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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama denounces Holocaust denial, loses Arab students

The Times Lede blog has a fascinating set of responses to Obama's speech from Arab students. For the most part, they appreciated Obama's courage and directness and gestures of respect; their responses are nuanced and complex.

Deeply disturbing, though, are students' reactions to Obama's discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three out five students who reacted to this issue rejected Obama's attempt to be even-handed, specifically his parallel treatment of Jewish and Palestinian suffering. One of these three negative reactions was overtly antisemitic, a second implicitly so. All three reacted angrily at what they saw as an insinuation that Israel's existence was justified by Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

Obama did not say that. But he seemed to. These reactions, prejudiced though they are, highlight a lacuna in Obama's presentation that did register with me* when I heard it:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
There's almost a sleight-of-hand in this passage that sits oddly with its brutal honesty. First, the passive construction "the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries" avoids saying who persecuted them, e.g., perhaps, Muslims as well as Christians. Then comes the statement of Holocaust fact, followed by the assertion that Holocaust denial is poisonous, and then by a claim that Holocaust denial prevents peace -- apparently, Obama seems to imply, by further traumatizing traumatized Israeli minds.

What's missing is a statement of why Israel has a right to exist. Perhaps such a statement should not be necessary. But Obama did come near enough to suggesting that its justification lay in the Holocaust to make the absence of an explicit justification felt. And into that gap rushed the inference that the Holocaust was the reason that Arabs should accept Israel's existence -- which touched a raw nerve in these three students. Here are excerpts from their reactions, starting with a weirdly "doublethought" Holocaust denial:

Tarek Hefni

Tarek Hefni, 20, is a student of computer science at Cairo University from Giza, Egypt

I did not feel very comfortable regarding the two state solution and regarding treating the Holocaust as a fact. It is still a debatable issue and should not be taken as granted....

Lede Blog Editor's Note:We asked Tarek to clarify his objection to President Obama’s statement that the Holocaust is a fact in his speech today in Cairo. Here is what he told us:

I admit a genocide has taken place! That’s a fact. However, the numbers are really doubtful. I also don’t see any relevance between people being killed by other nation and building a homeland in a different land. Again the genocide did take place. I just doubt the numbers.
Kholoud Khalifa Kholoud Khalifa, 22, who majored in journalism at the American University in Cairo and describes herself as an “Egyptian-Austrian Muslim,” watched the speech in Mohandesien, Egypt.
I was troubled by his words regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and those on democracy. The others were okay, they were expected — violent extremism in all of its forms didn’t really hit a nerve. Iran’s nuclear controversy is just filling white space, but claiming the Holocaust justifies a Jewish homeland and then saying it’s wrong too, what was it? Oh, uttering the same about Jews because it revokes past emotions is atrocious. For 60 years the Palestinians have been displaced, killed and terrorized and it’s disparaging to think of it as a tragic event rather than a genocide. To me, that thought confirms only one thing — his views of Palestinians are no different to those of Zionists.
Riham El Houshi
Where Obama really lost us is Palestine. He didn’t beat around the bush, at least, and made it clear right away that the American bond with Israel was unbreakable.

But he has clearly failed to understand that the problem Muslims have is not seeing both sides of the conflict, but seeing the conflict in historical context. I can safely say that Muslims do not and never will feel responsible for the Holocaust, and do not think it justifies setting up a Jewish state upon Palestinian lands. Lands, which, have shrunk over the decades as settlements have continued to rise and more and more territory has been annexed.

And despite the beauty of the words he used about Jerusalem, it was heavily symbolic talk about a messy issue. Palestinians and Israeli may agree on everything, but they will never relinquish their rights to Jerusalem as the capital of their respective nations.
It must be said, too, that two of the six students published by The Lede accepted Obama's assertion that a two-state solution is necessary. But still, there's a frightening glimpse here of the depth of hatred for Israel among educated young Arabs. Obama, for his part, should be commended for directly confronting Arab anti-semitism. But he needs to rethink the sequencing of fact, logic and association with which he served up this root of bitterness today.

* I must confess to conveniently forgetting this perception while writing the prior post.

UPDATE: The Times reports a Muslim Brotherhood official's reaction very similar to that of the students cited above:
...in Jordan, Rohile Gharaibeh, deputy secretary general for the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected any reference to the Holocaust. “The Holocaust was not the doing of the Muslims, it was the Europeans, and it should not come at the cost of the Palestinian people or the Arabs and Muslims,” he said.
More on Obama's speeches:
2029: Look back in wonder
The Gospel according to Obama
What Will.i.am had to work with

28 comments:

  1. What's most interesting about the reactions of the Arab students is not their acceptance that the Holocaust occurred or their quarreling with the number of Holocaust victims, but that that they do not feel responsible for the Holocaust (i.e., it wasn't done by Palestinians or Arabs) and that the mere fact of the Holocaust doesn't justify what has been done to the Palestinians for the past sixty years.

