Michael Shurkin
The Hamas Class of 1992:
The Force and Farce of International Law, p.2


In a recent article appearing in Commentary magazine, Die Zeit editor Josef Jaffe has suggested that one reason for Europeans' discomfort with both the United States and Israel is that while Europeans pretend to have entered a post-national, post-conflict era defined by Kantian notions of international law, justice, and perpetual peace, Israel and America continue in a 'retrograde' world of Hobbes and Machiavelli; Israel, because it has no choice if it is to survive, and America, because is the world's lone superpower. "By dint of that they are and what they have, America and Israel will remain both targets and warriors."

Zionism constitutes a rejection of faith in the liberal order. At its heart was, historically, a recognition that Kantian teleology was not working out as planned, at least not for Jews. Assimilation wasn't working, citizenship wasn't working; Zionism was as much a negative statement about Europe as a positive one about the Jewish State. It abandoned the Enlightenment in favor of a Romantic -- at times Nietzschean -- Will to Power, an affirmation of the individual and national self, which is why most Western European and American Jews before the Holocaust regarded Zionists as heretics. The Holocaust, however, forced even the most unromantic Jews to concede to the Zionists one important point: the world is really ugly, and sometimes one must put aside one's ideals for a gun (or a Hellfire missile). Herzl was a truer prophet than Mendelssohn, and, after the Holocaust, most Jews realized that they could not place any faith whatsoever in the international community.

(And yet, of course, they did anyway. One is reminded of the U.N.'s pledge to keep the Straits of Tiran open in 1967 -- a pledge hastily broken when Egypt threatened force. The U.N. was just as quick to pull its peace keepers out at Nasser's demand. Now even voices on the Israeli Right are calling for international forces in Gaza. The pope still wants to internationalize Jerusalem.)

Having welcomed Hobbes (and Nietzsche) into bed, however, Jews must struggle not to give up altogether on Kant or risk becoming no better than their enemies. The French knew this back in the 1950s, which is why they left Algeria rather than continue a war that, though going in their favor, was making them no better than the fascists from whom they had recently been freed. It was an admirable decision. Israel, alas, has no choice but to continue playing with fire, for unlike France there's no going back, no return home. Israel is home. The current "Security Fence" seems as close to a French abandonment as is possible for Israel.

And so, various rhetorical strategies are deployed instead. Golda Meir's famous quote, that she hates the Arabs for "turning our sons into murderers," is an example of a yearning for Kant in a reality of Hobbes. Moshe Dayan's maxim that while Israel cannot prevent attacks on civilians, it must make the price too high for enemies to pay, is more of an embrace of it. At its most extreme (i.e. Jabotinsky), Zionist rhetoric extends to a Nietzschean affirmation of power, a redemptive striking out against the Other for the sake of one's own authenticity. The reborn Jew-as-übermensch wields force not only out of necessity, but as part of his self-reinvention.

"International law" is a last gasp of Kant. In practice, international law is an emergent phenomenon of the behavior of nation-states. In rhetorical deployment, however, "international law" stands for the principle that there is Right beyond might. As Robert Cover noted long ago, law is an arena of violence, and the words we use to justify violence are often of central importance. Of course, "international law" is often little more than a figleaf, as in the United States' outrageously disingenuous rationales for the Iraq war. Liberal Jews ought to be concerned that Israel is disregarding the laws of war, and international law regarding occupied territory, in its "extrajudicial" assassinations. But we must also face up to the fact that it is this narrow, Kantian concept of international law that itself may be subject to critique. Perhaps the concept of international law constraining the prosecution of a war is itself obsolete.

We are not there yet. Today, we are still in the realm of pure hypocrisy, in which blood-soaked states such as Algeria use the rhetorical trope of "international law" merely to advance their own agendas. Each time the Algerian ambassador uses the term, he weakens it.

Israel is now in the process of finishing the Class of 1992's graduation ceremonies. As it picks these murderers off, one by one, it is greeted by howls of protest from countries who themselves have terrorist blood on their hands. Have a thousand Israelis yet died because of the actions of the Class of 1992? What would have happened if the terrorists had been deported, or imprisoned, instead of returned? home? What if Arafat had actually made good on his promises to incarcerate the most dangerous among them? Without minimizing the suffering of innocent Palestinians, can we ask how many more Israelis would have to die before, holding its nose and watching its conscience, Israel would be justified in following the path of its critics? The path, that is, of Hobbes?

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