Crisis in Morality and International Policy: How Israel can be a solution
The Crisis in Morality and International Policy; How Israel May Be the Solution
“JERUSALEM SUMMIT” – 12.10.2003
Clarence H. Wagner|
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Michael D. Evans|
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|May the Stone the Builders Rejected Become A Cornerstone? (Again)
My title comes, of course, from a verse in the Psalms. Psalm 118 to be exact. It is a verse I have always liked but also one which seemed to me to capture especially the spirit and even substance of this venture, as well as the subjects I was asked to address—the hostility toward Israel which characterizes Europe and the Islamic world and what may be done about it.
This verse conveys the notion that what the world in its conventional wisdom holds in contempt might actually be its superior in wisdom and even strength, might have greater dignity and in the long term more substance and effect.
It is a very appealing and comforting notion in general. It is all the more so for a Jew since the stone which was rejected was the Jewish people and its way of life and understanding.
Having said this, it is by now probably fairly obvious why this verse came to my mind when thinking about this conference—the circumstances in which it takes place, its noble objectives and the obstacles that they face.
We live in a time when the cornerstone is once again rejected—when Israel, its democratic polity and increasingly the Jewish people are treated not only with contempt but hatred and of course with violence. We live in a world where the most outrageous charges are laid against them, charges which amount to a travesty of moral understanding and moral responsibility but which also entail dangerous illusions and delusions, dangerous not only to Israel but to the people who hold them.
The fact of this travesty obviously supplied at least one of the premises of this conference—first that we in the West, and not only in the West, have lost our moral way, a way first laid in Jerusalem. Its second premise is that we need to recover our way and might do so through recourse to its source here in Jerusalem.
No doubt we have lost our way. I will come to that shortly. But the idea that recourse to Jerusalem and its spirit may serve as a serious remedy may seem highly unlikely. I’m certain the organizers of this conference have met with a fair amount of incredulity.
But of course when the way to which we now seek recourse was first laid down it also seemed implausible that it might become important and substantial.
It was, as the Psalm says, rejected by the builders, rejected by what was powerful in the world of its time.
Yet according to the Psalmist, the builders were wrong and the Psalmist seems to have been correct. It became a cornerstone of an important edifice, the edifice of what came to be called Western Civilization.
Perhaps it can be so again. This seems to be the meaning and objective of this conference in its largest sense and why this verse came to mind. Perhaps it will be prophetic. At the very least it is an inspiration, an inspiration we very much need in these depressing times.
The question is, of course, what this means, or would mean, concretely. At some point, it would no doubt be helpful to consider just how the first laying of the cornerstone produced favorable results, how and in what degrees it succeeded in providing guidance to the world. Perhaps there would be some lessons to be drawn.
But for the moment it is necessary to focus first on what it would mean in the present time to draw renewed instruction from Jerusalem, what has solicited that need, what form it would take and what the obstacles to fulfilling it are. The circumstances are urgent.
Besides, the forces which are problematic today—like contemporary Western, especially European thought, and contemporary radical Islam—are certainly different then the pagan forces which were arrayed against what one might call the first Jerusalem Summit. Indeed in certain perverse respects, they are heirs to the founding of Jerusalem.
For both claim to believe in the unity and equality of mankind and the universality of certain principles of justice and freedom. These principles were certainly first proclaimed by the Hebrew Bible with its declaration of the oneness of God and the unity and comprehensiveness of His Creation, the dignity of man as an image of that God, the celebration of human freedom and the elaboration of principles of justice.
All, or most of, these paganism rejected but all or most of these are embraced in some form or other by the European and Muslim adversaries of Israel. It is hard to know whether this makes our task more or less difficult. On the one hand these adversaries lay claim to a superior interpretation of the original premise. This presents us with difficulties. On the other hand, it is these principles – our principles - and their interpretation which are at issue.
We are engaged then in a struggle over the meaning of Jerusalem, the faithful city. Perhaps the organizers of this conference really did know what they were doing in framing this meeting in the way they did.
