Israel and The Moral Condemnation Of The Left

Not Anti-Semetic But The Left Can't Say That

So there is a long-standing inclination on the left to morally condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. In response many jews allege this reflects anti-semetic prejudice which in turn is criticized by more moderate elements who argue that criticism of Israel should be seen as legitimate, e.g., this piece. Ultimately, I agree that the criticism of Israel isn’t a result of anti-semitism in that it doesn’t reflect a personal animosity towards jews or those of jewish descent but I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t a position the left-leaning groups responsible for the strident moral criticism can themselves adopt.

It very much is true that Israel is subject to strong moral condemnation disproportionate to it’s moral culpability and that the same people who call Israel (and often jews who support Israel) monstrous won’t even admit that much worse behavior by other nations is just as wrong much less call them out on it. The reason Israel is subjected to this kind of special criticism is easily explained by factors besides animosity towards jews. Unlike many muslim countries Israel is seen as part of the liberal western world and thus evaluated against higher standards (same way people go crazy on twitter about seeing anti-gay prejudice in the US even while Russia and Uganda have enshrined such prejudice into law). Also, the widespread awareness and outrage about the issue among Muslims worldwide (substantially facilitated by authoritarian regimes in Arab world for self-serving and anti-Semitic reasons) combined with the left-wing view of Muslims as a victimized minority (largely true in west even while Muslims are the oppressors of non-Muslim minorities through much of the world) explains why this issue is salient to many people on the left in a way that other kinds of bad behavior are not. So the individuals making the criticisms aren’t driven by any animosity of their own to Jews. Indeed, part of the reason Israel comes in for so much criticism is partly the fact that many people on the US left implicitly regard Jews as just another type of white person (while opinions are split on whether semites are white the stereotypical Jew looks like Seinfeld for most Americans).

So it is true that Jews and Israel come in for a degree of criticism similarly situated non-Jews and non-Jewish countries do not. Some of that is purely accidental (other western countries don’t live next to people committed to killing them and willing to resort to terrorism, existence of a US Muslim community), some is a result of arguably positive stereotypes of Jews as just another white person rather than a vulnerable minority and some is downstream of genuinely anti-Semitic attitudes prevalent in Arab countries and pushed by their governments. I personally don’t think that this makes those criticisms anti-Semitic simply because those offering them lack the animosity towards Jews that would make them particularly morally blameworthy.

However, I think it very much does matter that by the standards publicly accepted by the left this does render this criticism of Israel anti-semetic.. The left isn’t willing to accept a similar explanation of motives as exculpatory in other contexts, e.g., spouting (even accurate) critiques of black culture that you don’t apply to similar situated behavior by whites isn’t excused by pointing to the fact that it’s just the criticisms that were made salient to you growing up or being a teacher who gives Asian students lower effort grades because you assume they are inherently smarter even though it’s a positive stereotype. So at the very least those making the accusations of anti-semitism are on solid ground relative to the norms that are apparently endorsed in the contexts they usually live and work in.

I agree this, if accepted, has the unacceptable consequence of insulating Israel from deserved criticism. That’s why we need to abandon this absurd moral standard and just expect people to update without bias. That’s a world in which you aren’t anti-Semitic for not realizing many of the properties you critique Israel for are far more widely shared or for not being aware of the role the Arab states (or the UK and other WWII allies) played in the current quagmire nor even for focusing criticism where you think it will be most effective. However, you are expected to agree that other countries are equally morally culpable (and other people) when you discover they are similarly situated.

For instance, if you argue that the Israeli state is deeply unjust because the right of return applies only to Jews or because Hebrew is given a special status in Israel (though until 2018 Arabic was also an official language) then you should be expected to condemn countries like Japan or Latvia when you find out about the special status they give to either ethnic status or native language and how they treat their minorities. Similarly, when you hear about Egypt’s role in keeping trade out of Gaza or other Arab states interests in perpetuating, not solving, the conflict you should be furious with them. Reasonable people can disagree about where criticism would be more effectively directed or argue about the total level of suffering inflicted by each such policy. Unreasonable people can confuse the total degree of suffering the Palestinians are subject to with the degree of moral culpability without being anti-semitic (e.g. Japan’s treatment of people who aren’t ethnically Japanese is far more morally outrageous than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because it doesn’t even plausibly motivated by a desire to save lives even though the Palestinians surely endure much more unpleasant circumstances) but there is something at least pernicious about refusing to update on such information. It might not be anti-Semitic if your refusal is motivated just by a desire to culturally conform (then again I’m sure many German nazis weren’t anti-Semitic in this sense either…though I don’t mean this as a criticism merely a remark on the limitations of racist as a proxy for dangerous or harmful).

My basic view is that treating different races or ethnic groups differently is far more common than we want to believe and we should calibrate our level of disapproval more appropriately but there is something really disturbing about applying the rules to one group that’s been treated really badly in the past and not another.

