While the recent series on Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal focused on a conflict that’s always close to the surface in any Middle East debate (i.e., who plays what role in our Left-Right political continuum when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict), an article by Yoram Hazony (one of the most insightful political thinkers of the age) point out challenges that go way beyond how we think about contemporary political alignments.
For, according to Hazony, the way important players (particularly in the West) view the current conflict has to do with a clash not of civilizations but of paradigms, the intellectual frameworks through which we understand and interpret facts and ideas.
Hazony borrows this idea from Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking work The Structures of Scientific Revolutions which proposed that major advances in science proceed not through the careful and gradual work of experimentation and analysis but via shifts in paradigms that go against everything that is currently believed.
The shift from an earth-centered to sun-centered universe was one such break (with earth-centered beliefs supported not just by religion and superstition, but by the science of the day) giving way to new theories which better fit the facts. Similarly, Newton’s physics had to give way (or at least make room for) fields such as relativity and quantum mechanics which explained things that could not be understood from intuition applied to everyday observation.
In each of these cases, champions of new theories proposed something that did not fit the strict definition of science. The best example of this is Charles Darwin who proposed a theory of evolution that required life on earth for millions of years, even though the reigning science of the day (thermodynamics) clearly showed that the sun (which was assumed to be burning chemical fuel) could only have existed for thousands of years.
Under the terms of science (which say we should not believe easily falsifiable theories), Darwin was a crackpot. But in this case Darwin’s crackpot ideas were championed and embraced long enough for Einstein to come along and show that nuclear fusion meant the sun (and earth) could indeed be old enough to support Darwin’s proposals.
As Kuhn describes, most conventional thinkers do not embrace new theories but instead fight them, which means such people (no matter how brilliant) have to die off before a new generation of thinkers comes along to do the heavy lifting in support of concepts rejected by their predecessors.
Hazony applies this idea to the relationship between Israel and the West (particularly Europe) in which states busily shedding their independence in a move towards transnationalism (embodied in institutions such as the EU and UN) see Israel (and, to a large extend, America) as relics of the past: independent nation states which insist on tending to their own needs and interests who show no interest in subsuming themselves into a global superstate.
Given this analysis, each side (the European and Israeli) can look at the exact same facts and come to widely different conclusions. His most salient example has to do with Jews under arms which Israelis see as the moral answer to the problem of Jewish helplessness which they feel led to the Holocaust. But to the European post-nationalist, the armed Jew represents a people who have not learned the lesson of the Holocaust which is that nationalism will always lead to militancy and war (which is why it must be superseded by global governance).
This does leave open the question as to why Europe, which seems to deplore nations like Israel acting in their own interest, seems so keen on creating new nations (such as a Palestinian one) and why scorn for Israel acting in its own interest is not matched by equal or more anger directed at existing states which brutalize their own people and act in ways that should seem abhorrent to the transnational humanist.
Hazony deals with this subject in a second essay which, like the first piece, falls back on a philosopher who goes back much further than Kuhn: Kant. For according to Kant, all nations must pass through the stage of nationalism (a civilizational stepping stone that’s a step up from the jungle and tribe) on their way to subsuming their national character into truly global governance which, for Kant, was the only thing that could end war and conflict (which he saw as taking place within and between nations).
Now this language cannot be used explicitly by those who feel Arabs, Asians and Africans are too primitive to be “ready” for the same evolutionary step as are Europeans. But it certainly provides one explanation for the extraordinarily high expectations placed on nations like Israel compared to the total lack of any expectations of civilized behavior placed on Israel’s foes (not to mention most of the other world’s states).
One could propose a simpler explanation as to why Israel is treated as it is: anti-Semitism which treats the nation of the Jews as the Jew among the nations. But even here we need to keep in mind that bigoted attitudes (even suppressed ones that take the form of anger directed at Jews for looking after their own national interests coupled with automatic forgiveness of non-Europeans when they act savagely) must have a framework in which to operate.
For most people do not think of themselves as bigots and then try to find a theology to justify their bigotry. Rather, they adopt a storyline (or paradigm) that places them in the role of virtuous truth seeker (or truth discoverer) with a mission to transmit this received wisdom to the world. It is only within such a paradigm that people can justify the most contradictory and (in many cases) discriminatory and even vicious behavior.