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