woensdag 24 december 2014

Is Islamic compartmentalization possible and desirable?

In the debate about the integration of groups of newcomers in our country it is frequently suggested that the model of social-religious compartmentalization, as existed in the Netherlands during the twentieth century, could be valuable once more. Especially for the integration of Muslims the creation of an Islamic compartment (‘pillar’) could possibly serve us, so it is thought. Because such a compartment, with its own schools, broadcasting companies and  political parties, would on the one hand allow participation in the general Dutch society, and on the other hand secure the religious and cultural identity of Muslims.

But it does not seem to work that way. In some places Islamic schools have closed their doors, the establishment of a Muslim broadcasting company is difficult, and Islamic political parties are scarse.

The question is why the establishment of an Islamic pillar is so difficult. Especially since at first glance there is much similarity to the position of the major drivers of compartmentalism in the nineteenth century: the Reformed ‘little people’ and the Catholics. Both groups were somewhat socially disadvantaged, derived their identity largely to a (sometimes very) orthodox faith, and lived quite segregated. Compartmentalization offered them opportunities to gain social influence and thus promote their emancipation in society.

The similarity between those (former) groups and current Muslims is certainly situated in the disadvanced condition, and in the orthodox character of the group faith. But perhaps less in the desire for emancipation, and the absence of that desire could explain why an Islamic pillar is not going to emerge.

Because emancipation can also mean dilution of the original group identity. In any case, that dilution has clearly struck the Christian groups. In parliament, for example, Christian parties around 1960 had 80 of the 150 seats, now only 21. Schools which are still Catholic in name often often are not very conscioius about their identity, and originally Christian broadcasters are now having hard times.

My point is that this dilution was perhaps not very threatening for the respective groups of Christians, because many of the professed Christian values, such as equality of people and justice, had already found their place in the secular environment. Maybe that emancipation and the associated dilution of faith traditions coúld only take place because similar values remained intact. Namely, embodied in the liberal-democratic state which you can safely say  is a product of the Western-Christian tradition.

It is exactly that reassurance that may well be missing for Muslims. Emancipation, namely within the frame of the Western rule of law, and the associated dilution of traditions could give them the feeling of keeping nothing to hold on. Because the liberal-democratic state has not grown out of their tradition, so inner kinship therewith is missing. Dilution then really feels threatening, because being bereft of one’s identity is not an option.

Meanwhile emancipation and ingrowth into the Dutch law nevertheless find place. But now on the basis of personal choices of individuals, not of a collective arrangement. Integration expert Frank Tubergen notes that religious involvement decreases among Muslims, and that (therefore?) integration is going all right.

Are (therefore) also Muslims going all right?

Also see Alcohol

vrijdag 19 december 2014

Another Judaïsm?

I’m Jewish, but often I wonder whether I belong to the same tradition as those who emphasize they are the chosen people and therefore claim the West Bank; or who dream of a Greater Israel; or who want to ban Muslims from the Temple Mount and, says former Mossad chief Shavit, in order to achieve that even want to risk a new destruction of Jerusalem and a new exile.

Anyway, I strongly disagree with these positions, and I’m inclined to see emerge in them the worst of what religion can be. In contrast, I would like to emphasize the good of the tradition to which I belong.

For me, the core of its focus is on learning. But saying this is not precise enough because, precisely in view of the excesses that I note, it appears that some forms of learning can be oppressive and meaningless. The good form of learning that I have in mind is contemporary learning that has a life-giving impact.

In the formative years of the rabbinical tradition (say, from the second to the eighth century CE) learning did have that constructive character. Such learning took the form of study of the traditional oral and written texts, with the intention to derive direction for the way the Jewish people could exist in those days. And that worked extremely powerful, thanks to the passion and intellectual ingenuity that were invested by the then rabbis.

Learning had impact. That’s in my view hardly the case with the descendants of those rabbis who ruminate their texts in jesjiwot. For them, it’s less about the struggle to obtain new answers – so about a creative, life-giving process – but rather about honoring the founders of the tradition. Therefore in my eyes they are victims of their own sacred cows, and not much inspiration radiates from that.

If we want Jewish learning in our time to have the same impact as the former rabbinic text analysis and discussion in their time, we will therefore have to find and deploy our contemporary forms. But if learning can no longer rely on text study and interpretation, what does contemporary, creative Jewish learning look like?

I believe that will be about our history. In the way Simon Schama learns and tells of the exile and Zionism. Or Bart Wallet about Dutch Jewry, or Leo Mock about the Jewish Middle Ages. Or, indeed, Josephus about the destruction of the Second Temple.

I search into that direction because of the effect I notice emanating from historians who manage to place all existing stories in a broad, nuanced perspective. That is beneficent and  space-creating, and thus guiding in a way that is similar to the learning of the rabbis.

Besides, I think the a-historical, classic study of fundamental texts not only for the Jewish tradition has had its day. That certainly applies also to Islam and Christianity. A-historical thinking is no option any longer, the turn is to multidimensional historical thinking.

That requires learning a lot indeed. But has Jewish tradition not always been good at that?

woensdag 17 december 2014

Nice and easy

There is a number of issues in the media that I can skip directly. And, if otherwise I have a tendency to spell the newspaper, that feels beneficial. These issues concern in particular sports and environmental matters.

Sports, because it does not interest me. So, especially on Monday I have relatively quickly finished with the newspaper. Nice and easy.

Environmental issues, because I think the importance of the environment is so evident that I can hardly generate any understanding or interest for the haggling or delay tactics employed left and right in this field.

Unlike delicate social issues such as income distribution, radicalization and integration – often with multiple historical dimensions – the direction we have to follow regarding the environment is clear-cut. There is nothing difficult about it. One can hardly be fast enough in closing coal plants, stopping the plastic soup, building wind turbines and installing solar panels.

At times I suspect my generation of thinking: After us the deluge. That’s very cynical of course. But that does not necessarily keep the next generation from saying, “The deluge? Never!”. And from using consequently, with strength and conviction, all resources that are available already for a long time to turn the tide.

vrijdag 12 december 2014

David Pinto

If I were David Pinto I would have turned it around. Pinto wrote last week in Trouw: “Islam can learn something from Judaism”, and then wonders whether presenting the Jewish tradition as an example to Muslims would not easily go the wrong way.

It’s true: there are many punishments in the Torah which can be described as barbaric and which were abolished as a prescription. For example, the punishment of stoning of a Jew who does not respect the Sabbath, no Jew would get it into his head to apply that. Unlike the gruesome punishments that are actually executed by Muslims today, to fellow Muslims and others.

But a lot of the other things that Pinto designates as negative in Muslims are indeed also to be found in (ultra-)orthodox Jews. Think of gay hate, misogyny, or hatred of everything non-Jewish.

This makes Pinto's argument a bit weak. Apart from that, in fact it sounds rather pedantic to set your own tradition as an example to others, even though he’s partly right.

Therefore, I am inclined to turn it around. By this I mean that I would not in an offensive manner shout “Look at me!”. But instead I would keep ready the argument of the de facto abolition of barbaric punishments for the situation that bystanders put away the Jewish tradition as primitive and barbaric, for example, with reference to “all the violence and primitive laws in the Torah”. At such time, the answer is in place that Pinto gives: look how is dealt with it, that no longer exists in practice.

And if then someone says “But what about all the violence in Israel?” Then it is sufficient to let the Torah out because there are already enough ‘normal’ historical explanations for the tragic situation: two traumatized peoples colliding in the same region, an unequal balance of power, geopolitical interests.

But unfortunately – also for Pinto – we will also have to admit that unnecessary, additional hardening of the conflict is caused by a hard core of settlers who actually take their inspiration from the Torah.

Also see Moderate is abusive language

donderdag 4 december 2014

National Thinkshame

The phenomenon ‘thinkshame’, on which I give workshops, can not be explained simply. It often takes quite a bit of effort to get the phenomenon into the limelight, though I now know that stories of participants about their own experiences with it have the greatest enlightening effect.

