Better Angels of our Nature, EAPPI, Israel, israeli-palestinian conflict, religious prejudice, Steven Pinker
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.
It is deppresing that Pinker barely mentioned Palestinians and only in the context of terrorism.
That somebody like Pinker cannot detach himself from tribal loyalty, that somebody like Pinker decide not to see the brutal oppression the Palestinians suffer (that even some Jews in Israel and elsewhere have compared to what Jews suffered under the Nazis), that he swallows the legend that Israel is under threat… well, it is dismaying.
I write this a Venezuelan, who, as yourself , is not Jewish, nor Arab, and if asked “Are you a Christian?” my answer would be “Well…” rather than “Yes!”
Glen Staples said:
Well put! I loved reading Better Angels until I realized the subtext. His basic thesis is good but the subtext reinforces the pro-Israel bias. Often subtext is more powerful than text since it slips in unexamined. It is disappointing that a thinker like Pinker cannot get past this common bias, especially since it is self-serving to his tribe.
I think his answer is still correct. In terms of violence, especially lethal one, regardless of what you think about Israeli trends, Israel is moderate. Check the Wikipedia and you see that the total number of the Palestinians killed by Israel is around 20000, including militants. For 64 years of existential conflict between two nations it is a strikingly low number.
Dan, thanks for reading my blog. I think it is a question of expectations, standards, and awareness. Most supporters of Israel would not support – indeed they would actively oppose – governments that oppress occupied populations in the rest of the world. Indeed, many of the same people who support (directly or indirectly) the current Israeli government also support activities by the ACLU, for example, in the U.S.