Matt Yglesias points out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered more intensively than similar crises in other parts of the world. Here he responds to a question:

The Bad Blog: What other problems do you think are like Israel/Palestine in that they should be covered less because they are simply very intractable?

To be clear, it’s not the intractability per se of Israel/Palestine that means it should be covered less. My issue is the actual scale. There are more displaced refugees in eastern Congo than the entire population of the West Bank and Gaza combined. But it’s not just that Israel gets more coverage than Congo (there are certainly valid reasons for that), it gets more than 1,000 times as much coverage. And that’s true in both directions: the deaths of Israelis get dramatically more coverage than similar death tolls would elsewhere and so do the deaths of Palestinians.

Tractability is the next phase of the analysis. Is all this attention-paying helping? That would be a good reason to pay attention to something. But it pretty clearly isn’t.

I find it useful to view this question through the perspective of Arnold Kling’s brilliant three languages of politics. Here’s a quick bullet point summary of Kling’s ideas:

– Progressives will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed axis. “My heroes are people who have stood up for the underpriviliged. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the oppression of women, minorities and the poor”

– A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis. “My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the assault on moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization”

– A libertarian will communicate along the liberty coercion axis. “My heroes are the people who have stood up for individual rights. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the government taking away people’s ability to make their own decision”

The most passionate debate over the recent Israel-Palestine fight is centered on the conservative and progressive views. I’ll call the progressive view “leftist”. Conservatives see the conflict as civilized Israel under siege from barbaric Palestinians. Leftists see the conflict as powerful Israel oppressing weak Palestinians. In the end, I’ll suggest a fourth language, and provide an example.

Let’s begin by thinking about views that conservatives and leftists share. They both view Israelis as in some sense being superior to Palestinians. Conservatives believe Israeli culture is superior in a wide range of dimensions; moral, political, religious, economic, etc. Leftists also see Israel as superior, but in a narrower sense. They see Israel as powerful and highly educated, and hold it to higher moral standards than other states that are oppressing minorities (Myanmar, Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Azerbaijan, Congo, etc.)  Leftists typically don’t speak out when minority groups are oppressed in other Middle Eastern countries.

Here it helps to recognize that both conservatives and leftists are obsessed with identity politics. Thus the instinctive support than many conservatives have for Israel is closely related to their instinctive hostility to immigration from poorly functioning countries. And the instinctive support that leftists have for Palestinians is related to their instinctive support for low-income minorities in Western countries.

You might argue that I’ve oversimplified the situation, and you’d be correct. I am only describing one aspect of the recent debate, although I’ll argue that it’s an increasingly dominant aspect.

To be sure, there’s a history to these issues that in some respects cuts in the other direction. The Holocaust is a dark cloud that looms over the Western imagination, especially among people of a certain generation. Throughout much of history, anti-Semitism was associated with the political right. Thus there are still lots of left-of-center people who recall how Jews were victimized and sympathize with Israel, and there are some right-of-center people with anti-Israel feelings motivated by anti-Semitism. But it’s clear that things are evolving in the direction that Kling outlined above. The dispute is increasingly framed as either civilization/barbarism or oppressor/oppressed.

Here’s one way to see why it’s evolving in this direction. For centuries, Western European Jews were attempting to live with gentiles in cosmopolitan societies like Germany and Austria. They were willing to do so without substantial political power. But the gentiles would not allow them to live in peace, repeatedly persecuting Jews. After the Holocaust, it’s not surprising that Jews would want their own state, i.e. become “nationalist”. But centuries of anti-Semitism were linked to the notion that Jews were too cosmopolitan, an awkward fit for the increasingly nationalistic politics in Europe during the early 20th century. For this reason, the interests of today’s Jews doesn’t neatly code as either left wing or right wing. But it’s clearly trending right, as younger generations see a (nationalistic) Jewish state that’s now 75-years old, and have only distant memories of when Jews were primarily an oppressed minority group that favored cosmopolitan diversity over nationalism.