Gay Cakes And Conservative Hens

No, It's Not Ok Because It's Partisan Identity

So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.

Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.

Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).

Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?

At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.

But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.

It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.

Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.

Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.


  1. Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. 
  2. I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. 

Shouldn’t Museums Sell Fossils?

So my understanding (which might be wrong) is that (with a few rare exceptions) the paleontological value of fossil bones is entirely a function of their 3D shape (and perhaps a small sample of the material they are made of) and the information about where and in what conditions they are found.

Given that we now have 3D scanners shouldn’t museums and universities be selling off the originals to finance more research? Or am I missing something?

I’d add that the failure to have greater funding for new expeditions means we are constantly losing potential fossils to erosion, looters, damage etc… It’s crazy to think that the optimal overall scientific end is served by selling none of the fossils in institutional collections (even the low value ones) while knowing that there are probably high value fossils being lost because we aren’t finding them before they are damaged or that land is developed or whatever.

Also, one could simply include buy-back, borrowing or sampling clauses in any sale. Thus, at worst, when the museum wants to do later sampling it must buy back or partially compensate the current private owner putting them in a strictly better situation.

Legalizing Baby Sales

Don't We Want More Happy Parents, Healthier Pregnancies and Genetically Advantaged Children?

Julia Galef has more from her wonderful unpopular ideas series. This one covers unpopular ideas about children and reproduction. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in there but the one I found most appealing, though unfortunately pretty unlikely to be adopted, was the suggestion that we should allow parents to ‘sell’ their newborns.

There are some obvious problems with allowing people to do this in the third world. In traditional subsistence farming contexts children may offer a net economic gain to a family particularly if given only minimal accommodations. No one wants to return to the halcyon days when we hired children out as indentured servants where unsympathetic farmers would `raise’ them in Dickensian conditions. However, in the developed world even the most neglected child is still a net economic cost so we can safely assume no one will be buying children to have someone they can extract work from without the guilt of mistreating their own offspring.

Such a policy would help many loving couples find children to adopt and I even believe there is a real benefit to removing children from the care of anyone so uninterested in them (or convinced they are unfit) that they are willing to make such a sale1.

But won’t this just result in drug addicts and other unfit parents popping out babies left and right for a bit of cash? Well maybe some college profs with oxy addictions might but babies to fund their habit but those babies would be in demand from parents who will offer them a good home (and unlike alcohol there is no analogous fetal opiate, meth or even crack syndrome). However, I suspect (but haven’t been able to find statistics on this) that the children born to street addicts already have plenty of problems finding adoptive parents. Moreover, pregnancy is a long, difficult process that its safe to assume anyone who finds it worthwhile to grow babies for sale is offering a high-value baby (good genes and health) who will be placed in a comfortable living situation.

What about the idea that it would incentivize women to choose the couple willing to pay the most for the child rather than the best family? First, I’m skeptical of the ability of birth mothers, given the lack of truly extensive interactions and their limited control over the process have any particular ability to pick good parents. Indeed, I suspect that the ability and willingness of the adopting family to pay would actually be a better indicator of the child’s future welfare than any gut level instinct. Second, when a birth mother decides between two potential families wanting to adopt the families who weren’t selected presumably still go on to adopt someone making this whole matter a wash from a social welfare perspective.

Basically, selling babies isn’t really any different than the surrogacy arrangements we are already comfortable allowing except that it no longer incentivizes people to only pretend to be willing to give the child up or to squeeze more money from the deal with a last minute change of heart. Where surrogacy arrangements incentivize the pregnant woman to divert money intended to increase the child’s health to their own pockets baby sales incentivize offering documented high quality care to maximize sale value.

Really, the only downside I can really see is just how obvious it will make our racial preferences in children. White babies will be worth way more than black ones.


  1. In developed countries there is little reason to fear that more people would be extorted to sell their children if the practiced was legalized. One might imagine that in war torn parts of the world a market in children would give warlords the bright idea of forcing women to sell their children and give them the money. In the first world the only pressure on a woman to sell is the crappy circumstances she would be in whether or not baby sales were legal and if that induces her to make a sale I suspect everyone will be better off as a result, particularly the child. 

Galef’s Unpopular Ideas About Crime And Punishment

Missing from this list is the suggestion that we should be maximizing the economic value of convicted felons by making them use their skills to earn money to be paid to the state and the victim. There was an interesting post about this on econolog not too long ago and while practical considerations may limit the application of this idea I think it is something we should more seriously consider.

I mean a large amount of support for increasingly harsher punishments seems driven not by the idea that it is necessary for ideal punishment but by horror at what happened to the victim. But, to the extent that is true, maybe the victim should get the choice between longer/more extreme punishment and letting the perpetrator work in a more lucrative fashion to better compensate them. True, this would mean that less skilled/educated criminals might get the worse end of the stick but criminal justice is about making the best choice from bad alternatives and if we can better compensate some victims by letting the perpetrator work for more money maybe we should consider it.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best). Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories.