Quite a few people have written me with substantive questions about my last letter, “Israel Through European Eyes” (Jerusalem Letters 5, July 14, 2010). Most of this letter will be devoted to trying to answer two that have come up repeatedly: (i) The question of why New Paradigmers, so opposed to Israeli policies and actions, nevertheless look with forebearance on other nation-states and their doings; and (ii) the related question of whether this double-standard doesn’t suggest that the campaigns of vilification conducted against Israel are actually driven by a form of classic anti-Semitism. In my view, these two questions address the heart of the matter. If we can get good answers to them, I think we’ll have arrived at a pretty clear sketch of what the new approach to Israel that has been embraced by many in Europe is all about. At the end, I’ll touch on (iii) some questions that have been raised regarding my reliance on Kuhn’s theory of paradigms, and I’ll use these as an opportunity to comment on what I think Jews and friends of Israel will have to do if they are to meet the challenge I’ve described.
1. Why do New Paradigmers, who have such a difficult time accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish nation-state’s efforts to defend itself, tend to support the establishment of other independent nation-states, such as a Palestinian Arab state? And why do they tend to overlook the use and abuse of force by scores of other nation-states?
In my last letter, I argued that the principal force driving the progressive delegitimization of Israel in the media and on university campuses in recent years has been the advance of a new paradigm in international relations emanating, first and foremost, from Europe. As I understand the matter, the drive to subordinate the nation-states of Europe to an international political organization, the European Union, has caused severe damage to the principle that originally granted legitimacy to Israel as an independent nation-state: The right of the Jewish people to independent, unilateral action where its leaders see such action as needed to defend Jewish lives and interests. Many in Europe increasingly see such national self-help as illegitimate, and this is moving them toward a systematic rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. Moreover, this view is quickly spreading in North America, in Israel, and elsewhere, as well.
Many of those writing to me have asked a version of the following question: If the intensifying hostility to Israel is being driven, to a significant degree, by the collapse of support for the idea of the independent nation-state, why do so many of Israel’s harshest critics support the establishment of an independent nation-state for Palestinian Arabs? Why do they decline to criticize the use of force by other nation-states such as North Korea, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab regimes, and by many other countries in the Third World? Many of these regimes use force far more aggressively than Israel does—in some cases committing atrocities on an unimagined scale. If the nation-state paradigm has collapsed, why does there seem to be at least passive support for the right to independent action when it is exercised by such regimes?
As before, the beginning of an answer is to be found in the writings of the New Paradigm’s most important architect, Immanuel Kant. Recall that for Kant, human history should be seen as a progressive movement from barbarism to the eventual triumph of morality and reason, which he equates with the establishment of a single world government. Human beings first give up their selfish, lawless freedom by joining together in nation-states; then these nation-states must do the same thing, giving up their selfish, lawless freedom by subordinating themselves to a single universal government. Unlike Marx, Kant isn’t sure that this movement of history is inevitable. But he does see this as the only historical development that can legitimately be considered moral and in accord with reason. Any other view of history “would force us to turn away in revulsion.”
This progressive interpretation of history doesn’t mean that all nations are moving along the path from barbarism to reason at the same rate. On the contrary, Kant believes that there are different levels of achievement along this road, and that different peoples reach them at different times. As he explains in an essay called “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” (1784) when peoples form themselves into nation-states governed by the rule of law, they leave the savage state and reach the level of civilization. But civilization is not moral maturity, which is an altogether different level in the history of mankind. This ultimate level is attained only when there is an international governmental framework “in which every state, even the smallest, could expect to derive its security and rights not from its own power or its own legal judgment, but solely from this great federation, from a united power and the law-governed decisions of a united will.”
So at any particular time, a given people is in a condition of savagery, civilization, or moral maturity. The Greeks and Romans, Kant says, bequeathed ever-improving political constitutions to Europe, and Europe “will probably legislate eventually for all other continents.” But in Kant’s day there didn’t seem to be any nation that had reached the level of moral maturity, and Kant predicted that the civilized nations would have to go through much more pain and suffering before they were ready to “renounce [their] brutish freedom” and submit to international government. The rest of the world, remaining savage, had not yet taken even the first step of banding together in the form of solid nation-states. And they’d obviously have to do this before anyone could seriously entertain the thought of their rising higher.
I think that if you consider Kant’s argument carefully, you’ll find it generates exactly the New Paradigmers’ position with respect to our own present-day international arena. On this view, there is exactly one place in the world where the nations have finally reached the level Kant calls “moral maturity”: The European Union. Only there has it become clear to many that the order of nation-states must be transcended. Only there is the right to independent national action on its way to being disposed of. Only there (as New Paradigmers see it) are people morally mature, not just at the level of individuals, but of entire nations.