But at this moment in my attempts at explanation I am societally down the wind, because thanks to the national Dutch Blackface discussion it is easier to recognize the phenomenon thinkshame, as well as the strength of its impact.

As a starting point for this piece I take the elusiveness of the discussion and the irritation it evokes with many people. By this I do not refer to the irritation of pro-Blackfacers and anti-Blackfacers about each other, but to the annoyance of many that such a discussion exists anyway. As Bas Blokker wrote: “In every conversation about Blackface there comes a time when someone says: ‘What a drag this is, let’s talk about something really important. I do not understand why we make such a fuss about it’”.

And it’s true, in such a case as the Blackface issue no major financial, economic or geopolitical interests are at stake. But yet as a consequence of the fuss people are arrested at the arrival of St. Nicholas, death threats fly back and forth, and the issue is being assessed by the Board for the Protection of Human Rights against the Equal Treatment Act.

If the issue is really that unimportant, Blokker wonders, why tempers run so high? At this point, the phenomenon thinkshame has a remarkable explanatory power. Because what happens if you let yourself get caught by other people’s grief and if you are embarrassed about the initial enthusiasm of yourself (for example, for that cozy, old-fashioned Blackface you know from your youth) – what happens then is not necessarily reasonable.

Anyway, that shame is not reasonable, because what’s wrong with the propagation of love for a popular custom? There máy be something wrong with this, so thinkshame tells us. Good intentions are not always decisive. You may have your good ideas and good intentions. But all that has no value anymore at the time that someone else is hurted by them, and you in one way or another are convinced of the authenticity of that injury. Than the other suddenly determines your playing field, even if it is – for your feelings – nothing about. There you experience a certain loss of autonomy. Yet it does not feel wrong, since there is réal contact.

But if then you start acting according to that shame, and you’re going to actively work for change of the custom in question, then the issue of the proportionality and reasonableness of your actions continues to arise. What you do then cannot always adequately be explained by the primary content of the issue. On the contrary, a sense of disproportion can keep accompany you.

Both issues – the strange shame and the subsequent action, which sometimes feels as exaggerated – can only be explained by the fact that you’re touched by the sorrow of someone else, precisely about something which you think is so nice. Any different reasonableness ricochets off at that. Blackface = black sorrow. That shock – that’s the essence of thinkshame.

For example, as writer Robert Vuijsje puts it in an interview. Vuijsje is known as an abolitionist, he wants to abolish Blackface and when he is asked the question: “Your wife is  black and your children are colored, when did you think: Blackface is not done any longer?”, He replies: “My eyes opened when a year ago I saw the Antillean Dutch artist Quinsy Gario being addressed on TV. I had never before seen my girlfriend – she has Creole parents – as truculent as on this subject. Not long afterwards I called the only black kid in my class at primary school. I even sat next to him. Whether he was called Blackface, those days, and whether he hated the St. Nicholasfestival. Yes, he said. I had never noticed. I realized then that it is not about how Í experience and have experienced it, but how black people experience it”.

In this way, the strange – however annoying – suddenly becomes clear enough.

Also see Summary of The Shame of Reason and Something small

donderdag 27 november 2014


I do know Israel - for travel - and that pleased me. I do not know the country as a resident, and I wonder how I would like that.

At this time that question is triggered by my rereading passages from the book My promised land by Ari Shavit about which I previously reported. Especially tickling are the passages referring to the Israeli food giant Strauss, by the twinkling intensity of Israeli society that resounds in it.

Shavit: “Israel is a country that is quickly excited; Israelis therefore have need for more and more incentives. The Strauss-team understood that this also applies to the taste of food. They realized that the Israeli savory snacks had to be much saltier than American snacks and confectionery much sweeter than the European. Chocolate was to be much more chocolate-esque and vanilla much more vanilla-esque. Nuances in Israel were not appreciated: everything had to be powerful and extreme and caress the palate with strong aromas. For an example, the Israeli Milky contained twice as much cream as the German example. But the Israelis do not want just more, they also want continuously something new. They are quickly tired of something. For that reason, Strauss replaces its products much faster than its European sister companies”.

That this lust for excitement does not necessarily have to lead to flatness and insipidity, appears from the development of Israeli dance. Which also is largely driven by basic physical stimuli, but at the same time manages to achieve a high level of artistry. Israeli dance is not so much focused on beauty, it is more about gouge: impulses from the body, and bare feet instead of spitze.

Intuition and feeling, these are according to experts the basis of Israeli dance. The drive of the dancers, their great technique, the inner need that expresses the choreography – they are constants in Israel’s young dance history, which make Israeli dance at present internationally into a success story.

The choreographer Guy Behar explains the strength of this dance tradition from the social situation in Israel. “The context in which we operate is dynamic, turbulent”, he says. “You never know what will happen. Every moment the situation can change. If you have something to say, you should say it now. That inner necessity and immediacy can be seen in almost all the work”.

Yes, this artistic and communicative dynamics definitely does have something stimulating and that appeals to me. But at the same time I would find all that a bit too raw. Furthermore, I doubt whether I’m not too stress-sensitive to live permanently in a war situation. I actually think I cannot manage that. Rather, to me applies what the former CIDI Chairman John Manheim once said of himself: that his nervous system did not allow him to live in Israel.

But as great a problem for me would be that the provocative dynamics of cultural and economic life in Israel stands out quite shrill against the lukewarmness and indifference exhibited by the majority of the Israeli population when it comes to a peace settlement and the treatment of the Palestinians. An attitude that so perfectly, and not coincidentally, is embodied by the absolute-non-dancer Netanyahu. Actually incomprehensible.

woensdag 12 november 2014

'Moderate' is abusive language

Whoever tries, amidst gruesome images from the Middle East and Islam debates in ones own country, to get some grip on the phenomenon of ‘Islam’, may easily get discouraged. Because the conclusion is swiftly made that Islam is what ones interlocutor from that moment wants it to mean.

Do you speak with IS-supporters, or read their statements in the newspaper, then you hear that ‘Islam’ means Sharia in its most severe form, slavery and death to infidels. Do you speak with indigenous Muslims, you hear that ‘Islam’ means peace. And then you hear all the variations somewhere in between.

So, in the end you don’t get a fixed story, no clear picture of this religious tradition, but perhaps that’s too much to ask. Probably people like Nuweira Youskine are right, who say the Quran is not an Ikea instruction. There is no single interpretation of Islam which is thé right one, just as there are different views on Judaism and Christianity.

On the other hand, in the images that Muslims sketch of their tradition is quite a number of elements that keep returning. So that one could decide that these things belong inseparably together. Two of them I pick out here: first the idea that the Quran is the literal text of God and, secondly, that the word ‘moderate’ in broad Islamic circles seems to have a negative connotation.

According to tradition, the Quran came word by word and letter by letter directly from Allah and has been recorded by Muhammed without any modification or addition. That makes the idea unthinkable for Muslims that there could be several different versions of one described event comparable to the four Gospels in Christianity or the two creation stories in Judaism. It also makes, in Muslim eyes, the Quran superior to those other texts and explains why the Jewish and Christian traditions are burdened by revisions, reforms and dilution of their own doctrines. In them there’s noise on the line because of the ambiguity of their texts, and the Quran is free from them.

The second observation refers to the word ‘moderate’. Remarkably often I hear that word, which to me is known as having a fairly positive connotation, be used by Muslims in a negative sense. For example, in a letter to the editor in which Nabeel Siddiqie discusses the usual rejection by correct newsmedia of fundamentalists, extremists and jihadists. “Conversely”, he says, “ordinary, in my eyes real, Muslims are dismissed as moderate Muslims. As if you need to be moderate in your faith in order to fit into Dutch society. I cannot but conclude, given the definition of the word Islam, the conduct of the Prophet Muhammed and the teachings in the Quran, that I belong to the group of fundamentalists, extremists and jihadists”.

