Sometimes philosophy can seem irrelevant to the painful, immediate and violent reality of political conflicts; sometimes it can offer a comforting escape; and sometimes, just sometimes, it can help us make sense of some of the difficult personal dilemmas into which we are thrown by this reality. For me, these last few days have been just such an occasion.
As a British Jew and an ex-Israeli, I am only too aware of and disturbed by the ugly anti-Semitism that often rises to the surface in debates over Israel and Palestine. This anti-Semitism is frequently veiled, but also frequently overt, as in some of the slogans and imagery used by various individuals and groups taking part in protests by the Stop the War Coalition against, for example, Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon and its current war in Gaza.
For many of us on the Left, our moral world is a fully coherent system in which the values of individual freedom, social justice, and political equality fit neatly together. The rejection of racism, in all its forms, as a violation of the inherent worth of individuals irrespective of their ethnic and racial background – is conceptually and logically a part of this system.
How reassuring and comforting it would be if political reality were to mirror this coherent system. But we all recognize, of course, that it does not. And the attempts by some of us to deal with this unfortunate situation, it seems to me, reflect not just political, but philosophical differences.
In a meta-ethical view where the emphasis is on a system of moral principles and rules derived from them, moral dilemmas are represented as an attempt to resolve apparent conflicts between such principles and to formulate the appropriate rule for action. Thus, recognizing that the agendas of some of the people and movements who oppose the Israeli government’s current actions in Gaza comprise values inimical to their own set of values (being, for example, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti women’s equality), some of my colleagues seem confident that the morally right thing to do is to refuse to associate with any of these movements or individuals.
Thus, in one reasonable paraphrase of the philosophical reasoning behind this view, the main principle at stake is: Respect for human beings as individual.
One moral stance derived from this principle would be: opposition to racism.
Another would be: opposition to the view that innocent civilians, including women and children, are legitimate “collateral damage” during war time.
Another would be: opposition to the occupation of an entire people that denies them basic human rights and freedoms.
There may be several other variations, and any one or other of these moral positions, or a combination of them, can constitute part of people’s reasons for taking political action now or at other times.
Moral reasoning, however, even for philosophers, is never divorced from empirical reality. So to these considerations of rules and principles is added another consideration: Many people who oppose Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and the excessive use of military force against the population of Gaza hold anti-Semitic views.
Furthermore, it is conceptually true that anti-Semitism is a form of racism.
The next stage of the argument goes like this: By siding with people who hold racist views, one is legitimating racism. The morally right thing to do, therefore, is not to side with them.
In other words, in the perceived clash between the moral rule: always stand up to political injustice and oppression and the moral rule always reject racism, the second rule wins out.
Working out such arguments is not easy, nor is it unimportant. Hence the impressively sophisticated debate that has been waged on the Engage website, in feedback to Guardian blogs, and elsewhere, by colleagues arguing the ins and outs of such issues. Much of this debate centres on the important philosophical task of defining your terms: how racist exactly is the anti-war movement? how do we draw the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? what exactly is Zionism anyway? and so on. Without rehearsing the well-trodden paths of this debate here, I would like to say that I was at the Stop the War Coalition march against the war in Gaza on Saturday. And, yes, I did encounter the occasional anti-Semitic slogan – although, I have to say, these were few and far between. And this in spite of the fact that I was marching with a group of ex-Israelis and carrying placards in Hebrew. At the beginning of the march, as we were assembling in Hyde Park, we came across a man carrying a placard on which a Swastika was drawn over the Star of David on the Israeli flag. We told him we found this offensive, and a Stop the War Coalition steward who was nearby insisted that the man remove the placard, which he did. On another occasion, an Israeli friend of mine heard a demonstrator shouting, in Arabic, “Jews out”, and went over to him to tell him that this was unacceptable and to point out that there were several Jewish people on the rally. He may have continued shouti ng his vile slogans elsewhere; I don’t know. But at least we were there. At least we tried to engage in the situation. By not engaging, we abandon the field to the racists and others who would have us see the world in simple terms of ”us “ and “them”. And, yes, it felt uncomfortable. But life is uncomfortable.
And in my attempts to make sense of it, I recall that there is another philosophical tradition: one that perceives the moral life not as primarily about the set principles we hold and the rules we derive from them, but about the choices we make in real and infinitely varied moral situations. And the process of moral reasoning by which we do this, while not irrational, is not one that can take the form of deduction from theoretical principles, but one that always involves concrete, ethically sensitive perceptions and judgements – thus embodying what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”. This understanding of the ethical – which the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has referred to as “the priority of the particular” – is logically connected to a rejection of the thesis of the commensurability of values. The Aristotelian tradition teaches us that trying to avoid circularity and internal tensions in our moral reasoning is not the most important thing in our lives as mora l individuals: what is important is how we choose to act in particular morally relevant situations. And these situations are always messy – which is why our attempts to understand and describe them are invariably imprecise and often confusing. But it is by experiencing such conflicts and trying, to the best of our ability, to act as moral agents within them, that we build up the resources to be better at the difficult job of living well. It is not that rules and principles have no role to play in this process, but they are vacuous without the crucial ingredients of practice and context.
And so, tempting as it sometimes is to join in the forums on Engage and other websites where philosophers and other academics thrash out the theoretical complexities of the issues in their genuine attempts to resolve their disagreements, at the moment, I no longer have the patience or the stomach for it. I am resigned to the fact that the theoretical tensions will never be fully resolved; that no one recommended course of political action will ever have a watertight rational defence or be free of internal tensions; and that there is no one right way to change the world.
So I will not be following the debates on Engage any more, and I am seriously considering unsubscribing myself from their email list. I will be out in the streets with others, protesting injustice. I will protest the use of children as cannon-fodder; I will protest the dehumanization of the Palestinian people in the name of “security”; I will defend Israel’s right to exist in safety and security; I will call on the Israeli government to negotiate with Hamas; I will reject the racist and anti-democratic aspects of Hamas’s stated agenda; I will continue to insist that the only way to end this shameful cycle of violence and killing is for Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land and its oppression of the Palestinian people; I will refuse to accept that Hamas and other elements within the Palestinian leadership played no part in perpetuating this cycle of violence; I will reject the hatred and racism that lie behind the obscene attempts by so-called Jewish leaders here and elsewhere to justify Israel’s excessive use of military force as a legitimate act of self-defence; I will speak out against anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism.
Yes, I recognize that some of these positions may seem, to some who like their reality neat and tidy, to be mutually untenable. Yes, I recognize that attempting to promote all these moral viewpoints may lead me into difficult and confusing situations; and yes, I recognize that I will not always succeed – and indeed may fail dismally – in pursuing all these values and furthering all these goals, and that there will be frustrations and challenges along the way. But I will keep on trying. And as I do, I will take heart not only from my Palestinian and Israeli comrades and others who, for years, have promoted a vision of a just, equitable and peaceful resolution of this bloody and dismal conflict; but from the Greek philosopher who, over two thousand years ago, reminded us that, in Martha Nussbaum’s words, the person of practical wisdom inhabits the human world and does not attempt to rise above it.
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