Fernando Tesón’s “Hang Tough, Israel”: A Response

Guest Blog by Irfan Khawaja

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

In a recent post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, “Hang Tough, Israel,” Fernando Tesón takes issue with those of his “libertarian friends” who are “relentless” in their criticisms of Israel, and responds to them by translating a longish passage from Spanish by the Argentinian writer Marcos Aguinis. What follows are four remarkably ignorant and offensive paragraphs on the Israel/Palestine dispute which I’m assuming that Tesón endorses. The post is too short to deserve a very long response, but I think it deserves more criticism than (with some notable exceptions) it’s so far gotten. Since I assume that Tesón endorses Aguinis’s claims, I’ll refer mostly to “Tesón” rather than “Aguinis”; if Tesón doesn’t endorse Aguinis’s claims, I have no objection to his publicly disowning as many of them as he now decides to reject.

Much of Tesón’s post involves generalizations about the moral character of Palestinians, and Palestinian youth in particular. Here’s a particularly offensive one:

In our postmodern times it is increasingly irrelevant where the good and the bad reside. Does it matter that the Israeli youth dream with being inventors and scientists, while the youth of Hezbollah and Hamas dream with being martytrs? Apparently not. Does it matter that in Israel children are not taught to hate the Arabs, while among the Arabs, the Protocols of Zion and Mein Kampf are best sellers, and that the Egyptian TV broadcast a repulsive series where the Jews would extract children’s blood for their rituals? Apparently this doesn’t matter either.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Tesón that if you’re going to describe “Israeli youth” in one clause of a sentence, the contrasting clause should make reference to “Palestinian youth,” not “the youth of Hamas or Hezbollah,” as though Palestinian youth were, as a whole, reducible to a faceless mass of terrorist fanatics, among whom the very essence of “badness” resides.

More fundamentally, I’d ask Tesón pointblank how much face time he’s ever had with Palestinian youth (or Palestinians generally), and if he hasn’t had very much (as I’d surmise), what conceivable basis he could have for a generalization of the sort he endorses in that post. How fluent, for example, is his Arabic? Evidently not fluent enough to list on his CV. But then, how can a person who speaks no Arabic know what Palestinian youth are like? Imagine generalizing about American youth but being unable to string together a sentence in English. That’s the caliber of the discussion he’s initiated, and which he regards as a serious contribution to the debate. (For the record: my Arabic is very rudimentary, and I have no facility at all with Hebrew, but then, I’m not inclined to make wild generalizations about either Palestinians or Israelis, as Tesón is.)

Last summer, I spent some time in the West Bank, and in particular in the city of Hebron and the village of Beit Umar. One contrast that I observed between Israeli and Palestinian youth was instructive: In Beit Umar, I watched youthful Israeli soldiers (in their 20’s) taking physical control of the village by force of arms – machine guns, tear gas, armed vehicles – blocking its roads so that settlers could help themselves to its resources. Meanwhile, unarmed Palestinian youth confronted them and remonstrated with them by discourse.1 This is an everyday occurrence in Beit Umar and the West Bank generally, though not one typically reported in our media or current in our discourse. It doesn’t exactly square with Tesón’s picture of terroristic Palestinian youth.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, in the town of Abu Dis, my friend Munir Nusseibeh runs the Human Rights Clinic at Al Quds University, specializing in property rights claims – a kind of Palestinian version of the Institute for Justice. Munir leads a group of non-violent activists in property rights litigation against a military occupation whose bureaucrats literally enforce their whims and those of the settlers they protect, at gunpoint. After a few intense hours of conversations with him, it occurred to me that he had a better grasp of the nature and value of property rights than most political philosophers I know – and certainly better than Tesón himself who, despite his official rejection of collectivist conceptions of property ownership has nothing to say about the explicitly collectivist and expropriative character of Israeli land use policy. (For more details on Israeli land use policy, see Oren Yiftachel’s excellent book, Ethnocracy.) None of this squares with Tesón’s picture, either.

