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January 31, 2016 7:37 am

Ban Ki-Moon and Israel: When Being Fair-Minded Goes Wrong

avatar by Andrew Pessin

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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Photo: World Economic Forum.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Photo: World Economic Forum. – There are too many recent examples to work with. The hacking to death of rabbis at prayer. The Charlie Hebdo, Hyper Cacher, and November 2015 Paris massacres. The knifing of pregnant women, and of a mother of six in front of her children. Each of these attacks draws a decent amount of condemnation and outrage. But then you immediately start hearing something else as well. I’m not talking about the comments of those who support these murders; that’s for another conversation. I’m talking about those people who, in the interest of being fair-minded, start trying to explain and make sense of these murders.

When it comes to attacks against Israel and Jews, it goes something like this: “I don’t approve of it, but I understand it. The frustration and despair felt by the Palestinians, the occupation, the settlements, the loss of hope.” Here, for example, is United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 26 discussing this year’s wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli Jews, in which several dozen Jews have been murdered: “It is human nature to react to occupation…Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process…Security measures alone will not stop the violence. They cannot address the profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians.”

So does the chief of the UN condone or endorse such attacks? Of course not: “Stabbings, vehicle attacks, and shootings by Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians — all of which I condemn — and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, have continued to claim lives,” Ban said.

Leave aside for a moment whether Ban’s “explanations” are even correct. I want to point to a deeper issue.

Being “fair-minded” is not always appropriate.

Fair-mindedness comes from a good place. We want to understand others, empathize with them, and grasp the perspective of the other side, etc. When a situation is complicated, then it should be approached with nuance and care. I think all of that is just fantastic, and we should embrace it unequivocally in certain contexts: when we are doing scholarly work, for example, and when we are having conversations and debates with others who share our appreciation for those same values.

Nuance is often good — but not when it dangerously obscures what is black and white.

Take the Charlie Hebdo case. Many people could agree (myself included) that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons were in bad taste, offensive, understandably appalling to some or many Muslims, even “wrong” in some very strong sense — yet many people also agree that these facts did not make the cartoonists deserving of cold-blooded execution. The latter is black and white. Those attacks were wrong, outrageously so, period. Any subsequent effort to “explain and understand” cannot but sound like an effort to justify. “Yes those murders were wrong, but….”

There is no “but.” Acts like these force you to make a choice: either right or wrong, period. Explanation and understanding are good, but they must precede your moral evaluation. Once you’ve reached your moral conclusion they must be put away, lest they become conflated with justification. For all the explanation and understanding in the world cannot turn a wrong action into a right one.

Confusing explanation and justification in this way has enormously problematic consequences.

Think about what follows when Ban Ki-moon does precisely this: “I condemn these Palestinian attacks, but….” He says he condemns, but all the rest of his words, in “explaining,” support those attacks. What everyone takes away from his remarks is that what’s really wrong is not the Palestinian murdering but the Israeli “occupation,” the “security measures,” and so on. The only conclusion that can then be reached is that the more Palestinians murder Jews, the more the Jews must concede to the Palestinians in their very difficult and long-lasting conflict.

But this is entirely backward.

Normally we think that when people do wrong acts, we should not accommodate them. But Ban’s “fair-minded” remarks suggest the opposite: that the more Palestinians do these wrong acts, the more we should accommodate them.

Once you’ve decided an action is wrong, you must act appropriately. Don’t merely say you condemn but take concrete steps such as these: call for discipline, punishment, disincentives for the wrong action, incentives toward alternate actions, and so on.

I’m not saying there is no place for “explanation.” Nor am I defending the “occupation” here, or any particular Israeli practices. That is for another conversation.

They become justification.

And if you are truly fair-minded, including toward the Jewish victims of these attacks, then you should not be justifying them.

