A Conversation with Avishai Margalit


Avishai Margalit, the Shulman Professor of Philosophy emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, came to the University of Montana to speak on 28 February in the President’s Lecture Series. Excitement over his visit had been building for weeks. One of the foremost living philosophers and particularly renowned as a brilliant commentator on contemporary moral issues facing Western societies, he also provides cogent and independent-minded analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader struggle between Islam and the West. He is one of the most honored foreign visitors ever to appear here.

Regrettably, Margalit’s arrival coincided with one of Missoula’s worst blizzards in decades. The university administration had to shut down the campus and then to cancel his faculty-student seminar and town-gown lecture. It was a painful decision, mitigated for the community only by his agreeing to return next year.

At a post-cancellation lunch in Margalit’s hotel safe from the howling snowstorm outside, several people connected with the lecture series talked with him about, among many other matters, what he would have told the Missoula town-gown audience had the blizzard held off. He had planned to speak in his evening lecture about the Arab spring and the Israeli spring.

Margalit could find little ground for hope about the Arab spring, which had begun in Tunisia as a protest against the authoritarian regime there. Nobody, not even the retainer class of regime, believed in it any more. Similar movements soon got underway in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Arab world. These popular uprisings against authoritarian states led to widespread euphoria in the region and to great expectations in the West that democracy at last would be embraced by Muslim peoples.

Democracy, however, failed to materialize in these societies. Instead revolutionary violence was followed by counter-revolutionary violence amidst ever worsening economic conditions.Margalit cited the case of Egypt to illustrate his general argument about the Arab spring. Following the collapse of the Egyptian government, its historic anti-secular adversary, the Muslim Brotherhood, had won power in a democratic election. Margalit observed that this last organization had been admirably adapted to leading underground and dissident activities, but lacked the capacity to govern. The ineptitude of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government provoked an uprising, resulting in a military coup. In Egypt, the most important Arab country, the Arab spring has come back to its point of origin, with no visible sign of democracy.Margalit thought that the entire Arab world, its springtime of hope unfulfilled, faced a grim future. The economic and demographic fundamentals of the situation admit of little hope.

When the conversation turned to the Israeli spring, Margalit remained pessimistic, at least in the short term. If anything, the Israeli spring had an even narrower base of support, confined essentially to the secular youth of Tel Aviv, than the Arab spring did. He called this Israeli city “Manhattan,” where young people aspired to live secular Western lives. The Israeli spring he described as their reform movement to protect the country’s secular values.

Margalit could point to very little of a concrete nature in the way of a lasting legacy derived from the Israeli spring. The population base for such a reform movement faced overwhelming odds in the mainstream of the population. Strongly religious elements, the settlers, and the like carried enormous and effectively countervailing influence in Israeli politics. Moreover, Israelis kept electing Benjamin Netanyahu for a reason: they thought that the status quo was pretty good for Israel. A people thus inclined feel no need for the kind of change that the political metaphor of spring implies.

Margalit’s concern about Israel went even deeper than the country’s politics. He said that Israel suffered from a moral crisis. When asked if this crisis began in 1967 or 1948, he quickly answered, 1967. Margalit remains an Israeli committed to the country’s future, unlike his good friend, the late Amos Elon.

We talked over lunch about Elon and his disturbing book, A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East (1997). Though very critical of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and, particularly, “the self-destructive nature of Palestinian politics,” the book is mainly a compendium of Israel’s shortcomings. Like Margolit, he viewed 1967 as a moral disaster for militarily triumphant Israel. From that point on, Israel assumed the classic position of a colonial power, a point that Elon makes in the book by quoting Margalit. The settler movement seriously got underway then, with—as Elon describes them—its crowd of proto-fascists, fanatics, and true believers convinced that democracy had to be subordinated to Israel’s national and religious purposes. Elon could see no difference in principle between the Jewish extremists and the Nazis. Both, he wrote, were congenitally racist. The Jewish Defense League’s Meir Kahane, for example, viewed Arabs in exactly the same way that the Nazis viewed the Jews, as a cancer.

Elon’s chapter, “Demons of the Jews,” deals with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The police investigation of this murder “brought into focus the seedy underworld of ruthless terrorists informally allied with fairly prominent rabbis, religious leaders, mystagogues, kabbalists, and other salvation-mongers.” Such people were a rising force in Israel, and they did not want compromise with the Palestinians. To avoid such a dread fate, the rabbi-trained assassin, Yigal Amir, murdered Prime Minister Rabin, the instigator of the peace process and seen by the fanatical religious Zionists as an ally of Palestinian terrorists. Giving land to the Palestinians would delay the messianic process.

Elon thought that on the Israeli side of the Middle East conflict fanatics could be found who were every bit as deranged as the worst of the Muslim radicals. Because Israel, thanks to the United States, held a whip hand in the region, the Jewish fanatics, though violent to their core, had less reason to blow people up than Muslim fanatics did. A surfeit of power, not of morality, accounted for this difference.

The articles that Elon wrote for The New York Review of Books and other publications after 1997 were, if anything, more iconoclastic and destructive of Israel’s myths about itself than A Blood-Dimmed Tide had been. He came to view Zionism as the original sin of the conflict in the Middle East. In 2004, he left the country to live permanently in Italy, where he died in 2009. In his last years, Margalit told us, he had given up on Israel, a country increasingly—fatally, Elon thought—under the control of militarists and religious extremists.

Margalit strongly disagreed with Elon about Zionism and retains his belief in Israel. Jerusalem, he said, is home, but to save it compromises with the Palestinians must be made. The hour grows late for implementing the two-state solution, the only way for saving Israel as the democratic and humanistic society its founders envisaged.

Richard Drake

1 March 2014

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