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Sowell On Israel by Rael Jean Isaac

by Ruth King

A huge amount of ink and verbiage has been spilled on Israel’s political situation but perhaps the best analysis thus far has come from Thomas Sowell. This is the more remarkable in that Sowell never once mentions Israel in the two books in which he provides this spot-on analysis: The Vision of the Anointed (1995) and the more recent Intellectuals and Society (Basic Books, 2009).

In the September 1995 Outpost I described how, in The Vision of the Annointed, Sowell threw light on the puzzling question of why Israel’s leaders had embarked on the reckless course of signing the Oslo agreement with Arafat, then the world’s terrorist-in-chief, and subsequently sealed themselves off from any discordant feedback as the agreement predictably imploded.

Sowell was describing domestic programs advanced by elites in this country, with counterproductive results, but his description of the mindset of these elites—“the anointed ones”—provided an insight into the ideas, assumptions and attitudes of Israel’s leaders. I pointed out that Shimon Peres, who was the single individual with the greatest responsibility for launching Oslo, was an ideal type of the “anointed,” operating on the basis of a vision of the world—in this case, a New Middle East—that offered something deeply satisfying, what Sowell calls “a special state of grace for those who believe in it.”

Once conjured up and acted upon, Sowell observes, it is never the theory that must be brought in line with reality, but reality that must be brought into line with the vision. As the terrible consequences of Oslo quickly became manifest in a huge increase in terrorism, the reaction of Israel’s “anointed” was to insist the policies must be pursued with even greater vigor, for only then would the promised benefits finally flow.

In Intellectuals and Society Sowell, again with nary a mention of Israel, throws light on the interplay of forces—both within and outside Israel–that act as a barrier to confronting reality. Sowell points out that intellectuals have never been as important as they are today in shaping opinion, even though Orwell’s mordant comment remains as true as ever, namely, that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them.

It is remarkable that it does not occur to Sowell to use Israel as an illustration, for he explains better than anyone else what seems so remarkable: that the “two state solution” to the Arab-Israel conflict should continue to be universally endorsed, sealed off from any feedback from reality. This was a “new idea” that developed post-1967; prior to that neither Arabs nor Jews conceived of a Palestinian state independent of Jordan. The Arab world makes it as clear as it possibly can that the price of Israel’s acceptance is its disappearance—via implementing the “right of return” of the so-called Arab refugees and their descendants. The level of incitement of hatred of Israel is no less in Abbas-controlled territory than it is in that controlled by Hamas. Where Israel retreats, as in Gaza, the result is to make the territory a launching pad for terror against her.

But none of this has any effect in producing a reevaluation of the unshakable premise by elites that “the settlements” constitute the barrier to peace and a Palestinian state—never mind its destined territory has already split in two—is the “answer.” Sowell talks of “mascots du jour,” which, like adolescent fads, are not subject to logic or evidence. What “mascot du jour” can compare to the Palestinians? Their most egregious behavior is whitewashed while Israel, a decent country in an indecent neighborhood, has become the “scapegoat du jour.”

Sowell notes that if an engineer designs a bridge that shortly thereafter collapses, he will not find others eager to commission his services. But that’s not how it works in the world of intellectuals, even though the idea advanced may have great impact on the external world in which millions of human beings live their lives. Here the method of validation is circular. The visions of intellectuals need validation only by their peers. Sowell writes: “When the only external validation for the individual is what other individuals believe, everything depends on who those other individuals are. If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes in general—and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world.”

Sowell writes that disastrously false prophets reap as much honor as if they had been proved right. He mentions environmentalist doomsayer Paul Ehrlich (who confidently predicted that in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people were going to starve to death), philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who announced in 1939 there was little to choose between Hitler’s Germany and France, and Ralph Nader, whose false predictions are innumerable. The list of top-ranked intellectuals who made utterly irresponsible statements and advocated hopelessly unrealistic and recklessly dangerous things, writes Sowell, could be extended indefinitely.

In Israel no one has enjoyed more respect and honors than Shimon Peres despite his unalloyed record as a false prophet. As President of the State, he now basks in the greatest honor Israel can give. Yet Peres is a veritable geyser of false prophecies. To take only one example, in October 1993, when the “peace process” was launched, Peres, at the inauguration of the Winter Knesset, announced: “We are approaching the stage at which it will become clear that terror has no future and is fated to die.” In fact, of course, the next decade was to bring an unparalleled resurgence of terror, not confined to Israel. Peres has been such a fount of truly idiotic statements that AFSI has chronicled them in various editions of Shimon Says. More important, no one has done more concrete damage to the state through his irresponsible behavior than Shimon Peres.

Sowell emphasizes the enormous importance of the media in filtering out whatever does not fit the prevailing vision. What seems plausible to those who share the vision can become the criterion of both believability and newsworthiness. He writes: “It is not necessary for either individuals or a cabal to work out a plan of deliberate deception for filtering of information to produce a distorted picture that resembles the vision of the anointed rather than the reality of the world. All that is necessary is that those in a position to filter—whether as reporters, editors, teachers, scholars, or movie-makers—decide that there are certain aspects of reality that the masses would ‘misunderstand’ and which a sense of social responsibility requires those in a position to filter to leave out.” What does not fit the vision is exempt from the requirement of fitting the facts.

Again the applicability to Israel is striking. The media simply ignores the profundity of Arab/Islamic opposition to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. This is out of bounds as a topic of discussion. What is crucial is not the information available—nothing could be more abundant than the evidence on this score–but the predisposition with which the intelligentsia approaches the available information. It is a testimony to the power of the prevailing vision that even The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Fox News, the “right-wing” alternatives, do not question its central premise, that a Palestinian state is the “solution.”

