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Michael Walzer's Tortured Ethics
Published on Wednesday, July 26, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Michael Walzer's Tortured Ethics
by Mark LeVine
 

In a recently posted piece that has drawn significant attention as one of the best defenses yet penned of Israel's actions in Lebanon, world-renown Princeton University Philosopher Michael Walzer argued that Israel's overall strategy fit the criterion for a Just War, despite the disproportionate civilian toll its attacks have taken and the wholesale destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure that came with it.

Walzer's article, and the logic and argumentation it contains, reflect the thinking of the liberal, or Democratic establishment about the current war in Lebanon. His ideas are crucial because his reputation attaches to them a legitimacy that allows the liberal/Democratic establishment to continue with its policy of supporting Israel regardless of its actions, which is certainly a prudent course to take if one is interested primarily in winning the 2006 mid-term elections.

But if one is really interested in "the ethics of battle," as his article is entitled, then Walzer's arguments are frighteningly simplistic, inaccurate, and veering towards the bigoted. That someone of his stature could write such a piece is a sad testament to the state of liberalism and the Democratic establishment in the United States today (I'm less sure what this says about the philosophical profession, and hope that other philosophers will correct the perception that it too has gone to hell). Moreover, it provides fresh evidence for why President Bush continues to succeed in pushing America's foreign policy agenda towards the Right despite the ostensible failure to achieve most of his goals -- a move, however, that this article makes clear is only quantitatively and not qualitatively or substantively different from the beliefs of the so-called liberal foreign policy establishment.

To begin with, Walzer utterly fails to understand that his descriptions of Hezbollah and Hamas- an "enemy whose hostility is extreme, explicit, unrestrained, and driven by an ideology of religious hatred," or later as a movement that "does not recognize the legal and moral principle of noncombatant immunity" could, sadly, be used to describe the views of the Israeli government and the IDF towards Palestinians, and now Lebanese. Certainly Palestinians and much of the Arab world view Israel in these terms, and that perception is supported not just by the magnitude and purposefullness of Israel's attacks on civilians and infrastructure in Lebanon (which are, of course, war crimes), but its regular and systematic attacks on similar Palestinian targets as well long before the current crisis.

What is openly discussed in the Israeli press - the deep prejudice at the heart of Israeli society and policies, which go back decades to the core of Zionism as a militant nationalist movement (as the Israeli sociologist Gerhson Shafir describes it), the racist language often used to describe even Palestinian citizens of the state ("a cancer" according to a former Education Minister), not to mention the predilection of the IDF to ignore "noncombatant immunity" in its operations, and the systematic and often indiscriminate use of violence against Palestinians practiced by the Israeli military, are all absent in Walzer's discussion.

Indeed, when Walzer asks "how does anyone fight an enemy like that?" he seems blind to the fact that it is just this exasperated question that is asked by the likes of Hamas as a prelude to justifying its own terroristic activities. Similarly, in claiming that "Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the suffering their own activity brings about," Walzer seems unaware that successive Israeli governments, and the consistent Israeli policies against allowing Palestinians anything close to real independence and freedom, have followed the same logic. Why is Walzer so blind to this point, particularly when it is a subject of such contention within Israel?

But Walzer's argument isn't just flawed in theory and ethics, it is flawed in its causality. He explains in justifying Israel's response as within the parameters for a Just War, "The most important Israeli goal in both the north and the south is to prevent rocket attacks on its civilian population, and, here, its response clearly meets the requirements of necessity." Here he forgets that the rocket attacks were in response to the massive Israeli retaliation to the kidnapping of its soldiers. That is, they were not what prompted the Israeli retaliation, they were a response to it. Of course, this raises the question of whether Hezbollah would have launched the rocket attacks had Israel not retaliated militarily to the kdinapping of its soldiers, or had done so in a limited manner. My sense is that just as Israel was waiting for the opportunity to take out Hezbollah, Hezbollah was waiting for the chance to use its rockets. But neither potential calculus changes the factual order of events, in which Israel responded to the kidnapping of its soldiers (and action, against it must be stressed, that Israel has practiced time and time again) by launching a full scale war against the civilian population of Lebanon.

Similarly, when Walzer mentions that "some 700 rockets have been fired from northern Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal a year ago--imagine the U.S. response if a similar number were fired at Buffalo and Detroit from some Canadian no-man's-land," his question ignores the fact that Israel has fired innumerable and far more powerful rockets into Gaza, and has killed an almost exponentially greater number of Palestinians during this period than Hamas has killed Israelis, with rockets or by other means. And Gaza is not a "no-man's-land." It is the most densely populated piece of land on earth, with well over a million people living in something approaching abject misery thanks to the occupation and now imprisonment of the Strip.

For Walzer, "the crucial argument is about the Palestinian use of civilians as shields," and one can imagine the same would apply to Hezbollah's use of this tactic as well. But again Walzer's logic is seriously flawed. First, his belief that "when Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire" is legally wrong. In fact, Israel, particularly as the occupying power in Palestine but also as a belligerent in this and the Lebanese conflict, has an obligation under the Hague and Geneva conventions not to indiscriminately fire at, injure or kill civilians whatever the provocation by the other side. Second, the claim that Hezbollah uses civilians as shields is not supported by the research of any independent human rights organizations (see Stephen Zunes' point by point rebuttal of most of the charges against Hezbollah and Hamas contained in last week's Congressional resolution in support of the Israeli invasion).

In this context, when he continues by arguing that "civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks" he is trying to naturalize and make an inevitable outcome of the conflict a reality -- the large scale civilian casualties from Israeli attacks -- that is neither an inevitable or an acceptable state of affairs, from a legal or moral perspective.

