Intersectionality, Israel, and Peacebuilding: How Do They Mix?

Uncertainty Graphic

Newsletter 174 - November 15, 2023


From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


We have so much to cover today that we need to split this newsletter into two parts. Today's post will reflect on and respond to several letters we have received over the last few weeks. The second part, which we will send out tomorrow, will add some additional thoughts that we've been having about Israel and Hamas as we have continued our readings (from readers and otherwise) and as the war has developed.

And for our readers who are getting tired of all this depressing reading, we have some good news newsletters in the works that illustrate that the fight against hyper-polarization in the United States really is taking off. So hang on, and we'll get to the good news soon!


First, A Thank You!

First, we want to thank everyone who has written us about our Israel / Hamas posts — both those who have supported (or amplified) our views, those who have critiqued or questioned them and those who just added more information. We are constantly questioning ourselves, and it helps us to see how others are interpreting what we write and better understand why others think so differently than we do. So we want to start this post reflecting on some of the critical things that we've heard, both from people who "went public" with their critiques, but also those who didn't. 

Are We Contradicting Beyond Intractability's Advice?

We have received a few letters from people who asked not to be quoted, even anonymously. They all said they'd been long time readers of BI, and felt that our posts on Israel / Hamas violated many of the things we've written elsewhere on the site. Two even quoted at length from our essays on escalation and enemy images, saying that we were driving the escalation spiral and creating enemies where, they implied, there were none.

We wondered, as we read these critiques, whether we perhaps made a terrible error in judgment, one that could undermine the credibility of the BI system. We also wondered about the possibility that, with respect to the above issues, BI's advice was not valid. After considerable thought, we decided that we did not make an error in judgement, although we see why people might believe we did.

And, we came to the conclusion that we still have faith in BI and the information it contains regarding all of the contexts about which it was written.  Few of our authors were thinking about a situation like this when they wrote. While they were thinking and writing about intractable conflicts, most were not addressing the problem of genocidal violence (except for Chris McMorran and Norman Schultz, who wrote an article on that topic). Figuring out how to end the cycle of violence and bring genuine, sustainable peace to Israelis and Palestinians is going to require new strategies for dealing with a cluster of especially intractable problems. (We will talk briefly about these below.)

As a field, we do not think that we have adequately acknowledged the impossibility of making peace in situations where one of the parties is committed to the total annihilation of another. Even if we succeed in attaining a ceasefire that last for a month or a year or ten years, if one party remains committed to the elimination of the other, that is not peace. Nor have we considered how to deal with people who take joy and pride in sadistic violence.  

Instead, many in our field have been arguing that such a conflict should be approached in the same way we approach other conflicts — where our goal is to stop the fighting and then work for a solution where the views of both sides are respected and the aspirations of each are seen as equally valid. This would make sense if the views and aspirations of both sides were simply to find peace and security for everyone involved. But, in this case, Hamas seeks peace and security by eliminating the other entirely, and says so repeatedly and openly.  This is not an equally valid aspiration, in our opinion, regardless of "the context," and should not be treated that way.

We also think it is important to differentiate between offensive and defensive forms of violence. Many people (including many in our field) seem to believe that all civilian deaths caused by Israel (or at least disproportional ones) are "war crimes." This is assumed to be true, even when the deaths were unavoidable by-products of an attempt to defend oneself from an enemy who actually does commit war crimes by using its own citizens as human shields, hiding in and under hospitals, storing ammunition in and shooting rockets from schools, hospitals, and mosques.  By not taking a firmer stand against the extreme terrorism of October 7, we are helping to legitimize such tactics and encouraging the perpetual war and anti-Semitic hatred that Hamas' attack was designed to provoke. 

Information Sources and a Series of  "What If..." Questions

A couple of readers have written that we have been relying too heavily on sources that come from the Israeli side of the conflict.  We have heard questions about whether the terrible events of October 7 were really as bad as has been reported. There was even the implication that some or all of this might have been set up as a deceptive effort to justify Israeli genocide. In this era of ever-present fake news and the ongoing battle for public support between Israel and Hamas, it is understandable and reasonable to ask hard questions about what reports are and are not reliable. 

What gives us more confidence in the Israeli version of events is the fact that Israel is an open society. There are lots of excellent reporters (many of whom we have followed for years) writing perceptive and thoughtful analyses of the crisis. It is easy for us to find out what Israelis are thinking and what our colleagues, many of whom have spent their careers trying to make peace with the Palestinians, think about what has been happening. We have, for example, posted two of Julia Chaitin's thoughts on the crisis (Newsletters 168 and 174).Julia was (and still seems to be) a left-leaning Israeli Jew, who has devoted her entire career to trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. So we take her thoughts seriously. It is also easy to find reliable information that has been quite critical of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, especially on the West Bank. None of these sources have challenged the prevailing account of what transpired on October 7. 

