of myself as a member of a population that I thought had been displaced unjustly? How would I act if I was a representative of a group of people who had been unjustly impoverished? How would I proceed if I thought an election had been stolen from me? What would my priorities be? How would I pursue them? What do I think that rationality looks like for someone with these beliefs and concerns? And if the people act very differently than I would—and than I think people should—given their premises and professed values, why are they acting so differently? Is there something I’m missing—some premise or value I didn’t realize they hold that would make their actions rational? Or, alternately, am I confronted here with irrationality?
When I apply this sort of thinking to Hamas, and to the Gazans who elected them, the results are damning. It’s particularly striking when I reflect on what Hamas did after Israel withdrew troops from Gaza—what they prioritized. That’s a big part of what convinces me that the society we’re dealing with here is in the thrall of a moral perversion that makes it dangerous to its members and its neighbors. So I want to talk about that, about what the Gazans did when Israeli military rule ended, and what they ought to have done. Elan, can you tell us a bit about that episode?
How blind grievance without a positive vision destroys building
Elan: So Israel withdrew unilaterally, so this was not a “land for peace” agreement, unlike many other agreements. This was just "take the land, go figure it out, you do what you think you want to build here". This happened in 2005. And there were many people in the international community who said "well, okay, this is a brave gesture, we'll pledge money to help Gaza build a society". And when the Israelis withdrew, they literally withdrew everyone, soldiers and civilians, who were living there. And among the things that were left behind were farms and farm equipment and greenhouses. There's this famous episode with the greenhouses where, imagine if you just left a factory that was fully functional, or a farm that was fully functional, you just walked away, and somebody who then takes possession of it has a turnkey solution—it's go work the farm, build, take advantage of it, and it's yours. There's no question of theft, it's abandoned property, do the best you can with it. And instead of what you would’ve hoped that people would do, which is okay, well, let's figure out how to make the best use of what we've been left behind here. The greenhouses were dismantled and smashed, and the farms were not put to use. So there was a rejection of that opportunity. And that isn't the whole story, because what happens then is Gaza becomes a self administered territory, and in effect like a quasi-state. And it doesn't take long for Hamas to arm itself in a significant way and to start firing rockets from this territory, which has not happened previously, because previously, they were under Israeli military rule. So the opportunity to build and grow and flourish, trashed. The goal of wiping Israel off the map, that becomes a high priority. And at the same time, this is to speak to the character of Hamas as a movement… when there was an election—the only one since then—in the Gaza Strip, Hamas was allowed to run and it won that election by a landslide. That was the precipitating cause for it coming to rule the whole territory. So there's a real strong signal at that time, at least, that they were popular, and it wasn't a protest, but it was a significant embrace of Hamas. And what happens is that the people are then subjected to what Hamas was long wanting to do, which is bring in more and more Sharia law, or Islamic religious law. So whereas the Palestinians in that area were not particularly religious, and they weren't required to observe all sorts of veiling and gender separation between men and women, that all came in and started feeling like well, this has echoes of Afghanistan, and why can't women ride motorcycles, and why can't they cut the hair of men? Why can't men cut women's hair? And then it becomes Islamicized in that sense.
So with respect to Israel, it becomes hostile. With respect to its own people, it becomes theocratic. And the idea that you would build something there, that all goes into smoke because what the real focus of the aid that flows into Gaza, and internationally—the UN aid all that—it gets repurposed predictably to Hamas' military mission. They build tunnels at huge expense—I mean, people put price tags on these tunnels that go under the border and into Israel, they've built 30-odd of these over the years. Each of these tunnels is something like the equivalent of five or six homes, or a modest sized hospital. Now, that is a significant problem. If what you're doing is like the North Korea strategy—you put all your money into the military, and you crush your own people, you enslave them in effect. Now, it's perverse, because a lot of them embrace Hamas, a lot of them willingly fight for Hamas. I don't view them all as having the same view. And there's reason to think there are people who do not want to live under Hamas, and given the opportunity they would leave, and some of them have left. But that's what we saw when Israel withdrew unilaterally, it became a much more hostile place that is at war with its own people, and at war with Israel across the border, to the extent that it can reach them.