Another example is provided by the The Hague shop assistant Jamal Saïdi who puts his biggest complaint as follows: “They want everyone to be moderate”. Or Montasser al De’emeh of the Research Group Middle East from the University of Antwerp, who twitters about someone accused of crimping for the Jihad: “He interprets his religion in a radical way. That’s it!”. So, nothing special. Finally there is the response to the Dutch version of my blog post Alcoholism and Jihad: “There is only one Islam and that is Islam as stated in the Quran, hadiths and sirat. There are no muslims who call themselves “MODERATE”, this is an invention of Western politics. If moderate Muslims would exist there should also be something to MODERATE. What could that be?”

Frankly, I think the negative load of the word ‘moderate’ in Muslim circles is problematic. If only notions like ‘purity’, ‘absolute surrender’ and ‘complete submission’ may indicate the orientation of a Muslim, what to do then with the grubbiness and compromises out of which a free society is built?

Also see Alcohol

woensdag 5 november 2014

Levinas and Kahneman

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman had just graduated when in 1955 as a conscript into the Israeli army he was commissioned to set up a new interview system for the entire army. The interviews were meant to produce a picture of the recruits and to judge whether these were suited for the officer training.

The existing system did no longer satisfy, because it gave the interviewers freedom to do what they found most interesting, which was to learn about the dynamics of the spiritual life of the interviewee. Ánd because the overall assessment of the recruit by the interviewers was decisive for the final decision, while scientific evidence indicated that such assessments were unreliable.

Kahneman attacked both objections. Instead of free interviews he opted for standardized, factual questions. And instead of interview summaries he preferred statistical summaries of seperately assessed characteristics of the recruit. The final score for fitness for combat tasks would be calculated using a standard formula, without further interference by the interviewers.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman justifies his choices as follows. “By focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to fight the halo effect, whereby favorable first impressions affect judgments later on. I told the interviewers that they did not have to worry about the future adjustment of the recruit to life in military service. Their only task was to get the relevant facts about their past and to use that information to score each personality dimension. ‘It is your job to provide reliable data’, I told them. Just leave the predictive validity to me’, by which I was referring to the formula that I would draft to combine their specific scores”.

Then he continues: “Among the interviewers an uprising almost broke out. These intelligent young people found it hard to accept that they were instructed by someone who was barely older than they were, to turn off their intuition and to concentrate fully on dull factual questions. One of them protested by saying: “You make robots of us!” That’s why I came up with a compromise. “If you do the interview exactly as I have said, then I will satisfy  your desire: then close your eyes, try to imagine the recruit as a soldier and give him a score on a scale from 1 to 5.”

The new interview procedure proved to be a significant improvement with respect to the old one. The sum of the six ratings predicted performance of the soldiers much more accurately than the summary reviews of the previous interview method, although still far from perfect. They were advanced, says Kahneman, from ‘totally useless’ to ‘somewhat useful’.

At the same time Kahneman observed, to his surprise, that the intuitive judgment formed by the interviewers at the time of the closed eyes, also satisfied very well, even as well as the sum of the six specific scores. He tells: “A general lesson I took from this episode was that one should not just rely on intuitive judgments – either of yourself or of others – but also that one should not automatically reject them.”

The question I ask myself in this story of Kahneman is: does the blindfolded intuition actually  function as a sop? Doesn’t he actually believe it? Should employees just accept that formulas are used and that they can not develop their creative involvement?

Kahneman is skeptical indeed. He believes that we in general grossly overestimate our own intuitive skills and expertise and human knowledge. And that therefore sober observations and measurements which are laid down in algorithms and formulas are preferable. Regardless whether it comes to the assessment of recruits, the prediction of wine prices or valuation of a painting.

Such a view easily provokes the kind of resistance that we already encountered above: “We are made into robots!” What then remains of our highly personal individuality and creativity? Do not our lives become dull and impersonal?

I do understand the resistance, but yet I tend to share Kahneman’s view. The reason is that  I am sufficiently soaked in the skepticism which also Levinas displays opposite the euphoria of the highly personal thinking which is so pleased with itself but permanently produces illusions. However much the glorification of the creative individual fits into the romantic society we still are, Levinas’s and Kahneman’s skepticism thereabout is very much in place. So, let Kahneman use his sop, because we can do without a lot of our self-righteous euphoria.

What can nót miss is a different kind of vividness. Namely that of the authentic encounter with another human being or beings. I even think that fulfillment of that desire can make redundant a lot of overly focused attention on individuality in our society. When it comes to that deficit Kahneman leaves us, apart from the sop, empty-handed. Because he speaks little about such encounters between people.

Levinas even more.

Also see Levinas and Empathy

dinsdag 28 oktober 2014

Acceptable cynicism

Rosanne Hertzberger exaggerated a bit when she recently stated: “It’s all opportunism. There is no justice”. This in response to the many violent troubles in the world, and the tendency of many people to deny or forget the implied brutality.

The distance to pure cynicism with such a categorical statement has become very small, and the answer to the question why you would even worry at all about something else than your own interest could only read: don’t do so, because just blind fate and the right of the jungle prevail.

This conclusion was probably not Hertzberger’s intention, because she finished with the observation that we actually dó care about what is near: the immediate environment, our own country, perhaps even Western Europe. And that would not be the case if not a basic form of trust and justice had been organized there. Thanks to functioning legal systems, democracy and a civil society.

So, in my interpretation Hertzberger’s cynicism begins with the krooked distribution of violence and prosperity at the global level. Things go wrong there, she says, and it is utopian idleness to think that you can do something about this injustice from the West.

That still sounds cynical enough, but I am inclined to agree with her on this point. Because  curbing our own chaos is hard enough already. That took us centuries of thought and effort, and we underestimate, from habituation to our order, how easily new chaos breaks into that.

For this reason I also agree with another sober voice, that of columnist Rob de Wijk. He wrote last week that “it is time for a fundamental discussion on how to deal with the chaos around, and now also in, Europe. ‘Containment’ and ‘red lines’ are the keywords. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the West puts its own security and interests first and looks less through humanitarian glasses to these conflicts”. That will be difficult, says De Wijk, “because politicians and citizens are stuck in the old pattern of a pedantic and supreme West that is mainly concerned with humanity”.

So we must renounce many comprehensive ideals. But for what we want to sustain – an ordered society with attention to basic human values – a lot of idealism and commitment will be required.

Also see Reluctance against the West

Reluctance against the West

A common factor in many of today’s trouble spots is the resentment of some of the combatants against the West. Whether it comes to IS in the Middle East, the Russians in Ukraine or Boko Haram in Africa, they are all filled with a deep distrust, if not hatred of the West. Like their kindred spirits in our own Western countries. And according to Abdou Bouzerda the disproportionate attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also traceable to that factor.

What to do about that?

You can go along with it because, you say, there’s some sense in it. We simply played the boss for too long. The certainty with which the West once thought itself to be in the position to decide about good and bad for the whole world has severely become unserviceable. Guiltfeelings about that colonialism are more appropriate, it is now up to the West to remain silent.

This response sounds to me a bit outdated, reminescent of illusions about non-partisan pacifism, or about being above partisanship. As if you yourself do not have your own point of view or even nothing to defend. The renewed Western focus on defense shows in my view that we definitely dó have something to defend in the West.

Another possible response to the resentment against the West is to go against it because, as you believe, many of our values such as human rights and democracy are actually universal. “Actually”, according to this view, all nations would want them, even if they don’t realize it yet. We must therefore continue to propagate these values’s universal validity. A bit like the Dutch theologian Erik Borgman did recently in an article on religious freedom in which he declared that religious freedom belongs in every constitution.

A problem for supporters of this second position is that the resentment against the West makes a lot of groups and people allergic to that kind of messages. A frequently heard Western solution for that objection is that we do not call these values ‘Western’, but ‘universal’. The danger of this tactical approach is that it (understandably) reinforces the revulsion. After all, even if it were true that those values are universal, people still want to find out themselves. They don’t want to get those values carried over from former imperialists.

One can also, with Amsterdam Mayor Van der Laan in his Abel Herzberg Lecture, opt for a third position, and say maybe there be several moral compasses next to each other. “We live with different moral compasses, in a world of trouble spots. We will have to get to know each other’s moral compasses and recognize these compasses often originate from suffering. There is no ‘patent’ in the world of suffering, according to Van der Laan.

