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Yehoshua Versus Levy

Despite the gracious and fraternal tone of A.B. Yehoshua’s letter to Gideon Levy in Haaretz, the concluding paragraph has a curious effect on the letter’s contents: Please, preserve the moral authority and concern that you possessed, and your distinctive voice. … Read More

By / January 16, 2009

Despite the gracious and fraternal tone of A.B. Yehoshua’s letter to Gideon Levy in Haaretz, the concluding paragraph has a curious effect on the letter’s contents:

Please, preserve the moral authority and concern that you possessed, and your distinctive voice. We will need them again in the future, which promises further ordeals on the road to peace. In the meantime, it would be best for us all – we and the Palestinians and the rest of the world – to follow the simple moral imperative of Kantian philosophy: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Curious because, well, one may as well condescendingly remind an astronomer of the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, and implore them to apply it across the board. Kant was a great thinker on the limits of reason  and a compelling enough moral thinker on many fronts, but the categorical imperative is only his famous, not the most useful of his contributions. Most have heard of it, but few have heard of the Problem of the Enquiring Murderer. It goes like this: according to the Kantian imperative, we should all tell the truth all the time. So what if a murderer asks you to disclose the location of a person he wants to kill? The imperative neglects the fact that two notions of the good can often conflict. Many of our most fiercely debated issues of the day hinge on how adamant one is about the correctness of his or her judgment regarding which of several conflicting goods is greatest. Take Iraq, for instance. It can hardly be disputed that civilian casualties and a five year occupation are bad and that it would have been good to have avoided both. And yet, the discontinued existence of Saddam Hussein’s regime is a good thing, too. Tempers rise and explode over this question of conflicting goods. Kant is of no use to us in these moments…unless one hopes to lend the sheen of universality to one’s own assessment of the good. Perhaps it is to my slight advantage that I’m not familiar enough with Levy’s coverage of the current conflict in Gaza to make a fair assessment of whether Yehoshua’s criticisms are fair. To read only the letter, I’m led to conclude that the two have agreed on many key points in the past with regards to Israeli wrongdoing, but that now Yehoshua feels Levy has overstepped the bounds from rational critic to unfair detractor of a just war. He goes on to note several instances where Levy’s omissions or judgments have undermined his once-laudable moral authority. But there is sleight of hand here. Despite the fact that many of the most honest pro-Israeli intellectuals doubt the ability of the current military campaign to effectively deter future missile strikes, Yehoshua writes:

All we are trying to do is get their leaders to stop this senseless and wicked aggression, and it is only because of the tragic and deliberate mingling between Hamas fighters and the civilian population that children, too, are unfortunately being killed.

just moments after he points out that he has asked Levy whether he

truly believe[s] that if they fire missiles the crossings will be opened, or the opposite. And whether you truly believe that it is right and just to open crossings into Israel for those who declare openly and sincerely that they want to destroy our country.

The consistency Yehoshua demands of Levy would require the realization that the tactics are either both futile or they are both justifiable. But then Yehoshua implies something of great import in the latter statement without coming right out and saying it: Hamas can’t be persuaded or dealt with because it its ideology is genocidal and irrational. But if this is so, as I believe it is, then one must also accept that, unless Israel plans to oust Hamas and occupy Gaza (the America-in-Iraq model), no amount of force can be truly thought to be accomplishing forseeable objectives. It is, then, as pointless and doomed to impotence as are Hamas’ rocket attacks designed to "open the crossings." The most depressing thing about the current conflict and the coverage of it is that time and again we are offered two competing visions of the good and treated as if we must be categorical about one or the other. And always the implication from each side rings, as Yehoshua’s letter does, of sanctimony and myopia. But Kant had a better lesson. His second formulation of moral law suggests that we treat each individual rational being as an end in itself, never as a mere means to an end. By adhering to this formula, one is permitted to insist on both supposedly competing visions of the good, while also insisting that no rational being be treated as merely a means to that end. One can argue for an end to dual stranglehold on Gaza by Hamas and Israel, remain opposed to Islamist fanaticism as well as colonialism, while remaining opposed to every casualty inflicted as players on each side cynically treat Israeli and Palestinian civilians as means to their supposed end.

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