From this point of view, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, the Arabs and the Third World are at a much more primitive stage in their history. They’re still trying to escape savagery, still trying to consolidate genuine nation-states under the domestic rule of law. Once they get there, possibly centuries from now, they too will begin to understand the desirability of outgrowing their nation-states and reaching “moral maturity” under an international government just as the Europeans are now doing. This explains the enthusiasm of New Paradigmers for the establishment of new nation-states in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as their relative disinterest in the aggression and atrocities committed by (as they see it) the half-formed nation-states they find in these places. In the eyes of the new paradigm, all of this is just a necessary stage they have to go through: Like children, they aren’t grown up yet, and just don’t know better. And they won’t for a while.
Nothing like this can be said about Israel, of course. In the eyes of the new paradigm, the Jews are seen as a European people, and the standards applied to us are those that are supposed to apply to Europeans. On this view, the Jews reached the level of “civilization” long ago, and should know better than anyone else that the nation-state system is still only the level of “brutish freedom” (as supposedly proved by the Holocaust), which must be renounced in the name of moral maturity. Hence the disgust and rage leveled at Israelis and Jews who insist on resisting all this: The Jews aren’t seen as innocent savages. When we insist on acts of unilateral self-help in military matters, or on relying on our own legal judgments, we are seen as former Europeans who have grotesquely turned our backs on the path to moral maturity. We aren’t children, who really aren’t responsible because we don’t know better. We’re adults, who do know better and have freely chosen the path of unreason and immorality.
This explains why there is such an imbalance between the way many in Europe see Israel and the way they look at Iran, Turkey, the Arabs and the Third World. The chronic and growing double-standard comes directly from the Kantian interpretation of history. Wherever the new paradigm strikes root, there you’ll find the moral demands made of Israel are jacked up ever higher, while the standard expected of Israel’s Muslim neighbors drops through the floor and approaches zero. This for the simple reason that the Iranians, Turks and Arabs aren’t considered to be at the right stage in their history to understand morality and reason. As Kant would say, with them “everything as a whole is made up of folly and childish vanity, and often of childish malice and destructiveness.” Of course, you could easily miss this because it’s neither polite nor politic to say that all these nations are no better than simple and violent children, and that nothing much is to be expected of them. But scratch the polite surface, and you’ll find that this shocking condescension, on the border of racism, is everywhere.
If this is right, and the terrible campaigns against Israel we are seeing stem from the fact that Israel, despite being perceived as a “European” nation, nonetheless continues to act as an independent nation-state—then we should be able to see cases in which a similar vilification is directed at other nations for this reason. Are there other examples of nations that have been subjected to such campaigns of vilification? And if so, do we find that these campaigns are indeed directed at nations that can be regarded, by New Paradigmers, as having failed to live up to the “moral maturity” expected of a European people?
I know of three other nations that have excited, in differing degrees, the same kind of disgust and moral vilification that we have seen directed at Israel: The United States, apartheid South Africa, and Serbia. In pointing to these examples, I do notmean to be drawing a comparison of any kind between Israel’s domestic or foreign policies and those of any of these three nations, nor do I mean to compare them to one another. The question I’m trying to deal with, as frankly as I am able, iswhether there are other examples of nations that have been subjected to the kind of campaigns of vilification that have been directed at Israel in recent years. And the answer to this question is undoubtedly “yes”. I’d like to try to learn from this—and not to shrink from admitting that New Paradigmers tend to see these nations as being in some ways similar. New Paradigmers think many terrible, unjustifiable things. As discussed in the last letter, they are quick to compare Israel to Nazi Germany as well. We can and should see these comparisons as horribly false and morally reckless. But if we are to understand the growing power of the effort to delegitimize Israel, we have to permit ourselves to recognize that these international campaigns are of a type, and to ask whether there is, within the new paradigm, a common force that propels them.
I’ll begin with the American case. A great deal has been written about the anger and disgust that has increasingly characterized European views of the United States, and I’m sympathetic to much of what has already been said in attempting to explain this hostility. But as far as I am aware, this literature has not focused sufficient attention on the fact that at the heart of much European criticism of the United States is an objection to the fact that the United States continues to act like a nation-state. Listen closely to the criticism leveled against the United States in Europe, and you’ll see that the Americans are often deplored precisely because they see themselves as an independent nation, with the right to actindependently—things that are not felt to be appropriate to the level of “moral maturity” that the United States should by now have attained.
