A good friend of our son’s lives in the settlement of Eli. The friend is currently busy moving his family to a house there whose construction was halted by the High Court of Justice. Our son was asked to help, and he is torn between commitment to his friend and commitment to the values he believes in. Knowing that friendship is a supreme value, we spent last weekend holding long discussions about his options. We concluded that the simplest thing would be to offer the friend help moving back to this side of the Green Line. We’d be happy to hear your opinion.
Inclusive Bleeding Hearts
Dear bleeding hearts,
You’re left-wingers and you have a sense of self-deprecating humor – in other words, you’re almost perfect. So how is it possible that you spent whole days pondering whether it’s appropriate to take part in a despicable act? I’d like to think that it’s partly because you’re not fully acquainted with the facts – so let’s start with a little background.
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Eli was established in 1984 in the heart of the West Bank midway between Nablus and Ramallah. As is common in the settlements, a combination of flouting the law, messianic conviction and government support enabled a few families to swell to more than 3,000 people whose land stretches across thousands of acres. Even though the settlement was established 35 years ago, it still lacks a valid master building plan because the plans that have been put forward encroach on private Palestinian land.
In 1979, the High Court ruled that such land cannot be seized for settlement purposes. Since then, the state has declared large tracts of the West Bank state land, but that’s not enough for Eli and other settlements, which go on expanding onto private land.
In many cases, the plundered land wasn’t vacant, but, rather, was farmed by the Palestinian owners and was their source of livelihood. This is all done, of course, with support from the state, which, with a few rare exceptions, doesn’t evict the intruders and provides them with funding and infrastructure.
These facts are important, because the friend’s family isn’t moving out of need or necessity. The illegal outposts and houses are tools for the gradual takeover of Palestinian land. First, private land is declared state land, then it’s populated by settlers who expand onto adjoining private land, and later the state legalizes the illegal construction and turns it into another “liberated” zone that shall never be returned.
The construction of the friend’s house is an act of plunder and violence, one element in a system of dispossession. Accordingly, any help rendered will abet a moral wrong. Your son will be doing harm not to his theoretical worldview but to actual innocent people. Hence, the conflict is between upholding friendship and inflicting serious and unjustified harm on others. If the friend had asked for help moving his family to an indigent neighbor’s apartment against the neighbor’s will and against the law, would you need a whole weekend to ponder this?
Philosophers actually have a lot to say about the clash between loyalty to friends and the perpetrating of dreadful deeds. Not surprisingly, they don’t believe that friendship provides carte blanche for doing bad deeds, but the very opposite: Friendship should strengthen the good on both sides.
Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” is one of the earliest and most comprehensive works on the subject. Nearly two volumes of the 10-volume work are devoted to friendship – more than to any other topic – attesting to its central place in Aristotle’s ethical world. In his view, friendship “is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods” (translation by W.D. Ross).
But despite the great importance attributed to friendship, Aristotle says it’s largely a means to achieve good and truth, to which friendship is secondary in value. Therefore, if a beloved friend is doing bad deeds and won’t change his ways, Aristotle recommends, despite the pain, “to leave him be” – the ancient Greek version of the Israeli psychologist Varda Raziel Jacont’s motto, “dump him.”
Aristotle’s ideas on the subject were developed in Cicero’s beautiful essay “On Friendship,” written in 44 B.C.E., after Julius Caesar’s dictatorship had forced him out of political life. This was shortly after the end of a brutal civil war in which many friendships faced the test of political disagreements and friends betrayed one another. (In fact, Cicero himself was murdered about a year after he wrote the essay, when someone he trusted turned on him.)
This may be why Cicero is much less delicate than Aristotle regarding the tension between comradely loyalty and base deeds. According to Cicero, without friends life isn’t worth living, but a true friend is one who dares to voice criticism when his friend does something unacceptable.
Cicero agrees entirely with Aristotle’s approach: The principle of friendship, important as it is, is subordinate to the values of justice and truth. “Doing wrong for the sake of a friend never justifies that wrong,” Cicero wrote. He also woefully acknowledges, with regret, that the right priorities can generate tension: “Serious and justifiable differences arise if one friend asks another to do something [that is] wrong … The one who refuses the request, even if he does so tactfully, is likely to be charged with violating the rules of friendship by the one he turned down” (translation by Thomas Habinek).
This seems to me to be one of the earliest references to what your son probably knows of first-hand as “peer pressure.”
Cicero offers a concise, unequivocal “law of friendship” for those who encounter such pressure: “Don’t ask for anything shameful, and don’t do anything shameful if asked.”
An example of a shameful act: helping move furniture to a house built on stolen land as part of a large-scale project of dispossession and oppression. Aristotle and Cicero were smart, that’s for sure, but do you really need them to know that friendship can never justify wrongdoing and harming innocent people?