This third option resembles the first, except that Van der Laan links this position to great alertness and willingness to actually physically intervene. I think that is also the beauty of the Mayor’s position: his criteria for whether or not to intervene are of a very practical nature. He looks at human behavior, thus reducing a complicated ideological debate to a, at least for his own feeling, practically performable assessment of behavior. Does someone sow hate, does someone call to violence, does somebody use violence? Then that is a border crossing and there will be no millimeter tolerance.

What appeals to me is that Van der Laan actually lets go the always so pretentious universalism. The first option doesn’t do so because, following a statement by Alain Finkielkraut, it remains trapped in the adoration of the other, or of all others, and from there in a kind of sterile above-partisanship. The second option obviously does not do so, because it precisely believes in the universality of certain values.

The Van der Laan-option eliminates this universalism because the connected action perspective is essentially of a local nature. Indeed, its effectiveness reaches to the boundaries of the Amsterdam municipality, or in the case of the presence of more like-minded Mayors to the country’s borders, and not beyond. Within these boundaries Van der Laan’s compass, with its own criteria for inadmissibility, is valid; outside it is not.

That may be reassuring for those Muslims whose compass indicates –  for example – female loose flyaway hair as absolutely unacceptable. In places other than Amsterdam or the Netherlands, for example, in Saudi Arabia or Iran, repressive action will, completely according to the Van der Laan position, indeed be an option. There they can have it their way.

And for me it’s reassuring because the local Amsterdam compass, with the above Van der Laan-criteria for impermissibility, is fortunately also mine.

Also see The heroic cosmopolitical individual

dinsdag 7 oktober 2014

Defining the world

Define the world, we múst do so, because otherwise it will be chaos in our heads. So that’s why do we all do it. It is a matter of evolutionary survival, and it becomes manifest as our tendency to categorize and stereotype.

It is very well possible to speak dispassionately about it. That’s what, for example, Daniel Kahneman does in his book Thinking, fast and slow. “Stereotyping in our culture is a loaded term, but as I use it here, the meaning is neutral. One of the main features of our intuitive system is that it interprets categories as standards or prototypes. This is how we understand horses, refrigerators and police officers.”

But that it múst be done – because in order to survive in emergencies we have to be able to act immediately  and cannot allow any doubt – does not mean that our definitions are correct and our judgments founded.

So there is a fair chance that you put animals, people, things in the wrong box. And that is less innocent than it seems. Especially when you do that with people, because people in the last resort want themselves to have control over their own lives. If another puts them prematurely or wrongly in a certain box (that’s to say: defines them), it can feel like a border crossing: you don’t have anything to say about me! That feels like violence.

But at the same time, as I said, our lives are made up of definitions and labels that we impose on the world and others. And their obviousness sometimes is so big that it seems far-fetched to problematize them.

Thus you would think that the distinction between men and women is one of the most basic and easy ones that we can make. So that we may assume that everybody can be classified in one of those two categories. That’s why it is quite natural for us to ask: is it a boy or a girl?

However, what we then actually do, says Lies Wesseling, is that the many differences between people are thrown on just two heaps. Then everything that does not fit under the headings of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is seen as deviant or as irrelevant.

But nature is not that clear cut, at least not always. And more importantly, individual human experience is not so clear. Someone in a woman’s body may feel himself a man, or vice versa, or something in between. If you pin such a person, as a matter of course, to a stereotype, you can cause serious damage.

How hurtful that obvious categorization can be may appear from the experiences of people for whom those categories were not suitable and whose stories only recently are being taken seriously: the transgenders. Those stories are pure sadness. And in the Netherlands their number easily runs into 50,000.

Now there is a new Dutch law that confirms that identity is something that only you yourself can feel and name. Transgenders can now administratively change sex, even without changing anything to the body. For example, it may happen that a man gives birth to a child, and is regarded as the mother.

The new law does not abolish the categories, so there is still spoken in terms of male and female. The dream of many transgender continues, such as Vreer puts it: “I dream of a birth certificate and an identitycard without gender designation. Even an X, as recently is allowed in Australia, can be an improvement. That means ‘not specified’, and so it is with me”.

But anyway, the new law infringes on stereotypes and definitions that until recently seemed to be cast in concrete. The law may therefore be seen as a Levinassian answer to the problem that Levinas treats with great tenacity in all his works: of the injuries that with our defining thought, seeking stable categories, we inflict to others.

Could possibly the Dutch Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) be such a dubious stable category as well?

Also see Kol Nidrei and other illusions

vrijdag 5 september 2014

Live to see

What you hope, if you’re intensively involved in a particular issue, is that you and your generation may live to see things improve regarding that case. But sometimes you have to be realistic, and then you conclude that it can take longer than your life time, before things will be okay.

With regard to the two issues that I have been intensively busy with for a long time, I have to draw that conclusion now. By the way, in both issues the same concerns are at stake: it’s always about cooperation and trust.

One subject is Israel, or rather, peace between Israel and its neighbors. It’s clear that lack of trust was the big issue there from the outset, and still is. A traumatized people resettled on land that in the course of time had become the possession of others. Wars and terror ensued, and it may be feared that the most recent war in Gaza will not have been the last one.

In realizing this situation, for me nothing more remains than, like Rabbi David Lilienthal once did, try to imagine what the situation will look like if you do not take your own life as a reference but a much longer period of time. Could the situation be much better for example after another three hundred years? Could the Middle East then be like nowadays Europe? For that to happen, by that time obviously not only in Israel but also on the side of Isis and Hamas and kindred spirits some things should have changed.

The other subject is the dysfunctioning of the Amsterdam municipality, ie of its civil service. With that I have in mind employees and departments who refuse to talk to each other, stressed bosses and top-down pushed solutions for problems that are not really known. What happens there is not a war such as in the Middle East, but it sometimes indeed reminds me of it: I see a lot of deeply unhappy people, more than I think is necessary.

That yet cooperation in Amsterdam cán run well and smoothly, I also was allowed to experience recently. Last year, for a whole year, time and energy were invested, within the framework of the Amsterdam City Servicecounter, to accommodate divergent views in a focused and professional manner. Which was only possible – I contend – thanks to generous attention to the primary process, in such a way that everyone involved, from clerks to managers, knew what they could expect from each other. The accommodating itself was a form of cooperation.

But I was wrong about the seriousness with which a sequel was allowed to this successful experiment. It’s nice, cooperation and trust, but it is apparently not the intention to make that into something more permanent. The fact that the Board of Mayor and Aldermen puts, because of imposed budgetcuts, the entire device systematically under pressure now, does not make things better. The bombardment of political and strategic imperatives is so fierce that attention to the core business is smothered in pushed through solutions. Employees are on their guard against being driven crazy.

So here too I have to face the fact that – except during the past year – I will not experience utopia. It will take a while before trust and cooperation again have a chance here. Okay,  maybe not in three hundred years, but easily in a hundred years: then it must have become self-evident that organizations, regardless of the strategic demands that are imposed, do not for even a moment lose sight of their primary processes and core business.

Defeats? Sure, but fortunately still other opportunities are left for me to experience cooperation and trust.

Also see Trust

zondag 31 augustus 2014


In the workshop on thinkshame there will always be a time when a number of participants has had enough. At such a moment they are fed up with the premise that underlies the workshop. Namely that, while you only meant well, someone else may be seriously hurt by something you said; and that you feel perplexed about it.

“Come on, we’re all grown-ups! You just get yourself over it”.

Yet, I insist, in identifying the injury that you inflicted, you can feel a deep shame. That means: thinkshame, because with your thinking (and speaking) you crossed someone else’s border, even if you meant well.

“What nonsense! Shame really is not needed for a mistake, you know”.

Well, I say, injuries cán go deep. And shame, however irrational, for what you inflicted therefore can be very adequate. Apart from that – and this is my actual message – that shame simply appears to occur in such situations. And: we better be happy with that, because this embarrassment can lead to reflection and caution and can help prevent relations get completely stuck.