For example, take a look at the German political theorist Herfried Münkler’s recent book, Empires (Polity, 2007; German edition, 2005). Münkler, of the Humboldt University in Berlin, is a member of the German government’s Federal College for Security Policy, an authority on Machiavelli, and a respected commentator in the German media. Moreover, unlike some political theorists, Münkler really understands a thing or two about the nation-state system. He knows quite well, for example, that the principal question in the international arena today is whether the West will continue to be a civilization comprised of sovereign nation-states, or whether it will return to a world in which empires compete to rule as much as they can grab. And he is crystal clear on the fact that Nazi Germany was no nation-state: Hitler’s entire purpose, Münkler writes, was “to destroy the nation-state system and to return to an imperial order.” Given the confusion that reigns on this subject at present, it’s encouraging to find a scholar on any continent whose insight into the subject is this sharp.
And yet, for all this, Münkler’s book rejects the idea that one must respect the independence of the American nation-state and accept its right to pursue the well-being and interests of its people in accordance with its own judgment. Indeed, Münkler writes that American policy in the post-Cold-War era is “disturbing” and “notorious,” not because of the substance of the decisions the Americans are making, but because of their “refusal to join international agreements” that other nations had signed; and because of the willingness of the United states to “solve… pressing security problems on its own.” As he writes:
[T]he possible causes and hidden goals of renewed U.S. military intervention in the oil-rich Gulf region,… together with deep rifts in transatlantic relations, have focused attention in Europe on the emergence of a new world order…. With Washington’s notorious refusal to join international agreements, from the Kyoto Protocol to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, we have been seeing a redefinition of the American position in world politics. Relations between the U.S.A. and the UN… are now fundamentally in question after President George W. Bush… threatened that the United States would solve some of the most pressing security problems on its own…
Worse, Münkler suspects that the Americans are willing to scuttle the United Nations as the world’s “supreme decision-making authority,” and that Americans do not view their military as existing to serve “the international community”:
In the spring of 2003, the third Gulf War demonstrated that this was no empty threat. One possible interpretation was that Washington… would not longer place its highly developed and costly military apparatus at the service of the international community but would deploy it in pursuit of its own interests and objectives.
In these and similar passages, Münkler does not find fault with the substance of American policies. His problem with American behavior is, rather, that the United States acts unilaterally, according to its own judgment. His problem, in other words, is that the United States acts as an independent nation.
How can this be? How can a senior German scholar of political theory, and advisor of the German government, be beside himself because the United States “refuses” to sign international agreements that it doesn’t see as being in the interest of its people? Because it is willing to solve what it considers to be pressing security problems on its own? The bottom line is that Münkler does not really accept the constitutive principles of the nation-state system. Like other leading European intellectuals, he is not really willing to recognize that America has a right to act in the service of its own people, their values and interests. (Given this, I guess it’s not surprising that by the end of the book we find Münkler arguing that the nation-state system is dying and that Europe should begin thinking of itself in terms drawn from the “imperial model”.)
The parallel here with Israel is, I think, quite striking. As with Israel, the disgust and anger always fix themselves on a particular decision of the United States: The Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the invasion of Iraq. The particulars come and go, and the objections to each particular American action are evidently sincere. But they aren’t what is driving the trajectory of increasing disgust and anger. What is driving it is the insistence on the right, where necessary, to unilateral action—that is, the insistence on living under the old nation-state system. And here, as in Israel’s case, the consternation is in accordance with a systematic double-standard: The Americans are reviled, and their behavior deplored, because they exercise independent judgment and pursue the interests of their nation. Who in Europe would dream of challenging China or Iran for exercising independent judgment and pursuing their own interests?
I want to touch on two much more extreme examples of such moral vilification: The delegitimization campaigns conducted against South Africa and Serbia, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the forcible expulsion of Serbia from Kosovo. Now I have no doubt that the South African regime was morally repugnant, and that the Serbs were responsible for outrages after the collapse of Yugoslavia. But the question on the table here is not the objective moral failings of these nations—a matter concerning which I don’t think there’s much disagreement among decent people. Rather, I want to know why these two nations were singled out for campaigns of unceasing moral vilification, when so many other nations rivaled them in bloodshed, oppression, and torture, and yet were largely ignored. My claim here is that the hatred directed against these nations cannot be explained simply by referring to the wrongs they committed. For who can seriously say that the Serbs had a worse human rights record than North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Sudan, or the Congo? In fact, who can seriously say that the oppression of blacks in South Africa, awful though it surely was, was more reprehensible than the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia today?