    Israelis and Palestinians both have facts on their side and can rely on those "facts" to maintain the very unhealthy status quo literally forever. Or they can move beyond the "facts" to negotiate a way forward. Obama's clearly trying to use his community organizing skills to get both sides to see their interests as rooted in the future. And to do that, he's got to stay in the middle and also promote generational change. Today's speech seems like a good start although the students' responses confirm what we already knew -- it ain't gonna be easy!

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  2. I have no problem with the existence of Israel, but I must confess that I don't understand the placement of Israel at all. I have often thought that the world would be a far better place if Israel had been placed in Alaska with a capital called "New Jerusalem." Plenty of room to settle there, and it's beautiful country.

    I know that some may find this idea ridiculous, but I find the idea that Jews have to be in Jerusalem "because God said so" to be equally ridiculous. Anytime you mix religious dictates with state action, you wind up oppressing someone.

    But hey, what do I know? I don't even believe there's an invisible magic man who lives in the sky, much less do I take his imaginary orders seriously. Crazy huh? I know.

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  3. "I can safely say that Muslims do not and never will feel responsible for the Holocaust, and do not think it justifies setting up a Jewish state upon Palestinian lands. Lands, which, have shrunk over the decades as settlements have continued to rise and more and more territory has been annexed."

    I have no idea how anyone can disagree with this. This student is exactly right - there IS no good reason that Palestinians ought to have been kicked out because (ostensibly - forgetting about the fact that this was all agreed to in principle before WW2) of German atrocities. Part of Germany ought to have been carved out.

    It's too late to do anything about it, and everyone needs to learn to deal with it. But how is it, in hindsight, anything but a huge mistake?

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  4. This was a huge blunder by Obama. By linking the founding of Israel with the Holocaust - or rather making the latter seem like the cause of the former - he perpetuates a very convenient myth for the Arabs: that they are somehow carrying the burden of Europe's anti-Semitism. The fact is, Zionism predates the Holocaust by more than half a century. Moreover, the Jewish desire to live again in the land of Israel goes back 2,000 years - long before any Arabs showed up there. So while Obama was right to call the Arabs on Holocaust denial - because it destroys goodwill - he should have located Zionism's origins where they belong: in Judaism and centuries of Jewish culture, including in the land of Israel. By missing that opportunity he has validated the "poor me" attitude of so many Arabs who think that somehow they are the secondary victims of the Nazis.

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  5. The founding of Israel is based on force and it was bloody.

    But it's nothing special in a founding of a nation.

    Check in every single modern state being founded in the past 300 years. They were bloody and people lost their lands and homes and cultures to the invaders/winners - you can trace this from the Ottoman empire, British colonialism, etc.

    Israel took the land by force and survived it. So they earn that right to exist. There is how these things work - unfortunately.

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  6. Doug,

    FYI, the jewish population of Jerusalem has exceeded the muslim population since the 1860's. There has been a continued jewish presence in Jerusalem for a long time. What many people don't realize is that Jerusalem was a city of less than 50,000 people in the early 20th century.

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  7. I'll chime in and echo what others have said here. Even if one accepts the Holocaust has an absolute historical fact, it doesn't follow that the US and the UK should have helped carve out land in Palestine for the State of Israel.

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  8. Jews have been in Israel or the Palestine mandate since the beginning of time. They never left, though at times they have been persecuted by muslim/Arabs. Teh Palestine mandate as administered by England, was to be broken between Jews and Arabs with the Arabs living in areas that combine what was to be Jordan (originally part the Palestine mandate) and the West Bank. There was never a Palestinian people, it is a made up group but they are now a fact on the ground. They need to start working for their own future instead of playing victims. Build something just as the Jews did by building a modern society out of a wilderness. The Jews have every right to have The Jewish state just as the Palestinian Arabs have a right to build their own. Now if the Palestinian Arabs would only take back all the money stolen by their leaders and use it to a good purpose then there would be peace. That is the truth and if people would stop with the victimhood and accept reality it would not be an issue.

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  9. The fact that the Holocaust happened, doesn't imply that Israel should take the Palestinians' land. Israel's taking of Palestinian land doesn't imply that Palestinians should deny that the Holocaust happened. If things are going to move forward at all, Israel will have to acknowledge the first, and Palestine will have to acknowledge the second.

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  10. At this time, there is one and only one relevant question: do you want to continue killing each other, or not?

    If the answer is no, you know the number for the White House.

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  11. I agree with what several said above -- that acknowledging the horror of the Holocaust doesn't necessarily mean that Israel should have been created WHERE it was created.

    And frankly, it's counterproductive to describe these Arab students reactions as having a thread of anti-Semitism. That's a smear. Only one of the students quoted expressed Holocaust denial (which is f***ed up, of course).

    But the rest of the students quoted are NOT expressing hatred or prejudice towards Jewish people.

    I understand this is a deeply personal issue for many people, but questioning the "why" of Israel's formation, especially in relationship to life as a Palestinian, DOES NOT equate to anti-semitism. I'm tired of people making that accusation whenever anyone questions the why-and-how of the creation of Israel. You don't have to agree with the opposing side, but you have to acknowledge they have a point if you want to have an open discussion.

    I am pro-choice, but I don't think pro-lifers have no point. They do have an understandable emotion, and I recognize that, even if I don't agree with them.

    To shut down discussion of why Palestinians are in the situation they are in and how unjust that feels to them by calling the questioning of Israel anti-Semitism is an abuse of the term. Reserve the term for true anti-Semitism, which all people of conscience denounce.

    And for the record, I am for a 2-state solution.

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  12. All,

    Linking the creation of the state of Israel to the Holocaust is just flat out historically inaccurate. Just do a little bit of research - The Balfour Document stated that all of Tranjordan was to become a Jewish state, and this document was written in 1917. The size of this land to become a Jewish state was continuously shrunk in various agreements, until the UN vote in 1947.

    One other note, irrespective of the reason for the creation of Israel, there are only two ways forward. 1) recognizing Israel's right to exist, and try to find an equitable solution that provides for both Israel and the Palestinians, or 2) Continue to wring hands of Israels creation, thereby casting doubt on it's legitimacy as a nation, and wait for the next war to start. It's your choice, I choose 1.

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  13. The Balfour declaration certainly did promise a Jewish state, but do you really think Britain would have kept that promise, and the UN gone along with it, without the guilt of the Holocaust fresh on their minds?

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  14. Just do a little bit of research - The Balfour Document stated that all of Tranjordan was to become a Jewish state, and this document was written in 1917.

    It would be nice if that "little bit of research" included reading the relevant documents. The Balfour Declaration said nothing about either Transjordan or a Jewish state. It said that "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object" (emphasis added). Got that? "In Palestine." Not "constituting all of Palestine, much less "constituting all of Palestine, including both Cisjordan and Transjordan." And nothing about any kind of state at all.

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  15. I think most everyone has missed the point. Obama was not explaining why Israel exists, he was only saying "Look, it's deeply upsetting when you question the Holocaust, so as a starting point, let's stop that." He's saying people can deal constructively with each other but need to stop the frightening insults first.

    His comments at Buchenwald today were a direct continuation of his Cairo remarks. He said we need to remember that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were human too -- that the Holocaust is not a reminder only that evil happened to these victims, but that we must guard against cruelty in our own hearts.

    That's an amazing thing for a President to say. It spreads responsibility everywhere. Jews need to prevent cruelty against Palestinians, Palestinians must prevent it against Jews, Americans must prevent it against the Arab world.

    I think it takes effort to avoid hearing what he has said.

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  16. "FYI, the jewish population of Jerusalem has exceeded the muslim population since the 1860's."

    Anonymous, this seems to be a claim that majority populations have the right to disenfranchise and displace minority populations. Since I'm sure that's not what you meant, could you clarify why Israel is better placed now than it would be in (for example) Alaska?

    "...the Jewish desire to live again in the land of Israel goes back 2,000 years - long before any Arabs showed up there."

    Jon, I always wanted a pony. Long before you got one. Does that entitle me to your pony?

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  17. Seamus,

    The British Mandate of Palestine included All of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza strip, and the modern state of Jordan. Fine, if you want to quibble, there is a very loose definition of what the word "IN" meant when this statement is made: "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" - Does that mean all of that territory, or part of it. That was settled in 1923 when the Transjordan was severed from Palestine. But I don't see what your point is. Israel is NOT all of 1923 Palestine, it's 1967 borders are just a portion, and the 1947 borders were even less. The fact is, many people believe that there was no concept of a Jewish homeland until AFTER the Holocaust. My point is, there never will be peace if people still go back to 1947 and keep complaining about the creation of the state of Israel. Israel exists, it will continue to exist, and the people who live there will defend her right to exist, just like the people of any other country. There is only one way forward, and that is to look forward to a future when both people can achieve there national aspirations. The youths that were interviewed in this blog were still looking to the past.

