December 18, 2018

Avoid zero-sum thinking

The journalist Robert Wright argues in his book “Nonzero” that communication, cooperation and trust increase the likelihood that humans can avoid that favored term of game theorists: the zero-sum game. Whereas greater complexity and nuance allow us to avoid the zero-sum trap, the more simplistic and insular we are, the more likely we are to fall into it.

One was reminded of this lesson when observing two events last week, one local and one global in scope: the conviction of 10 students from UC Irvine (UCI) for disrupting a speech by Israel Ambassador Michael Oren, and the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

In the first instance, members of UCI’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) undertook, in premeditated fashion, to shout down Oren at his appearance at UCI on Feb. 8, 2010. The disruption was obnoxious and at odds with the spirit of civil discourse that we try to foster on university campuses. In response, the UCI administration sanctioned the students and suspended the MSU for an academic quarter. Inexplicably, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckus decided to pursue criminal charges against the students, as if there weren’t more important crimes to prosecute in Orange County. After the verdict was announced on Sept. 23, Rackauckus declared in rather hyperbolic fashion that “we will not tolerate a small band of people who want to hijack our freedoms.”

Sadly, some in the Jewish community regard this verdict as a triumph. Shalom Elcott, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, declared after the convictions: “While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support ‘hate speech.’ ” Hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, though there is a long tradition in American law of adopting a wide and tolerant view of First Amendment rights to free speech. A good, if painful, reminder of this tradition came in the recent 8-1 Supreme Court decision permitting the hateful language used by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, often at funerals of U.S. military personnel. If the speech of the Westboro members, odious as it is, is permitted, then it seems hard to argue that the words of the MSU students protesting the Israel ambassador, annoying as they may have been, should be criminalized.

What is particularly unfortunate is the sense that there is a strong Jewish interest in prosecuting this case. We should be clear: The subtext animating this interest is the desire to lend support to the cause of Israel on college campuses. In the name of defending free speech, Jewish advocates of prosecution of the Irvine students are in fact serving to chill open expression of diverse, if unappealing, views on Israel. But this is not a Jewish interest at all. Support for Israel does not and cannot rest on stifling such competing views. Nor does it require pitting Jewish interests against Muslim interests. On the contrary, American Jews and Muslims, despite differences between them over Israel, have much that joins them. Both are members of minority groups for whom the defense of free speech is an essential fortification of the foundations of democratic society. The costs of tolerance may seem high in the short term, but they are a necessary investment in freedom in the long run. This point was made with considerable clarity in 1979, in the midst of a very troubling situation, when neo-Nazis attempted to march in the streets of Skokie, Ill., home to a large number of Holocaust survivors. The executive director of the ACLU at the time, Aryeh Neier, who lost family in the Holocaust, wisely opined: “Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened.”

Just as we should not see the criminalization of free speech in Irvine as a Jewish victory, so too we should not regard American opposition to the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations as a win. In the latter case, Jews who dwell within the bubble of organized communal life tended to regard President Obama’s speech last week — in which he called for direct negotiations in lieu of a U.N. bid — as a clear affirmation of support for Israel. It hardly can be denied that direct negotiations are the ideal way to solve the conflict. But they are not currently possible. The Palestinians negotiated with successive Israeli governments for nearly 20 years and are no closer to a state than before. The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has no intention, it seems, of uprooting settlements to make way for a territorially viable Palestinian state. And so, the Palestinians have adopted a nonviolent, diplomatic tack intended to push the hand of Israel and the United States. It is a bold gambit and one that may well fail. But after 63 years of statelessness, a condition to which Israel, neighboring Arab states and the international community all have contributed, it is understandable. The time has come to accord Palestinians self-determination. It is right, and it is just. And it is the only way to assure the long-term existence of Israel as a Jewish state. For without a division of the land between two states, the future holds only a single state.

Jews, of all people, should recognize this. Instead, we find ourselves mired in zero-sum thinking that measures our success by the failure of others. Regrettably, it also places us against the tide of both history and justice.