So, at that point in the workshop my plea is thus: don’t wave feelings of humiliation and injury too quickly away as symptoms of immaturity, because they have a big impact, just as the feelings of shame that you can have about them. Taking them seriously could very well make a lot of misunderstood behavior of people in organizations more understandable.

That argument is not only relevant for organizations. In the newspaper I read the column by Caroline de Gruyter about world politics, and she actually discusses the same mechanism as that of the workshop, but now with respect to the relationship between the West and the rest of the world.

Putin, she says, and Isis and militia leaders from Libya to Nigeria feel deeply humiliated by the Western interventions under ‘humanitarian’ label of the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.

“So what? The West had modern, rational arguments for those actions indeed, who could nót understand that? And NATO membership for the countries of Eastern Europe was not meant offensive, please let Putin stay a little rational”. 

Watch out, says De Gruyter, by labeling the feelings of humiliation and resentment as immature, perhaps a lot of the present world political dynamics remains misunderstood, and more dangerous than necessary. Take those feelings seriously, however good our Western intentions may be.

Also see Something small

donderdag 31 juli 2014

No longer

Gaza, it is a poignantly unequal battle.

But curiously desired by both parties.

By the victim, I don’t know why.

By the culprit, I knew why, but no longer now.

Also see Gaza

I don't understand

There are a number of things about Israel that I do not understand.

This number does not, to be clear, include the current military action in order to curb rocket attacks from Gaza for some time. Because I can understand it – however terrible the war suffering is. No country, democratic or not, can just let itself be shelled while it has the means to stop the shelling. Sooner or later it will deploy those resources. Nobody likes that, I can see that, but apparently at this moment fighting for both Hamas and Israel is worthwhile.

One of the things I do nót understand is the unconcearn with which Israel perpetuates the occupation of the West Bank, and even actively strengthens it. I can see it no different than that the illegality of it, combined with the humiliation of the Palestinians, is a serious threat to Israel’s future.

I’ve also never understood the light-heartedness with which Israel lets itself be supported by Christian Zionists such as American Evangelicals or Dutch Christians for Israel. From an opportunistic, short-term perspective I can indeed understand that. In a world with a lot of hostility directed against Israel, you welcome any support that is available.

But the question is whether is that opportunism is a wise position to take. I think not. First, because such support is fundamentalist inspired. Characteristic of the groups referred to is their belief in the authority of the Bible, which they explain in such a way that the state of Israel figures as willed by God, namely in preparation for the second coming of Christ on earth. This appears to me to be an alien motif within the secular-Jewish project that Israel essentially was and still is. If motifs are that far apart, you should be careful with close ties.

A second reason stems from the very same fundamentalism. Because it implies that the Christian Zionists are not primarily interested in the Jewish cause, but in an idea that is linked to their theology. In the absence of an intrinsic human concern a switch in that theology or exegesis may as easily lead to a switch in attitude. Enthusiasm for the Jewish state can then change into indifference or even hostility.

At present something like that seems to occur indeed in certain Evangelical circles. There is talk of a return to the good old ‘fulfillment theology’. Which implies that the Kingdom of God was established by Jesus on earth and history was then fulfilled. The Jewish people, according to that vision, for God has no meaning any longer, neither has the State of Israel. From this kind of theology a lot of trouble for the Jews emerged already earlier in history.

Before you trust the sincerity of your supporters, it is important to know who you are dealing with and what their motives are. Jews should understand that anyway.

Also see The many dimensions of Ari Shavit and Accurate enough

zaterdag 19 juli 2014

Accurate enough

“Of course I condemn all violence. This applies to violence by the Palestinian ánd the Israeli side. Nevertheless the commotion about the murder of three Israeli teenagers gives me a bitter aftertaste. When mid May two Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah without any reason were shot by the Israeli army, there was no one who expressed his outrage, not even the Dutch foreign minister, who in the case of the three Israeli boys had his judgement immediately ready. The three teens were Israeli settlers. They lived in an illegal settlement on Palestinian land. If their parents had just continued to live in Israel, they would be still alive”.

This letter to the editor sent in by Jan Ramaker from Tiel struck me somehow. But in what way exactly?

First, I was struck by an inaccuracy, namely the following: The three teens were Israeli settlers. They lived in an illegal settlement on Palestinian land.

That’s not right. Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar lived in Modi’in, Eyal Yifrah lived in Elad. Modi’in and Elad are cities in the Israel Center District, both within the Green Line. One can not be enough accurate in these matters.

However, they went to school in occupied territory. Naftali and Gilad in Kfar Etzion, Eyal in Hebron. So they went to schools that do not respect the Green Line. One can not be enough accurate in these matters.

I also got caught by the statement If their parents had just continued to live in Israel, they would be still alive. That should, in view of the foregoing, be changed into the statement “When the boys were just gone to school in Israel, they would be still alive”. With the addition that this only applies since the separation wall was built, because before that time also within the Green Line your life was not safe on the way to school.

Finally, I am just touched by the bitter truth that When mid May two Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah without any reason were shot by the Israeli army, there was no one who expressed his outrage. Also in showing your outrage you can not be accurate enough.

Also see The Green and the Red Line, The new Middle East and A Palestinian State

vrijdag 18 juli 2014

Alcoholism and Jihad

It’s bold what Lamyae Aharouay did in her column lately, but I can appreciate it. There she draws a parallel between Isis supporters and alcoholics. This is in the context of her argument that it is not appropriate to reproach moderate muslims for the behavior of fanatical jihadists. She had recently heard one of our politicians do so, and also another columnist who had said: “If Muslims slaughter Muslims on a grand scale it remains virtually silent”.

The comparison consists in the observation that alcohol abuse and jihadism are both problematic. And that, a little as you can blame moderate Muslims for the danger of  problematic drinkers, just as little you can hold moderate Muslims accountable for the danger of the extremists.

This statement by Aharouay is right, I think. At one point, however, the comparison is wanting, and I would like to see the parallels extended, precisely on that point.

The point I have in mind is the extent to which the problem is recognized as a serious threat and the extent to which the problem is being actively combated. As Aharouay indicates, alcohol addiction is explicitly mentioned by the World Health Organization as a serious threat to public health. The organization reports on it, so we know that alcohol makes for one of the 20 deaths per year, which is 3.3 million people worldwide.

Apparently our society is quite aware of the danger of addiction, and has established an organization to analyse the connecting problems and to encourage further awareness. This includes for example asking questions such as: to what extent is alcohol abuse encouraged by our individualistic lifestyles and widespread loneliness? What is the role of the intrusive adverts?

Elaborating on the comparison, something like that would seem to me desirable with respect to the addiction danger of Islam. Here too, analysis and reflection are needed that  penetrate to the heart of the matter. Where that addiction danger could be located? Could there possibly be something intoxicating in the central doctrine of complete surrender to Allah? And could the absence of the relativistic effect of (moderate) use of alcohol possibly stimulate religious radicalization?

Asking these questions and reflecting on them seems to me to be very urgent. Again, and in accordance with what Aharouay says about that, not in order to harass moderate Muslims  with it. But, as with alcohol, to discover the mechanisms that in interaction with social conditions lead to death and destruction.

Also see Alcohol

dinsdag 24 juni 2014

The many dimensions of Ari Shavit

The sociologist and theologian Gied ten Berge, chairman of SIVMO, the Support Committee for Israeli Peace and Human Rights Organizations, wrote in the summer issue of the magazine Nieuwe Liefde a review of the book My promised land by Ari Shavit. The title of his review is well chosen: “Life on seven lines of fracture”, which refers to the seven rebellions that Shavit signals in Israel, and which just about sounds like ‘dancing on a volcano’.

But for the rest, Ten Berge missed a lot in Shavit’s book. Indeed, the book has much more dimensions than the review reflects. By that I have ia in mind the dimension of the history of Zionism, and the many aspects of Shavit’s vision of the Israeli peace movement.

For an adequate understanding of Israel and Zionism familiarity with their history is an absolute requirement. A long, loaded past must be taken into consideration, especially of centuries of Christian and secular anti-Semitism in Europe.