Even a supposed “convert” like Aaron David Miller, who worked at the State Department diligently forwarding the peace process for 25 years, and recently wrote a lengthy essay in Foreign Policy entitled “The False Religion of Middle East Peace: Why I’m No Longer a Believer” turns out to remain a believer after all. The problem, Miller concludes, is the lack of leaders of the stature of Begin and Jordan’s former King Hussein to boldly implement the two state solution.

Empirical evidence, no matter how overwhelming, when it goes counter to the prevailing vision, is, as Sowell puts it, “much like the tree that falls in an empty forest, as far as such empirical evidence reaching a large part of the general public.”

It is only on a few blogs—and in this publication—that the obvious can be said at all, namely that the peace process is, and has been from the outset, a sham and a fraud. No one has put it better than William Mehlman in Outpost (November 2005): “In Israel, the land that gave birth to messianism, the most recent and durable in the long line of bright, glowing messianic frauds is something called the ‘peace process.’ Its relentless promotion by a fanatical elite fixed on the notion that peace with an Arab world openly dedicated to the termination of Jewish national existence will flow from the systematic surrender of Israel’s material and strategic assets and the creation of an enemy state within its border must surely rank as the chef-d’oeuvre of all Jewish messianic delusions.”

This brings us to another question on which Sowell, without referring to Israel, throws abundant light: Why do Israeli leaders, even those who, in opposition, made clear they did not share in this messianic delusion, once in power endorse and pursue the same fantasy ‘peace process?’ After all, as Prime Minister, Netanyahu has a bully pulpit through which he could pierce through the web of lies. He could force the media, in Israel and abroad, however hostile to the message, at least to broadcast it: the Arab-Israel conflict is not soluble at this period in history and Israel will only survive through deterrence, and if need be, victory over its enemies.

But Israel’s “right-wing” politicians have become captive to the prevailing vision of the conflict through a combination of external and internal pressures. The external pressures are obvious enough. Member of the Knesset Arieh Eldad reports that having served in the Israeli army Medical Corps for decades he can diagnose shell shock when he sees it and Netanyahu looked like a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when he spoke to the Knesset Security Affairs Committee after his first meeting with Obama. But internally the pressures are equally potent. Those who would like to provide a realistic assessment, Netanyahu surely among them, are constrained by the same consensus of intellectuals in Israel and the broader intelligentsia which disseminates their views via domination of the media.

Everything that Sowell says about intellectuals in Western societies applies to those in Israel—with yet more dangerous consequences. Sowell observes that one of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold society together. Before there can be a national defense, there has to be a feeling the nation is worth defending but modern intellectuals seldom contribute to that feeling. To condemn their country’s enemies would make them like the masses but to condemn their own society sets the anointed apart as moral exemplars and incisive minds—at least to their like-minded peers. Sowell notes that intellectuals set up standards for their society that no society of human beings has ever met or is likely to meet. Calling these standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria. (Needless to say, Israel’s hypercritical intelligentsia does not compare Israeli society to Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Syria but to abstract ideals of its devising.)

In the case of Israel there is something else. Israel is a small society whose intellectual elite hungers for recognition from intellectual peers abroad—and what better way to achieve it than to validate their narrative of Palestinians as victims, Israelis as villains, by testimony from within Israel? The situation has gotten so out-of-hand in some academic circles that even proponents of the “two state solution” like Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz have sounded warnings. In just the last few months Israel’s Academic Monitor reports that Israeli academics (including an especially rabid nucleus at Tel Aviv University) appealed to the University of California at Berkeley to divest from companies doing business in Israel, urged the Europeans to reject Israel’s bid to join the European economic community, called on Germans to be more involved in pressuring Israel, called on an Irish company to boycott Israel and denounced the Boston Science Museum’s sponsorship of an Israeli exhibit, calling it “an attempt to distract from Israel’s war crimes and human rights violations.”

In the face of all the pressures upon him (including a political opposition in tune with the prevailing vision, ready to pounce) Netanyahu chooses the path of what Sowell calls “day-at-a-time rationalism.” Sowell observes that Chamberlain operated on the basis of day-at-a-time rationalism when he declared: “We can remove the danger spots one by one” by “our willingness to face realities that we cannot change.” Ironically, while Israel is in the role of Czechoslovakia, thrown to the Islamic wolves by appeasement-minded Western leaders, Netanyahu himself behaves like Chamberlain. He accedes to the prevailing vision, proclaims himself an advocate of “the two state solution,” in practice caves in to Obama’s demands for “freezes” on building for Jews, even in Jerusalem, engages in “proximity talks,” and hopes the pressures will relax when in fact they are far more likely to build. (They are already building as Obama turns his attention to a nuclear-free Israel now that a nuclear-free Iran is out of reach.) Forgotten is any conception of national honor, which, as Sowell notes, is a recognition that day-at-a-time rationalism is a delusion enabling politicians to escape the responsibilities of statesmanship.

In the end reality will have its way. The Islamic world continues on its relentless drive to destroy Israel regardless of territorial or other forms of appeasement. To quote Sowell: “However dramatic or attractive a particular vision may be, ultimately everyone must live in the world of reality. To the extent that reality has been filtered to fit a vision, this filtered information is a misleading guide to making decisions in an unforgiving reality, to which we must all adjust, because it is not going to adjust to us.”

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