The apartheid regime in South Africa was indeed reprehensible, and Serbian actions in Bosnia were in many respects to be deplored. But I think that if we want to know why these peoples were singled out for special hatred and disgust, and for special punishment, the answer has to be that they were seen as Europeans, and were held to a moral standard without any relation to that expected of their black-African and Muslim neighbors.
Think about this: Why should 2 million Albanians in Kosovo be recognized as a second independent Albanian state—does it really make sense to establish a second independent Albanian state?—while 35 million Kurds continue to suffer terror and persecution, year after year, at the hands of the Turks and the Arabs for want of an independent homeland? The principal difference between the two cases, I submit, is that the Serbs who regard Kosovo as their own are perceived as a European people, who should know better; while the Turks and Arabs who continue to oppress and murder the Kurds are seen (from the perspective of the new paradigm) as childish savages from whom we can expect, morally, just about nothing.
The point is counter-intuitive but straightforward: If a nation is Western in any sense, then the expectations of it are in accordance with European standards—which increasingly means the Kantian standard of a complete renunciation of a national right to independent judgment and action, especially with regard to the use of force. Whereas on this view, Iran, Turkey, the Arabs, and the Third World are considered primitive peoples that have not yet even entered the historical stage of the nation-state consolidated under the rule of law. In practice, this means that much of the time, no moral standards are seen as applying to them at all.
2. Doesn’t attributing the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment to the collapse of the nation-state paradigm an over-simplification? Aren’t there other factors, including anti-Semitism, that have to be taken into account?
The collapse of the nation-state paradigm is certainly not the only factor contributing to hostility to Israel. This is obvious because what I am describing as the collapse of the nation-state paradigm was not really visible at all until the 1960s, at the very earliest, and only became a serious force in the West during the 1980s. There was plenty of opposition to the idea of establishing a Jewish state in the Middle East long before then, and there’s no reason to think that the factors standing behind this have disappeared: There are still people who think Israel shouldn’t exist because it endangers the West’s oil supply, or because the Jews are not really a nation and have no right to a country, or because of a visceral anti-Semitism in the classical mold. And of course there are people whose disdain for Israel really is linked to particular policies they don’t like. When it comes to opposition to Israel, there is certainly no one cause.
But this doesn’t mean that the particular factor I am describing—the collapse of the nation-state paradigm—is just another factor among many. It isn’t. Right now it is by far the most important factor. People may be worried about upsetting the Muslim world for fear of their oil weapon, or they may dislike the fact that Israel has built settlements in the West Bank, or they may be anti-Zionist because of an anti-Semitism inherited from their parents. But these are not terribly dynamic factors. They’re like the threat to Israel posed by the conventional armies of the Arab states: The threat is still there, of course, and it may yet do a lot of harm under certain circumstances. But it isn’t growing rapidly, and we know, more or less, what we have to do to deal with it.
The collapse of the nation-state paradigm in wake of European Union is a completely different story. It is a new force no one anticipated. It is already having an overwhelming effect on attitudes to Israel, eclipsing more traditional factors. It continues rapidly to grow in strength and reach with no end in sight. And it is a force that almost no one among Israel’s friends and allies seems to know how to deal with. Moreover, this particular idea—that the nation-state is an illegitimate form of government for a civilized people—has the capacity, if taken far enough, to destroy Israel all by itself. This does not seem to be true of any other factor that is usually named in discussing hostility to Israel.
So it’s not the only factor contributing to the tide of hostility to Israel internationally. But it is both the most important factor and the most urgent. And, so long as we have no appropriate response, I think it’s basically the only one that matters.
By the way, I wouldn’t be so sure that classic anti-Semitism is completely independent of the nation-state issue. Kant’s proposal to dismantle the nation-states of Europe and bring them under the rule of a single international government is an Enlightenment recapitulation of a much older Christian trope—to the effect that humanity can be united under a single salvific message. The Jews’ resistance to the new message is in certain respects akin to their resistance to the old one. I wouldn’t be surprised if turned out that the emotions New Paradigmers feel on confronting Jewish rejection of their scheme to dismantle the nation-state system—all that rage, all that disgust—are not a close family relation of those that some of their forebears felt in confronting Jewish rejection of the Gospel. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Jews, too, in the face of this reaction, are experiencing feelings akin to what their forefathers felt of old.
3. Further comments about the relevance of Kuhn’s work to philosophy, political theory, and the Jews.
I received a number of responses to my essay that raised questions about whether it really makes sense to apply Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigms to matters of political theory such as the present discussion concerning the nation-state, and to philosophical issues more generally. In part, this is a question about what Kuhn himself thought about scientific revolutions; and in part a question about what we think about Kuhn and his work.
