The Case for Public Engagement on Israel

Jon Loewenberg, JHU:

Last week, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times that raised an interesting topic: the German silence on Israel. Omri Boehm argued that the silence of many prominent German intellectuals on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be considered a speech act and that this is a dangerous path for German intellectuals to go down. He mentions Kant’s interpretation of the enlightenment, which requires a public use of reason to emerge from one’s own self-incurred immaturity. By doing so, Boehm uses Germany’s own intellectual tradition to critique the silence of two of Germany’s most famous intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas and Günter Grass, on the Israel subject.

When asked for his opinion on Israeli politics in 2012, Habermas’ answer was that while “the present situation and the policies of the Israeli government” do require a “political kind of evaluation,” this is not “the business of a private German citizen of my generation.” I think Habermas’ reticence on the issue is particularly noteworthy given that he himself coined the term the “public sphere” in his work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. In this work, he identifies active discursive participation as an essential part of properly functioning democracies.

Habermas traces the origins of the public sphere to Renaissance Europe and the rise of mercantilism, as well as the rise of democracy, individual liberty, and popular sovereignty. He sees the transition from feudalism to a bourgeois liberal constitutional order as a key point in the creation of the public sphere, as this is when a clear distinction was made between public and private realms. The public sphere became a place that served as an intermediary between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have critical debates on public matters.

Given Habermas’ support for public discourse and his respect for it as a crucial part of democratic culture, it is puzzling why he would withhold comment on a public subject like Israeli politics. It would seem as if Habermas is refusing to assume the stance of enlightenment when addressing Israeli affairs. However, one must remain cognizant of the predicament that German intellectuals face. After all, Germany still remains significantly indebted to the Jewish people for its crimes during the Holocaust. The German government has continued to pay reparations to Jewish people all over the world. Just last year it agreed to pay 772 million Euros to Holocaust survivors across the world for homecare, many of whom were located in Israel.

The apprehension many Germans feel on the Israeli issue, including Habermas in all likelihood, is rooted in a conflict between their commitment to Jews following the Holocaust and their commitment to universal humanity. With 48 years of occupation, eight years of siege on Gaza, and more than 2,000 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this past summer, there is a sensible reason for humanitarian concern in the region. However, regardless of the costs of maintaining a Jewish state, German intellectuals, as well as others in a similar predicament, should look to find a middle ground, in which they uphold their commitment to both values.

The values at stake in the region are not competing. Israel can maintain its state while limiting or eliminating its international law and human rights violations. While there is ample evidence of human rights violations on both sides, one can take a stand in support of both humanism and Judaism, by condemning human rights violations while still supporting the Jewish nation state. In his piece, Boehm points out that failure to speak out at a time such as this undermines the Holocaust as a politically significant past, as the Holocaust was also a time when people lacked the courage to reason publicly and utilize the public sphere. If history has taught us anything, it is that sound is better than silence in the face of atrocity.

The conflict that German intellectuals face is one that involves the separation between private and public life. Richard Rorty, the late American philosopher, wrote about the contingency of our views and the lack of any sort of real truth in his work Contigency, Irony, and Solidarity. He argues for private recognition of the contingency of one’s beliefs and public solidarity. This private-public division can be useful when considering the position of a German intellectual. While an intellectual like Habermas may recognize the contingency of outright support for Israel, he should put aside this angst and come to a point of public solidarity with humanity in general.

In other words, the ironism that typifies the private life of an ironist cannot impede his ability to voice his public reason. When we concede to ironism and the contingency of our ideas in public life, humanity is lost and events like the Holocaust are made possible by our passivity. I hope that more intellectuals, not just those in Germany, will engage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a sensible manner and keep the public sphere sentient.




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