Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tal Becker's Theory of Justice to Prolong the Status Quo in Israel/Palestine

Dr. Tal Becker/Hartman Institute photo
Wednesday evening, January 10, 2017, Dr. Tal Becker came to Temple Sherith Israel in San Francisco to speak of justice. This was the third in a series of talks conceived by the New Israel Fund in collaboration with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America aimed at sparking inter-generational dialogue about Israel. About 120 of the usual suspects showed up: retired synagogue denizens, greying secularists with time on their hands, interested in all thing Israel, and a small handful of earnest young people in their 20’ and 30’s.

Becker has fought in the trenches of the struggle for justice between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.  He is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, but he also serves as principal deputy legal adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team during the last round of talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry, and was a lead negotiator at the Annapolis peace talks. He has served as director of the international law department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and he has served as counsel to Israel’s UN mission in New York. He has advised the Israeli Defense Forces on international law. His positions, by implication, have required him to be a vigorous defender of the status quo. “My resume is not as strong as it looks: all my efforts at fashioning peace with the Palestinians have been failures,” he said to inappropriately loud applause from one attendee.

Becker came to explain his theory of justice for the status quo. 

Three Competing Models of Justice

We all have different conceptions of what justice means, said Becker. From a Jewish perspective, there are three models, he said: 1) justice as entitlement; 2) justice as co-existence; and 3) justice as identifying with the victim. He presented three stories from Genesis to illustrate.

1. Abraham purchases a burial plot for Sarah (Genesis 23:1-20). When Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (Hebron) Abraham wanted to purchase the cave of Machpelah, together with the field in which it stood, and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field. Abraham made an ostentatious showing of wanting to pay market rate for the field—to own it in the regular course. It is one of three records of purchase in the bible, the other being the Temple Mount, and Joseph’s burial ground.

The building that covers the "Cave of the Patriarchs"
at Machpelah, Hebron/Wayne Styles photo

This model of justice, says Becker, asks who has a rightful claim? Justice is to grant the just claim. Hebron, the Temple Mount, the West Bank, all of it belongs to the Jews because they have the rightful claim. Not only was the land given to them by God in his covenants with Abraham and Moses, there is a rightful deed of purchase for places like Hebron, the Temple Mount, and Joseph’s tomb. That, and the Jews won it fair and square in a defensive war in 1967. The land belongs to the Jews because they have the rightful claim.

This claim of entitlement is the justice championed by many of the settlers and their supporters. See, e.g. here, and here, and here. The land was promised to the Jews, purchased by them, and won in war, and justice demands that they have it. And, of course, Hamas has a mirror image of this justice claim which says all the land belongs to the Palestinians. See e.g. here.

Separation of Abraham and Lot
Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)
2. Abraham and Lot compete for resources (Genesis 13: 1-18). Abraham and Lot came up out of Egypt wealthy in silver, cattle, and gold. Their flocks and herds were so numerous that the land could not support both tribes and they came into conflict. So Abraham sensibly said to Lot: “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.” And they agreed to separate, Lot moving into the valley of the Jordan and Abraham moving to Hebron. It’s a model of justice as co-existence, says Becker. This model of justice does not care what the technical entitlement claims are when it comes to dividing the land; what matters is how to make a space for all; what’s required is for Jews and Palestinians to live in peace even if that means giving up or compromising rightful claims.


3. Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the innocent (Genesis 18:17-33).  God is set to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in order to clear the land for Abraham. And because they are wicked. But sin seems like a pretext. Still, it’s a pretext that both God and Abraham latch onto. “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” pleads Abraham. And God relents: he won’t do it if there are 50 innocents. Abraham begins to bargain down the Lord: “What if fifty innocent should lack five,” he says, finally getting God to agree he won't do it if there is a minion of ten innocents.

It’s a model of justice as championing the victim, says Becker. “Don’t look at entitlement, don’t let peace (getting along) be determinative, focus on the victim and come to his aid. That’s justice!”  And, of course, there is an additional implication in the story: it seems to say, focus on the “innocent victim.” The flip side of this is there weren’t 10 innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah so they deserved to be destroyed. It sets the stage for lots of inventive arguments about victimhood and guilt and innocence and just deserts. As Becker quipped about an altercation between his two young children: “It all started when she hit me back!”

