vrijdag 9 september 2011

Levinas and Israel

In a weblog which among other things is interested in Levinas, Judaism and Israel the following question cannot be missed: what was Levinas’ position vis-à-vis Israel?

The first thing to notice when answering this question, is Levinas's commitment to the state of Israel. That attachment was not immediately there – like many others in the Orthodox Jewish environment in which he moved, he initially did not care a lot. But from the fifties onwards to Levinas applied what applied to his compatriot of equal age Raymond Aron: if he was to see that country disappear, he had not had the strength to live on any longer. Not that he has ever thought of migration to Israel, because he was simultaneously too much attached to France for that.

As to the political situation in and around the Jewish state, he generally kept himself away from that. He shrank from publicly commenting on current events.

Based on the rare occasions that he actually did comment, you could reproach him with a certain naivety or Schöngeisterei. Such as in a commentary in which he shows his enthusiasm for the ideas which he believes underly the modern states in which he feels at home, namely France and Israel. Solemnly he writes, after his first visit to Israel: “When a Jew is attached to a large modern Western state, or if he establishes a just state on ancestral land, then he joins again the true tradition of thinking”.

But he also realizes that philosophy cannot do much in the confrontation between politics and ethics, which he thinks is at issue in Israel. Thus he says in an interview with Alain Finkielkraut following the massacre in Sabra and Shatila in 1982: “Conflicts such as between morality and politics are unfortunately not likely to be solved by philosophical reflection”. The thing we should refrain of anyway, he says, is “invoking the Holocaust to say that God is with us in all circumstances. Because that is as odious as was the Gott Mit Uns that was written on the couple belts of the executioners”.

Maybe at this point his naivety gets an assertive trait, because when Finkielkraut in that discussion suggests that the pure reflective soul may well escape the quagmire of history, then he turns Schöngeisterei as it were into a badge of honor by embracing it: “For fear of being called a beautiful soul, one is rather an ugly soul”.

More problematic is that, on one of the few occasions that indeed he philosophically addresses a question on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Levinas does with his ideas not add much new or enlightening value. He was asked whether for the Israeli the other is not primarily the Palestinian. “The Other”, he responded, “that’s the fellow-man, not necessarily the close neighbor, but the latter also. And in that sense being-for-the-other is: being for the close neighbor. But if your close neighbor attacks another close neighbor or does an injustice to him, what can you do? At that time the otherness changes of nature; the otherness then can appear as an enemy, or at least the problem poses itself that you need to know who is righteous and who is unrighteous, who is right and who is wrong. Sometimes people are wrong”.

For the length of such a passage Levinas to me becomes instantly irrelevant. Because therein he simply joins in the common discourse of the legal and historical sciences and of the rational considerations of legitimate interests, as they are known to us from social and political philosophy. This is not to say that this discourse is not important - on the contrary - but simply that Levinas does not add anything original to the sophisticated ideas that others have already formed in this field.

Thus I come to a conclusion that I reached already before. In the political field – that is the macro level of human interaction – the use of Levinas is very limited. However, at the meso and micro level, at which for instance the human interaction in organizations takes place, he may be useful all the more.

See also How naïve is Levinas really?