I defy you to find the original in his published work, but Howard Zinn famously paraphrased Camus as saying that in history, “it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.” Certainly, this principle has guided academia. Virtually all of the humanities1 are taught within the framework of historical injustices. We decry the liberal arts major for not knowing much, but he knows about oppression and the system of values it determines. He knows not to be on the side of the executioners. But what happens when two historically oppressed groups come into conflict? One becomes an executioner, and the other suffers oppression of the same kind as latinos in the United States. So runs the logic of the campus debate on divestment from Israel, which the Times reports is breaking the historic coalition between Jews and other minorities.
The students quoted have embraced a system of reasoning that is failing them on this issue. It’s a system that makes the abstract noun “oppression” into a uniform experience, such that the oppression of American Indians in the 19th-century West, for example, is the same thing as the oppression of gays in 1950s cities. Consider the assessment of one woman, who identified herself to the Times “only as a Chicana student”:
“We have seen the racism of people who get mad that so many empowered minorities are recognizing how their struggles are tied to the Palestinian struggle. Students have accused us of conflating many cases of oppression. To these students, I have a couple of words for you: What you call conflation, we call solidarity.”
That woman whose ethnicity is her whole identity has a point: people who experience institutionalized oppression should stand up for other people who experience same. But is what Israel does in Palestine the same as what white cops do in Ferguson? They are structurally similar, but that structure is an abstraction we made up to categorize events. Is it racist to suggest that Ferguson and the West Bank might be different?
But the rejoinder to this way of thinking is unsatisfying, too. Here’s Rachel Roberts, a freshman on the board of Stanford’s Jewish Student Association:
“What bothers me is the shocking amnesia of people who look at the situation of American Jews right now and say, ‘You’re privileged, you don’t have a right to complain about discrimination.’ To turn a blind eye to the sensitivities of someone’s cultural identity is to pretend that history didn’t happen.”
Agreed, I guess, but there is something petty about this calculus. Roberts’s argument seems not to be “who you are shouldn’t determine the validity of your views,” but rather, “Jews have been oppressed plenty.” A system of reasoning the derives authority from identity is headed for bad conclusions. While the ice thins beneath us, I’m going to add that perhaps a freshman at Stanford does not understand oppression in quite the same way as a Polish Jew at Dachau, despite her cultural identity.
Meanwhile, kids are painting swastikas on doors. Now is a good time to step back and note that college students may not understand how to solve the Israel-Palestine problem. They may, in fact, be idiots. But they are idiots using a system of thinking we gave them, and that system is based on determining who is right. It’s not the executioners, so it therefore must be whomever is getting executed.
So is it Israel, nation of people historically executed by the millions, or is it Palestine, nation of people now executed by the thousands? The problem with the binary, oppression-based system of reasoning is that its primary output is moral censure. It is not equipped to solve or even conceive of a problem in which both sides are wrong.
“It’s very corrosive for campus,” says Stanford junior Dylan Greif. “Emotions are running high. There’s no gray area—there are no solutions.”
Obviously, there’s plenty of gray area in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But we have given these kids a black-and-white system of thinking. To reduce politics, history, literature and the arts to structures of oppression—and to insist that all those structures are equivalent, in the name of solidarity—is to gradually construct a system that can only think of Good and Bad. Outside of a classroom, where we need to solve problems rather than just grade what people say about them, such systems are not useful.