The late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens used to refer to the theological arguments of his critics as “white noise.” As a non-believer, claims about the true nature of God, the legitimacy of prophetic revelation, or the problem of evil were simply meaningless to him — an irritating buzz in his ears.
Hitchens’ “white noise” is often what I hear when leftist or progressive critics of Israel make their arguments against the Jewish state. It is not only that their accusations of ethnic cleansing, colonialism, and genocide are often blood libels. It is also a question of standing. That is, by what right do these people presume to judge Israel and the Jewish people — and declare them guilty of the most heinous crimes?
In his treatise on the art of rhetoric, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described three primary methods of persuasion: Pathos is the appeal to emotion. Logos is the appeal to reason. Ethos is the appeal to the moral character of the speaker. We are all familiar with these methods as employed by the Israel-haters: logos is usually absent, while pathos is ubiquitous, in the shrieking rage and hate directed against the Jewish state and the Jewish people. But this pathos is, in the end, just a cheap attempt at emotional blackmail and abuse. What makes their arguments “white noise” is ethos.
Judgement inherently contains within it an assertion of moral rectitude. One can only judge if one has the right to judge. And this is a right that must be earned. The Israel-haters, especially on the progressive left, believe this quite strongly: they are quite certain that they are a caste of saints, the finest and most moral people who have ever existed. As such, they consider their ethos infinitely superior to that of anyone else.
In the face of such a claim, we are entitled to a certain skepticism. It is, after all, ludicrous on its face. For me, however, it is discredited by one man’s life story: my best friend Shani’s grandfather, Israel Mazor.
When the USSR conquered half of Poland after the Hitler-Stalin pact, Mazor was arrested due to his Zionist activism — which was seen as a threat to the “workers’ state” — and shuttled between gulags in Siberia. There he almost died of exposure, malnutrition, torture, and the conditions of slave labor. Several times, he was thrown into solitary confinement in a concrete cell in sub-zero weather. Once he ran in place for nine hours to avoid losing his legs to frostbite.
After the war, he was released and began to demand the right to make aliyah. The Soviet regime refused him for over a decade, until he finally packed up his family and they made their way without proper travel papers to Austria. From there, the Jewish Agency brought them to Israel. Eventually, he was recognized by the government for his heroism and received a medal from Israel’s president.
To me, this story of horror and triumph is Israel’s ethos, encapsulated within a single life. When Israelis and Jews speak, they speak as people who have been chewed up and spit out by history; as people who have crawled out of history by their fingernails. When they invoke morality, it is as people with the most intimate knowledge of the horrors of life. And they know what these horrors have to teach us about how tenuous and compromised morality can be, and what it means to live in the absence of morality. They can speak to its inherent complications, compromises, and desperations. They know, in other words, of what they speak. They possess an ethos their enemies cannot, because they have earned it.
The saints, on the other hand, believe that one can simply assert one’s morality and be done with it — that by claiming to be moral, they become moral. The horrors of life are not just irrelevant but inconceivable to them, because they have never known these horrors. Nor can they conceive of the inevitable consequences of these horrors, because as a sheltered and privileged class, they have always lived without consequences. They will never have to pay the cost of what they demand of Israel and the Jewish people. This is how they can not only advocate hurling the Jews back into statelessness and exile, but actually claim it is the moral thing to do. It is how they can justify and even praise the wanton violence they and their allies incite. It is how they can remain blissfully ignorant of what all this says about their morality and their ethos.
What it says is quite clear: the saints have no ethos. They are a morally bankrupt privileged caste who, in their fantasies of rectitude, presume to judge a people who have known horrors of which they cannot begin to conceive. These are people who weep when Whole Foods runs out of kale, and then condemn those who have survived the gulag. And in a supreme act of hubris, the saints not only judge these refugees from history, but consider themselves their moral superiors. The admonitions of such people can, in the end, never be anything more than white noise.
Photo by Ted Eytan