In one of her last columns journalist Eva van Sonderen makes clear how deep that kind of collective negative experiences can get fixed in the human mind. “I have experienced several workshops ‘Family Constellations’ and often the Holocaust emerged as a gigantic blockade, especially among young people, the third generation after, of which at first sight you would not think that. And sometimes, with Mizrahi or Sephardi participants, also there stories came up about the pogroms against Jews in North Africa or Asia”.

Shavit assigns an important role to that kind of blockages, and clearly shows to what degree they had their impact long before the Holocaust. In particular, the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews already at the end of the nineteenth century could no longer. They had nothing to lose anymore, Zionism was their last straw and Shavit reveals that well in his stories about the pioneers.

It is noteworthy that Ten Berge says nothing about this history, which is essential for the overall picture of Shavit. Just as for the Shavit the history of the expelled Palestinians is of great importance: they simply lived there already for generations. Which indeed Ten Berge does emphasize too.

Then there is the role of the Israeli peace movement. Shavit goes to great lengths to make clear that ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘peace’ are not as easily aligned as one might think. And certainly not in the brutal Middle East.

An average peace movement might cherish that illusion, and so did the Israeli peace movement. Shavit tells that, as a student and young journalist, he initially went along in that mood. He was a left-wing activist and protested against the occupation, in the belief that by ending the occupation peace would come within range.

“Only when I was thirty, and began to seriously listen to what the Palestinians actually had to say, I realized that this prospect for peace was unfounded. About this occupation the left was absolutely right: it is a moral, demographic and political disaster. But regarding peace the left was totally wrong. They counted on a peace partner that does not really exist. It was assumed that peace had to be feasible because it was needed. But the history of the conflict and the geo-strategic situation of the region involved that peace could not be achieved”. Yet, also from a kind of self-protection, that illusion of peace was hold on to.

The moral struggle that with a man like Shavit is accompanied by this type of analyses is palpable in his book. For my part, Ten Berge could have devoted a few words to it.

Instead, he believes that Shavit lacks a prophetic vision. Could there perhaps be something prophetic in the ruthless honesty and openness with which Shavit dares to face the situation?

Also see Right and Wrong

donderdag 19 juni 2014

Right and Wrong

“Right or wrong, it’s my country”. That’s what you can hear Israelis and Jews say about Israël.

It is apparent from the title of his book My Promised Land that the political journalist Ari Shavit confirms the second part of the statement. But with the first part he has not finished so quickly. In fact, his whole book is about right and wrong.

Reading this book is a harrowing experience. I still have a long way from the book, I’m only halfway through, but already I can conclude that the subtitle of the book sums up its contents quite well: “The triumph and tragedy of Israel”. The book is an alternation of highs and lows.

A low, perhaps thé lowest point, I’ve just had: the story about the settlements. In itself sufficient reason for getting depressed. The primitive ideology, the complicity of otherwise right-thinking Labour Party politicians, the corrupting effects of military superiority, the comparisons with Nazi practices that also occur to the Israelis, the wave of terrorist attacks that make every will for peace implausible.

What keeps me upright when reading this book – which to me is the triumph of this book – is the intellectual courage and ruthless honesty of the author. You may call it, given all the twists of right and wrong which he names and describes, a moral achievement. “You think too much”, he gets as a reproach from some men of action. For me, precisely therefore, he is a reliable beacon on rugged terrain.

In short, the balance between the zionist right and wrong halfway the book is as follows:

Right: the desolate situation of millions of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century – after centuries of pogroms, discrimination, and oppression that only got worse – was no longer tenable. And the relatively small part that had managed to escape to Western Europe built itself a fairly comfortable existence there but, from the Dreyfus affair, did not feel safe anymore. The Endlösung was intuitively sensed.

This self-destructive dwelling of Jews in a Europe that had driven them to the end of their forces in the East and was about to puke them out in the West, provided the original Zionist plan an undeniable moral justification. As far as Shavit is concerned, up to the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and the founding of the state in 1948.

Wrong: the systematic disregard for Palestinian suffering that accompanied the foundation of the state. And just as bad: the creation of new suffering by creeping continuation of encroachment on their rights. Which lacks, in Shavit’s eyes, precisely the moral basis that early Zionism according to him díd have.

As I said, the fact that Shavit dares tell this story in this way is a great achievement in itself.

Also see Polyphony

maandag 16 juni 2014

That difficult Levinas

It is often said that Levinas’s philosophy is so difficult. “I just do not understand what he’s up to”, thus people say.

I think it’s not so bad with that difficulty of Levinas. And that, if yet his texts are experienced as difficult, that has more to do with the counter-intuitive, wayward and uncomfortable character of his thinking.

That’s because for many of us there is a set of daily and taken for granted assumptions that pass for logic. And at those assumptions Levinas puts question marks. Substantially that is not so complicated, upon closer inspection the logic of his questioning is often more persuasive than our common everday logic.

The problem rather lies in the counter-intuitive nature of Levinas’s logic. Because that  sometimes stands at right angles to the logic of self-preservation. And precisely this latter logic in social and societal interaction feels primarily as indubitable. When a philosopher suggests an opposite position that feels weird.

I give a few examples of the usual kind of advice, incentives and endeavors which, judging from their everyday appearance, are apparently considered by us as logical. For each example, I want to show that the assigned logic may turn out to be false, and that exposure of these appearances is not that difficult. The real difficulty, thus will be the conclusion, is obviously somewhere else, namely in emotionally allowing a different logic.

A first example is the promotion campaign of a course “The Art of Excellent Manipulating  and Steering” as you may regularly come across in newspapers and management magazines. With a promotional text added, like “Take this course and from now win every discussion!”

From a purely logical point of view, this last outcome is actually impossible. Because if that is promised to all students of the course and they are going to argue with each other, then the promise will not be able to come true. So, such an endeavor is doomed to create as many problems as it solves. It’s not hard to see that.

But what also resonates in the phrase “Take this course and from now win every discussion!” is the underlying value system, and that is persistent in a way that we will not easily free ourselves from it. Because in that value system the idea is deeply rooted that people constantly are one another’s competitors. People are wolves to each other. When Levinas puts this ‘ontology of war’ into question, we hesitate whether we will follow him. He then soon becomes too difficult.

A second example is the corporate culture that in many organizations we together create by exhorting each other  to ‘remain professional’, ‘to hold off emotions’, to work methodically and especially not to talk about difficult things.

It is not difficult to see that workplaces in this way become sterile places where contacts fade to a sham, and the heart of the matter disappears. That is a logical conclusion, which is confirmed by many studies. Hence the many management books that come with the recipe: fight the ‘corporate silence’, seek more and especially real communication and contact.

These obvious matters are what Levinas aims at when he talks about the venture of real communication. And he might again be difficult to follow when he says that good communication will always involve elements of shame and guilt, if at least that communication is to be worth the name. So here immediately Levinas is getting more difficult again.

But for this latter thought he suddenly gets support from an unexpected corner. A magazine for management ethics recently published an article stating that the willingness of leaders to apologize to their employees for mistakes demonstrably has positive effect on the emotional health of employees and on mutual relationships.

Levinas is just as difficult as making excuses.

Also see Hazardous

zaterdag 31 mei 2014

What would YOU do in the ultimate situation?

The fascination with the ultimate situation is big. That will always have been the case, but at this remembrance-and-freedom-celebrating time of the year our thoughts tend to dwell at the ultimate situations that the Second World War presented to people. And at the questions that since then have been the moral benchmarks of our culture such as: Would you have put your life at risk to save others lives? Would you at the right time have made the right choice? Would you have recognized the ultimate situation anyway?

I hear that fascination reflected in the responses to the violent death in Syria of the nice Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt. For example when the Dutch vicar Leegte believes that Van der Lugt is rightfully placed on a pedestal. Especially his willingness to remain faithful to his convictions, up to the ultimate consequence of death, commands respect. It reminds him, Leegte says, to previous martyrs in history who by their own death “had the intention to be present to Jesus’ death”.

nd I recognize that fascination with writer Willem Jan Otten in his discussion following the film 12 Years a Slave . He believes that the film has an essential idea in common with the Christian Easter story. Namely that ‘surviving’ is inferior compared to ‘living’, and always implies guilt and shame, and that therefore ‘giving your life’, may be preferable. “Something is put upside down in a terrible way, and yet it is just right”, thus he then cites what G.K. Chesterton defined as the essence of the Easter story. Whereby the ‘terrible’ again refers to the ultimate situation, with – apparently – a special appeal.