The Point of Striving 

In Genesis Rabba 8:5 the angels are having an argument with God about whether he should create mankind, or not. “Do it,” said one, because man will dispense acts of loving kindness; “don’t do it,” said another, because man will be full of lies. [It will all lead to Donald Trump!] One said “do it” because man will perform acts of justice; and another said “don’t do it” because man will be full of strife.

After much reflection God created man, and he did so for selfish reasons, says Becker. God who is whole and perfect and has perfect Truth, and perfect Justice, and perfect Wisdom, nevertheless lacked something: he lacked imperfection. He lacked the ability to strive for Truth and Justice and Beauty and Peace and Wisdom. Having perfect Truth and Justice and Beauty and Peace, and Wisdom, God lacked the desire for these things. We take for granted what we have, we don’t desire it, we don’t strive for it.

And there is something valuable and beautiful in desire and striving towards Truth and Justice and Beauty and Peace and Wisdom. By striving for these things in our imperfect ways, and because we can never realize these goals fully, we complete God, said Becker. Or at least that is what Rabbis Simon, Hanina, Hilkiah, Huna, and Phinehas were getting at in Genesis Rabba. It’s a beautiful vision. 

Driving the Point Home 

And Justice is like that, all striving and not achieving, said Becker.

“Pursuit of justice is by definition a flawed exercise; it is the pursuit of something that can never be achieved. We do most harm when we think we are those who can bring a complete justice. What we need to do when we think about justice in Jewish terms, is to recognize that there are these competing voices of justice: justice as entitlement, as getting along, as being the champion of the victim, and each of them needs to be carried at the same time. And each of them needs to suffer the other.  And we should never delude ourselves with their achievement; we just need to pursue them. All of the competing claims of justice need to have a claim on you and temper your arguments.”

“Justice is not an outcome, it’s an orientation,” said Becker. We must remember that often, when we insist on our own conception of justice to the exclusion of others, we create an injustice. And that much is surely correct.

But to suffer the maximalist settler claims alongside the maximalist Palestinian claims does not seem helpful. Becker’s three models of justice are an explanatory tool for understanding the dynamics and psychology of conflict, but what’s missing is a theory of what makes a just state, or states.

The “entitlement” model leads to competing maximalist claims; the “champion the victim” model leads to endless arguments about who is victim, who is perpetrator (who is virtuous and who is sinful). The Abraham/Lot co-existence model of justice can easily turn into a Rodney King “Why can’t we all just get along” caricature. What’s missing from Becker’s talk last Wednesday are actual values that transcend group identity.

Entitlement is a claim, not an ideal. Victimhood is claimed status, not an ideal. And compromise to get along without reference to independent ideals, some shared values, seems empty and unstable.

As Jon Stewart observed to Charlie Rose shortly after our recent election: America has struggled over its identity since its founding. Are we a country of ideals (equality for all, due process of law for all, liberty and justice for all) or are we some kind of white ethnic state. This identity struggle was visible at the heart of our recent election. But we do have stakes in the ground—ideals to strive for. They are embedded in our constitution. They are firm.

There are stakes in the ground in the Israel/Palestine conflict beyond Becker’s three models too. Here are two visions with different champions: 1) a multi-ethnic, multi-religion state that extends an equal voice, vote, opportunity, and protection of the laws to everyone between the river and the sea; or 2) some type of confederation between a multi-ethnic Hebrew Republic and a multi-ethnic Palestinian Authority with open borders as envisioned by Dov Waxman and Dahlia Scheindlin. These models are not subject to Becker's temperance rule. If we have an actual vision of justice, we can go all in. 


In listening to Becker, I did not hear a theory of justice we can go all in for. I heard fluidity designed to excuse the status quo, and to enable prolongation of the status quo in Israel/Palestine. Becker does, after all, work for Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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