Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Israel's image: paradigm or frame(-up)?

A friend sent me a link to a longish essay entitled "Israel Through European Eyes". Not surprisingly, the view through those eyes is apparently not good:
... whatever the ostensible subject, and regardless of whether Israel’s political leaders and soldiers and spokesmen do their work as they should, we know for certain that the consequence of [some] future incident, a few months from now, will be another campaign of vilification in the media and on the campuses and in the corridors of power—a smear campaign of a kind that no other nation on earth is subjected to on a regular basis.
His first question is, why:
My friends on the political left always seem to think that a change of Israeli policy could prevent these campaigns of vilification, or at least lessen their reach. My friends on the political right always seem to say that what we need is “better PR”.
No doubt, Israel could always stand to have better policies and better public relations. But my own view is that neither of these otherwise sensible reactions can help improve things, because neither really gets to the heart of what’s been happening to Israel’s legitimacy. Israel’s policies have fluctuated radically over the past 30 or 40 years, being sometimes better, sometimes worse. And the adroitness with which Israel presents its case in the media and through diplomatic channels has, likewise, been sometimes better, sometimes worse. Yet the international efforts to smear Israel, to corner Israel, to delegitimize Israel and drive it from the family of nations, have proceeded and advanced and grown ever more potent despite the many upturns and downturns in Israeli policy and Israeli PR.
His answer is to draw from Thomas Kuhn the concept of the "paradigm" as something that stands over and above particular evidence and/or reasons -- his explanation for Israel's bad image in Europe, then, is the apparent rise of a "post-national" paradigm that underlies the European Union:
Both in Europe and in North America, we are watching the growth of a generation of young people that, for the first time in 350 years, does not recognize the nation-state as the foundation of our freedoms. Indeed, there is a powerful new paradigm abroad, which sees us doing without such states. And it has unleashed a tidal wave of consequences, for those who embrace it and for those who do not.
It's an interesting point, but I'm skeptical:

  • First, I question how seriously the end of the nation state is taken by anyone, young or old, apart from a few elite "eurocrats" who obviously have a personal interest in the matter. 
  • Second, even if European loyalties were shifting to the EU itself, that only seems to be another order of nation state -- one encompassing diverse ethnicities, it's true, but one that has serious difficulties with certain ethnicities, as the Turkey issue makes clear.
  • Third, in any case, it doesn't seem to explain why Israel alone is singled out as the target to be smeared and, as the author himself says, driven out "from the family of nations", while the rest of that family is left alone.
  • And fourth, perhaps most importantly, I think this systematic rhetorical attack on Israel alone should not be dignified or elevated with a term like "paradigm", especially in a scientific context -- that term describes systems that are relatively impervious to evidence or reason, it's true, but what's going on here has a much uglier, nastier, and sneering feel to it than that. What's going on here looks more like the return of a very old kind of bigotry -- of the sort that Helen Thomas and Oliver Stone, for example, have  inadvertantly blurted out recently (and then both made quick but mealy-mouthed apologies for) -- and it doesn't take a "paradigm" to foster that sort of thing. "Mainstreaming hate" calls it what it is.

No, a better word than "paradigm" to describe what's happening with respect to Israel is "frame", in the sense of a deliberate use of a kind of rhetorical box to present an issue in a constrained way, so as to foster certain conclusions, and prevent others from even being seen. Thus, for example, you speak of Israel as an "apartheid state", or the Palestinians as "conquered people", or -- with breathtaking depravity -- of Israeli Jews as Nazis. The last may be too revolting to qualify even as a framing device, but the two previous are good examples of how this sort of thing can work to the advantage of the framer, setting the terms of the subsequent debate and putting even those who disagree with the frame on the defensive immediately.

Now, rhetorical frames are used all the time, and while it's important to be aware of them, you certainly can't expect to avoid them. But when you see examples as blatantly distorted and biased as even the first two examples above, you have good reason to suspect that you're dealing with mere dishonesty and bad faith -- something other than a frame, in other words: a frame-up.

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