Greg: With any single act—the smashing of this greenhouse or abandoning of this factory, of whatever—I could envision it as part of a rational response. Even the response of destroying this particular asset as a symbol of the enemy or the old order could make sense. But, when I look microscopically at the societal response, what I see is a society that is organized around grievance at the expense of all else, a society that is sacrificing its own future to its antipathy for Israel. Every opportunity for growth, production, etc. is being sacrificed to getting back at Israel, and this is no way to live, even when one has been the victim of the most profound injustice. It is as though the Jews, after the Holocaust, put all of their efforts into getting back at Germany, rather than trying to find or build a society in which they could prosper and then trying to pursue justice against Germany in the context of the rest of their lives. There were Jewish groups who hunted Nazis and brought them back for trials and so forth, and that was all well and good. And I think it was good, right, and just, within the context of a people trying to do a lot else. They were trying to get justice in the context of a life—of a civilization—aimed at the sort of life for the sake of which justice is a value. But if redressing injustice became the whole purpose of their society, even if the original cause was just, it would no longer be just. When you find a party—a person, a faction, or a society—with that sort of all-encompassing focus on grievance, I think it should lead you to wonder if the original cause even is just, because that's not what the actual prosecuting justice looks like.
Moral and epistemic implications for the rest of us?
Gena: So in light of all that, how do we, the rest of us living in the West—going about our lives and reading these news, and seeing these horrific videos and new reports… how do we relate to what's happening? How do we think about it? What do we want to watch within ourselves if we want to really support the cause of builders worldwide?
Why are Westerners justifying terrorism?
Gena (cont’d): One reason I felt moved to have this conversation is I saw a lot of reflexive reactions on Twitter/X, and all the various places where people are commenting. One type of reaction, which was really horrifying, and a lot of people have now distanced themselves from, was the Harvard-students’-manifesto-style retorts of "this is all Israel's fault, and serves them right, and what did you think that decolonization looked like? This is justice being served." Where there's this question like, do they know what they're actually referring to? Never mind all the political nuance that you've just shared with us, Elan, but knowing nothing else, other than you're talking about the gratuitous murder of babies, the raping of women, you're talking about savage mass killings, and you're spouting abstract concepts that you don't understand, and I don't understand, and probably almost no one in this discourse does, but, like, comfortably. I feel like a big part of what emerges for me out of all this is, there's got to be a center for you, of, we're talking about human lives. Like, how seriously are you taking this? And that includes the need to be extra-judicious and honest with yourself about what you do and don’t know and what you can reasonably say, if anything; because what you do know, what you can see, is the gratuitous slaughter of human beings. And then [most of the rest] is virtue signaling, is talk. And if you find yourself taking comfort in abstract, complicated political slogans that you've borrowed from your group, and turning away from the really in-your-face phenomenon, of human life obliterated—this may be a cue to check in with yourself, to check your own fundamental drivers and motivations, because all of these different motives we’ve discussed at the cultural and political level can also play out in us as individual human beings.
How the “underdog premise” inverts moral judgment
Elan: Yeah… the question you have to ask is, what cause could justify this kind of behavior? And going backwards a step, what do you actually think is happening here? There's a real reason to pause and ask yourself "what do I believe in? What's the basis for it?" …The other thing I wanted to say in connection with this, which I think is hopefully helpful to people, which is there's a way in which a lot of the discussion of the Palestinian Israeli conflict is couched in what I loosely called the underdog premise. And it's, it's sort of like this default position that well, they're the underdog, so there's sort of a default sympathy for them… And what is this underdog premise? And why is it significant? Because I think it's quite illuminating of what you're describing. It tells you that you don't need to know whether someone's in the right or not, you just need to know if they're suffering, if they're weak. And the more suffering, the more obviously weak, the more there's an imbalance of power in the conflict, the more you should side with the parties that seem weaker, more oppressed, or say they are more oppressed. And real questions of justice are not solved that way. Real questions of justice are not about siding with whoever has the least power, or the least opportunity. Questions of justice have to do with what are your goals? What are your means? What are you trying to accomplish? And what have you done to people? And was it right to do that? And this is what people have trouble with, and I think this goes to the kinds of reactions you're describing. It's hard for people to process that you can be very powerful, and a victim. And you can be very weak, and an aggressor, and in the wrong. And this has been part of the story of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. And you have to see it in those terms, because if you buy into this premise that the weaker is the one that by default, deserves your sympathy or your support, then Israel can do no right because it's succeeded. And the Palestinians can do no wrong because they're… weaker materially, and they're weaker militarily. It gives the weaker aggressor a blank check in effect. ….[S]o long as your moral framework tells you to side with the weaker party by default, and against the stronger party without knowing why they're strong or why they're weak and who's actually committed crimes and who hasn't, so long as that's your orientation, you're going to have the wrong way of processing this information, you're going to end up with bad conclusions. You may end up enabling bad people doing harm to good people.
