Enacting social justice requires personal responsibility
As part of the University’s festival of social justice, DEIS Impact, the Brandeis chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine invited Phyllis Bennis to discuss the complex situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Bennis, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace’s Board of Trustees, has spent decades discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has served on various United Nations committees, spoken at universities across the nation and written nine books. Most of the pro-Israel community at Brandeis lament the rise of Students for Justice in Palestine, along with figures such as Bennis, simply because the opposition and ideas that run contrary to those at a historically Zionist university seems uncomfortable. Undoubtedly, Bennis’ visit brings a new discussion of Israel to the Brandeis campus. However, the most consequential impact of this new movement is the abandonment of personal responsibility.
In her speech, Bennis detailed commonly cited grievances against Israel: a disproportionate use of force and excessive Palestinian civilian casualties. These are dubious claims at most. Israel is known to warn civilians in the West Bank and Gaza before attacks in unprecedented ways for a modern state. Before retaliation bombings, Israeli forces drop leaflets from planes or use a ‘roof-tap’ method to warn civilians of the incoming danger. The ‘roof-tap’ method involves dropping a small warning bomb before dropping a larger bomb. This warning bomb will shake structures a bit, but will not seriously injure anyone. Even Bennis concedes to Israel’s utilization of these techniques for the safety of Palestinian civilians.
Of course, civilian casualties are inevitable and deeply unfortunate. It is heartwarming to see that individuals care about those living thousands of miles away, who have completely different values from those of Americans. One would hope that this is largely due to the compassion characterized by the pro-Palestinian movement; unfortunately, it is largely due to a new trend of individualism that has paved the way for an end to personal responsibility.
As children grow into adolescents, they look for ways to establish their own sense of autonomy. They want to drive to school, manage their own relationships and eventually, make their own money. Yet no person ever desires the ugly responsibility that comes with recognizing their faults. No individual wants to admit that they carelessly ran the red light or told their best friend’s secret. Humans want responsibility when it induces pride, not when it induces shame. By learning how to take responsibility for mistakes, one can transition to adulthood.
Bennis disregards the importance of responsibility, as if it is the enemy of social justice. Noticeably absent from her dialogue of the Palestinian case is any mention of a governing body, such as Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. According to Jewish Voice for Peace, Bennis’ associated organization, no fault can rest upon the Palestinian leadership because they simply do not have the capabilities to accomplish diplomacy. In fact, there is no mention of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority in Jewish Voice for Peace’s core values, nor any mention of them throughout their website. While Bennis attempts to elicit pity for the Palestinian cause, she effectively infantilizes the Palestinians. Bennis sees that the Palestinian leadership fails to contribute to its citizens’ welfare, but instead criticizes Israel for the faults of Palestinian leadership. Israel, as Bennis mentions, has “the absolute political backing of the largest superpower in the world.” This leads Bennis to reason that the Israelis are at fault, regardless of the recent plan pioneered by Israel to provide residents of the Gaza Strip with around $1 billion for humanitarian aid. Israel supports residents of the Gaza Strip, but Gaza’s own government does not— somehow, based on Bennis’ logic, it is Israel’s fault for not doing enough.
True social justice involves empowering individuals to help themselves and realize their full potential. Social justice should not make excuses for the crimes committed by a terrorist group, even if they are perceived to be part of a marginalized community. This perpetuates discriminatory ideologies. For example, Bennis’ argument that the leadership of the Palestinians holds no responsibility for their plight downplays the influence of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. This reaffirms the idea that those from underdeveloped societies cannot reason at the same level that members of Western civilizations can, which in itself is inherently discriminatory. Undoubtedly, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are smart enough to know that violating the human rights of their people — using United Nations funding to build tunnels from Gaza to Israel for explosives, not to mention using Gazan schools as rocket launching pads to kill civilians — does not promote peace or prosperity. Yet activists do not place blame on Hamas for this. They instead place blame on Israel, as if Israel controls the minds of the Palestinian leadership. In fact, according to Bennis, Palestinian leaders are some of the most well-educated in the Middle East. If countries are to make legitimate agreements with one another, they need to have equal expectations. We need to stop making excuses or de-emphasizing the effects immoral behavior have on others.
In the 21st century, this lack of responsibility is blatant. An anonymous post on Youtube, for example, allows individuals to hide their identities and escape the potential backlash faced for inappropriate language. This contributes to the diminishing of responsibility because individuals can escape unprincipled deeds without punishment. Similarly, disempowered groups can escape immoral behavior by blaming their actions on oppressor. Activists buy into this, seeing marginalized groups as by definition entirely blameless. They assume that circumstances cannot change without the intervention of outside forces. Instead of arguing that individuals should find the best course of action given their circumstances, activists choose to solely place blame on a predetermined oppressor for the failures of the marginalized group.
Of course, inequality of opportunity is never acceptable, and as activists, we should all work to eliminate this injustice. However, once enough opportunities are provided for all sides of the equation, we have to hold our expectations high and instate repercussions if these expectations are not met. For example, if the law argues that people should not murder, we cannot make excuses for murder if everyone is made aware of the law. Drug laws should work similarly. If our society becomes one that makes excuses for crime and inappropriate behavior, we will make these actions acceptable if the person committing them is of a marginalized group. Regardless of a person’s status as marginalized or not, we must acknowledge their rational capabilities and therefore serve justice as it is due.
The pro-Palestinian group’s argument for a lack of Palestinian responsibility superficially promotes social justice. Yet, when one looks closer, it is obvious that this argument only infantilizes marginalized groups. This furthers discriminatory stereotypes of marginalized groups as being incapable of logical reasoning and assuming moral responsibility at the same level of the so-called oppressors. Therefore, as pursuers of social justice, we must regard other groups as equal in the realm of moral responsibility for inappropriate behavior, regardless of the circumstances.