Over the past several days, a controversy has arisen over an article written in The Federalist by Jason Hill, a colleague of mine at DePaul University. Hill is a professor of Philosophy specializing in ethics, and the title of the article was "The Moral Case for Israel Annexing the West Bank." The article was notable not only for its choice of topic, but in its daring choice to make an ethical case for an immoral policy, without any pretense of allegiance to the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its history, the status of international law, principles of human rights, or even principles of sound argumentation.
Ordinarily, I would not take to a public forum to criticize a fellow professor at my own institution. But after student inquiries led me to the article, and local news began to report on a student petition to have Dr. Hill censured or in some other way penalized for his opinions, I thought it was important to write something. There are two reasons for this. First, because his arguments are truly and deeply egregious in every way, and second, because I believe that it is important to model to students what a vigorous exchange of ideas in an academic setting looks like. Academic freedom does not simply mean that as scholars we are free to write what we like, but that we are also free to respond, and to engage with one another forcefully around issues of public political and moral importance. And as my field is also ethics, I believe I have a responsibility to engage Hill's arguments on their own terms.
So what is Hill's argument? His thesis, succinctly stated is that "Israel has the moral right to annex all of the West Bank (even Area C) for a plethora of reasons." He then proceeds to enumerate four arguments in support of his thesis. First, that Israel made a mistake in allowing the Palestinian "pretense," second, that the Palestinian Authority is a terrible government, third, that Israel has a right to defeat terrorists, and fourth, that the Palestinians have no moral authority.
I want to make a couple of general observations about Hill's argument before proceeding to examine the bill of particulars. First, it's worth noting that Hill offers very little, verging on nothing, that constitutes actual evidence for any of his claims. The entire article is made up of sweeping generalizations followed by broad claims and no factual backup. What's more, anyone familiar with the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it has developed over the course of almost seventy one years would recognize that Hill's account is a massive distortion of the actual truth of the matter. This is not to say that there is not a way in which one can squint at Hill's account and see a version of the truth, but it is a version that has been thoroughly filtered through several layers of Likud propaganda. If the only thing one knew about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came from Hill's account, not only would one not have the whole story, but they would actually be more ignorant of the truth of the conflict than if they had not read his account at all. Total ignorance of the conflict would actually be less ignorant than what one would walk way with from reading Hill's article.
Furthermore, it's strange that Hill's article should be entitled a "moral case" for annexation, as it's not a moral case for anything. There's not a shred of morality about it. It's not even immoral. It's anti-moral. There's not an iota of a genuinely moral argument in the entire piece, and there's no detectable account of morality generally that undergirds Hill's account. To the extent that one could extract a moral principle from the article, it is this: What suits Israel, according to its most right-wing elements, is good, and what doesn't suit it, regardless of any other factors, is evil. This is not a moral case for anything, and it would have been more honest if Hill had simply made a Thrasymachean argument that the good is in the interest of the stronger.
Now, onto the specific arguments that Hill makes.
The Palestinian Pretense
At the outset, Hill argues that "Israel made an altruistic mistake toward the Palestinian people after the 1967 defensive war with Jordan. Rather than regard them as 'war settlers' or refugees or, after legally occupying conquered territory, as 'illegal occupants,” they made the Palestinian people their political and moral problem." On Hill's account, the conflict with the Palestinians is rooted in Israel's overly generous and altruistic spirit, as they chose to allow the Palestinians, who had, after all, only lived in the West Bank for thousands of years, to remain, instead of simply expelling them wholesale into Jordan. Lest you think I am exaggerating for effect, here are Hill's words: "Under a different set of political sensibilities, the Palestinian people would have been militarily removed from the area because, morally speaking, after the 1967 war, they never belonged there. The proper response from Israel should have been to immediately annex the land and make the people there the responsibility of their original political homeland: Jordan."
Of course, there is a reason that Israel did not annex the West Bank in 1967 and it was not because they were simply too nice. It was because under international law, it was illegal for them to do so. The West Bank was occupied territory and Israel was not entitled to annex it under international law. It's still not. What's more, under international law, if Israel had annexed the West Bank, they would have been obligated to make the Palestinians Israeli citizens. There is simply no provision in international law to expel the residents of an occupied territory, and certainly none to annex the territory and expel the residents. It's not that this is not covered under international law. It is. It's called a war crime.
So Hill's first argument is that Israel should annex the West Bank now, because it chose not to commit war crimes in 1967. Better late than never, I guess.
Because, to be clear, he is still not in favor of granting Palestinians citizenship rights post-annexation. More on that momentarily.
The Palestinian Authority Is a Terrible Government
First, it is undeniably true that the PA is a terrible government. It has been more or less from the beginning. However, it's a strange and ironic argument that says that Israel should annex the Occupied Territories because of the incompetence and corruption of the PA, given the looming threat of indictment hanging over the head of Benjamin Netanyahu himself. While on a gradient, the PA may be an objectively worse government than Natanyahu's Likud government, it should be clear that it's the same measuring stick. It's hardly a compelling moral argument to state that one terrible government should be abolished and replaced by another terrible government.
What's more, while Hill will no doubt disagree, the idea that Americans under Trump are in a position to stand in judgement over someone else's terrible government is rather laughable. The Trump administration is perhaps the most corrupt American government in US history. Certainly more corrupt than the Bush Administration (and let us never forget just how corrupt that bunch were!), more corrupt than Nixon. More corrupt than Harding! When the history books are finally written, it will be said that there was never a President prior to Trump who was more corrupt than he was. Nor a Congress more supine in its willingness to allow his corruption go unpunished.
So yes, the PA is corrupt, though it is a distortion beyond comprehension to argue that "PA has destroyed the freedom Palestinians enjoyed under Israeli rule." This is simply factually untrue. First of all, even in those areas putatively under Palestinian sovereignty, they are still under Israeli rule in every meaningful sense. The PA's authority in those areas is severely constrained and to the degree that Palestinians find their freedoms have been destroyed, it remains the case, as it was before the Oslo Accords, that the primary actor in the destruction of their freedom is Israel.
However, to be clear, Hill's real point in this section is not to offer an account of Palestinian corruption, but to make case for the cultural superiority of Jews over Palestinians tout court. "Jewish exceptionalism" he argues, "and the exceptionalist nature of Jewish civilization require an unconditional space for the continued evolution of their civilization. What’s good for Jewish civilization is good for humanity at large. Jewish civilization is an international treasure trove that must be protected." Unconditional space, please note, because of the inherent virtue of "Jewish civilization."
How then to secure such unconditional space for the expansion of "Jewish exceptionalism"? Hill is quite explicit: "Given the voting patterns of Palestinians—towards Islamicism and terrorist organizations for the most part—that openly advocate and work for Israeli and Jewish destruction and annihilation, a strong argument can and ought to be made to strip Palestinians of their right to vote—period."
Leaving aside for a moment the deeply misleading claims about Palestinian voting patterns, which in Hill's account is cleansed of any kind of context, analysis, history, or indeed data, note what is solution is: The total disenfranchisement of a population, a population which would then either be forced to live as rightless non-citizens or else expelled entirely from the West Bank. Please remember that this is a moral case for annexation, all appearances to the contrary!
Underlying the entire argument is Hill's central claim: On the one hand you have "exceptional" Jewish civilization. On the other hand you have a civilization that is "abysmally inferior and regressive based on their comprehensive philosophy and fundamental principles—or lack thereof—that guide or fail to protect the inalienable rights of their citizens." It's hard to see how this statement can be read in any way other than that the Arab population of the West Bank is some how subhuman. It certainly can't be the case that they are even in possession of "inalienable rights" that attach to citizenship, because Hill's chief argument is that they should be deprived of those rights, stripped of their land, and expelled from the territory so that "Jewish civilization" can have "unconditioned space."
Israel Has Every Right To Defeat Terrorists
In this section, Hill digresses into a discussion of the Gaza Strip, about which he argues "the wholesale destruction of Hamas in Gaza ... is an application of democratic law protecting the rights of the individuals who rightfully belong there." Now, as with corruption in the PA, so with Hamas, it is undoubtedly the case that it has engaged in a long running campaign of terrorism against Israel. Though if the argument is that no government or organization that has engaged in terrorism can ever be legitimate, that creates difficulties for, among others, the legitimacy of the United States government and the legitimacy of the Israeli government, both of which were founded by organizations that achieved their aims through acts of terrorism.
However, I don't think there's much point in defending Hamas. What's more interesting is the implication that Hill draws from this, namely that Israel "has every moral right to wage a ruthless and unrelenting war against Hamas and to re-settle the land if it ever so desires."
