Israel and Syria – Not the Same Story

There’s a rhetorical trope about Israel that I’ve seen a lot lately. It’s meant to suggest that if you’re angry at Israel for what’s happening in Gaza, you’re a hypocrite because what’s happening in Syria is far worse, includes killing innocent Palestinians, and you give it a lot less attention. This strikes me as missing some points.

Of course what’s happening in Syria is worse than what’s happening in Gaza. Of course Bashar al-Assad is a world-class thug who’s beneath all contempt. Of course what’s happening in Syria is a tragedy of jaw-dropping, mind-numbing proportions. But to point all this out is to point out what’s both obvious and beyond my capacity to know how to respond.

I’m not aware that anyone has any good ideas about what the rest of the world should do about Syria. That’s one big reason why many of us have stopped talking about Syria. But that’s not the only thing.

Assad is in a rarified class, murderous enough to numb the mind. I may not like Netanyahu, but he doesn’t come close the Assad’s level of thuggery. That, however, is part of the point. Assad is a despot; Netanyahu is the elected leader of a democracy, and could be gone in the next election. Assad’s mind is a cipher; I don’t know how to think my way into it. Not so for Netanyahu. I disagree with him. But I can imagine having a rational discussion with him, and I don’t think his view of Israel’s situation is incomprehensible. The point is that what I think I can reasonably expect of Israel and its leaders is far better than what I think I can expect of the Syrian regime.

I suspect that for many people, the reaction to Israel’s actions in Gaza includes a strong sense that the Israeli government should know better than to follow the policies it’s long followed. They should know that doing what they’ve been doing is no way to achieve their goals. I think the Israeli government and the Israeli generals are capable of understanding this. This is exactly why I find it not just puzzling but infuriating that they don’t. (For example: can anyone really think that Israel’s settlement policy is in its long-term interest?) On the other hand, I have no idea what Assad is capable of understanding.

Netanyahu may be many things, but I don’t think “moral monster” is one of them. In Assad’s case I’m not prepared to say that. To use a metaphysical metaphor, the possible world where Israel and Palestine are peaceful neighbors is a lot closer to this one than the possible world in which Assad shows a shred of human decency. That’s why I feel a different kind of anger at Israel’s leaders: it’s anger yoked to disappointment. It’s the kind of anger we feel when those we otherwise love go wrong.


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