Does Israel get a disproportionate amount of attention?

Question: Does Israel receive a disproportionate amount of attention?

Stephen Walt: Well any country that the United States is aligned with, it seems to me one should be able to examine that relationship and ask is it . . . is it going in the right way. But the key there is not that we wanna focus disproportionate attention on Israel and single it out in any particular way. It’s rather that American policy has already singled out Israel in some fundamental ways. It’s the largest recipient of American economic and military aid. It’s about three to four billion dollars a year, which works out to about $500 for each Israeli citizen from the American taxpayer. And this is a country that’s not a poor country any longer. It has the 29th per capita income in the world, which is a wonderful thing. It’s a remarkable testimony to the industry and achievement of Israel’s own citizens. But the fact is we have a special relationship with it. It’s not that we’re singling it out for attention. It’s already been singled out. And our question in writing the book was trying to explain why that was the case, and ask whether that was in the American interest at this point.

 Question: Does Israel face an existential threat?

Stephen Walt: Not really, no.  It’s the strongest military power in the region.  It has a strong ally in our case.  It’s won every war it’s fought.  You could argue about the most recent war with Lebanon, but that was not an existential war.  It has peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan.  I believe it could have a peace treaty with Syria; and I believe the Arab countries actually would like to make peace with Israel now if the solution could be found to the Palestinian problem.  And finally the question is Iran and Iran’s nuclear ambition.  And I think that’s a problem for the Israelis, no question about it, as it is for us.  And we all ought to be thinking of ways that we could try and discourage Iran from developing a full nuclear capability.  But even if Iran got a few nuclear weapons, I don’t believe that it’s a threat to Israel’s existence.  I don’t think Iran could use those weapons without causing its own destruction.  Remember that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own, and I don’t think believe would be at all bashful about threatening to use those if it were ever attacked; much the same way that the United States threatened to use its weapons during the Cold War if it was ever attacked.  I don’t want to paint a picture that, you know, everything is just completely rosy or anything like that.  All countries face security problems, and Israel faces more serious security problems than most.  But Israel’s existence – and this is good news – is not in doubt at this point.  And I think that’s a good thing, and I don’t think any of the external threats it now faces pose a threat to Israel’s existence either now or in the long term.

Question: What should Israel do in the face of Iranian threats?

Stephen Walt: Well a couple of things.  One is to understand exactly what Ahmadinejad said.  He’s frequently misquoted as having said that Israel should be wiped off the map.  What he was really saying was that Israel should “vanish from the page of time.”  Now that still sounds pretty awful, and I think the remarks are reprehensible.  But what he was suggesting – and it’s an allusion to an old quotation by Khomeini – that the Jewish state in Palestine could be a temporary political condition.  And it could eventually evolve into some kind of democracy so the Palestinians would have control.  So he’s opposing the Zionist regime there, but he’s not calling for the physical destruction of Israel or the massacre of all of its inhabitants or things like that.  He’s suggesting it could be like the Soviet Union.  It goes out of business at some point down the road, but not because it’s been physically destroyed.  I think if I were an Israeli, and indeed as an American I find those remarks deeply objectionable because I think the existence of a Jewish state is a good thing.  But how you deal with that is not necessarily by, say, advocating preventive war or exaggerating a particular danger it calls for.  It seems to me what we wanna do is isolate people like Ahmadinejad; do our best to strengthen more moderate forces in Iran; look for a deal with the Iranians that prevent them or discourage them from going ahead and getting nuclear weapons; and finally doing everything we can to get a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians which would take away the main political cause that extremists like Ahmadinejad like to invoke.  I think once you get that one settled, the extremists start looking like obstructionists and criminals and we don’t have  problem anymore.  And we don’t have anywhere near the problem that we’re facing today.

Question: Can Zionism survive?

Stephen Walt: I don’t see any reason why a Jewish state can’t exist in perpetuity in Palestine where it is now.  I mean I can imagine ways in which the Zionist project over many decades and many centuries might eventually erode.  But I also see lots of reasons why it might continue.  That’s really beyond the scope of what we were working on as well and will, if anything, reflect political and social developments inside Israel that are very hard to foresee.

Recorded on: 10/8/07

 

The key is not to focus disproportionate attention on Israel, but to ask why Israel gets as much aid as it does, says Walt.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.