Monday, February 21, 2011

Yoram Hoazony, Israel and the Conflict of Paradigms

I met Yoram Hazony -- an American-born Israeli conservative, as well as a writer, think-tank founder and soon to be college founder -- back in the early 90's, and attended one of his summer programs (a sort of trial run for the currently-in-formation Shalem College) for a while. I still consider him a friend, although I haven't actually seen him in well over a decade.This means that I am even more interested in his work than I would be normally -- and I think that normally I would be quite interested, since he is one of the more intelligent writers and thinkers working on Israel-related questions around. (Lest you chalk that up entirely to friend-related bias, I should perhaps add that I also disagree with him on a great many points, that our politics are wildly far about, and that I think a fair number of his claims are flatly wrongheaded. (The fact that this coexists quite comfortably with my admiration for his work is a small example of a well-known set of facts which are of deep interest to anyone studying epistemology.))

Recently he's started putting up a series of essays -- blog posts, really, although they're longer than what a lot of people think of when they think of blog posts (although not me, as a quick browse through the "some favorite attempts so far" links over in the right-hand column will confirm) -- under the title "Jerusalem Letters". I've been reading them avidly, and went so far as to write him a lengthy email replying to one of them. He never responded directly (no hurt feelings there: he's busy, I get it), but when he mentioned (in a recent bulletin) that he'd posted some of the replies he'd received to his letters on his new web site, I looked and, yep, he'd posted mine too. I had thought myself that I might rewrite it and put it up as a blog post, but had never gotten around to it; but since it's now in the public sphere, I'll go ahead and post it here, with only minor emendations.

The letter is a reply to two of Hazony's Jerusalem Letters specifically (and while they're all interesting, I think these are clearly the ones to read if you're only going to read two (and if only one, read the first of these). The first of the letters is titled Israel Through European Eyes (from last July), the second is a follow-up titled More on Kuhn, Kant, and the Nation-State (from August). (Hazony has since put up another follow-up post titled EU Council President Van Rompuy: The Time of the Nation-State is Over.) You really ought to go read the original letters, but the on-one-foot version is that Hazony argues that Kuhn's paradigm theory is an important tool to understand current conflicts about Israel, and that Israelis and Europeans are using fundamentally different paradigms to understand the Israeli situation. In my letter, I comment first on two secondary issues, and then on his central point.

And I think it's fair to say that the third paradigm I outline in this letter is the one that I myself hold; and that it is the crucial theoretical critique (as opposed to more practical critiques about the occupation, say) I'd make of the Zionist project.

(What follows is the letter I wrote Yoram, as posted on his web site (no permalink -- but you'll see it if you go to the second of the essays & scroll down). I've cleaned it up slightly -- added a few links and two footnotes, changed a few misspellings, reformatted the quotes and fixed the emphases from *asterisks* to italics -- but it's substantially unchanged.)

I have a very long response to your two essays -- which I think are extremely perceptive, and do a lot to explain differing political views, even though I disagree with you in some key respects -- in my head, percolating, waiting to be written. But I have two books to write, courses to teach, a son to raise: I'm sort of doubtful I'll get around to it. So herewith are three brief responses to three specific points. If they're somewhat weaker, as thinking & writing, than I'd like, I hope you'll try to see beyond them to the hazy fuller text which I may or may not ever get around to pulling out of the Library of Babel (in one of its myriad versions).


Most recent letter:
Münkler blames the fall of the nation-state system on the misbehavior of the United States, which he sees as abandoning its status as a nation-state and becoming an empire. I can’t make any sense of this claim. The principal hallmark of empire—the possession of a rationale for permanently ruling over an ever-expanding roster of nations—is entirely absent in the United States. No American I’ve ever met is interested in taking over Canada, although the United States could easily do it. No American I’ve ever met is interested in maintaining long-term control over Iraq or Afghanistan.
This only makes no sense if you think of "empire" purely in terms of a military empire, a la Rome. Now, we've had a little bit of that -- e.g. the Philippines, and of course the southwest was won in a war of conquest (which some, including Lincoln in his sole congressional term, decried as a war of aggression) -- but it's not been our main thing. But there are other models of empire, in which economic empire, dominating and economically exploiting areas without directly governing them -- economics backed up with military force which is more threatened than used -- is one. IMS, the Athenian Empire was basically of this sort. And so is the American Empire. Some of our wars can be seen as attempts to keep economically pliable client states in place (e.g. Vietnam). And of course we've knocked over a fair number of unfriendly governments more easily than that (Iran in '53, Guatemala in '54, Chile in '73, etc.) And while no one wants America to directly rule Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, I think some influential people (largely conservatives but also some neoliberals) want to establish friendly regimes, regimes friendly enough to keep bases on indefinitely -- as we are doing in Germany and Japan, say -- for the future projection of military force. So that fits too.

Now, you may not buy this as a description of America's last sixty-five years of foreign policy -- I wouldn't buy it in quite this form myself, although I would buy it in a rather more nuanced & carefully articulated version -- but it's a perfectly coherent notion of empire, and one with an ancient lineage as a usage.

