Think Again: The taint of partisanship

Consistent application of principles is a necessary but insufficient condition for clear thought and moral behavior. The principles themselves must be well-reasoned.

The cover of a recent Time magazine featured a beautiful Afghani teenager with her nose cut off, reportedly by the Taliban for attempting to flee from abusive family members. The cover posed the question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” (Child marriages and other forms of abuse of women are standard practice in much of the Muslim world. Hamas, for instance, recently arranged marriages for 450 girls, most of whom appear on Al-Jazeera to be between five and seven.)
The horrifying Time cover made a moral argument: It would be wrong to abandon Afghani women to their fate and allow the Taliban to once again take over the country. That argument also justifies not only the initial invasion of Afghanistan – under the Taliban, Afghani women were not allowed to leave their homes unattended by a male relative or to be treated by a male physician – but the Second Gulf War as well (even absent any claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction). More than one million people died in wars initiated by Saddam; he gassed tens of thousands of his own people; he and his equally sadistic sons thought nothing of dropping people alive into giant meat grinders; and, in the latter years of Saddam’s regime, 60,000-70,000 children died annually of malnutrition, while he diverted billions of dollars to maintaining his state security apparatus. Iraqi refugee Zainab al Suwaji describes how in anticipation of liberation in 1991, she and her fellow Iraqis found themselves speaking openly to another human being for the first time in their lives, without fear of government informers.
Yet when George W. Bush was president, the Iraq War was inevitably described as “immoral” – and self-evidently so – by those who today fret about a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The power and resources of the United States to right every wrong in the world are limited.
Even more limited is its ability to ensure that the tyrants it deposes will not be replaced by others no less vicious. But the criterion for determining whether the employment of American power is morally justified should not be whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican.
BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY (BGU) recently provided another example of the application of diametrically opposed principles to reach desired political results. BGU is the home of Neve Gordon, a tenured professor of political science, who regularly denounces Israel and called last year for an international boycott of Israel in The Los Angeles Times. Recently BGU informed Professor Yerucham Leavitt, an emeritus professor teaching a class in medical ethics, that he would not be rehired, after he created a classroom stir by expressing his doubts about the ability of same-sex couples to raise healthy children.
BGU could have argued that Gordon and Leavitt have nothing to do with one another: It could not fire Gordon, under Israeli law, even for seeking to undermine the university at which he teaches, but owed Leavitt no obligation to be rehired for another semester.
But there is a problem with that distinction.
Long before Gordon had tenure, he regularly denounced Israel as an apartheid state and illegally entered Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound to serve as a human shield. Even then BGU president Rivka Carmi defended him on free speech grounds and labeled his critics “Kahanists.”
In the Leavitt case, however, university spokesperson Faye Bittker argued that academic freedom and freedom of expression or thought were irrelevant because the university “cannot tolerate sexist remarks made in the classroom.”
Leavitt, she said, had “blatantly crossed the line,” and offended a number of students by saying that if he can control his attraction to pretty coeds, so can homosexuals.
In Leavitt’s case, the governing principle was that students must not be offended; in the case of the pre-tenure Gordon, the governing principle was a university lecturer’s freedom of expression, no matter how many students were offended by Gordon’s political posturing in and out of the classroom. The two principles are irreconcilable: Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend.
As far as BGU is concerned, what emerges is the following rule: describing Israel as an “apartheid” state is legitimate; making comments that hurt the feelings of homosexuals or female students is not.
THE ISRAELI Supreme Court has been even more egregious in creating different free speech rules for different folks. Two incitement cases decided nearly a decade ago by the same panel of the Court on the same day provide the most glaring example. In the first case, the court overturned the conviction of Arab journalist Mohammed Jabarin for writing that he only truly found his identity when throwing a Molotov cocktail. The court gave a wildly implausible reading of the anti-terrorism statute, limiting incitement to terrorism to support for specific terrorist organizations. That approach was, at least, consistent with traditional free speech jurisprudence, which favors the narrowest possible reading to statutes limiting speech.
But the same day, the court took the rare step of overturning its own acquittal of Binyamin Kahane on charges of “arousing strife between communities,” for calling on the IDF – not individuals – to wipe out the “vipers’ nest in Umm el-Fahm.”
The court neither offered a limiting reading of the statute nor found any chilling effect on free speech in the statute’s vagueness. Nor did the Supreme Court acknowledge the glaring tension between the two decisions, from which the only possible rule that could be extracted was: Jews can be convicted of incitement; Arabs can’t.
CONSISTENT APPLICATION of principles is a necessary but not sufficient condition for clear thought and moral behavior. The principles themselves must be well-reasoned. In last week’s Torah reading, we read, “[B]ribery blinds the eyes of the wise and makes crooked the words of the righteous.”
The commentators are puzzled by the double language: What does “making crooked the words of the righteous” add to “blinding the eyes of the wise?” One answer given is that the first phrase refers to the actual case in which the bribe is tendered. The second refers to subsequent cases decided by the same judge, even where no bribe was tendered. No one wants to admit that his judgment was purchased. Rather he will seek to convince himself that his original judgment was correct, and the bribe was nothing more than a reward for deciding correctly.
But to preserve the illusion that he was unaffected by the bribe, every subsequent decision rendered by that judge will have to conform to the result in the original case. And thus every subsequent decision will be perverted by the original act of bribery.
We are currently in the month of Elul, which is traditionally devoted to preparing ourselves for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Fundamental to that process is re-examining our first principles to make sure that they are free of any of those forces that can distort our judgment – whether it be that of political partisanship or of our baser desires.
NOTE: Several weeks ago, I wrote that Advocate Mordechai Bass, a former director-general of the state comptroller's office, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to investigate the Bais Yaakov school in Emmanuel, is non-religious. That is incorrect. I regret the error and apologize to Mr. Bass.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources.
He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.