“The ‘peace process’ and the ‘two-state solution’ are other thought clichés that must be questioned because ultimately whoever speaks of these, or even more generally of a ‘political settlement,’ has not understood the conflict at all.”
o be a philosopher, one must start from the beginning. It is not for naught that Hobbes introduces his exposition on the state by discussing such things as human perception, imagination, and reason, and that Hegel discusses scientific cognition before launching into his phenomenology. Such holistic treatments are not always practical, and most readers nowadays do not have the patience to concentrate for that long, but it is important to retain at least the spirit of foundational inquiry so as to avoid the thought clichés within which even relatively intelligent people become trapped.
To few current issues does this apply as well as it does to the Middle East conflict, as has been seen over the last few weeks, since the outbreak of the most recent war. I do not wish to discuss the right and wrong of the two sides. Just as little as I would debate whether the Nazis or the Jews were in the wrong would I debate whether the “Palestinians” or Israel are in the wrong. Only anti-Semitism, or ignorance of the history and cultures of the region, or, finally, fear of Muslims could cause a denial of the fact that moral right is squarely on Israel’s side and that there is no such thing as “occupation” or “colonization” in the area. For those who are unaware of these things, there are plenty of other sources they can consult. Instead, I wish to discuss some cultural and philosophical ramifications of the war for the West.
Some of the thought clichés common in the West, including among parts of the political right, must be questioned. Many even on the pro-Israel side will say something to the effect that “The Palestinians deserve better than Hamas,” or they will introduce a defense of Israel with a statement that “The Palestinians deserve a country, but…” which leaves me wondering: How bad does a people have to be not to deserve a country? How large does the Palestinian majority have to be that voted for Hamas, how many Israeli offers of a state must the Palestinians reject, how many millions of dollars must the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority pay out to the terrorists and their families, and how jubilantly and ululatingly must Palestinian crowds race with candies through the streets every time a Jewish child is killed before we say: Perhaps, actually, the Palestinians do not deserve a country? The “peace process” and the “two-state solution” are other thought clichés that must be questioned because ultimately whoever speaks of these, or even more generally of a “political settlement,” has not understood the conflict at all. More general thought clichés that are implicated in the new war include the idea of the equality of cultures and peoples, as well as the narcissistic Western notion that other peoples ultimately desire the same things as we do.
Once we are ready to discard these notions—or, at least, not to take them for granted—we can start the discussion at an earlier, more fundamental stage. And it is then that we realize that the new war in the Middle East is not an expression of a conflict between two regional statehood claims or, even more fundamentally, simply a fight between Judaism and Islam, though it is also the latter. Rather, it is a civilizational confrontation that pits two world systems against each other. In that sense, the new war belongs with such days as Marathon, Zama, Milvian Bridge, Tours, Waterloo, and Omaha Beach: Israel is the front line of the West. When we question the thought clichés we realize, further, that while the barbarians will likely be pushed back, at least in the short term, there will not be peace, partly because Muslim Arab hatred of Jews is absolutely endemic and has been for centuries, and partly because by definition there can never be peace between barbarism and civilization; peace comes only when one side completely subjugates the other, as we see everywhere in history. We also realize ideas that Westerners today would call “uncomfortable,” if they managed to bring themselves to such ideas at all. For instance, there is the notion that while Rome’s wiping out of Carthage in 146 B.C. certainly caused great suffering, it also prevented significant suffering by ensuring almost unbroken peace in that part of the Mediterranean for the next half millennium. There is also the idea that temporary ruthlessness, being unphased by pain and suffering, to follow a famous Italian Renaissance philosopher, can be the most humane course of action. Much of the world does not, in fact, share our beliefs about the summum bonum. Furthermore, not every human life has the same worth as every other human life (the difference between a serial rapist and Beethoven is far greater than that between a serial rapist and a cockroach). These ideas should not be entertained in a slipshod manner, but only when we are willing to entertain them, can we begin to understand the cultural dimension of the new war.
That the West has forgotten these ideas and, by and large, has not yet begun to recollect them, can be seen when even ostensibly right-wing European politicians state after the initial Hamas attacks that any use of financial aid for anti-Semitic purposes must be out of the question, not understanding that aid to the Palestinians is ipso facto aid for anti-Semitic purposes; when Europeans refuse to accept the fact that they have imported millions of anti-Semites onto their continent; when Western oikophobic intellectuals claim—in a fallacious “argument to moderation”—that both Hamas’ attacks and Israel’s counterattacks are wrong, and when they thereby try to display their nuanced thinking by criticizing Israel as much as her enemies; when they reject the idea that Arab harassment of Jews in the streets and schoolyards of Europe (and practically never the other way around) is indicative of civilizational confrontation and of a radically different world view; when Westerners believe that the present conflict can be solved through practical compromises rather than through overwhelming force, not understanding that power is the ultimate language in the Middle East and many other parts of the world, and will one day be so in the West again; when Westerners and, in particular, West Europeans are unable to recognize the existence of unmitigated and unmitigable evil. I could go on.