And then there is Lucy Nusseibeh, a one-woman powerhouse who runs MEND, an institute for non-violent protest and democracy.2 Her message? She wants to “demilitarize our minds” – not exactly the stuff of Hamas or Hezbullah. The non-violent nature of her activities has not, of course, prevented her from being raided and shut down by the Israeli authorities – the same authorities whom Tesón advises to “hang tough” as they hunt down such threatening Islamist figures as Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Ernie, and Bert.

Excuse me, but who is operating by the pen here and who is operating by the sword? And my anecdotes merely scratch the surface of the work that Palestinians are doing to create the basis of a non-violent civil society in the West Bank. In mentioning these anecdotes, I don’t intend them as data for generalizations about the depravity of “Israeli youth” or the heroism of “Palestinian youth,” but as data against facile generalizations of the kind Tesón takes for granted.

There’s no doubt that Palestinian political culture has its deformities, some of them deeply grotesque, unjust, and irrational. I have no qualms about saying that to anyone anywhere, as I have for decades – whether in The New York Times in 1987, or in front of an irritable West Bank audience in 2013.3 (Feel free to do a search on “Irfan Khawaja” in this book for some more documentation.) But Tesón writes as though the cultural deformities were all or uniquely Palestinian. As it happens, the falsity of this claim is becoming increasingly obvious, and has been obvious for decades. This past Friday’s New York Times has a story that makes explicit what most informed Israelis probably take for granted:

Tamir Lion, an anthropologist who studies youth, said he was troubled by the changing attitudes among Israel’s young people. For many years, Mr. Lion interviewed soldiers about why they chose to enter combat units. “The answers,” he said on Israel Radio, “were always about the challenge, to show I could make it, the prestige involved.”

That began to change in 2000, he said. “I started to get answers – not a lot, but some – like: ‘To kill Arabs.’ The first time I heard it, it was at the time of the large terror attacks, and since then it has not stopped.”

A generation has grown up in a period of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with suicide bombs and military incursions, rocket fire and airstrikes. Young people on both sides may think about the other more as an enemy than as a neighbor.

Mr. Lion, head of research at the Ethos Institute, said he was troubled. “Today I can say, and everyone who works with youth will say it, Jewish youth in Israel hate Arabs without connection to their parents or their own party affiliation and their own political opinions.” (“Killing of Palestinian Youth Puts an Israeli Focus on Extremism”).

Those tempted to excuse these attitudes as a justified or understandable response to Palestinian suicide bombings may want to remember that such inferences run both ways: if it’s understandable that terrorism-traumatized Israelis should want to kill Arabs, it ought to be equally understandable that occupation-traumatized Palestinians should want to kill Israelis. It also ought to be rather obvious that a forty-seven-year long military occupation offers more than its share of opportunities for Israeli depredations. The inferences can only run asymmetrically if we assume either that Israelis have intrinsically greater moral weight than Palestinians, or that Palestinians are always the aggressors and Israelis always the defenders against their aggression. Neither assumption is true, and neither issue is adequately addressed by Tesón’s post. (Israeli rights violations are systematically documented by such organizations as B’Tselem, Al Haq, and the Human Rights Clinic at Al Quds University. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that they say or do, but their work is generally admirable and indispensable for understanding the realities of life under Israeli rule.)

I can’t literally replicate the reality of Palestinian life under military occupation in a short essay like this one, but You Tube offers a useful supplement to the written word. In offering the videos in this essay as evidence for my claims, let me stress that I am not making global generalizations about Israelis or Jews as such, much less making claims about their heritable traits. I’m pointing to well-established socio-political trends within Israel, trends that are the predictable result of its occupation and settlement of the West Bank, and of Zionist ideological assumptions generally.