It is true, Christianity does not seek death as a Japanese kamikaze pilot does or an Islamic suicide bomber. And the bloody Filipino and Spanish passion rituals can be seen as an aberration, and not as representative of Christianity.

But those blood-processions do not completely fall out of the blue, the fascination with the ultimate situation has a lot to do with it. This is also evident from the pedagogical questions that, in line with the scheme of the imitatio Christi, are directly linked to it in the comments on Van der Lugt’s death. “Is his example applicable in the Netherlands?” Leegte asks, “He has given an example to follow”, clergyman Peter Nissen says.

But precisely from a pedagogical point of view I think the fascination with the ultimate situation is not a good idea. First, because that orientation discourages people. Peter Nissen rightly argues that the greatness of stories of sacrifice and holiness can block the listener. “Then the feeling gets you that you do not even need to start” And how stimulating is Leegte’s statement that the ultimate martyr’s act makes us aware of “our own shortcomings, our cowardice”? To me all this seems to lead up to disengagement rather than engagement. Anyway, I feel myself collaps already from cowardice.

But secondly – and most importantly – because that fascination blocks a clear view on ordinary, everyday situations of reversal and modesty. Rightly Nissen says in his commentary: “What matters is that there are things that can weigh heavier than self-interest”,  and those things do not necessarily have to have ultimate consequences. When subsequently Nissen adds: “…even if they weigh more than their own lives”, then I also know understand what he means. But I want to emphasize that, if you actually want to experience the described reversals and want to practice them, then you better focus on everyday situations rather than - what happens collectively – on ultimate situations.

To get back to Chesterton: “Something is put upside down in a terrible way, and yet it is just right”, this can also be said without using the word ‘terrible’.

Indeed, that’s what Levinas designates in completely everyday situations as moments of reversal in which suddenly other things can weigh heavier than self-interest. Because that’s what happens if, in the middle of an impassioned self-complacent argument, I let myself be commanded by the regard of another who feels overrun by my complacency. That command feels like absurd and like a complete reversal of values. In a penetrating way something is put on its head, and yet it stands just right. But now without the word ‘terrible’ added.

In this non-ultimate way, the reversal of values may become somewhat more real and better to swallow.

Also see Badiou, Levinas and Differences

zondag 11 mei 2014

Israel as a 'Jewish' state

How weird is it that some Israelis want to see their country recognized as a ‘Jewish’ state ?

Pretty weird, according to many Western observers. Their reasoning is that, under customary international law, formally established borders are inviolable and that that’s all that counts. Within those limits, the inhabitants of a country are entirely free to determine their own identity. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State therefore does, in an international legal sense,  not have any added value in addition to the recognition of Israel as a state .

According to this argument, the reference to an ethnic identity – within international law – is irrelevant. It refers to an outdated organizing principle, for example of the ordering of Central European states after the First World War in which ethnic self-determination was an important principle, and therefore determination of ethnic identity was so too. After the Second World War that principle moved to the background in favor of the principle of inviolability of borders and of once established territorial integrity. So, what proponents of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state do – according to this argument – is: they want to have it both ways. They mix up in an obsucre fashion the outdated principle of ethnic self-determination with the only principle that really matters: territorial integrity. So, their desire is anachronistic and therefore a little weird.

Personally, I think that desire is not so strange. I’m more inclined to find the above reasoning flawed, because it is rather abstract and because it only with difficulty assigns space to factors of a historical, ethnic and linguistic nature. That these can confuse the issue is certainly true, but they are therefore no less real or effective.

That may appear from interventions made in the last decades by the very same West. It is true that thereby actions were frequently based on the principle of territorial integrity, such as the beating of Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait. But the West was certainly not consistent, the principle of ethnic identities also at some times played a major role. For example in supporting Kosovo when it broke away from Serbia. Enough reason for Putin these days to claim that the West applies double standards.

Furthermore, the crisis in Ukraine makes it clear that to simply stick to territorial integrity is not always the solution, and even less so to the degree to which ethnic and linguistic factors have a greater weight.

It could therefore be quite adequate when a country for its integrity appeals not just to its borders, but also to a certain historical and ethnic identity. Because these are real and authentic factors. Having your principles both ways could very well be a necessity, and in fact Western countries act accordingly.

What makes the situation in Israel hard to swallow is that a third principle is in play there: to conquer as much territory from the Palestinians as possible. Because that principle bites with the other two. It is both contrary to the observance of internationally recognized borders, and to respecting the Jewish character of the state. At least as long as democracy is part of that character, and I can not – as yet – view that not to be the case.

Also see The heroic, cosmopolitical Individual

donderdag 3 april 2014

Heidegger and the Jews

There can be no doubt any longer. Peter Trawny, the director of the Heidegger Institute in Wuppertal now publishes Heidegger’s Schwartze Heften, the notebooks with his diary entries from the thirties to seventies. They show that the philosopher from the Black Forest suspects Judaism of being bent on world domination. From the notebooks emanates, according to Trawny, a “Being-historical anti-Semitism” which infuses Heidegger’s thought through all its pores.

Actually, doubt there has been for many years indeed whether Heidegger was anti-Semitic. Most writers agreed that his wife Elfriede was, because she spoke out in an overt anti-Semitic way. But Heidegger himself did not. Of course there was his membership of the Nazi Party and his statement about the inner truth and greatness of the Hitler movement. But that could be explained by the circumstances in which Heidegger as rector of a university had to do his job.

It is not unlikely that this relativizing by heideggerians of Heidegger’s Nazi period was motivated by a great admiration for the philosopher’s work. Someone with such fascinating and profound thoughts, he impossibly could have been an anti-Semite?

Or yet, perhaps the reverse? With this question, the case begins to get interesting. Could there possibly be an inner connection between the deep (according to some: quasi-deep) thinking about the history of Being and anti-Semitism ?

Some will say: better don’t search for such a connection. For Heidegger's work is quite opaque and anti-Semitism is an elusive phenomenon, so only in a shared confusion a connection could possibly be found, but that clarifies nothing.

Then things remain as vague as the insecurity that Levinas in the thirties already experienced in the philosophy of Heidegger (so, apart from Heidegger’s political positions). In the preface of Existence and Existents Levinas tells that his thinking is at the same time determined by Heidegger’s philosophical innovations, and “governed by the profound need to leave the climate of that philosophy”.

But it does not necessarily have to remain that vague. Indeed, Levinas did not let it remain that vague. Because in his later philosophical work, especially in Totality and Infinity he makes very clear that in fact Heidegger’s thinking is totalitarian in nature. Heidegger does not know how to deal with the idea of radical otherness, and that has much to do with his adoration of Being.

Personally I try, on the basis of the comments of Levinas, to get it clear what happens when Heidegger’s thinking on Being is applied to something like management and organization. In that case, the idea of Being in which we all participate is complemented by the idea that we also share our lifeworlds through a shared Mitsein. Authentic Mitsein would generate a kind of spontaneous and taken-for-granted cooperation and communication on the basis of which a healthy organization can flourish.

That’s a nice thought, but also somewhat romantic and unrealistic and, as to me, only half the story. In many cases, an individual’s specific identity will in fact lead to tensions and fractures with others with whom he shares a world. And not always with the prospect of bridging the gaps because people may réally differ from each other. Then it takes more than an ethics which relies on a shared world. Then dealing with differences is just as crucial.

Heidegger’s problem with that could very well have to do with his anti-Semitism.

Also see Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further and Wonder or Bewilderment

zaterdag 29 maart 2014


To remain equanimous and unperturbable, preferably under all circumstances. Thus was, traditionally, described what philosophy was about and so it still is by some.

