Halliday, Deutscher, Arendt

Another excellent article from Fred Halliday.

Amid the unconscionable violence, targeting of civilians, and appeals to unreason and ethnic identification that such modern wars entail, it is all the more necessary to retrieve the example of those who sought to defend core values that crossed boundaries of prejudice and narrow partisanship. I have already honoured one of those in this openDemocracy series of columns: the great French scholar of the Muslim world, Maxime Rodinson. Two more such figures were formative in articulating an internationalist position – one (Isaac Deutscher) within a Marxist framework, the other (Hannah Arendt) within a broadly liberal perspective.

And two very long-standing intellectual heroes and influences of mine.

Soon after the 1967 war, Deutscher gave an interview to three editors of the London-based Marxist intellectual journal New Left Review…In it, Deutscher struck a note that has diminished to near-invisibility in more recent debates, where claims of identity prevail over universal principle, where identification with one side or the other predominates, and where the atrocities and callous political blunders of each combatant readily find their intellectual defenders…Deutscher built on these premises an argument – couched in tones of anti-clerical, universalist disdain, something all too lacking in these days of grovelling before “identity”, “tradition” and “faith communities” – that was clear in its rejection of the invocation of the sacred, the God-given, in political debate. Deutscher rejected Talmudic obscurantism and bloodthirsty Arab calls for vengeance alike.

These days of grovelling before “identity”, “tradition” and “faith communities”…Oh yeah.

The work of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt…was not directly related to the Arab-Israeli question, but her liberal internationalist outlook does have immense relevance to it. This is especially true of Eichmann in Jerusalem…Much more controversial (and neglected) is Arendt’s critique of the legal and moral case made by the Israeli prosecutors against Eichmann. For, whereas the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals had been conducted under what at least purported to be some form of “international” law…Adolf Eichmann was prosecuted for the taking of Jewish lives and in a Jewish court. A case that in 1946 had been (if weak in some points of principle) confident in its universalist aspirations, had by the early 1960s been converted into something derived from the ethnicity of the victims. And this ethnicisation of the victims was, at the same time, deemed to convey a particular right, if not responsibility, on the state that lay claim to representing those victims, namely Israel. This was what Hannah Arendt identified.

Identified and sharply criticized, which is one reason I keep re-reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. She didn’t do any grovelling before ‘identity’ and ‘faith communities.’

There is an enormous historical regression involved here. It involves seeing membership of a particular community, or claims of affinity, ethnicity or religious association with others, as conveying particular rights (or particular moral clarity) on those making such claims. In purely rational terms, this is nonsense: the crimes of the Israelis in wantonly destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure, and the crimes of Hizbollah and Hamas in killing civilians and placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, do not require particularist denunciation. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, humanity – and should be identified as such.

We’re in – we’re well and truly stuck in – a period of enormous historical regression. Here’s hoping we can claw our way out of it very soon.

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