The Rhetoric of Moral Superiority, A Response to Saree Makdisi

I confess that UCLA English professor, Saree Makdisi, has become a favorite target, perhaps because I find it appalling that someone so rhetorically inept gets a tenured position in a university English department.  But such is the state of the academy.  This piece is in response to his LA Times Op-Ed justifying Helen Thomas’ ugly remarks about Israel.

THE RHETORIC OF MORAL SUPERIORITY

I always look forward to Mr. Makdisi’s columns so I can show my English students another example of truly bad rhetoric.  His recent column on the ugly remarks by Helen Thomas did not disappoint.  One need not reject his claim that “Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1948” to understand that his argument is specious; one need only recognize that claim as incomplete to see the flaw in his rhetoric.  Historical truth rarely issues in such one-sided statements as Mr. Makdisi makes.  Israeli historians have never avoided the conclusion that atrocities were committed on both sides during the lamentable events of 1948.  Claiming moral superiority for one side only in a historical dispute will vitiate any arguments based on that claim.  Mr. Makdisi indulges heavily in the rhetoric of moral superiority.

Let us admit that at the founding of the State of Israel, 850,000 people were evicted at gunpoint from the homes and villages where their families had lived for 500 years and forced to flee with only what they could carry, their property being confiscated by the state.  I am not talking about the Palestinians, however, but about the Jews from the Arab countries that had declared war on Israel.  These people Mr. Makdisi finds it convenient not to mention when he talks of forcible removal.  Fortunately, these refugees found a country willing to take them in and make them citizens.  Those Palestinians, who fled for whatever reasons, did not. 

Why doesn’t the right of return, which Mr. Makdisi is so quick to embrace, pertain to these refugees as it as it does to the Palestinians?  Where is Mr. Makdisi’s compassion for these refugees?  Selective compassion is chauvinism.  Fortunately, I have a solution to the problem of the right of return.  I propose that the Arab countries that evicted their Jewish citizens and confiscated their property pay for that property plus interest and that this money be turned over to whatever authority the Palestinians have chosen to represent themselves in lieu of the right of return, to be distributed as they see fit.  Certainly, Mr. Makdisi will support me in this proposal since it recognizes injustices to both communities.

Mr. Makdisi, once again, touts his single state solution to the problem of Palestine, which would end Israel’s essence as a Jewish state.  Let us remember that at the same time as the founding of Israel, another country was created by partition to house a specifically religious community, Pakistan.  Greater violence attended the founding of Pakistan than even the founding of Israel.  Millions of Hindus were evicted from Pakistan, and millions of Muslims left India, the difference being, however, that India had no policy of forcibly evicting non-Hindus and confiscating their property while Pakistan had exactly that policy of forcibly removing non- Muslims and confiscating their property.  Simple justice would require that Mr. Makdisi support the right of Hindus to return to Pakistan and reclaim their property as he supports the right of Palestinians to return to Israel.  It is curious that those who challenge Israel’s right to be a Jewish state never challenge Pakistan’s right to be a Muslim state.  Mr. Makdisi should be more careful when accusing others of racism and hypocrisy. 

Another corollary of the rhetoric of moral superiority is the belief that foolish and vicious statements made by the other side allow one to ignore or to justify the foolish and vicious voices from one’s own side.  And so Mr. Makdisi’s column duly quotes foolish statements from Israeli reactionaries as proof of Israeli moral turpitude and bad intentions which justify his sympathy for Helen Thomas and allow him to dismiss the reaction to the ugliness of her remarks.  Such finger-pointing is childish, at best.  It is the responsibility of each community to hold their own accountable for what they say.  Fortunately, Israel has laws and an independent judiciary that would prevent Avigdor Liebermann from carrying out his foolishness.  But who in the Muslim community would stop Hamas, if they ever got the opportunity, from carrying out the threats in their charter to exterminate the Jews of Israel, and which calls Jews “the brothers of apes and pigs?”  It is hypocritical of Mr. Makdisi to claim he dislikes Helen Thomas’ comments and then call others hypocrites and racists for the same sentiments.  If he truly believes that Helen Thomas should not have said those things, then let him go to Gaza and to the West Bank and speak against the rhetoric of moral superiority which so disturbs that community.  The readers of the Los Angeles Times do not need his scolding.