But where do we begin now? In one sense that is easy to say in present day Jerusalem—we begin with terrorism, since it is both the immediate practical and the immediate moral problem.
The problem is both the terrorism itself and the moral confusion that surrounds it and in the end abets it. The former we must leave to competent security forces. It is the latter which is our concern.
How can we catch hold of this confusion and describe it? It is conveyed in various stock phrases one hears. I think the most common and probably the most pernicious is as follows—One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This leaves these questions: How can one tell the difference and is anyone’s view superior? I have a French friend or perhaps had a French friend whose response to the intifada, and therewith his response to this question, was to say that he was always for the underdog. That, he implied, was a sufficient principle of justice. As this argument, if it is one, goes, the indignity to which the underdog is subject gives him a superior claim to respect, a superior claim to justice. His resentment and his anger are prima facie evidence of the justice of his cause, however violent. Or rather the more violent the better the claim. For violence presupposes indignation and indignation at this level is presumed to be righteous.
To add insult to injury, in defense of these views the exponents of such views often have recourse to the teaching of Jerusalem, the teachings of the Bible. Does not the Bible teach one to be solicitous of the weak and the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger, or the “other” in today’s parlance, in other words the “underdog”? To be sure it does but this is not all it teaches. It does not teach that justice or right is always with the so-called “underdog.” If it did it would not instruct judges to avoid corrupting their judgment through pity for the poor. But it does, just as it instructs judges not to be corrupted by the fact that the people before them may be of high station. Justice is not merely a matter of who is before us and what status they occupy in life but what he or she has done. Both strong and weak, rich and poor may commit injustice and evil. All this is ignored by the formulas about underdogs and indignities and so forth.
Moreover, it seems not to have occurred to my friend and others like him that an underdog may sometimes be a mad dog and even attack targets which are not the true source of his misery. Or how else is one to take such things as the following statement. It comes from a letter left behind by a group of Iraqis who recently attacked and were killed by American troops.
“Today we have sacrificed ourselves to defend our honor and pride. We have sacrificed our souls for the sake of Islam, sacrificed our souls to get rid of the monkeys, pigs, Jews and Christians. To all our brothers and sisters, we prevail on you to be joyful with us.”
The European and Western defenders of such so-called “freedom fighters” are certainly correct that the struggle concerns dignity. Indeed in the case of radical Muslims it is dignity or more precisely honor, pride, and even glory rather than freedom which is the principal preoccupation or obsession.
This one can tell from the fact that statements like the one I just cited are repeated hundreds if not thousands of times in Friday sermons, newspapers and other public statements.
But one must ask our Western intellectuals whether this is the sense of dignity they want to credit. Do they really want to be “joyful” for or with those Iraqis and their like? Perhaps not, but perhaps they will also say that the vicious sentiments those statements express and the vicious acts to which they lead are the understandable, because natural, reaction to the oppression from which these people suffer—the oppression understood to be a function of American or Israeli policy or earlier colonial rule.
Eliminate these policies and these sentiments would evaporate to be replaced by a healthier understanding of human dignity is the implication. Who knows? Anything, they say, is possible. But suppose it is the case that the most important source of their humiliation and rage and search for honor, lies not with foreigners, the dreadful “other,” but within their own societies and countries and even themselves. Suppose, as I do suppose, it is the case that it is the experience of tyranny and autocracy which has deprived Muslims of the prospect of dignity, either individually or collectively; individually because they lack any opportunity for political participation, and therewith the most classic form for the full exercise of freedom and the expression of healthy pride, or collectively since the overall political result is weakness and backwardness, as was pointed out in the recent UN Development Report for the Arab world and hence a collective sense of inferiority and humiliation. Suppose it is the case, that the primary contemporary failing of the underdog is the attitude, Fouad Ajami has called “belligerent self-pity,” an attitude which forecloses the possibility of serious moral and political self-examination and, if necessary, self-criticism, without which no real progress toward dignity is conceivable. And suppose it is the case that the principal failing of Westerners is the indulgence of this belligerence and self-pity.