Gena: Yeah. We also see this coming up for builders at an individual level, which is part of the reason I care so much about exposing my audience to this perspective. We see the same morality of victimhood and weakness crippling, for example, entrepreneurs from advocating for the needs of their company, against the one manipulative employee who disrupts the operations of the company while proclaiming themselves a victim of this or that policy; or from defending and promoting the value of their product or service against the onslaught of media and cultural attacks on the company’s very existence. You know, think Meta, think Google, think Microsoft. And I've seen this time and again in the startup founders I work with: this kind of disowning or apologizing for their success, this self-sabotaging tendency in the face of what they see as their own guilt for doing well, for providing value, for amounting to something. So this is not just a geopolitical phenomenon. It's very much a personal one that I see day to day. And I hope that we can draw lessons from both.
Greg: And it's not just a moral mistake, but it's a moral inversion. It's not just that assuming the weaker party is the one in the right, will sometimes lead you to get it wrong. It will usually lead to your getting it wrong. Ability, strength, wealth, come from good things about us. They're all accomplishments. They're all achievements. And they have to be built, they have to be made. So it’s to someone’s credit to have them. And if all you know about two parties is that one has them and the other doesn’t, that should incline you towards the stronger party, not against them. Now, of course, people are often not equal to their best traits; they can and often do misuse even strengths that are the results of their virtues. So the heuristic of siding reflexively with the stronger party isn’t just. But it’s less unjust than the heuristic of siding reflexively against them. This is true both because strength comes from what’s good about us, and because there are always people who resent others for what is good about them (including what makes them strong).
Gena: Or who view them as tall poppies to be cut down, which I see again and again.
Greg: It’s not the case that, in general, the powerful, the strong, the successful, the able, the rich, are bad, and you should have any kind of suspicion of them… To harbor this sort of suspicion is to think that human ability comes from vice, or at least that it can’t come from virtue.
Gena: Or it's just innate and automatic, and some people are just lucky enough to be privileged, and to be bestowed all this wealth and power in some way. And there's a motivation behind that kind of worldview. Because it's much easier; it's an easy morality—you don't have to earn it, in fact on the contrary, the worse off you are, the less you've done, the less you've made, the less you've amounted to, the more claim you have to virtue, and vice versa. People who have built something, people who've exercised their agency—builders, to the extent that they are builders, are a threat to that illusion of easy virtue.
Our inability/refusal to recognize evil
Elan: One observation I will offer is independent of this political, foreign policy space, which I have noticed, broadly, I think it's applicable there too. But I'm curious if you've seen this as well. The more someone is on the orientation of building and choosing to create value, and really having a sort of ambitious view of life and embracing that, and challenge and so forth. It's common for someone in that position, to take their own approach as a given, which is just that's all we ever have access to as our own sort of experiences, right? It's not unusual to take that as a given. And it's very difficult not to assume that that's true of other people. And the result is, it's hard to get into the mindset of, well, how could someone really not be on this premise? How could it be true that what they're actually trying to do is cut me down or really undermine me that there's a real negative orientation, and sometimes really evil, not just negative. And I think that there's some of that happening on a global scale…
And whether it's an interpersonal conflict, or it's a political situation, I'm curious if you've seen that because I definitely think it's one of the ways in which better people, unless they're more worldly, or if they've had enough exposure to this, it's hard for them to recognize it, and to really get outside of their own context on this.