    Peace,
    Cosmo

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  18. Doug,

    The desire for a national homeland is not unique to Jews, nor is the desire for that homeland to be placed where Jews, or any other group, considers that homeland to be. The "I want a pony..." analogy was absolutely relevant to Jewish nationalism for almost 2,000 years. They just couldn't have it, for a number of reasons. After a long while, with the advent of Zionism and small-scale immigration and cultivation of the land, Jews saved up and bought that pony.

    A part of the reason the UN barely passed res. 181 probably had to do with guilt over the Holocaust. However, the Jewish state wasn't built by partition any more than Palestine was. It was built by its residents, who did so because they didn't want a state in Alaska; they wanted a state in a place they already called home.

    J

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  19. If one wants to be really mean one can say that Palestinian nationalism is complicit in the Holocaust, at least as complicit as the West's broader refusal to take in Refugees:

    No Palestinian terror (well Arab nationalist terror) in the 1930s=no White Paper in 1939 (particularly galling given the Balfour Declaration)=less Jews dead in the Holocaust.

    But I tend to agree that seeking to reduce Zionism as stemming from the Holocaust is problematic.

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  20. Jay,

    When you say that Jews saved up and bought that pony, is it your claim that this was an equitable deal and that Palestinians have no right to protest the "sale?"

    Just to be clear here, I don't give a fig for the rights/concerns/desires of "a people," be they Palestinian or Jew. I care about the rights of individuals. Specifically living individuals. So the 2000 year desire for something is meaningless to me (and I believe should be meaningless to everyone), since most of that is the desires of dead people, who don't actually have desires anymore.

    I'm really not here to take sides. I just that that all the "ancestral homeland" talk on both sides should be discarded as sentimental and/or mystical claptrap which muddies the discussion. It's just dirt.

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  21. I think the students comments, with the exception of the holocaust denial, were indisputably reasonable and true.

    I think Jews hurt themselves when they argue for a historic right to the land of Israel. It would greatly help their cause if they were to do so.

    Not supporting such a right, put rather emphasizing the holocaust, was a wise and essential decision on Obama's part I hear an assertion of such a right, I immediately conclude that I'm not listening to a reasonable person, but someone who is so far inside the Zionist bubble that they can no longer see themselves or others. It is similar to my reaction when someone brings up Obama's birth certificate.

    All of us are displaced persons of one sort or or another. My Native American, Pictish and Celtic ancestors lost their ancestral homelands much more recently than did the Jews. No matter how frequently Jews argue that their right to their homeland is superior to our right to our homelands, we're not going to be persuaded, but rather will be irritated and alienated- because the claim is patently ridiculous and is highly offensive.

    However, we can be persuaded that the creation of Israel was a not wholly unreasonable response to WWII, if one deeply unfair to the Palestinians ,and bringing tragic consequences. We can also be persuaded that moving forward requires acceptance of the reality from which we are starting. This is the argument Obama made, and it is the only one that will help rather than hurt Israel's cause among many or most of us non-Jews.

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  22. I think the students comments, with the exception of the holocaust denial, were indisputably reasonable and true.

    I think Jews hurt themselves when they argue for a historic right to the land of Israel. It would greatly help their cause if they were to do so.

    Not supporting such a right, put rather emphasizing the holocaust, was a wise and essential decision on Obama's part I hear an assertion of such a right, I immediately conclude that I'm not listening to a reasonable person, but someone who is so far inside the Zionist bubble that they can no longer see themselves or others. It is similar to my reaction when someone brings up Obama's birth certificate.

    All of us are displaced persons of one sort or or another. My Native American, Pictish and Celtic ancestors lost their ancestral homelands much more recently than did the Jews. No matter how frequently Jews argue that their right to their homeland is superior to our right to our homelands, we're not going to be persuaded, but rather will be irritated and alienated- because the claim is patently ridiculous and is highly offensive.

    However, we can be persuaded that the creation of Israel was a not wholly unreasonable response to WWII, if one deeply unfair to the Palestinians ,and bringing tragic consequences. We can also be persuaded that moving forward requires acceptance of the reality from which we are starting. This is the argument Obama made, and it is the only one that will help rather than hurt Israel's cause among many or most of us non-Jews.

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  23. Funny, Obama had no problem with Genocide denial when it can to Turkey's own 'Armenian Question' this April.

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  24. Doug,

    You say, "When you say that Jews saved up and bought that pony, is it your claim that this was an equitable deal and that Palestinians have no right to protest the "sale?"