By contrast, Gaza, under Hamas, is a closed society that ruthlessly and violently suppresses anyone who dares challenge its self-serving version of events. (This includes foreign journalists who, if their reporting is not seen as satisfactory, can expect immediate expulsion or worse.) What information Hamas does make public is often astoundingly gruesome — for example, they videoed and publicly posted their October 7 atrocities.

Israelis also assert that widely cited Gaza Health Ministry's casualty statistics are highly misleading. The highest profile example was the report that Israel had bombed the Ahli Arab hospital, killing 500 people. It later turned out that a misfired Islamic Jihad missile had hit the hospital, and the death toll was much lower--perhaps 50 people. This seems unlikely to be a one time "fog of war" error. The Gaza Health Ministry, they assert, routinely inflates casualty numbers by failing to distinguish combatant from civilian casualties and other "friendly fire" attacks from Israeli attacks. (Indeed, I heard an interview with a Gazan Health Ministry spokesperson who claimed they simply counted the death reports turned in by hospitals and morgues and other such entities. No mention was made about noting who the people were that died or how they died.) It also appears to have included Palestinians lost in the October 7 attack on Israel in its casualty statistics as well. In assessing the meaning and reliability of these statistics in the context of a global information war, it's worth remembering that Hamas and Israel have every incentive to spin the facts in ways more favorable to themselves. At the very least, it makes sense to compare what Hamas is saying about the war with what Israelis are saying. In this context we have found that an useful (and free) new Substack newsletter produced by the Israeli Defense Forces offers valuable insights and backs up its assertions with videos. 

For instance, IDF reports and videos illustrate that Israel is actually taking considerable effort to protect civilians as best they can, calling off airstrikes, for instance, if children are seen in the area. And while Hamas is screaming right now about lack of fuel to the Al-Shifa Hospital, they fail to point out that the IDF put 300 liters of fuel outside the doors of the hospital, but Hamas would not allow the hospital employees to take it inside, nor would Hamas fighters take it inside themselves. 

We recognize that those of you who inhabit different information ecosystems than we do are likely to have a quite different image of what's happening. That's one of the reasons we have been sharing so many of the articles that have led us to the conclusions we have made—we are trying to do what we can to break the information bubbles that our readers on the left tend to inhabit. However, we understand that those of you who are deeply rooted in the prevailing progressive views of this war may still disagree strenuously with our sources and our conclusions. 

For you, we have a few simple questions: what if the things that we have been saying about Hamas,' Hezbollah's, Iran's, and the Palestinian Authority's commitment to the destruction of Israel and killing of Jews are true? What if they really do think that the kind of violence exhibited on October 7 is perfectly reasonable and something that they would do again if they had a chance? Would that change how you think about this crisis? Would you still think that the position that Israel should be destroyed and all Jews killed is acceptable given "the context"? If so, how does that square with your notion of "peace"? If not, how should the field's peacebuilding protocols be revised to deal with the possibility that this kind of view and behavior exists?

It seems to us that it would be reasonable to insist that if people and political entities are to be protected, respected, and supported, those people and political entities must be willing to publicly agree that the other side has right to exist. The political entities must also be willing to negotiate in good faith to develop a way that all sides can coexist in ways that meet their fundamental needs of security, identity, and recognition. This is, of course, the standard that can and should be applied to Israelis as well as Palestinians. We think that applying this kind of good-faith test in a fair and balanced way would go a long way toward breaking down the illegitimate aspirations that make so many conflicts so intractable. It would also go a long way toward making the kind of balanced, thoughtful peace proposal that so many have has put forth over the years genuinely viable. Put another way, in terrible situations like this, we think that such a good faith commitment is a precondition to being able to effectively use much of the advice embodied in Beyond Intractability.

Oppression and Intersectionality

Another major area in which we have seen disagreement with our initial Hamas post revolves around arguments that we did not pay enough attention to the larger context in which this attack occurred and, especially, the oppression to which Palestinians have been subjected. The clearest statement of this view came in the form of a lengthy and direct rebuttal written by retired professor Richard Rubinstein, a generally supportive colleague of ours at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. (This article, published in Counterpunch, is the same article that we cited in Newsletter 171). Given the extensiveness of Rich's article, we will not attempt to summarize it here or engage in a point-by-point debate over the issues he raises.  Rather, we will highlight some of the ways in which our thinking has evolved in reaction to his and other criticisms we that have heard, the things that we have been reading, and, of course, of the rapidly unfolding course of events. 

