The Morning Jolt

World

Virtuous Phrases, Vicious Connotations

Palestinian protesters wave flags over Israeli border police near Ramallah, 2015. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

I’ll be writing the Morning Jolt this week while Jim Geraghty and others are out to sea. Making the click-through worthwhile: I give some thoughts on Marc Lamont Hill; note Trump’s apparent detente with Xi Jinping at the G20; and share a link to our late 41st president’s activity in World War II.

‘I Was Talking about the Prog-Rock Album!’

In a speech to the United Nations last week, author and former CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” When it was pointed out that establishing a Palestinian nation that runs from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea would entail the annihilation of Israel and, presumably, the resettlement of millions who live there, CNN fired him. In the avalanche of commentary that’s ensued, Hill’s defenders and critics alike have observed that Hill is deeply educated in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In the words of Peter Beinart, “He knows more about Israeli policy towards Palestinians than you do.”

Maybe. In any case, people disagree about the implications of Hill’s subject-matter expertise. To his defenders, Hill must have been expressing a deeply considered position that is being twisted out of context. To his critics, Hill must have understood the implications of what he said and is all the more responsible for invoking such a charged phrase.

But Hill’s subject-matter expertise could imply something else: that, as a committed advocate of a position increasingly identified with assorted social-justice causes, he was likely oblivious to the connotations that “from the river to the sea” carries for so many Jews. As best as I can tell, Hill’s framework for understanding the situation pits the plainly evil against the plainly good: a group of settler colonists whose politics tend nationalist, whose economy is capitalistic, and whose military is ruthless, against a group of downtrodden victims who were ejected from their homes and who are repressed both within Israel and in the occupied territories. It’s impossible to know what’s in his head or his heart, but would you wager that Hill could state the various arguments for Israel’s existence in a way that passed an Ideological Turing Test?

Let’s hear again from Hill. Earlier in the speech, he said: “We must recognize the right of an occupied people to defend itself. . . . We must prioritize peace, but we must not romanticize or fetishize it.” (The fight over the connotations of “from the river to the sea” — a phrase that is invoked by advocates as diverse as the PLO, Hamas, and white college kids during Campus Apartheid Week — may have buried the lede.)

After the controversy, he tweeted: “I concluded my remarks with a call to free Palestine from river to sea. This means that all areas of historic Palestine — e.g., West Bank, Gaza, Israel — must be spaces of freedom, safety, and peace for Palestinians.” Stated dispassionately, Hill’s position is to advocate a binational democratic state on the land that is now Israel and was once Mandatory Palestine, an idea famously floated by Tony Judt in a 2003 article for the New York Review of Books. Such a state would be a democracy in which civil society would flourish, religious rights would be equally protected, and the two groups would live side-by-side as demography ceased to be a political concern. If you think there’s something a little delusional about this, so did Judt — but delusional is better than eliminationist, which is the charge Hill was forced to defend himself against.

For Jews in Israel, the argument goes, the phrase carries with it an implicit existential threat. For Jews in increasingly unwelcome places, such as, say, Europe, where anti-Semitism is rising, its connotation is similar. If Hill really is a subject-matter expert, how could he not have understood that many hear “from the river to the sea” and think “I am advocating the elimination of the Jewish state via a military-enforced ethnic cleansing”? How did he not anticipate how American Jews with relatives living in Israel would react? One possibility is that he believed he was on the right side of a morally charged conflict in which his cause has become associated with all sorts of moral goods and the Israeli cause has been associated with all sorts of moral evils.

In the world of American political activism, taking the Palestinian side of the conflict has become increasingly mandatory on the Left. Being pro-Palestine becomes a way to be anti-colonialism (because Israel is a settler-colonial state); anti-imperialism (because of the U.S.’ alliance with Israel); anti-militarism (because the IDF’s capabilities dwarf those of its belligerents); anti-capitalism (because Israel is a leader in the tech sector, where many businesses contract with the military); and anti-nationalism (this one is difficult to explain). Hill may have identified his activism for Palestine with all of these causes and may never have stopped to consider the implications to a Jewish audience of what he was saying. He was simply standing up for a cause associated with other virtuous causes supported by virtuous people who chant virtuous-sounding things at virtuous rallies.

If the Israel-Palestinian conflict has — at least in America — become another front in the culture wars, then it’s no surprise that the pro-Israel side is borrowing certain patterns of activism and rhetoric from its opponent. After Hill’s speech, journalists and advocates rushed to publicize its most incendiary passages, put pressure on his supporters, and contact his employers. In so many words they argued that Hill’s speech encouraged the erasure of the Jewish people. You’ll recognize these tactics as those of progressive activists, but their success means their spread. You, like me, might feel ambivalent about this escalation — but if ever a people were “marginalized,” “erased” . . .

Latter-Day Mercantilists

Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal reported in the leadup to the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping that the two were exploring a sort of ceasefire in the trade war. Sure enough:

Mr. Trump and President Xi Jinping stepped back from the brink of total trade war while giving themselves room to strike a deal over new trading and investment rules. Mr. Trump agreed to hold off on raising tariffs to 25% from 10% on $200 billion of Chinese goods in January. . . .

The White House says China will start buying U.S. farm goods immediately, which will be a relief in farm states where incomes are down. China will also buy an unspecified “but very substantial” amount of farm, energy, industrial and other products to reduce the bilateral trade deficit. . . .

Far more important, the two countries will begin talks this month on China’s predatory behavior including forced technology transfer, intellectual property and cyber theft, and regulatory abuses against foreign companies. The parties have 90 days to agree or Mr. Trump will apply the 25% tariff—and presumably more on top of that.

Markets bounced on the news. The position of NR‘s editorial board is that of both WSJ‘s and plenty of smart China hawks: Chinese mercantilism is a real problem, and an international alliance could help solve it.

George H. W. Bush, RIP

This account of his being shot down near Chichi Jima is worth reading.

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