David Brooks: Searching for humanity in the Middle East

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We’re living through an era of collapsing paradigms. The conceptual frames that many people use to organize their understanding of the world are crashing and burning upon contact with Middle Eastern reality.


The first paradigm that failed this month was critical race theory or woke-ism.

Yascha Mounk has a good history of this body of thought in his outstanding book “The Identity Trap.” But as it applies to the Middle East, the relevant ideas in this paradigm are these: International conflicts can be seen through a prism of American identity categories like race. In any situation, there are evil people who are colonizer/oppressors and good people who are colonized/oppressed. It’s not necessary to know about the particular facts about any global conflict, because of intersectionality: All struggles are part of the same struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.

This paradigm shapes how many on the campus left saw the Hamas terror attacks and were thus pushed into a series of ridiculous postures. A group of highly educated American progressives cheered on Hamas as anti-colonialist freedom fighters, even though Hamas is a theocratic, genocidal terrorist force that oppresses LGBTQ people and revels in the massacres of innocents. These campus activists showed little compassion for Israeli men and women who were murdered at a music festival because they were perceived as “settlers” and hence worthy of extermination. Many progressives called for an immediate cease-fire, denying Israel the right to defend itself, which is enshrined in international law — as if Nigeria should have declared a cease-fire the day after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in 2014.

American universities exist to give students the conceptual tools to understand the world. It appears that at many universities, students are instead being fed simplistic ideological categories that blind them to reality.


The second paradigm that fell apart this month was what you might call “pogromism.”

This is the belief, common in Jewish communities around the world, that you can draw a straight line from the many antisemitic massacres in ancient history, through the pogroms of the 19th century, through the Holocaust and up to the Hamas massacres of today. In this paradigm, antisemitism is the key factor at work, and Jews are the innocent victims of perennial group hate.

The paradigm has some truth to it but is simplistic. In fact, Israel is a regional superpower, not a marginalized victim group. Israeli indifference to conditions in the territories has contributed to today’s horrible reality. The Middle East conflict is best seen as a struggle between two peoples who have to live together, not as a black-and-white conflict between victims and Nazis.

The two-state paradigm

The third conceptual paradigm under threat is the one I have generally used to organize how I see the Middle East conflict: the two-state paradigm.

This paradigm is based on the notion that this conflict will end when there are two states with two peoples living side by side. People like me see events in the Middle East as tactical moves each side is taking to secure the best eventual outcome for themselves.

After this month’s events, several assumptions underlying this worldview seem shaky: that most people on each side will eventually come to accept the legitimacy of the other’s existence, that Palestinian leaders would rather devote their budgets to economic development than perpetual genocidal holy war, that the cause of peace is advanced when Israel withdraws from Palestinian territories, that Hamas can be contained until a negotiated settlement is achieved, and that extremists on both sides will eventually be marginalized so that peacemakers can do their work.

Those of us who see the conflict through this two-state framing may be relying on lenses that distort our vision, so we see the sort of Middle East that existed two decades ago, not the one that exists today.

The worldview that has been buttressed by this month’s events is unfortunately the one I find loathsome. You can call it authoritarian nihilism, which binds Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and other strongmen: that we live in a dog-eat-dog world; life is a competition to grab what you can; power is what matters; morality, decency, gentleness, and international norms are luxuries we cannot afford because our enemies are out to destroy us; and we need to be led by ruthless amoralists to take on the ruthless amoralists who seek to take us down.

I don’t want to live amid that barbarism, so I’m hoping the Biden administration will do two things that will keep the faint hopes of peace and basic decency alive. The first is to help Israel reestablish deterrence. In the Middle East, peace happens when Israel is perceived as strong and permanent and the United States has its back.

Second, I’m hoping the U.S. encourages Arab nations to work with the Palestinians to build a government that can rule the Gaza Strip after Hamas is dismantled. (Robert Satloff, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have sketched out how this would work.)

Some events alter the models we use to perceive reality, and the events of Oct. 7 fit that category. It feels as if we’re teetering between universalist worldviews that recognize our common humanity and tribal worldviews in which others are just animals to be annihilated. What Israel does next will influence what worldview prevails in the 21st century.

David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times.

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