Those who have paid attention to the damage inflicted on the Gaza by the Israeli military over the past decade or more have some sense of what a "ruthless and unrelenting war" against Hamas would look like. Not to put to fine a point on it, but it would look like the wholesale slaughter of a civilian population. One imagines that Hill does not think that Israel has yet been sufficiently ruthless in its campaigns against Gaza.
However, it is worth noting here that, while it is certainly true that Israel, in a formal sense, "withdrew" from the Gaza in 2005, since then it has kept a stranglehold on the population there, keeping what was already a poor and immeserated population in continual and increasing misery, punctuated by periods of abject terror and death as the result of the latest round of bombing. One wonders why, under such circumstances, an organization like Hamas, which seems to be the only one willing to stand up to such intolerable social conditions, would gain public support, regardless of their many failings.
And of course all of this assumes that you can easily sort out behaviors on the one hand that can be called "terrorism" from those that on the other hand can be called "self-defense." Apart from eschewing violence entirely as a tactic, the question of when an act of violence is terrorism and when it is mere war is not nearly so easy to sort out as Hill might like to believe. If ineffectual SCUD attacks on Israeli towns, that result in no deaths, are terrorism, then how is it not terrorism when the Israeli military bombs highly concentrated populations centers, resulting in the deaths of thousands. While the moral discourse around the conditions of war can offer some insight into the distinctions, they are fundamentally meaningless to the five-year old girl, weather Israeli or Gazan, caught in the middle of the violence. Terrorism in this regard, as well as self-defense, are very much in the eye of the beholder.
This is, of course, not to say that one cannot make distinctions between acts of terror and acts of war. It is, however, to say that the distinctions are far murkier in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than Hill might prefer.
The Palestinians Have No Moral Authority
With perhaps unintentional irony, Hill opens this section by referring to Israel as "our political and moral alter-ego in the Middle East." This may be more true than he knows, to the misfortune of both the United States and Israel. He goes on to state that the Palestinians "have never come into their own as a people largely because they have never explicitly held a philosophy that can support freedom, the basic liberal principles of individual rights, and a free market economy." On this basis, he argues that they do not have the moral authority as a people to govern themselves. What's more, Hill argues "Whatever actions Israel or any of her allies take against them in a war against terror are their responsibility, and are moral." Whatever actions, mind you. Since he condemns what he alleges are the "genocidal aspirations" of the Palestinians toward Israel, presumably he's willing to make allowances for the genocidal aspirations of Israel toward the Palestinians. Whatever actions. Apparently this also includes "Forc[ing] Jordan to re-revoke its citizenship status of the Palestinian majority in Jordan." Not content to deprive the Palestinians of voting rights within a Greater Israel, Hill believes Israel should seek to deprive Palestinians of voting rights everywhere.
Hill concludes oddly, writing that "One cannot admit anti-Semitics [sic] devoted to the destruction of Israel into the domain of Jewish civilization. There has to be some semblance of re-shaping the political sensibilities of those outside the historic process. If this is not possible, then we have to admit to their intrinsic humanity, but also, nevertheless, confess to their tragic status as political ballasts." It's hard to see how, given the totality of his argument, he leaves any basis for affirming the "intrinsic humanity" of the Palestinians. The logic of his argument, as I noted above, implies that they are sub-human, not subject to inherent human rights or any of the prerogatives of citizenship, not only within Israel, but anywhere.
As I wrote at the outset, this argument is not merely immoral, but anti-moral. It is an argument that we would rightly reject if it were applied to Jews. We would rightly reject it if it were applied to African Americans. If his logic held, the British would have had free reign to continue to oppress the Irish from the days of Cromwell to today.
A morality rooted in any theory of basic human rights, whether as described by Aquinas and the Catholic tradition, John Locke, John Rawls, Michael Walzer, or Martha Nussbaum would have to recognize Hill's argument as philosophically incoherent and morally bankrupt. It is not an argument worthy of a professor of philosophy at DePaul or anywhere else. That said, academic freedom does not only apply to good arguments. It applies no less to abysmally bad, poorly constructed, and intellectually vacuous arguments such as these. Hill is well within his rights as a professor to make such a laughably terrible argument. And the rest of us have a right, indeed, an obligation, to respond, lest anyone be left with the impression that Hill's colleagues at DePaul approve of his argument, or in any way think of it as a credible contribution to the discourse. The best thing that the students who are outraged by Hill's argument can do is to clearly and loudly argue in opposition to him, to articulate a counter argument, armed with facts, which will make it impossible for such specious arguments to be taken with any kind of seriousness.