In my view, there are actually 4 languages of politics—two identity driven ideologies (conservative/leftist) and two universal political ideologies (deontological libertarians and utilitarians). The utilitarians are missing from Kling’s framing. They evaluate issues on a cost-benefit basis, valuing each human being equally. (Deontological libertarians also view each person as having equal worth, but view issues from a liberty/coercion perspective.)

Matt Yglesias has several insightful essays that look as the Israeli/Palestinian problem from a dispassionate perspective, not instinctively favoring either group. He’s an excellent example of a utilitarian pundit whose approach doesn’t fit neatly into Kling’s framework. Most utilitarians (including Yglesias) are center-left, although I’m center-right for reasons I’ve explained ad nauseam in other posts. On the Israeli-Palestinian dispute my views are almost identical to those of Yglesias (and if we disagree on any point, he’s probably right and I’m probably wrong.) Here are his essays:

[To be clear, I’m not saying that rational unbiased people must agree with Yglesias; many may sincerely hold alternative views.  I’m saying that most of the passionate debate that you see today is among people that are not unbiased.]

If this post seems too cold and clinical, let me assure the reader that I’m human too. At a visceral level, the deaths in this conflict sadden me more than an equal number of deaths in Myanmar. I get why people think it’s important. But I also believe it is important to challenge our biases. One reason we care more about this conflict is because the media gives us heartbreaking stories of individual families that are affected, something they don’t typical do for other conflicts such as Myanmar. Which leads me (finally) to the point I’ve been trying to make from the beginning:

The reason we find this dispute to be so compelling is the same reason the dispute exists in the first place.

I don’t mean that the press coverage causes the dispute; I mean that we find the dispute compelling because of perceptions (on both the left and the right) that Israelis are very different from Palestinians—and should be treated differently. And that perception of important differences, linked to differences in how we value people, is also why these groups have trouble coexisting. We don’t perceive German and French-speaking Swiss people as being all that different, and thus it’s not surprising that German and French-speaking Swiss people have little trouble co-existing in a single country.

I believe the right is wrong about immigration. But the right is correct that the left wing model of immigration is flawed. Bringing in low SES immigrants and then creating separate enclaves via identity politics and a welfare state is a recipe for disaster. Places like the US, Canada and Australia have mostly avoided that problem (there’s lots of intermarriage), but immigration can create problems if not done right (see France). Various ethnic groups do have important differences.

PS. Both conservatives and leftists will cite other reasons for caring more about this dispute than about other ethnic conflicts. Don’t believe them. We don’t care so much because Israel is in an important part of the world, or because Israel gets US foreign aid, or any of the other phony excuses often cited. Arnold Kling’s framework explains it.

PPS. Slightly off topic, but I also associate myself Matt Yglesias’s recent comments on the implications of this debate for free speech:

Most university campuses did not greet the initial Hamas attack on Israeli civilians with the kind of ponderous “statement” that schools have been issuing more and more of in response to noteworthy world events. That prompted backlash from many Jewish alumni who felt a pogrom in southern Israel deserved the full George Floyd treatment. Of course, the reason universities didn’t want to do that is there is a lot of political disagreement about the larger context of the conflict. But — and here’s the point — there’s actually lots of political disagreement about police misconduct and racism and all this other stuff, too.

The actual difference is that universities were comfortable taking the progressive side of contested political issues and that was inappropriate.

Or to Petrzela’s point, many university offices have been somewhat careless in tossing around the concept of harm or metaphorical violence and that was inappropriate.

But the part where the prior conduct was inappropriate is very important. Successfully browbeating universities into issuing statements about how Hamas is bad is a Pyrrhic victory, as is getting them to clamp down on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Each new inappropriate politicization of the university sets a new baseline and creates a new bad precedent that can be used to further politicize things and further narrow the range of debate. It’s not good enough to say “well, they did it first.”¹ That rapidly becomes a situation where an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.

The right thing to do is to use this moment when people are mad and university administrators are vulnerable to pressure institutions to adopt the Chicago Principles on free speech and academic freedom or something very similar.