Continuing with this argument, Walzer explains that he has refused to sign a condemnation of the Israeli operation in Gaza because he no longer believes that they are rooted in the Israeli occupation. Indeed, the most he's willing to admit to is that "in the past, I am sure, some Palestinian attacks were motivated by the experience of occupation," as if the rest were the result of pure hatred of Jews and Israel without a rational basis. Instead, he explains that because the attacks occurred after "Israelis departed Gaza and after the formation of a government that is (or was until the attacks) committed to a large withdrawal from the West Bank" they can only be the result a desire "to destroy Israel, a wish based on a "long-term aim that derives from a religious view of history. Secularists and pragmatists have a lot of trouble acknowledging such a view, let alone understanding it."

It is hard to overstate the unconscious - one can imagine - chauvinism and racism underlying Walzer's remarks here, a foundation that has deep roots in the history of European and later American imperialism in the Middle East and elsewhere in the non-Western world. But before we even get to the psychology underlying the remarks, Walzer's facts are again wrong. To begin with, Walzer makes the false assumption that Israel has actually "left" Gaza. In fact, what Israel did was remove settlers, turn the Strip into a giant prison, cut off most of its economic circulation to the outside world, regularly conduct raids to capture or kill people at will and without legal justification, and otherwise make life nearly intolerable for the region's million plus inhabitants.

Second, Walzer's belief that the Israeli government was committed to a "large withdrawal from the West Bank is a bald attempt to use ambiguous language to mask a meaningless statement. What does "large" mean? To the Israeli political establishment, withdrawing from sixty percent of the West Bank would be a "large" withdrawal, but to Palestinians and the rest of the world such a percentage would be woefully inadequate. So would eighty or even ninety or ninety-three percent. Walzer must know this, so by using such obfuscating language he is clearly trying to hide what he very well knows - that the so-called "end" of the occupation of Gaza in no measure meant that the West Bank, and therefore a viable Palestinian state, was going to become a reality in the foreseeable future. In fact, most Israeli scholars of the conflict believe that the Gaza withdrawal's purpose was precisely to make it easier for Israel to avoid anything close to a comprehensive withdrawal from the West Bank. Why does Walzer not even engage these facts?

But let's move to his notion that the "long-term aim" of Hamas and Hezbollah derive from religion. What does this suggest? That their views are clearly not pragmatic - that is, rational or reasonable, the two hallmarks of modernity and modern liberal thought. And if these two movements are neither rational, nor reasonable and pragmatic, well, then, as sad as it is, Israel will likely have to take some fairly unpleasant measures to protect itself, including inflicting large scale civilian casualties and destroying the economic foundation of the two societies, in order to stop the violence.

Perhaps Professor Walzer has not read the work of Baruch Kimmerling, the dean of Israeli sociologists. If not, he should read his last book, titled, tellingly, Politicide, for that is the only logical description for the activities he is condoning, particularly in the case of Palestine. He should also read the recent compilations of militant Islamist writings and preaching, such as those of bin Laden or other al-Qa'eda leaders. Their hate-filled view of Israel bares significant resemblance to his characterization of Palestinians or Lebanese, which he clearly assumes can be used interchangeably with Hamas or Hezbollah. In fact, however, while both movements enjoy wide popular support, their extreme and conservative theological and political visions are not shared by the majority of their fellow countrywomen and men, and who have demonstrated a clear willingness to "live and let live" with Israel that is at odds with the groups' official pronouncements (a reality that leaders readily admit to in interviews).

It is such blindness - willful or not only Walzer can say - to reality that actually leads him to argue that "the Israeli response has only a short-term aim." Does Walzer really think Israel's political and military leaders have no long term aims in this war, particularly when at the very start they said explicitly that their goal was to radically alter the status quo? Does he really think Iran and Syria have played no part in its considerations, or US strategy in the region? (For a much more accurate view of Nasrallah's likely rationale for the kidnapping, see Adam Shatz's piece in The Nation)

Walzer ends his article with the well-worn argument that "Israel needs a partner" for peace, one which clearly doesn't exist today. That may be true, but in what way has Israel demonstrated itself to be a worthy partner for peace in the last decade, never mind the last forty years? It has violated the terms of the Oslo agreement as a matter of routine; its wholesale expansion of settlements, destructions of Palestinian homes, farms, olive orchards and other agricultural land, killings and detention of civilians, refusal to abide by any of the agreements it signed with the PA whenever it suited its interests, all suggest that Palestinians have been equally deprived of a partner for peace. In Lebanon it would seem that Israel is on stronger ground vis-a-vis Hezbollah, but in reality it was precisely the last minute refusal of the Sharon government to honor the terms of its 2004 prisoner exchange with hezbollah (Israel refused to release three prisoners whom it had already agreed to release) that led Hezbollah leader Nasrallah to warn that the group "reserved the right to kidnap more Israeli soldiers" to use to exchange for the prisoners left behind. Indeed, the very name Hezbollah gave the recent kidnapping operation, "Truthful Purpose," alludes to Nasrallah's determination to keep his promise to force Israel to complete its end of the original deal.

Walzer closes his article by calling on the international community to "sponsor and support" Palestinian and Lebanese governments that can make real peace with Israel. This is certainly good advice, but it will prove worthless if at the same time the international community, and particularly the United States, do not sponsor and support an Israeli government that is equally committed to reaching a just and lasting peace in the region. And until, at the very least, American liberals are willing to demand our government do just that, the peace Walzer seeks will remain a distant dream, while the wars that continue will be anything but just.

Mark LeVine is a Prof. of History at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of "Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil." For more information see: www.culturejamming.org

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