Andrew Pessin is a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, and the author of several philosophy books for the general reader and a novel. For more information, visit

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  • Kafantaris

    “Keeping another people under indefinite occupation undermines the security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians.” — Ban Ki-moon

  • General Ban Ki moon,I don’t know what country you were born in but I don’t think your people gave up the long lived rights to their homeland. The Israelites were on the land from the beginning(4,000 years ago) and you want to deny that it isn’t their home. the propaganda and the lies by the Moslems is very defeating to them and frustrating to a family of people who want to live in peace. Many years ago on my first of many visits to Israel, the Arabs lived in filth and disease-eye disease- untilthe Israelis came and cleaned the area. You are an insult to the land of Israel in that you have a hard time accepting history from 4,000 years to today. The UN came into being to give consent to man’s right and not destruction. Never again can we experience another holocaust.

  • Mr. Ban Ki-moon – born in 1944 – was one year old when the Japanese army withdrew from his country. He probably also remembers that in 1950 the Chinese army invaded Korea.
    (The psychological effect from childhood and the subsequent development of the individual is explained in the Psychoanalysis of Freud).

    But in our situation all is different.
    The State of Israel must protect itself against the terrorism from Gaza and, also, against “militants”-terrorists from PLO.

    Gentlemen, this is not a game of hide-and-seek.
    We must end it as soon as possible….

    Joseph Rosen

    Author of ‘Why a Jew’

  • Ben Ki-moon, I said it before and say it again. You are a two faced anti-Semite and one of the most dangerous key UN figure, as you always blame and try to justify the PA and Gaza atrocities on the so called occupation.

    You are forgetting that it was the Jews who where there first not the Palestinians, and that the land belongs to Israel.

    Furthermore who waged the 1967 war on Israel? So if nothing else Israel re-conquered land that was theirs in the first place.

    We don’t hear you saying much against Russia invaded Ukraine just a couple of years ago. If that would have been Israel that took the land the whole world and you would be on Israels back from morning to night.

  • Holy Shirt

    BAN Moon and his Liars Club) to a one-way trip to the Moon

  • James Hay

    What Really Gets Me Is This Israeli Occupation Non-Sense.It Wrongly Implies That Israel Is Squatting On Land that Has Been Their’s For Centuries Yet To Hear It From The European Nazis And The The Largest Enabler Of The World’s Terrorists And Tyrants The United Nations Israel Is Squatting On Their Own Land That The Fabricated By The Twits Of England And Self Proclaimed Palestinians Claim Is Theirs.How Moronically Backwards Is That Huh?

  • Myron Slater

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the UN is antisemitic, especially the Secretary General.

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is incredible, has meaning for all minority people.

  • The Struma disaster and the life of David Stoliar must be featured in all schools.

  • Andrew Pessin states the obvious well. The UN is a mess. The General Secretary is weak. What we see in France today is what we’ve seen before. Before they got the Germans to do it for them. Islam coddles its Nazi element. The Holocaust never happened? Rapper B.o.B. is flirting with hell. Marceline Loridan-Ivens is my hero. But You Did Not Come Back is a must read. The review by Steven Erlanger is good. David Stoliar was discovered by The New York Times in death. Robert D. McFadden wrote a weak obituary.

  • robert davis

    What is really wrong is NOT the occupation since there is NO occupation by all standards of inernartional law, History etc but…the lies spread by anti Israel propaganda which is to be taken for granted and constitute a PARALEL LAW which has no meaning with law nor anything except violence. This is the truth. On top of that the fact that Israel’s successive governments did NOT defend Israel’s inerests which is still the case today and eventually the lies have become a standard for the “Israeli case”.At the end of the day the fault is to blame on Israel’s governments past and present which did not defend their nation.

  • No buddhist will do any work perfectly. See what they did with koreas

  • Christine Gomez

    Thank you for the honest truth on the UN leadership.

    It is not difficult to say “The UN stinks”. Any man, woman or child with common sense will be able to figure this out. The double standards of the UN is so obvious and yet so unnoticed. Why has stupidity taken over integrity?

    Unfortunately the universe has a bunch of over qualified professionals minus common sense, ethics and values.

  • Peter Joffe

    The world was never afraid of the NAZI an we should have been — — very afraid and now the same thing is happening with Muslims and Islam – we should all be very very afraid as we know what the end goal is – the annihilation of all freedoms and the creation of one world caliphate.
    Louis Armstrong foresaw “A Wonderful World” but what we are now facing is a world run by bearded monsters from the 6th century. “Oh to our lost World” would be Satchmo’s new song.