Regarding what Kuhn himself thought, his doubts about the applicability of his theory to disciplines outside of the natural sciences are well-known. But Kuhn was hardly unequivocal on this point, and much of the impact of his work has come from the wilder side of his speculations as to what a paradigm really is. The famous Chapter 10 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, entitled “Revolutions as Changes of World View, ”strongly suggests that there is a cognitive basis for scientific revolutions, a suggestion that has supported the thesis that something similar to scientific paradigms and paradigm shifts may be operative across all fields of human endeavor. This reading of Kuhn is further supported by the fact that in his book itself, Kuhn explicitly uses the term paradigm to refer to frameworks for understanding reality well beyond the natural sciences. For example, Descartes’ famous division of human experience into physical and mental realms is for Kuhn a “paradigm” although one that is clearly not derived from physical science, but from philosophy—in fact, from metaphysics.
If the question is what Kuhn himself thought, then, I think my reading is plenty defensible. But I don’t think the central question here is what Kuhn thought. The central question is whether in reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we can gain some really critical insights into the nature of political reality.
And as I say, I think you can. I think that contests among different paradigms in political thought are very much like contests among scientific paradigms. This doesn’t mean that they are like them in every way. But they are like them in what I take to be the most significant ways: Paradigms are fundamental conceptual frameworks that permit us to make order in reality. A paradigm, once it’s installed, is a fact about your philosophy, your world view. But it is also a fact about your psychology. In politics, as in science, it determines what you can see and what you can’t see, and consequently, to a great extent, what you can and can’t believe. For example, I think it’s simply a fact that you normally only persuade people on political issues when you share a common paradigm, a common set of basic concepts that you apply in roughly the same way. This doesn’t mean you can’t change the dominant paradigm of an entire society or civilization. It’s pretty obvious you can. But doing this is not the same as persuading someone of something when they already share your paradigm. The usual tools and methods won’t work. You’ve got to learn to use new ones.
Which brings me to a criticism of Jewish public life that was left implicit in the last essay, and that I think bears saying outright. I’m a firm believer in international activism on Israel’s behalf, and I have a great deal of respect and admiration for AIPAC activists and the students out there on the campuses. But I think the substantial disconnect between all this activism and nearly the entire realm of serious thought on the subjects the activists are colliding with poses a danger to the entire enterprise. Israel’s existence as a legitimate and independent state depends on certain paradigms of thought—in philosophy, political theory, international relations theory, and the theory of international law, to name only some of the most obviously relevant disciplines. The fact that neither in Israel nor in the Diaspora are there many individuals active in public life who can tell you in clear terms what these paradigms are should be disturbing. Because when these paradigms are no longer secure, the foundations on which the State of Israel rests are no longer secure either. So you have to be able to take stock of whether those foundations are solid or cracked, whether they are holding or collapsing. You have to have the ability to figure out where the weaknesses are and, where necessary, to overhaul them. But you can’t do that if you don’t even know what those foundations are.
Maybe this means that the increasingly vicious opposition to Israel in the international media and on the campuses has a positive side to it. One of Kuhn’s important insights is that a paradigm begins to shift only in the face of what he callsanomalous facts—facts that stand out in a disturbing way, and resist every attempt at an explanation. These facts, psychologically, are the harbinger of a coming change. So maybe a change is coming to the Jews and their friends, and to the way they think about what it means to “defend Israel”. Maybe the ever more painful attacks on Israel in the media and on the campuses will serve as an anomalous fact that requires us to develop a new approach to the public life of the Jewish state. This new approach would involve overcoming the instinctive dismissal of intellectual effort that I’ve heard from Israel activists time and again. It would involve learning to “do theory”—that is, learning to work with theoretical principles of general significance, which are right because they are seen to be right in and of themselves, and only then trying to apply these principles to the Israeli case. It would involve coming to understand that such theoretical construction is not just some game for intellectuals. In political life, as in other areas of human endeavor, it is the basis for everything.
You can’t beat a theory with no theory. For too long, Jews and friends of Israel have been flying without a theory, assuming that when it comes to Israel, “the facts are on our side,” and that these facts would do all the work for us. But they aren’t doing all the work for us. Israel is being beaten, not by facts, but by a theory. And you can’t beat a theory with no theory.
How bad is it? I’m actually pretty optimistic. The Jews were once known as the “people of the book.” There’s nothing Jews do more readily, or with more success, than theoretical work once we put our minds to it. If we put our shoulder to the problems I’m describing, we can master them. We just have to stop assuming that all that theory—the philosophical, political-theoretical and legal underpinnings of our life as a nation—can be ignored because someone else is taking care of it.