These ways of thinking are indicative of an old social thought paradigm that is ceasing to exist. As long as one thinks within this paradigm, even if one prefers Israel and wants a negotiated peace treaty that favors Israel, one is intellectually useless in this context because such a thing will not come to be and is an illusion. That is, a new thought paradigm is needed in order for the conflict to be understood, where a whole different set of questions is posed and answered. This was always the case, of course, but only now is there at least a possibility that more people will begin to understand it.
The notion that we are all really the same and that the rest of the world desires what we in the West desire—peace, freedom, life, and so on—goes back to the French “Enlightenment,” which damaged as much as it helped the West’s collective understanding of the world. Voltaire writes in Notes on Pascal’s Pensées that “Morality is the same everywhere, in the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the emperor Julian, in the slave Epictetus, and as you yourself admire it in Saint-Louis, and in his conqueror Baibars, in the Chinese emperor Qianlong, and in the king of Morocco.” And Rousseau, in Book 4 of Emile, claims that “Among this prodigious variety of manners and customs you will find everywhere the same ideas of justice and righteousness, everywhere the same principles of morality, everywhere the same notions of good and evil” (my translations). The influence of these gentlemen’s stark ignorance can be seen in vulgar statements on social media today that the Abrahamic religions all desire the same thing—essentially some version of “love thy neighbor”—but are distorted by small bands of extremists. Or one might hear that cultures committing acts of great gruesomeness and bigotry are actually fine, only that there are some individual extremists at the top of the culture who as demagogues whip up the people beneath them into performing atrocities they would not otherwise condone, an idea that of course understands little of the underlying cruelty and tribalism of earlier-stage human culture, and of human beings generally, and of the fact that in some cultures, millions upon millions of otherwise seemingly decent and even charming people think that, say, all Jews and homosexuals should be rounded up and killed. To get a clearer sense of how incorrect these modern Western notions are, one would have to read the sacred texts and the philosophers of the various religions and also, of course, see how those philosophies play themselves out in the real world.
This Western naiveté, in fact, represents a popular, rump version of Christianity (certainly not of Judaism, which has no notion of turning the other cheek). This watery form of Christianity stems in large part from Christianity’s self-secularization through, in fact, Enlightenment ideas (a version of this point is present already in Nietzsche) in the 19th century, and it grew in strength in the 20th, especially after World War II. It embraces, wittingly or not, the pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount, the peacemakers and the putatively poor in spirit, while disregarding the more sophisticated Christian philosophers who attempted to apply Jesus’ teachings to the real world and who established concepts of just war and other practical matters.
This Western feeling that surely everyone must ultimately think as we do is also related to Christianity’s proselytizing urge, which Judaism does not have. Although proselytism entails that other peoples are different, it also assumes that such peoples can become more similar to oneself. In the Jewish tradition, on the other hand, accepting that not everyone must think as we do goes hand in hand with the idea that, in fact, not everyone does think as we do. This is a reason why Jewish thought is more open than Christian to the idea that sometimes a problem can be solved only by the thorough destruction of the foe rather than by the foe’s conversion, a conversion that in many cases would be impossible to achieve anyway. Historically, Jews have simply wanted to be left alone to worship and to study in peace, while the Christians have performed outreach to the most far-flung peoples of the world. So just as there is an element of Islamic-Jewish confrontation in the present war, as I previously intimated, Europe’s and the American left’s moralist preaching to Israel has a whiff of Christian-Jewish conflict, even if the European attitude does not do full justice to the better and more complex elements of Christian and, in particular, Catholic thought. While we often have good reason to speak of a Judeo-Christian West, this is an instance in which there is a clear fissure between Judaism and Christianity, and where the latter’s representatives have something to learn from the former’s.
The abandonment of this contemporary Western naiveté does not mean that one necessarily abandons the idea of ius in bello, and that absolutely anything goes, but it does mean that one understands that as the nature of the bellum changes, so the nature of the ius must change correspondingly. Some might protest that the whole point of ius is that it remain fixed regardless of changing circumstances, but this protest prefers words to life and comes from a vain and philosophically realist love of one’s own ideas. The clash of the British and the French armies (and their allies) at Blenheim is very different from the Palestinian slaughter of families in a stealth raid followed by their retreat to positions behind their own human-shield children. The problem with a concept such as ius in bello is that it tends to remain frozen in people’s minds as the world around them changes, and that its defenders forget that the inventions of ius in bello were themselves answers to their own particular times, and have therefore taken on many different forms in history.