This seven minute video provides a disheartening account of Anti-Arab sentiment in Israel (though I think Uri Davis understates the degree of anti-Semitism on the Arab side). This ten minute video candidly discusses “Israel’s New Generation of Racists.” This eight minute video offers a rather unflattering picture of attitudes among Israeli youth and of specifically American complicity in those attitudes. While you watch it, imagine a comparable scene involving thousands of white American youth with anti-black attitudes marching triumphantly and gleefully through a historically black neighborhood (in drunken throngs, at 3 am) – be it Harlem, Watts, Newark, or Detroit – while expressing themselves as these Israelis do. For a glimpse at life in Beit Umar, watch this video. For an ordinary day in Hebron, try this one. While watching these videos – and you can find hundreds more like them online – you might ask yourself how long Palestinians are supposed to endure behavior of the kind depicted in them without taking it upon themselves to engage in retaliatory self-help. You might try to put yourself in the place of the Palestinian victims in these video, a heuristic familiar to most grade school children but notably absent from Tesón’s post.

I’ve saved the best and most topical video for last. It doesn’t need much in the way of comment, at least if you’ve been following recent events in Israel. As you watch the video, try repeating the following Tesónite mantras to yourself and observing how they affect your ability to process what you’re watching:

Does it matter that the Israeli youth dream with being inventors and scientists, while the youth of Hezbollah and Hamas dream with being martytrs?

Already several generations of stoic Israeli citizens have defended the country with one hand while working with the other.

Does it matter to Tesón that the Israeli youth depicted in this video are not dreaming of being inventors or scientists, but of revenge fantasies which they’re enacting in real life? Does it matter to him that what we see here are not “Stoic Israeli citizens” defending the country with one hand while working with the other, but overwrought Israeli soldiers beating a child with their hands and feet in broad daylight?

I said I would focus here on Tesón, but I should perhaps say a word about Marcos Aguinis. I don’t know a great deal about his work, but if what I’ve read is any indication of his knowledge of the region and its issues, he’s little more than a crude propagandist at the level of Joan Peters, from whom he seems to have gotten a good part of his rhetorical playbook. To quote from an article of Aguinis’s:

No me gusta ser apologista, pero hay hechos demasiado evidentes que se tratan de negar falazmente.
[Rough translation: I don’t like having to function as an apologist, but there are facts that are sufficiently evident yet are gratuitously denied [and require a response].]

Delete the “No” and the whole second clause of this sentence, and you have a good summary of the agenda involved here. Twenty-two years after Rodney King and the LA riots, American readers ought to know better than to accept rhetoric of this nature about a whole ethnicity – and frankly, deserve better in the way of reading material on Israel/Palestine from supposedly eminent experts on the ethics of international relations. That Tesón should offer this post in all seriousness to a supposedly serious audience suggests that as far as attitudes about Palestinians and Arabs are concerned, we have a long way to go before we achieve even minimal decency in discussing the subject.

The bottom line is that Israel is a country that has operated a nearly fifty-year long military occupation and militarized settlement campaign at the expense of the millions of Palestinians who live under its rule. It claims to fear Palestinian terrorists, and has built a “security wall” to keep them “out,” but then insists on placing its own population on both sides of the wall, nullifying the point of having a wall, and erasing the “inside/outside” distinction which gives the wall whatever point it was supposed to have. Unfortunately, this desire to have things all ways at once is the classic hallmark of pro-Israeli discourse today, especially in its militant right-wing variety, which, regardless of his intentions, is the variety that Tesón’s post exemplifies. Israel may in many respects be a liberal democracy as Tesón and Co. claim, but unfortunately, the occupation proves that you can’t have your liberalism and eat it, too. That, I’m afraid, is the unintended but actual message of Fernando Tesón’s post.

Irfan Khawaja
Dept. of Philosophy
Felician College




[1] This is what force looks like when it confronts discourse, by the way. So where is the closed area, exactly? Is it just wherever the soldier’s tear gas happens to float? It turns out that one can’t ask IDF soldiers simple questions like this when they’re mad and on patrol – qualities that seem to go together a lot. Their rather non-responsive answers to simple questions often seem to take the form of dirty looks, lots of yelling in Hebrew, angry spitting on the ground, and the gratuitous firing of tear gas rounds. But I don’t regard any of that as an answer. Actually, I have a feeling they don’t, either.

[2] Lucy Nusseibeh and Munir Nusseibeh are not related, but Lucy Nusseibeh is married to Sari Nusseibeh, the well-known Palestinian intellectual. Coincidentally, she’s also the daughter of the philosopher J.L. Austin.

[3] I signed the 1987 letter with my middle name rather than my last name after my father took exception to it. I was a minor at the time, and living under his roof.


13 Responses to Fernando Tesón’s “Hang Tough, Israel”: A Response

  1. Sheldon Richman July 14, 2014 at 9:18 am #


  2. djr July 15, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    I was wondering when someone would say something sensible about this whole mess. Bravo.

  3. Alice Raizel July 16, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    This is an admirable display of cultivated reason in the face of provocation by a racist mob—a racist mob which pretends its tribal passions to be a defence of reason and liberalism, on the conceit that Western tribalism is somehow excused from the nature and consequences of tribalism as such.

    I nevertheless as a queer woman feel very uncomfortable with most stances taken by anticolonialist leftists and antiwar libertarians, which rightly criticise Israeli and American aggression while turning a blind eye to the extreme patriarchal authoritarianism hegemonic among their victims.

  4. Irfan Khawaja July 16, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    Thanks to all three of you. I particularly appreciate both paragraphs of Alice’s comment.

    On the second paragraph: I’m not one to turn a blind eye to the deformities of Arab-Muslim culture, whether in its homophobic, patriarchal, or authoritarian aspects. Here’s one example:


    I don’t focus on anti-gay attitudes in that review, but I do briefly discuss them on pp. 186-87. And much of the review was motivated by the need to defend women against patriarchy.

    In the last decade, when I wrote stuff like this, I regularly got accused of being a Zionist neocon!


    When I lectured at Al Quds University last year, Islamists in the audience gave me the usual spiel about how Palestine was a Muslim country that had to be governed by sharia. I didn’t worry too much about offending their sensibilities. I just told them flat out that there was no point in opposing Zionism if they were going to replicate it in Islamic form, and that if they were going to go the sharia route, they couldn’t count on the support of otherwise sympathetic Americans like me. The Islamist shebab didn’t like hearing that, but once the issues were made explicit and asserted out loud, it also became clear that many people in the audience shared my view and were now empowered to say so. That’s all I wanted. It’s a conservative society and will remain so for awhile, but empowerment happens one step at a time, and in private conversations the women I talked to were very clear-headed about what they wanted and how to get it. That was true in Pakistan as well. It’s inspiring.

    These are subtle issues, though, and one problem with the whole BHL discussion was that once you say any of what I just said, the inference becomes, “Oh, so you’re conceding that they’re civilizationally inferior! And if they are, why shouldn’t we have greater sympathy for Israel?” Actually, what I’m saying is that pairwise civlilizational comparisons can’t be made in such facile ways. The relevant judgments are the moral judgments we make of individual persons. And morally speaking, the women I met in Palestine stand head and shoulders over the men I’ve met at BHL.

  5. Sergio Méndez July 22, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

    I don´t know what is more admirable…your post or the patience and clarity you have shown answering that…mob. Well done.

  6. Carl August 10, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    Twenty-two years after Rodney King and the LA riots, American readers ought to know better than to accept rhetoric of this nature about a whole ethnicity

    How you can swallow this sanctimonious lecturing is beyond me.

    • Irfan Khawaja August 12, 2014 at 10:11 am #

      What´s the problem with it? Incidentally it´s actually part of a response to a sanctimonious lecture, not a free standing lecture. Before you judge the alleged sanctimoniousness of the response, have a look at what it´s responding to.


  1. Pairwise civilizational verdicts and the Arab Israeli conflict: a sketch | Irfan Khawaja - July 23, 2014

    […] Teson (Florida State University College of Law); Long posted it as a guest blog at BHL as well as at his own website and at that of the Center for a Stateless Society. (I’m not an anarchist myself, but I […]

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