Sometimes, life presents clear choices, but often it presents tragic situations. A tragic situation is one in which you are caught in a vise between two competing goods, so it is necessary to compromise one or the other, or maybe a bit of both. Or, it’s one in which you are pursuing something good, but you must fight brutal enemies along the way, so it is impossible to be virtuous while being innocent.
A tragic situation means you are trying to pursue some large good project, but you are caught in a circumstance that imposes awful necessities. The challenge is to keep the humane project alive, and do what is necessary, while not going to extremes or being corrupted by those necessities.
Israel is caught in a tragic situation. It’s surrounded by an Arab world largely hostile to its existence. No Arab leader has enough legitimacy to make peace. It is in a region marked by failed states, decentered radical Islam and rampant turmoil.
Today, this brutal situation boils down to one torturous choice, which Ari Shavit captures in his superb book, “My Promised Land”: “If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security. The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.”
So, how do you deal with a tragic situation? First and most difficult, you have to give up the illusion you are not in one. You have to give up the illusion life will be pure and everybody will approve of you and you will be able to pursue all your goods harmoniously.
Second, you have to identify and commit yourself doggedly to a humane project, and never lose sight of it, which in Israel’s case is its survival as a democracy.
The third step is to stumble cautiously forward. You make your mistakes slowly, and avoid the big stroke because the definition of a tragic situation is each one is unique and the rule books don’t apply. You have to accept you were thrown into circumstances you would never choose for yourself. You have to subject every morally hazardous response to scrutiny and not grade yourself on a curve.
Through the decades, Israelis wobbled through error, uncertainty and moral ambiguity. But, collectively, they adapted to their tragic circumstances with some reasonable degree of success. They didn’t recoil from the drama they were caught in. They are nothing if not critical of each other. The society moves forward on a great wave of fevered argument. There are always new parties, as old messy improvisations — the semi-socialist economy, the Oslo process, the security fence — become obsolete.
But there will always be those whose minds recoil from the ambiguity of a tragic situation. Some of these people turn into amoral realists and decide in the brutal situation anything that advances survival is permitted. Under their leadership, security becomes insecurity because security measures are taken to the extreme. These are the people who want to permanently colonize the West Bank.
On the other side, there are people whose minds seem to flee, almost by instinct, from ambiguity to absolutism. These are often good people, with high ideals. But they take a dappled society in a tough situation, like Israel, and they want to judge it according to black and white legal abstractions. They find a crime or an error and call for blanket condemnation (these people tend not to apply this standard to themselves).
You notice these people because you rarely see them taking the perspective of people they dislike. They don’t acknowledge even the most humane projects often involve error, fear and sin along the way.
Many Europeans think about Israel this way, as do the folks at the American Studies Association, or ASA, which this week announced an academic boycott of Israel. The ASA has a problem with the way Israel is occupying the West Bank. Who doesn’t? But the ASA refuses to acknowledge the complexity of the horrific choice that Ari Shavit identifies.
The ASA instead wants to take Israel’s mistakes and use them as a pretext to make it a rogue nation. Applying extreme responses to proximate errors, it declares Israel and its universities are beyond the moral pale. They effectively discriminate against Israeli scholars by virtue of their nationality.
The failure to deal with ambiguity is one of the great disorders of the age. It’s a flight from reality. By taking legitimate moral concern and abstracting from the actual situation, this malady turns moral care into a form of moral obtuseness, and ultimately, inhumanity. So, as critics or pundits, it’s worth keeping in mind what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error: Don’t blame character when the problem is the situation.
David Brooks is a columnist for a New York Times whose work is syndicated nationally.