If this is the case and it is not understood or addressed, then where will we be? We will be, or rather remain, in the land of illusions and delusions, a land in which it is supposed that the non-existence of Israel or rather now its disappearance or the restraint of America would solve their problems. The former—the disappearance of Israel—would not solve any problems—especially problems of dignity. As for American action, it may be the only thing which is sufficient to serve as a catalyst for healthy change.
These two forms of delusion, the Western and the Muslim, are today joined together in a most unwholesome and even bizarre symbiosis and dynamic—moral, political and psychological. They seem practically pathological and for that reason one must entertain some doubt that they are amenable to serious moral, rational or theological argument.
Perhaps the best one will be able to do is to protect oneself as best as possible from people in the grip of these delusions.
Nevertheless, one must try.
Or at least I must try since I agreed to, perhaps foolishly. I must try to describe what approaches might penetrate or dispel such delusions, to ask whence might come some assistance since the task is so difficult, and finally what Israel, the fact of Israel might, contribute to this, contribute to a healthier understanding.
Evidently this would require a change in ordinary contemporary moral discourse, a moral discourse which has the habit of mistaking a terrorist for a freedom fighter, which speaks of cycles of violence instead of just and unjust violence or which tends to treat so-called “victimhood” as the chief moral standard.
Perhaps this is what my hosts had chiefly in mind and my task is to indicate just how that change might be brought about. I will try to say a few useful things before I am finished. But it seems to me that the misunderstanding which afflicts us is not only moral but political, that what is lacking is not only a healthy moral understanding but a healthy understanding of political life. Such an understanding seems to me to be equal if not greater in importance than the moral arguments in which we must engage for a variety of reasons which I will mention along the way. But most generally the reason is that the moral understandings or misunderstandings that swirl about Israel, terrorism and the issues of freedom and dignity have a peculiar, unjust and dangerous abstraction from political life and the way in which moral behavior must typically be imbedded and embodied in political life. This stands in the way, if there is a way, to an appreciation of Israel and its relief from moral, if not physical, attack.
In what would this understanding consist? To begin with it would take the true measure of the fact that modern politics is organized around the nation-state and is likely to remain so for a long time despite utopian predictions to the contrary. Most importantly for our purpose it would take the true measure of the equally important fact that the modern nation state in its republican or democratic and especially liberal mode, i.e. in its protection of individual rights, is the only form of political life, at least under modern conditions, which provides the conditions for the true exercise of freedom and the pursuit of dignity in its richest sense.
Finally, it would reflect with the necessary depth and thoroughness on the fact that the modern republican nation-state was and is an attempt by modern man to reconcile the respective claims of the universal and particular to which man is subject, especially in modern times and especially as the heir to the Biblical teaching. This means to confront the fact that the modern nation-state and modern politics generally presents a paradox, but a paradox in which we are all entangled and in which we will remain entangled.
Why are these political reflections as important and urgent as moral reflection? Could one not simply insist on the restoration of simple moral and legal distinctions, especially with regard to terrorism? One could and I’m all for it.
One might begin by insisting on the restoration of some simple moral and legal distinctions, especially with regard to terrorism. Indeed if we do not—the logic of our moral confusion or rather moral obtuseness will lead, indeed has led, to grim results not only for Israelis but for everyone. Let me explain what I mean.
Terrorism has a very specific meaning—violence against non-combatants. Such violence has no legitimacy. It is pure murder.
This distinction is sometimes difficult to apply but it is not difficult to understand. Indeed the terrorists who afflict Israel make clear that they understand and even accept the distinction if only through the perverse arguments they put forth justifying their indiscriminate violence against non-combatants. For what they argue is that there are no Israeli non-combatants—all adult Israelis may have or may still serve in the Army. All children presumably will. They are thus all fair game. This is the logic of the terrorists. It is also the logic of Srebnica, where the targets of the argument were Bosnian Muslims. It is the logic of genocide. Were it applied by Israel, it would lead to the expulsion if not the eradication of all Palestinians.
