As yet another indication that the university campus has become “an island of repression in a sea of freedom,” last March a pro-Israel group, Hasbara Fellowships Canada, was barred from participating in a “Social Justice Week” event organized by the Student Association of Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology. The stated reason for the exclusion? The student association (which, not coincidentally, had just approved a pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israel) informed the Hasbara group that since the “organization seems closely tied to the State of Israel … it would be against the motion to provide any type of resources to your organization.”
While the term “social justice” has a seemingly benign and positive connotation — and certainly to those who so vigorously fight for it — the reality is that, as columnist Jonah Goldberg observed in his book, “The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas,” social justice is actually “an empty vessel to be filled with any and all leftist ideals, and then promptly wielded as a political bludgeon against any and all dissenters.”
So while social justice warriors on campus are quick to welcome a collection of perceived victim groups into their tent — Muslims, African-Americans, gays, Hispanics, women — they have been decidedly more hostile when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the result being that pro-Israel groups are regularly excluded as being part of the oppressor class responsible for such evils as imperialism, colonialism, racism and sexism.
What are the defining characteristics of those well-meaning, but often misguided individuals who promiscuously proclaim their commitment to social justice?
Social justice warriors are commonly infatuated with their own virtue, which manifests itself in very public “virtue signaling,” a way that self-described activists indicate that they have taken the high moral ground, that they stand for racial equality and the aspirations of the oppressed, and that they single-mindedly fight for the rights of, and make excuses for, the oppressed state in which their victims find themselves.
The rectitude of students and faculty enthralled by social justice and pushing for condemnations of Israel also manifests itself as what has been termed “moral narcissism,” the tendency of members of the well-meaning, although incompletely, educated elite to align with causes and ideological positions which are based, not on the actual viability or worthiness of a cause, but on how the moral narcissist feels about him- or herself by committing to a particular campaign or movement. Like other members of the academic left, who believe their worldview is correct because it seeks to create a world in which social equanimity will be realized by the downtrodden, members of Students for Justice in Palestine, Black Lives Matter and other victims’ rights grievance groups and movements are content to support such intellectually dishonest campaigns as BDS because it enables them to denounce Israelis as “white,” imperialistic, colonial, racist, militaristic oppressors of wholly innocent “brown” Palestinians dispossessed and victimized by the Jewish state’s very existence.
In debating the conflict, social justice activists, of course, demonstrate their hypocrisy by endlessly dwelling on the many evils of Israel without bothering to examine or measure the Palestinians’ own central role in contributing to the many pathologies endemic to their civil society and institutions. As many Western elites do when choosing sides, social justice warriors infantilize the Palestinian victim and assume he has no agency to ameliorate his own conditions. In reality, pro-Palestinian activists seem to care very little about the actual self-determination and state building of the hapless Palestinians. As is frequently the case when speaking about the conflict, the discussion often glosses over the real problems of Palestinian culture, politics and society (including its cult of death, terrorism and martyrdom), and targets all criticism on the perceived defects of Israel, Zionism and Jewish power. This is a clear example of another underlying factor in the social justice effort, the soft bigotry of low Palestinian expectations.
Such nearly total rejection by those seeking justice for the oppressed of any recognition of goodness on the part of Western countries (and particularly Israel), favoring without hard judgments severely flawed societies of the Third World is, according to commentator Melanie Phillips, symptomatic of activists’ belief in their own moral superiority, a feature which, at least in their own minds, gives them a more genuine, principled and valuable worldview. “In the grip of a group-think that causes them to genuflect to victim-culture and the deconstruction of Western morality and the concept of truth,” Phillips writes, “a dismaying number of our supposedly finest minds have been transformed from people who spread enlightenment to those who cast darkness before them.”
We should be careful that, despite their own claims to a moral uprightness, the truth is not being lost in the intellectual darkness created by these self-appointed purveyors of social justice.
Richard L. Cravatts is a former president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.