The Hollowness of Ethics Without Relationships

The Hollowness of Ethics Without Relationships December 28, 2016

I’ve been thinking about why the carefully crafted statements from all sides analyzing the relationship between Israel, the US, and the Palestinian Authority tend to make me angry. I think it has to do with the  objectifying of the other.

Rationally speaking President Obama has been a strong supporter of Israel, the recent failure to veto a resolution against Israel’s settlement policy not withstanding. At the same time he hasn’t expressed any warm feeling for Israel and Israelis. His foreign policy decisions have been based on a careful and calculated balance of his administration’s view of American and Israeli interests and the ethical demands placed on the US because of its particular role as a world leader.

Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued a policy with regard to the Palestinians that equally represents a careful calculation of personal political interests, Israel’s security needs, and Palestinian interests in relation to the ethical demands on a modern democratic state. He could argue that the slow increase in settlements notwithstanding Palestinians are far better off now than a decade ago.

Away from these politicians one can find in both the US and Israel commentators who disagree with the precise ethnical calculations of both leaders, but who are equally concerned with pursuing ethical policies that achieve legitimate interests for both sides at minimal cost. Examples on the Jewish/Israeli side would be Daniel Harrison of the AJC and Donneil Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Palestinians and their American supporters are much the same in arguing that they have put forward reasoned and ethical positions. Palestinians say they will recognize Israel within the boundaries of international law. What more could Israel want? Christian denominations that have offered support for the BDS movement issue carefully worded statements supporting Israel’s right to exist securely along side a Palestinian state. They claim that their boycotts are carefully targeted toward only illegal activities. I see little evidence that these statements emerge out of close relations with American Jews or Israelis, or any desire to understand the Israeli experience from within.

What all of these groups have in common is their essential paternalism, although that word implies far more warmth than actually exists. All parties base their proposals for ethical behavior on objective standards and calculations of interest that have small concern for the lived experience of their counterparts. It isn’t surprising. The vast majority of Israelis and American Jews never travel to the West bank and have little or no interest in actually meeting a Palestinian. They prefer to keep them as theoretical humans who are owed theoretical rights, objects of ethical charity rather than subjects of their own destiny. And Palestinians find it far more congenial to talk to their supporters overseas with their grievances than to recognize what it is like to be an Israeli Jew.

The objectivity of carefully balanced theoretical interests and universal ethical demands is better than the purely subjective taking of sides characteristic of much of the discourse over Israel and Palestine. Yet I personally find the statements issued by these groups not merely unsatisfying, but infuriating. Policies crafted on the basis of dead rational ethics or appeals to law rather than living human relationships will never bring justice and gradually dehumanize both those who promulgate them and those toward whom they are directed.

There can be no resolution based on negotiations between parties with no interest in knowing more about each other than the positions they are putting forward at the table. This is why I fully support groups like Roots. Until ethics become human, not merely for Israelis and Palestinians but also their supporters, there will only be the current barrage of self-righteousness victimhood and self-righteous indignation that the other side doesn’t realize how well it is being treated. Only when humans are talking to humans about their real experiences rather than negotiating over theoretical interests will there be peace.

So talk to me. What in your experience have I failed to account for?

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