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And Some Moral Philosophy

On Being Persona Non Grata to Palestinians, Too

by TED HONDERICH

You can learn from being unpopular. Indeed you can come to a philosophical thought or two.

My book After the Terror is about the moral state of the world after 9/11, more about the wrong being done by the rich world to Africa than anything else. In passing, though, it asserts the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism — to what as truly is their resistance to ethnic cleansing, their self-defence of their homeland.

The book distinguishes, as is pretty common, between two things. The first consists in the rightful founding of the state of Israel in 1948 after the Holocaust and also its continued and peaceful existence now within the borders it had in 1967. The second thing is the expansion of Israel since 1967, the further violation of Palestine and the Palestinian people. The first thing is Zionism. The second is neo-Zionism.

My more recent book Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy is not different from its predecessor. What its claim of the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism comes to is like what any claim of a moral right comes to. What it comes to it that the Palestinians’ self-defence against neo-Zionism is morally justified, which judgement is correctly and ordinarily expressed as a judgement of moral right since it is in accord with a fundamental moral principle. A claim of a moral right is a moral judgement with that kind of backing. In this case, the backing is the Principle of Humanity.

Recently, there was to be a meeting of the Palestine Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a college of the University of London. It would have three speakers. Two were John Rose, author of The Myths of Zionism (Pluto Press) and Norton Mezvinsky, co-author with Israel Shahak of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Press). The third speaker was to be me.

There was also to be another meeting, of the Philosophy Society at the London School of Economics, another college of the University of London. A paper would be read by me.

When the Palestine Society at SOAS realized that I am a Zionist, the invitation was withdrawn and I was dropped from the list of speakers.

At the LSE, the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences, which is not exactly the college’s philosophy department, departed from a habit. For whatever reason, it would not host the Philosophy Society’s meeting in its usual room to hear the paper ‘Terrorism for Humanity: The Moral Philosophy’. However, the Philosophy Society found another room elsewhere in the college.

The meeting in it was well-publicized in the university and it was large and continued for a long time — despite the attempted barracking of the speaker by a party of Palestinians, very likely students. Certainly they were condemnatory, if that is the word. Might this party of Palestinians have come down from SOAS to the LSE? It’s not a long way. Might they have come to hear, or stop being heard, what they would not hear in their own institution?

Reasons for the Palestinian Society at SOAS choosing not to hear a Zionist speaker, reasons given by a third party not a student or teacher at SOAS, were as follows.

"It isn’t my or anyone else’s obligation to hear unwelcome views in this respect, anymore than it’s the obligation of Jews to hear a Nazi point of view, black people to hear a white supremacist point of view, or Rwandans, Native Americans or Aborigines to hear justifications for their ethnic cleansing. Such horrors in history are simply wrong and unacceptable. To legitimise the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is to legitimise all the injustices I’ve just mentioned.

You know that I speak from a personal point of view. Nothing you can tell me will or should make me think my family’s eviction from their homeland was right or just, and there isn’t a single Palestinian family who does not have such a personal experience. I’m not calling for Jews to be ‘driven to the sea’, but for a recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees to restitution and repatriation if they so wish. Today, the rights of Iraqi, Afghan, Sudanese, Bosnian and Cypriot refugees is being supported. Why should the Palestinians be any different? To live in peace alongside those who evicted them is a Palestinian compromise, not an Israeli one.

If you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend visiting Palestinian refugee camps, particularly in Lebanon, and see the enduring, appalling consequences of Zionism. If you don’t do so, your argument is totally abstract and detached from reality and moral decency. Please excuse me if you don’t like my tone, but you must appreciate the sensitivity of this subject to me and other Palestinians."

Other Palestinians disagree with this one, partly for reasons having to do with what should be the nature of a university.

It makes you think, but how much?

It most certainly does not follow that to be persona non grata to some people on both sides of a conflict shows you are in the right. That is weak stuff. You need not go far to find counter-examples to the idea. You can, on occasions, infuriate both sides and be wrong. Still, to have some of both sides against you does establish something that is anathema to some on both those sides, which is independence of mind.