Recognizing the precursors of evil in yourself (and your culture)
Gena: Yeah, I think that's right… But part of the way to make it real—and I've struggled with this as a therapist, as someone who wants to believe in the best in everyone, and my whole job is to bring out the best in everyone, so I'm extremely motivated to, and I get a non-representative sample of people who have brought themselves to therapy or coaching. So chances are, more often than not, they're on a premise of wanting to grow, to improve, of holding themselves accountable. And yet, it's moments like these, when this kind of horror comes before my eyes, that I really have to remember that there's evil.
, aAnd one way I make it real to myself is noticing those motivations cropping up, sometimes in small ways, in myself. Because I think we all have the capacity for evil as well as good, and it never starts with mass murder, right? Anytime that we've rationalized away for ourselves, like a kind of moment of ill will towards someone because they had gotten the award and we didn't or because they're already so far ahead of us, and we were just a little bit withholding of the kind of genuine, celebratory enthusiasm that might have been their due in a conversation, because we're just a little bit annoyed that they've reminded us of what we lack, right? Like, it’s just tiny, you know, but those tiny moments of what I see as vice, what I see as kind of putting ourselves on a premise of trying to evade away the possibility of building, rather than really trying to build. Each of us has done it, each of us is capable of it, and if we can understand and really be honest with ourselves, about those motivations in ourselves, then I think it becomes... still hard, but brings [it] within our cognitive grasp. Yeah, like, that can metastasize... that can become the driving, organizing principle of someone's life. And of a culture, right? And of a movement.
Greg: Apropos of metastasizing, I gave a talk few years ago on the Nature of Evil. And I used that metaphor about certain kinds of destructive motivations. Adversarial motivations—attack type motivations—can be valid and a proper part of a life within a certain context, when they are subordinated to other goals and governed by them. But these motivations can come to rule you, if you don't keep them in their context. I think of it as a sort of cancer, where a system within you that serves your life when its functioning is subordinate to the overall needs of your life can come to function in a way that’s not governed by its proper role, and its growth can destroy the organism.
In that talk I was focused on the role of evil in an individual’s psychology. Here I want to stress how the same sort of motivation can function within a culture.
I think part of what you have to do to understand evil in a culture is the same kind of thing that Gena was talking about with respect to evil in an individual, looking at the least savory elements in your own motivation—or in this case in your own culture. In American culture, and European culture and Israeli culture, in addition to the elements that are best in those cultures and which make it possible for people to live so well there, there are always movements (or aspects of movements) that are opposed to—and poisonous to—these best elements. For example, even in a society that’s as really internalized that rule of law matters, there are elements in every political party that work to undermine rule of law, elements whose attitude is "let's get ours and to hell with the other people,” where “getting ours” isn’t about making the society more just, it’s just a surly impulse to put down rivals. That's there lurking in corners, even of the healthiest cultures. What makes the cultures better is that this attitude is marginalized. The political structure isn’t about this type of feuding, and to the extent that it sometimes becomes about that, the people’s lives aren’t about politics. So, even if there are people (and there are) whose politics is about “owning the libs” or “bringing down the patriarchy” by any means necessary, these politics usually don’t dominate the lives of the people who hold them. They’re more focused around building their careers and raising their kids, and the like. And the culture values their being oriented towards their personal happiness like this, rather than sacrificing everything to redressing some (real or imagined) injustice. That positive, builder orientation limits the effects of unhealthy movements, both by providing a basis and motivation for a healthier sort of political engagement and by limiting how much of the culture’s energy goes into politics at all. When more of a person’s or a culture’s energy is devoted to the more fundamental values of living well that politics is supposed to support, that drains energy from grievance-focused tribal movements, and (again) supports an appreciation for the sorts of political accomplishments needed to support living well (which includes addressing grievances justly and in their proper context). But all this said, there’s always a tension there, there are always elements of tribalism nihilism that try to assert themselves, and for each individual in the society some of these tribal elements will be more persuasive than others—the more persuasive ones to you will be the ones that train their ire on the factions that you (perhaps rightly) most resent.
Anyway it’s important to learn to see this in your own culture and its institutions, and to think about how the better elements and the worse are interacting. What do political debates look like? How central are they to people’s lives? And what norms prevail within government bodies and various prominent cultural institutions? How do people get into positions of influence there? How does the culture among those counted as elites differ from those of more common people, and how do these relate? Always one can find some injustice around such things, but in healthier societies there’s also a lot right about the institutions and credentialing mechanisms; there are factors that orient us towards truth and life-sustaining values (rather than just grievance and vendetta). So we need to think about how this is all functioning in our culture, and what it would look like for it to get a lot better or a lot worse.
Culture and the primacy of ideas in good and evil
Greg: One of the reasons why we're sometimes loath to think ill of other cultures, comes from one of our best traits, but it’s a trait that can get taken out of context. We're very aware of the possibility of being tribal, being racist, being imperialistic, thinking: “We're the Americans (or Europeans or whatever); we’re civilized and those other people are savages without any good traits; there's something genetic or deeply built in, they're different from us”. People sometimes think that this racist view is the only alternative to thinking that a people would have a prosperous society if only they weren’t oppressed from the outside. So if, when a society isn’t living up to the human potential, the only alternative explanations you see are that they’re just like us (with respect to all our good features) but are being held down by oppression, or else they’re some sort of lower subspecies that it’s proper to dominate, enslave, exterminate, then of course decent people are going to gravitate towards the first of these two views, because we’re so well aware of the evil of the second. And because most of us know that all human beings are essentially alike—that there are no innate differences of the sort that could separate us into different races fit for very different forms of life.
Yet, of course, there are huge differences in how people live and have lived throughout history. So the alternative we were considering before is a false one. In addition to innate similarities and differences, and whether a people is oppressed or not, there’s also differences in its culture. And these include differences in the extent to which it thinks that progress is possible and desirable, differences in the extent to which it sees human beings as individuals or as parts of a social whole, differences in the extent to which it values reason as a means of knowledge over faith and authority, and so on. Culture is what matters. Culture is what makes groups of people different from one another. Cultures are ideas and ways of thinking. These things aren’t innate, but they don’t change quickly. Even for individuals, such change is generally slow, and for whole societies, it’s really glacial.
Flourishing is not the default
Gena: I mean, in this whole perspective, it starts from this understanding: it's an achievement to build a positive culture, to build a humanistic, pro-freedom and flourishing culture. You have to build it. The default is that we're at each other's throats. And that competing tribes focus on who's going to destroy whom, rather than what we're going to build. And if we were to recognize that, then this kind of flinching default judgment that you see of "okay, well, Israel is the aggressor, and if only Israel would just lay off punishing the Palestinian people with these restrictions and putting up these walls and borders then they would flourish and be free”, as if that's how it works.
Greg: I don't think that's what Hamas thinks. I don’t think their view is that, if only Israel would treat them in a certain way, then they’d flourish and be free. I don't think what they want is to flourish. And not wanting that doesn’t make them such an anomaly historically. Most cultures haven’t been organized around promoting the flourishing of individuals as a goal. Most cultures haven’t seen this as what life is about. For Americans and Europeans for whom this pro-flourishing perspective is second-nature, it’s easy to assume that everyone must be oriented this way, and then to reinterpret Hamas’s cause...
Gena: That's what I mean, that's who I'm addressing here. Yeah, the better Americans/Westerners who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, who think "oh well, if they're suffering, if they're not flourishing, if they're not building, if they're poor, if they're downtrodden, it must be because someone is aggressing against them. So we must remove that crime of commission so that then they can just flourish." Forgetting that flourishing is not the default, flourishing is really hard. And it takes building a culture, and an infrastructure, and a government that's not oriented around destruction, but around life.
How should a country treat aggressors?
Greg: This raises a huge issue that we haven't had time to address, but I just want to name it because people will be thinking of it, and I want to tie it then back to what we were talking about. So what do you then do if you have on your border a group of people who are very culturally different from you? You can't just let them hold an election and they elect a bunch of people who want to rain missiles down on you and destroy everything you hold dear. But you also can't just govern them as, in effect, your unruly wards forever. That’s not something you should do or should want to do. And that’s what people think of Israel as doing when they call it an apartheid state and the like. Whether that term is apt (and I don’t think it is), the fact is that there are all these people who aren't Israelis, yet they're under Israeli jurisdiction, and they're not treated the same as the Israelis are. But then what is Israel to do? It would be wrong to set them free to kill Israelis; yet it’s not obvious what alternative there is other than the current situation. So how can a country manage a situation like that? What’s the right way to handle it? It's a difficult question. And one reason why you shouldn't be eager to invade your neighbors, if you don't really have to for your own security, is that you’re left with a very difficult situation after you’ve conquered militarily—a situation in which there can seem to be no good options. In America’s history there are cases of this that seem to have ended well—most notably the occupations of Japan and parts of Germany after World War II, which resulted in both rebuilding as free states and allies. But there’s also the failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to have left those countries and us no better off (and perhaps worse off) than we all were before.
So there’s this general question of how a country that’s occupying another country because it thinks that it needs to pacify these other people for its own security ought to govern the people whose country it’s occupying. What are reasonable goals and timelines here, and what are the principles by which a country can determine when to engage in this sort of action at all and how to do it well?
These are very hard questions and we haven’t answered them here. But you don't need to know the answers to these questions to judge Hamas and the Palestinian culture that has empowered them. Here we have a semi-occupied territory, and the movement representing the people in it have no agenda to build a more free, prosperous and safe country in that territory, if only they had more control over it. They’ve been in power for almost a decade and haven’t done anything to increase the prosperity or happiness of their people, and every opportunity to do so has been sacrificed to nursing the grievances and intensifying the hostilities. You don’t need to know just how to properly pacify a warlike neighboring territory to know that when people from it paraglide into their neighbors’ country and lop the heads off of babies, these murderers and everyone who supports them are in the wrong. You don't need much political wisdom to be able to tell that this is not what a legitimate resistance movement looks like. And to know that it deserves to be condemned.
Gena: For the sake of those who want to live, everywhere.
Human conflict is the default—but it is not destiny
Elan: Just had one thought I'd like to leave with… which is to amplify some of the points that have come up… about disentangling this issue from race and tribe, and really emphasizing the issue of culture and ideas… The wider phenomenon is that people who grow up in free societies just assume that other people have the same kind of cultural orientations and assumptions, and that's just not true. And it's important to recognize that and to recognize that that difference is not innate. That difference is a consequence of many, many choices, all of which can be undone. But it's as you said, I agree, it's hard… It's individually difficult, and it's difficult, even more so, at a cultural level. I think it's important to stress that because this conflict in particular lends itself, or easily is reframed as racial or tribal. By default it's seen in collective terms, and the collective terms of Jews versus Arabs, and no one can quite tell you what an Arab is because it's as difficult a concept as “Jew” to pin down. It's both cultural, it's quasi-religious, it's very complicated.
So I want to stress that this is as I see it, and this is the way I approach it in my book: it's a conflict rooted in ideas which develop and express themselves in cultural patterns and behaviors. And so both politically and culturally, those things are what you can evaluate, and you should evaluate in praise or blame. And the individuals who hold those ideas, and choose to hold those ideas, or failed to question them—I think that, to me, that's the essential issue here, which is these are ultimately matters that are subject to human choice and volition. They're not innate, they're not unchosen or incidental in who you are, they're how we make ourselves. And so your theme of building- I think another sort of fundamental way to think of this issue is, we each build ourselves, whether we do it consciously or not. And how we do that, at a macro-level is what our society looks like, in the institutions and the culture. And in that sense, the culture is also something we build, but we build it indirectly. And it's important to see that that's a human made thing….
Gena: It's not the default.
Elan: And it could be different. And it could be better. And if you rewound the clock and said in 1993, when there was a peace agreement, or in 2005, what would you have wanted the Palestinian society to look like 20 years hence, this is not what I would have wanted. I don't think anyone reasonable would have wanted this. And what would have been better is… if it looked a lot freer, where there was greater opportunity for people to build. And that's something that was a choice, in significant degree. And it could be a choice going forward for people down the road, it's going to take a long time to get there, but I think that sort of differentiation between the chosen versus the unchosen, the built versus the born, I think those are really important for thinking about this issue.
Gena: Thank you both.
Elan: Thanks for having me.
Gena: Glad we did this. Thanks. All the best.
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