Last week I was reminded to that view in an interview with the French philosopher and sociologist Frédéric Lenoir. He told about his admiration for the stoic Dutch Holocaust-victim Etty Hillesum because she had reached the situation that philosophers always considered to be supreme, namely the one in which nothing can hurt you deeply anymore. “Philosophers have always said, since the early Greeks: happiness does not depend on the situation you are in”. It is easy indeed to recognize in this statement Socrates’ goal of equanimity which he preached up to his poisoned cup, and which is the goal of many other philosophers to our time.

I can very well understand that man, in the midst of so many earthly turmoil and instability, looks for a kind of invulnerability. Still, I'm glad there are philosophers who questioned that desire for absolute certainty or exposed it as a pursuit of power. Nietzsche started doing so, and the twentieth-century postmodern philosophers followed in his footsteps. But these trends are far from being taken seriously on a broad scale. May that be called true philosophy, it is asked then. Because, true philosophy strives for absolute certainty, doesn’t it?

The problem is that the latter aim produces, besides certainty and safety, also a lot of nasty things, mostly of an uncanny character. I think of the deep-rooted tendency in our society  to objectification and measurement which can give our work floors and manners the sterility that many periodically suffer from. I think also of the extent to which people live alongside each other, safe but untouchable, and more chilly than they might want.
This way of communicating, which has learned not to touch core issues any longer, could very well stem from that age-old philosophical program that tries to reduce our touchability. With its help we have managed to develop to a high level the art of communicative immunity. The result is a safe and efficient society, but one that sometimes is nothing about any longer.

But how, then, is that communicative poverty to be related to Etty Hillesum, with whom I started this piece? Isn’t she an icon of openness and engagement with what was going on around her? Yes, maybe. If it is not the case – as some said of her – that she idolized her teenagegirl-like commitment; so if her engagement was sincere, then that matches obviously very well with the widely sought immunity.

You could say that the Etty Hillesum’s sacrificial heroism (as also eg Mother Theresa’s), and the communicative sterility of our behavior are two sides of the same coin. Both are strategies for achieving immunity, and the one succeeds through total surrender and the other by screening off touchability.

What falls out is the daily mix of vulnerabilities, in which injuries and excuses, dullness and success alternate. The trivial touchability gets orphaned . That is to say, to simply exchange about things that matter becomes problematic. It is true, there is no heroism involved in such exchange, but by rich and warm communication it's that which may hold off sterility.

Too few philosophers know about this. I cherish those who make it a subject of their speculations, and I continue to call them philosopher despite everything.

Also see Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness, The Trap of Universalizing Reason and Progress after all

donderdag 20 februari 2014


It seems to percolate bit by bit now, even with top-executives: primary processes and information flows are Chefsache. We may learn this from the hitches in IT that shake government services, from the near-fatal neglect by Obama of the implementation of his health system, and from the imminent demise of Polare, a big Dutch booksellerschain.

This insight requires quite a mental change. Until not so long ago bosses were considered above all nót to be busy with the primary process. But for instance the crisis at Polare is attributed by some to precisely that lack of interest, namely because “the owners of Polare systematically neglect the primary process of a bookstore in favor of investment strategies, synergy and all kinds of other considerations. Management takes too little notice of substantive knowledge”.

But it is one thing to know that the primary process is essential, it is something else to act accordingly. Because acting accordingly means more than just changing priorities.

Indeed, this area requires a different way of approaching. It can not be operated the way one manages strategy or human resources or change management. On these topics, the chefs are used to think in broad lines, and to develop plans in a top-down way, roll them out and let them be implemented.

In a situation of real attention to the primary process, that way of operating might very well be less useful. Because such attention implies a certain involvement in the workplace, in the manner of implementation. Less distance. In addition to management skills the content becomes more important indeed.

The objection to this is predictable: the boss does not have time for that, of course. No, that’s true, that’s exactly what makes the change so dramatic. Such an approach would in fact mean that personal enterpreneurship of others, besides the boss, is of greater importance. That initiatives may be coming from more sides at once.

More attention to the primary process could very well lead to fewer Chef and more Sache .

Also see Blowing Bubbles

donderdag 23 januari 2014


Just one article from the newspaper,  and a whole year program lies before you .

My paper last month reviewed the book My promised land. The triumph and tragedy of Israel, written by Ari Shavit . It's about Israel and its history, and the author makes an attempt to be as open and honest about the subject as possible.

In the book, and therefore in the review, a series of remarkable questions is presented. Weird questions or pat ones, I do not know yet.  In any case, questions that trigger an explosion of still further questions in me.

For example, somewhere in the headline it says : “ How long does Israel have?”  That’ s a remarkable question indeed.  Anyway, I’ve never heard that question with regard to China or Spain or the Netherlands. Where does that question come from? And what does it mean for the people of a state, if apparently its existence can be considered shaky? Does that justify extensive security and demographic measures to insure its existence? Or do these measures precisely undermine the acceptance of that state by others, and thus its stability ?

Another statement which gives rise to many more questions. Shavit writes that if his grandfather had remained English, his descendants would be assimilated. Shavit himself would probably have been half – Jewish “and have had a less rich inner life”.  Do Jews, then, generally have a richer inner life than non-Jews? What is such a statement based on? Does the concept of ‘chosenness’ play  a role here? And what does the statement to non-Jews who read it? Might it arouse indignation, or envy? Is there a possible connection to anti-Semitism?

Clearly , I need to read that book. And already in advance I have enough questions to fill a whole new year.

Also see Are Jews smarter?

zondag 12 januari 2014


In several speculations following the death of Nelson Mandela there was talked about the African philosophy of Ubuntu by which the South African statesman was supposed to be inspired. Especially Mandela’s ideals of equality and reconciliation were to be traced back to it.

In the references to Ubuntu it is often said that the word is hardly translatable. In one of the attempts at explanation, I encountered the following statement : “The essence of man is that he is inextricably linked with other people. Westerners say: I think, so I am. Africans say: I am human, because I participate and share”. Hence follows the incentive to solve conflicts by  social harmony, endless consultation and dialogue.

Although this statement is attributed to Bishop Tutu, it seems to me just as well to reflect a romantic Western view of Africans. Up to the generalizations and inaccuracies associated with all romantisations.

Such an inaccuracy, in my view, is the assumption that the West would not know collectivity. On the contrary, I would say, what else were the patriotic movements in many European countries in the nineteenth century, up to the enthusiasm with which those countries attacked one another in the Great War of 1914? And to what extent citizens, even after that war, could be enraptured by a sense of togetherness can still be seen in films from Nazi Germany from the thirties. The problem is: we had our fill of it. Reasoning along these historic lines we may also settle with another assumption that is implied in the romantic image. Because the idea that collectivities, not only in Western Europe but also in Africa, are not beatific can become sufficiently clear from the terrible massacres that have occurred on the African continent over the past twenty-five years between African peoples. Often fought out not with Western armaments, but with authentic African machetes.

Finally, if Mandela made clear anything, it is the indispensability of individual conscience. In comparing Mandela with some other great contemporary minds like Havel and Sakharov, commentator Stevo Akkerman arrives at a feature they have in common. “Their greatness is inseparable from the efforts of the prevailing power to make them small – that these efforts  were not successful was due to a sense of personal autonomy which no executioner can compete with. The greatness resides here in the stubborn adherence to the ideals of equality and dignity, knowing – which applied very strong for both Havel and Mandela – that human rights are inalienable, for everyone, always. So even for evildoers”. It is hard so say this in a more abstract and less collectivist way.

My conclusion is that Ubuntu, at least in the popular romantic sense in which it is used a lot, cannot inspire me very much. For that to accomplish it too much extols the ‘collective’ and ‘participation’, and the concept does not help to discern between participating in a good and a bad way.

I do not mean to say that one does not need a social context. Indeed, I think humans need that very much. What I do say is that one should be careful with collectivities when it comes to distinctions between right and wrong. In spite of all it might be the individual which is the find-spot for hat kind of distinctions. In any case, a great deal of loneliness has indeed been characteristic of the life of Nelson Mandela.

Also see The Heroic Cosmopolitical Individual