To revert to Zionism, and to some moral philosophy, a part of the justification of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was that the Palestinian people had not formed themselves into a state, or indeed, in common parlance, a nation. It was possible to believe that they did not have, so to speak, the self-consciousness of a people. They did not have, to speak differently about a related thing, a general will as a people. None of that had to be confused with the vicious nonsense, never believed by those who used it, of there being a land without people waiting there, into which could come a people without a land, the Jews.

The propositions about the want of a Palestinian nation and the self-consciousness of a people came together with others in 1948. One was the horror of the Holocaust, the categorical imperative that there should come into existence somewhere a national home for the Jews. Another proposition was about the possible, the conceivable. This excluded what later became clear, that a state of Israel should have been formed out of a part of Germany.

Now, in 2005, the history of the struggle of the Palestinian people since 1967 has proved something. Their self-sacrifice, indeed a oneness with respect to self-sacrifice, has proved something. It has demonstrated that it was not true in 1948 that they were not fully a people. They must have been. They did not come out of a hat later. The judgement that they were not fully a people, although to the world an informed and reasonable judgement, was mistaken.

A general point of morality or moral philosophy needs making. In general what is right, as is clearer to me now than it used to be, is always relative to the best information and judgement available.

What is right at any time depends on what can then be known and judged. Suppose the best research and experience is utilized in a man’s decision to to leave his money to a particular institute of cancer research. This is the research that must be taken as the most promising, and of course the most safe. It happens, however, in the course of time, that the research throws up some mutation or kind of plague that takes many lives horribly, maybe a multitude of lives.

Was the wrong thing done when the money was given to the institute? Of course not. The right thing was done, and it happened that the right decision turned out badly, catastrophically.

Of course you can speak differently if you want. You can say that from the later perspective the act of philanthropy was not right but wrong. That alternative exists but does not much matter. It marks only a decision as to the use of a word. It remains the case that the philanthropy was right in the fundamental sense that it was then the best thing that could happen in terms of all that was then known and best judged. The philanthopy was right too in the sense that carries an agent’s moral credit rather than discredit with it. In the other way of speaking, you can be morally approved for a wrong act, held responsible for a right one.

Let us then return to Zionism, and 1948, and now.

It remains the case that Zionism was right in the most important of senses. The founding of Israel was what ought to have happened, what there was an obligation on all parties to forward, in the state of things then. That is consistent, however, with another judgement made today. This judgement today, given the best knowledge and judgement now, is that the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine was wrong. The Palestinians were not as we thought. They were more than that. They have proved that by their struggle.

That cannot be the end now of your reflections, however. A half-century has passed since 1948, and more than the state of Israel exists. If that state is a nuclear power and violator pretending to be a victim, it is also the state of what is now the homeland of a people. That has come into being. Their lives are in it, their defensible desires, hopes and expectations. So are what matters less, the identifications with them of so many Jews elsewhere. What began wrongfully, from the present perspective, could come to acquire a justification from that same perspective. It did. Certainly that is my view.

A summary then. (1) In 1948 Zionism was right. (2) In 2005, given history since 1948, the existence of the state of Israel within its original borders requires our moral defence, as does its secure future. (3) Also from the perspective of 2005, the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine was wrong, on account of the reality of the Palestinians as a people, proved thereafter. (4) Neo-Zionism is obviously viciously wrong.

The importance of the third proposition, the judgement now on 1948, is that it contributes to the foundation of something else. That is (5) that the Palestinians have had a moral right to their terrorism against the enlarging of Israel. No change in thinking there.

TED HONDERICH is Great Britain’s outstanding progressive philosopher. One of his past books was Punishment, The Supposed Justifications. Another was the funny and deadly examination of a political tradition, Conservatism, and a third Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy. His two most recent books are After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press) and Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (Pluto Press). He can be reached at: honderich@counterpunch.org