As we thought about the difference between Richard's views and ours, it became clear that we see the principal threat facing contemporary society in two fundamentally different ways. Richard and many others seem to see the principle threat as oppression (as perpetrated by  Eurocentric whites), while we see the principle threat as a much wider and more complex array of factors of which oppression is one of many. (This is very similar to the discussion we had at the beginning of this Substack Newsletter with Bernie Mayer and Jackie Font-Guzmán over the primacy of hyper-polarization or justice.)

It seems to us that Richard's views track closely with those of the "intersectional" (and largely pro-Palestinian) left. As this group frames the situation, the ongoing war is just the latest battle in the larger Palestinian struggle against Israeli "settler colonialists" —  a group whose crimes are serious enough to make the brutality of the October 7 attacks understandable (if not fully justifiable).  More broadly, this group seems to view the Palestinian / Israeli conflict as just one episode in the long-overdue effort of oppressed peoples (generally defined in terms of race and gender) to break free of the white power structure that traces its origins back to Western Europe and its colonial empires. As we understand it, the assumption underlying this oppressor / oppressed framework is that, in virtually all conflicts, the white oppressor class is the real villain and any effort to focus attention on other sources of oppression, large-scale violence, and brutality (such as the October 7 attack) is little more than a disingenuous effort to divert attention from the real battle against the oppressors.

The problem that we have with this way of looking at the world is first, it is far too simple. We live in a world composed of a diverse array of complex societies which are, in turn, composed of multitudes of individuals doing things that are sometimes virtuous, sometimes evil, and, often, somewhere in between. The quest for justice and a better society focuses around cultivating virtue and discouraging evil wherever it might arise. To simply divide the world into oppressors and oppressed on the basis of racial and gender characteristics (as the intersectional left often does) and without regard to the merits of individual behavior seems to us to be extremely unjust and unwise (and the opposite of the social justice that its advocates claim to be pursuing).

Another major area of disagreement arises from the intersectional left's exclusive focus on the many historical crimes and ongoing injustices perpetrated by Western democracies and global capitalism.  We fully recognize that Western democracies have done terrible things in the past. We also agree that there are many serious faults in the the current global, democratic, capitalist system and major reforms are critically needed. That said, we also recognize that that these systems, especially when compared with authoritarian regimes and failed states, have provided enormous benefits to their citizens — both in terms of material prosperity and personal rights and freedoms. There is a reason why immigrants are flocking to, rather than away from, these countries (including the United States). On a very broad range of dimensions, life is better under these systems than it is elsewhere. In fact, life is so good we have the time to spend enormous amounts of energy fine tuning things by working to protect ourselves from the most trivial "micro-aggressions." 

By focusing exclusively on the things that have gone wrong and neglecting the many things that have gone right, we have taught a whole generation of young people that capitalistic Western democracies have nothing of value to offer and that, as purely oppressive regimes, they ought to be overthrown. And replaced with what? What we are now seeing in the Ukraine, Israel and Gaza is what the alternative really looks like — a world of ruthless "macro" and "micro" aggressions in which sadistic and utterly ruthless leaders violently quell any sort of dissent with the wanton murder of their opponents (and anyone their opponents might care about), sometimes along with widespread murder of their own citizens (as is evidenced in Gaza when Hamas shoots civilians trying to escape the war zone.) 

What has been so utterly shocking to us about the last month, in addition to Hamas' staggering barbarity, has been the fact that the "social justice" left has been unable, because of their ideology, to see that evil for what it is, to condemn it, and to actively fight against it. Do they really want to go back to a world dominated by the continuing and violent struggle for power and "I'll fight you for it" rules? Do they really want to walk away from the continuing quest to build a democracy that lives up to its ideals —  ideals that largely came out of the now scorned civilizations of Western Europe? We think that the continued pursuit of those ideals offers the best path toward building a "power-with" society that works for everyone — something we should fight for rather than repudiate. 

One More Positive Submission

On a more positive note, our colleague Lisa Schirch shared with us her "Five Point Peace Plan" for Israel/Hamas. This is an example of the kind of creative thinking that is needed. We are not sure that all five of her planks would work, but they are certainly worth consideration.  So are Julia Chaitin's suggestions about "next steps" for Israel. We also found Hillary Clinton's opinion posted yesterday in the Atlantic to be perceptive. We, personally, do not think we know enough about the situation to offer our own "way out," but we will be sharing other ones that seem worthy of consideration when we find them.


Lead Graphic of Hamas Protest source:; By: Adambro; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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