Steven Pinker is in favor of cosmopolitanism and opposed to religious prejudice, tribalism and nationalism. He sees international institutions like the U.N. as correlated with a decline in interstate warfare. He notes that women’s rights and the rights of minorities have resulted in a decline in violence against these groups. He does not advocate unilateral pacifism, and does have historical examples where weak states have suffered as a result. He does argue, however, that less insularity and greater democracy leads to less violence.
As I listened to Professor Pinker discuss his new book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I could not but think how his points apply to the current trends in Israeli politics and society. A rise in insularity? Check. Nationalism? Check. Anti-democratic legislation? Check. Hostility to international institutions? Check. Assaults on women’s rights? Check. Prejudice against a minority? Check. Tribal? Check.
And yet, when asked the question “What about Israel?” he interpreted the question as meaning, “Isn’t the threat to Israel a counterexample to the trend of declining violence?” (He responded that in fact the Arab-Israeli conflict has been far less bloody than many, and the last war Israel fought against another state was in 1973, consistent with his hypothesis.) His only reference to the Palestinians was in the context of making a point that terrorism almost always fails to attain its stated political goals. He also pointed out that the Arab world has failed to reduce violence to the extent of much of the rest of the world, though he sees hopeful signs of that changing. All these points are absolutely legitimate, but I was interested that he either did not hear or chose not to articulate the lessons for Israeli politics inherent in the case he was making.
I love hearing Prof. Pinker speak, and I am excited to read his book. I also think that the lessons for Palestinian politics are legion. Indeed, Hamas is on the wrong side of pretty much every one of the trends that lead to a decline in violence. Still, I would have liked to have heard Prof. Pinker comment on ethnocentrism and dehumanization of the other in the context of the Netanyahu coalition, settlers shooting their neighbors, and the “price tag” attacks. His book sounds to my ears like an extended critique of many current Israeli policies, and I’m surprised he chose not to make that point.