    If one accepts that Jews have a right to live in an autonomous state alongside Palestine, then partition was equitable. If one starts with the precept that Jews have never had the right to seek a national home in Palestine, then the Palestinian and wider Arab protest, the war of 1948, was justified and correct. It seems these two precepts are mutually exclusive, and I believe the former.

    "Just to be clear here, I don't give a fig for the rights/concerns/desires of "a people," be they Palestinian or Jew. I care about the rights of individuals. Specifically living individuals."

    Would you take this to the end, and say that young descendants of Palestinian refugees born in surrounding countries have no right to resettlement or compensation? I think they do.

    "all the "ancestral homeland" talk on both sides should be discarded as sentimental and/or mystical claptrap"

    It is easy to discard national the national aspirations of a people without knowing what it is like to lack a homeland. This isn't something stateless people take lightly.

    J

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  25. But I don't see what your point is.

    I think my point was pretty clear: that it is demonstrably false to claim that "The Balfour Document stated that all of Transjordan was to become a Jewish state" or even that "The Balfour declaration certainly did promise a Jewish state." Going further, it was that it's somewhat comical for you to urge people to "do a little research" when doing so will demonstrate that your claims are false (and that your own research was the sort that would get you a C- on a high school paper).

    Finally, it was that the Balfour Declaration has nothing to do with establishment of a Jewish state at all. The 1922 British White Paper made it clear what the British government was talking about when it spoke of a Jewish National Home *in* Palestine: "When it is asked what is meant by the development of the Jewish National Home in Palestine, it may be answered that it is not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community, with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world, in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride." So there is no basis for arguing that the Balfour Declaration evidenced an intention to turn the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan (or for that matter, even a part of that territory) into a Jewish state.

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  26. Jay,

    "It is easy to discard national the national aspirations of a people without knowing what it is like to lack a homeland. This isn't something stateless people take lightly."

    Are you referring to the dead stateless people too? Because I don't think they have aspirations anymore. Personally, I've never talked with "a people" so I wouldn't presume to know their desires. I tend to think that within any group of people are a lot of individuals who all think differently. Occasionally they form political factions and put out group pronouncement, but there are usually sub-factions within those as well.

    As for the rights of Palestinians to own a particular acre of dirt over another, I couldn't care less what emotional weight they attach to which acre, provided the acre they get has similar agricultural or developmental value. I do, however, believe that all living Palestinians are morally entitled to have a representative state whose borders and trade interests are recognized by other nations.

    But back to the homeland [This dirt is special dirt because my dead great-grandpa and/or God thought so] issue - Ultimately I think you're using a tautological argument. Basically, "This is important to people because people think it's important." My point is that they would help themselves by dropping that useless line of thought. I don't actually expect it to happen though. Religion serves as a constant reminder that most people are immune to reason.

    And for the record - Just because my argument is easy to make, doesn't mean it's wrong. Rather the opposite actually.

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  27. "Personally, I've never talked with "a people" so I wouldn't presume to know their desires. I tend to think that within any group of people are a lot of individuals who all think differently."

    These statements are true, and ordinarily they are applicable. But when talking about large-scale events, such as - as we were discussing - the founding of the state of Israel, often such events consist of very many people coming together and doing what none of them could do alone (to use a cliche). One can say perfectly accurately that the Israeli people came together in 1948 to found the state, because they all did. They would not be Israelis if they had not, despite their individual identities and desires. They still all shared a desire, which they then fulfilled.

    "Ultimately I think you're using a tautological argument. Basically, "This is important to people because people think it's important." My point is that they would help themselves by dropping that useless line of thought."

    You are absolutely correct: I am using a tautology. The thing is, people justify much of their lives with just such a tautology, and this is not a tragedy. I realize you don't think "dropping that useless line of thought" is an achievable objective. But I think the statement denies a fundamental part of human experience: the fact that we all have irrational desires. We love: we choose one person, who we elevate above all others, though they may have flaws which make them objectively less desirable than some others. We have numerous preferences, basically, which cannot be put down to reason. People do not make decisions without the irrationality of their unreasonable desires. Now, this should naturally be balanced with a view of the world as it is; I do not argue for insanity. But not only is it unrealistic to ask people to abandon their unreasoned preferences, it actually is inadvisable. Even humanists, proud of their ethical self-determination, have an 'irrational' attachment to morality, when their actions cannot measurably benefit them.

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  28. It wasn't the Balfour declaration that established the right of the Jewish people under International Law to a homeland in Palestine, it was the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (as administered by Britain on behalf of the League of Nations). This was the legal response to the breakup of the Ottoman Caliphate after WWI. So, Doug, a "little research" would reveal that you are wrong.

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