The defenders of terrorism would by this logic create a world in which all national disputes must be pushed to the ultimate extremes of violence.
Strangely enough the Western defenders of terrorism and this moral confusion are most to be found in Europe, a place which claims to have drawn the lesson of hundreds of years of national, ethnic and interreligious violence. The new found wisdom of the builders of the new order of international law, peace and harmony is supposed to be the precious distillation of that experience.
But somehow that experience does not permit them to recognize simple murder or to realize that without that recognition the logic of Sreberica prevails. Of if they do recognize this, they do so only after the fact, after unarmed men, women and children are already rotting in mass graves.
The peak of this moral irresponsibility seems to be found in France. There the imminent execution in the US of a serial rapist and murderer of small children is considered the peak of barbarity. Marches are organized, candle light vigils are staged. But the killing of Israeli children on a bus or even the beating of French Jewish children in the streets of Paris are considered just part of a “fight for freedom.”
We can and should insist on restoration of some simple moral and legal distinctions, but there is a limit to what this can accomplish.
The difficulty has by now become more or less obvious. The claims of freedom and dignity are now always available to trump the insistence on ordinary decency and the distinctions upon which it rests. Worse still, the understanding of freedom and dignity is typically abstract, impoverished and defective. For example, the proponents of so-called freedom fights in both Europe and the Muslim world, never seem to ask themselves whether any particular freedom fight has or actually will lead to either freedom or dignity. They never seem to ask whether such fights actually have or will lead to tyranny, oppression and humiliation. Occasionally some of the alleged beneficiaries of such struggles raise this question but their voices are usually drowned out or silenced. Finally, these people never seem to ask whether the freedom fight they are championing actually puts at risk and might destroy the modicum of freedom and dignity which has been achieved in one place or another, for example Israel.
Israel has been very much and very unfairly the victim of such abstractions and obtuseness. It has also been the victim of a vast abstraction and confusion about what is and what is not achievable in the resolution of the tensions between universal and particular or parochial claims in real human life. Indeed its enemies cannot decide of which claims it is most in violation. On the one hand, it is attacked as being too parochial or insufficiently universalistic and cosmopolitan in insisting on being a Jewish state. On the other hand, parochial attachments, such as the Palestinian or Muslim ones, are assumed to be good but Israel’s particular claim to its land is regarded as illegitimate. It is a known rule of human that that people will try to have their cake and eat it too. What is remarkable is that in the case of Israel they seem to succeed.
In both cases, what goes unappreciated is that Israel has succeeded, sometimes more, sometimes less but always better than most nations and political movements in reconciling the tension between the universal and the particular. Moreover, that the exercise of freedom and dignity is greater in Israel than in most other countries, for all its citizens. To put the matter differently, Israel could be taken as a model for this reconciliation and the exercise of freedom rather than as a country whose defeat or destruction would vindicate these noble ambitions.
Nor is this simply a modern phenomenon. The characteristics of modern day Israel may be traced, if only in part, to the ancient nation of Israel and its distinctive embodiment of the combination of the universal and the particular and of its attempt to reconcile additional tensions between freedom and dignity, which may also entail some paradoxes.
This is derived on the one hand from the fact that its national existence is grounded in the fact that it is constituted both by faith in the one God who has created all men in His image and through descent from a particular family the family of Abraham. It was embodied even before Sinai in God’s original promise to Abraham that his descendants would form a nation but that through him all families and all nations would be blessed.
An appreciation of Israel in this two-fold way and light might go a long way to achieving the objectives of this conference which are in themselves two-fold – to defend Israel from unjust attack and to benefit the world generally through such wisdom as Israel provides.
What then stands in the way? Perhaps in part it is our own understanding of Israel and political life which has failed to meditate sufficiently on the meaning of God’s original promise to Abraham and its implications. Or if it does notice the paradox, it seeks to resolve it typically by insisting on the absolute superiority of one of the two elements. Instead we might rest a while in awe of this paradox and ask ourselves whether or not some paradoxes are fruitful rather than sterile or destructive. In doing so, we might broaden our political reflections to include the United States which also presents a fruitful paradox.