In light of all this, it becomes easier to understand what an utter disaster multiculturalism has been and will continue to be for Europe. In the United States, multiculturalism is, of course, part of the original fabric of the country, but even under such circumstances, a dominant culture is necessary to stave off neo-tribalism. The slow fragmentation of American society is a result of the dominant Anglo culture growing ever weaker. But at least this fragmentation is slower in the United States, partly due to our historically greater ability to assimilate foreigners than has been the case in Europe, and partly due to the fact that we still find ourselves in the great-power phase of our history, albeit slowly exiting it. In Europe, on the other hand, things have already progressed much further. I have shown elsewhere what really should be obvious enough, namely that multiculturalism, or what we call “diversity,” in the long run always weakens social cohesion and the power of the state, and encourages neo-tribalism; the historical evidence in this regard is overwhelming. For now it is mostly Jewish communities in Europe that are attacked and harassed. Indeed, for the first time since World War II, the mass murder of Jews is publicly celebrated in Europe, in full display on the streets of Berlin, Paris, Brussels, London, and Stockholm. However, fewer and fewer Europeans of other sorts feel safe in their own homes and on their own streets. This trend will continue and will worsen.
But even in the present circumstances, there persists a remarkable cluelessness in Europe in which many continue to believe that one can supposedly separate out the extremist elements from the waves of immigrating Muslims and Arabs. To be sure, there are certainly Muslim Arab individuals who are peaceful, tolerant of Jews, strongly against terrorism, and desirous of integrating into Western culture. But the majority—not a minority—of Arab Muslims are anti-Semitic and hostile to Western values. And so another thought cliché to be questioned regards the supposed “silent majority” of Arab Muslims who are against the extremists: In actual fact, those who are silent are the minority, and those who are in the majority are not silent (and it would behoove us to listen to what they say). Only when one sheds the pop-Christianity and understands, as most Europeans do not, that whole swathes of humanity can be what they would call “intolerant” and “bigoted,” does one begin to entertain different policy options than the ones that have previously been proffered. And I speak more of Europe than of the United States, partly because the problem is worse there than here, and partly because thinking Americans, by and large, have a better understanding of this issue than their European counterparts.
It is true, of course, that Westerners long before Muslim Arab immigration were often unfriendly to Jews, to put it mildly. But this was usually for other reasons: older forms of anti-Semitism based on religious, economic, and sometimes racial factors (the second has generally come from both the political right and left, and the first and last from the Right, though, contrary to popular belief, parts of the Left flirted also with racial anti-Semitism in its early phases). Today, on the other hand, while economic forms of anti-Semitism among Westerners continue to linger, and in some cases even to increase, sharply rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United States, is principally due to two factors: to higher proportions of Muslim Arabs present in the West, and, when it comes from native Westerners, to an oikophobic allophilia that assumes that the Western country of Israel must be in the wrong and her non-Western enemies in the right.
And so my earlier remark that power will one day again be the ultimate language in Europe as well, and not just in the Middle East and other more remote corners of the world, was not some flippant line of doom and gloom but, rather, something that is already beginning to be seen. In Western Europe, the homegrown cultures must learn to insist on themselves if they wish to survive in any meaningful sense. It is important to point out, in line with the aforementioned language of power, that such insistence would be less concerned with what is morally right and more concerned with what is needed as a practical matter. It would, by necessity, include the different policy options to which I previously alluded, such as a total halt to immigration from Muslim-majority countries, with no exceptions made for family members of those already in Europe, as well as, wherever doable, deportations (in cases of crime or overt terrorist support) and financially incentivized voluntary repatriations. Again, some will quibble about the morality of such undertakings, but those people miss the point. One can, of course, make a perfectly coherent moral case for these policy options as well, but, as Scipio Aemilianus understood as he surveyed the city by the sea, and as Machiavelli saw as he withdrew into his study in the evening, reality will have its own logic and necessity.
Of course, power as the ultimate arbiter of right never really left us; it only remained hidden from most people’s view by the fact that the postwar American order was one of relative peace, open trade, and capitalist liberalism, but, like everything else, this could not last forever. As I insisted to people already in the early and mid-2000s while living in various European countries, declining American power would one day lead to a more chaotic world and a return to an ostentatious display of power as the final arbiter of right. I was laughed at by Germans and French alike, who could not stomach the thought that the world order into which our generation had been born was due to the United States, but it did not disconcert me because I knew we would see the veracity of my prediction already within our lifetimes. The war in Ukraine, which broke out last year, was a first step toward Europeans finally realizing this. May the new war be a second step. Indeed, the mere fact—regrettable indeed—that I have to write an article such as this one, is another indication of how we are approaching the return of the ultimate language of power.
Dr. Benedict Beckeld is a philosopher based in New York City. His most recent book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, was published last year by Cornell University Press. He can be found on Twitter @BenedictBeckeld