Earlier letter
: "...we have to begin talking about what it takes to establish a new paradigm, or to rebuild an old one that has collapsed."

I read Kuhn a decade ago, early in grad school -- so not in college, but not recently either.* Still, my memory is that he never discusses or describes any notion of rebuilding a paradigm. Once a paradigm is gone, it's gone. Part of this is related to Kuhn's repeated (and complicated to interpret) insistence that his theory includes, indeed accounts for, scientific progress and not just change in world views (so perhaps this is simply not part of the analogy between scientific and non-scientific paradigms which would hold). But in considering what you want to do, it's worth thinking about.

Incidentally, if you think (and based on my memory of Kuhn it sounds correct to me) that paradigms collapse in the face of anomalous facts, what do you think are the anomalous facts which the current European paradigm can't explain or account for? (This is a genuine, not a rhetorical, question -- perhaps a good one for a future letter.)**

Finally, point three, generally on both letters: your description of the European paradigm may or may not be accurate -- I don't feel qualified to say. But I don't think it's accurate for America -- and, for liberal America at least, the other paradigm you present (of the nation state) doesn't fit either. There's a third paradigm that most of liberal America holds in some view or another, which you don't discuss -- but which is, I would claim, a driving force behind much of the criticism of Israel in the U.S. these days.

Very briefly, this paradigm holds that nation states are fine, but that any ethnic distinctions made by those states (or, really, anyone else) are abhorrent. Thus the U.S. acting as a nation state is fine, because it's an ideological, not an ethnic-based, nation state. (At least that's how liberals who hold by this paradigm would define it.) Similarly France, to the degree that it accords itself as an ideological nation state (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) and not simply as an ethnic state of the French, fits too. In this instance what makes Israel a particular offender is not that it is a nation state, but that it is a nation state built on and by an ethnicity. (Think of your colleagues Daniel Gordis's column upon Obama's victory, about how a Palestinian prime minister of Israel would violate its purpose: from the point of view of this paradigm, that purpose is illegitimate because (although not only because) it rules out such a change in Israeli society).

In this view, what distinguished the Nazis was not that they were a nation state, nor that they were an empire, but rather that they were a nation-state built upon an ethnic definition (Aryans good, Slavs bad, Jews the worst of all). Auschwitz occurred not because Jews couldn't defend themselves, nor because Germans were trying to create an empire, bur because the Germans distinguished between Germans and Jews rather than treating all of its citizens equally. - But all this is also rather separate: in the American view the reigning example of national wrongdoing (of which Nazism is considered an even more extreme example, but not the classic example, if you follow me) is Jim Crow: a nation (or a region of a nation) discriminating on the basis of ethnicity (in this case color). South Africa lost the U.S. when we looked and said not, "this is Auschwitz", but rather "this is Mississippi circa 1950". In the U.S., we're not post-WW2, we're post-Civil Rights Movement, at least in what our focus is in these areas.

And it's obvious, I trust, why Israel does not qualify as good under this paradigm.

People operating under this paradigm tend to focus -- too much, in my view, but legitimately -- on racism and other forms of discrimination as the worst types of evil. (I think that liberals would do good to take other evils more seriously -- I personally would make violence, particularly state violence, more central. But that's me.) So since North Korea oppresses all of its population, while Israel (arguendo) oppresses only part of it, that makes Israel more noteworthy. (Although in fairness, nearly everyone who operates under this paradigm (and here I include myself) would point out another, far more salient reason for people in the U.S. to treat them differently: the U.S. is complicit in any crimes Israel commits, through financial, diplomatic and other aid, but not in the crimes of North Korea; it is also correspondingly easier for us to help end them if we should so choose.)

This paradigm also explains why there is a divide among liberal Jews on Israel. Some think that Israel could withdraw from the territories and thereby rejoin the family of non-discriminatory nations (i.e. don't see what happens in Israel proper as Mississippi circa 1960, but only in the occupied territories), and thus support a two-state solution -- but find Israel, until then, to be an extreme offender on the "distinguish-by-ethnicity" count. Others think that the very definition of Israel as a Jewish state is the equivalent to South Africa (or Mississippi) defining themselves as a white state, and that the in-practice quality of life for Palestinian-Israelis isn't as important as the very act of defining and treating differently citizens by ethnicity -- and thereby the only real solution is a single-state solution in all of Israel/Palestine. (Still others would be in camp 1, but think it's now impossible, so are edging into camp 2).

-- I think that this paradigm more accurately captures American -- at least liberal American -- problems with Israel. I think it's a very different beast than the EU paradigm. And if you want to defend Israel, you're going to have to tackle it as well as the EU one.

...Yeah, that was the short version. Long version can be found c/o J. L. Borges, the Library of Babel.

I get a lot out of your letters. I look forward to the next.

* I hadn't figured this out yet when I wrote this, but obviously this is going to change soon since I'm assigning Kuhn in my Intellectual History course, so will reread it in a couple of weeks.

** Sadly, Hazony has not yet responded to this particular point. I still hope he will, though: it really was a genuine question!

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