But we don’t nor does Europe and the Muslim world. Instead we and they follow a course to an abstract and allegedly purer vision. In the case of Europe and the Muslim world the roots of that inclination seem to be the declining or total absence of any real contemporary experience of republican or democratic life on the one hand and a remarkable abstraction from the force of the nation-state as the dominant political reality on the other. No doubt in each case the causes are different but they lead to the same result. Illusions and delusions reign.
In the case of Europe it can hardly be said that it always lacked real experience of democratic politics. But it is now abandoning such politics in favor of a largely private understanding of freedom and dignity understood as requiring autonomous self-expression and also comfort. The Muslim world on the other hand more or less lacks that experience. One might say that Europe is post-political; the Muslim world pre-political. But in both cases there is a lack of appreciation of the real political conditions of freedom and human dignity and an escape into utopian understandings of the human condition. For Europeans the formula is international institutions and law and the creation of a new identity. In the Muslim world, under the leadership of the radicals and the Wahhabis, the formula is Islam. Islam, it is said, is the solution to all that is problematic, an Islam which is very simple, abstract and ultimately artificial, an Islam which will unite the worldwide Muslim community or Ummah as a political entity culminating in a new caliphate.
In neither case, is there an appreciation for the hard but rewarding work, political and otherwise, that is essential for any freedom or dignity worthy of the name.
How can we address this situation? It will not of course be easy but we are not entirely without resources. As I suggested before some serious reflection on the Biblical teaching might be fruitful. Still we cannot expect that to be decisive with people of other traditions, religious and intellectual. They would have to find their own way to the truths most needful at the moment. This will require in many cases the back door of America, for in America there are people, Christians and now some Muslims, meditating fruitfully on these questions.
I think of the many Evangelical Protestant leaders and thinkers who through renewed political and religious reflection have come to a new appreciation of America and Israel and are now resolved to fight for their well-being.
I think for example of my colleague and friend George Weigel who has devoted his life to reconnecting the Catholic moral tradition to its political tradition, beginning with the resurrection of just war theory after it essentially disintegrated some 30 years ago. This has had an important impact on the American Catholic perspective on terrorism. George and some of his colleagues in this endeavor have been making every effort to instruct their European brethren.
I think of some, especially young, American Muslim scholars and intellectuals who understand the important tasks before them, have eschewed self-pity and have been willing to run the risk of attack from the radicals. They know that the first necessities are a genuinely Muslim understanding of citizenship and democratic ethos.
I think of some American political scientists who have struggled to maintain, elaborate and apply the Western tradition of republicanism, some hundreds and even thousands of years old, which Europeans have neglected.
Though the immediate effects of these efforts are in the American sphere, there is always a prospect that this will have a wider impact in the European and Muslim worlds. Certainly that is the hope and frequently the effort.
Besides in America one can sometimes find help from unusual quarters. I think for example of the remarks of President Bush at the UN September 23 of this year. Let me quote at some length.
By the victims they choose and by the means they use, the terrorists have clarified the struggle we are in. Those who target relief workers for death have set themselves against all humanity. Those who incite murder and celebrate suicide reveal their contempt for life itself. They have no place in any religious faith. They have no claim on the world’s sympathy and they should have no friend in this chamber. (Would that the latter were so.)
Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides, between those who seek order and those who spread chaos; between those who work for peaceful change and those who adopt the methods of gangsters; between those who honor the rights of man and those who deliberately take the lives of men and women and children, without mercy or shame. Between these alternatives, there is no neutral ground. But of course, as everyone knows, Bush is a simplistic and ignorant man. The book he knows best is the Bible.
All I can say is we could use more men like Bush and his staff, which crafted a moral discourse superior to any you will typically find in our colleges and seminaries, our newspapers and our books, through a whole series of remarkable speeches inspired by a healthy combination of political and Biblical insight.
We seemed to have returned to the beginning. Perhaps the stone that the builders rejected is in the process of becoming the cornerstone once again.