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coreyrobin

Why I’m always on the internet…

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2014

I hesitate to post this little item because it involves praise of me (with a term, as you may recall, that I really don’t like), but…John’s complaining that we’re not posting enough, and I think the topic in this item might be of interest to readers.

The context is that my friend, Peter von Ziegesar, who’s a filmmaker and author (of an affecting memoir about his brother that you really should read), was interviewed by PEN America and was asked, “While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose? How about artists? Is it a shared purpose?”

In his response, Peter says in part:

Typically in the past the public intellectual, on the model of Susan Sontag, for example, or Norman Mailer, or Gore Vidal, lived in New York and published in esoteric journals, such as The New York Review of Books, or The Nation, and occasionally appeared on the Tonight Show. A friend of mine, Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College who has written several books and fits the role of public intellectual perfectly, in my opinion, told me recently that he originally moved to New York City hoping to discover just such a vibrant pool of committed intellectuals to join and was disappointed when he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until he started blogging and created his own website that he found that group of individuals he’d been looking for—on the Internet.


Curious what other people’s experiences are, if they feel the same way…

 

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Copyrights and Property Wrongs

by Corey Robin on September 27, 2014

Jeffrey Toobin has a fascinating piece in this week’s New Yorker on the effort of individuals to get information about themselves or their loved ones deleted from the internet.

Toobin’s set piece is a chilling story of the family of Nikki Catsouras, who was decapitated in a car accident in California. The images of the accident were so ghastly that the coroner wouldn’t allow Catsouras’s parents to see the body.

Two employees of the California Highway Patrol, however, circulated photographs of the body to friends. Like oil from a spill, the photos spread across the internet. Aided by Google’s powerful search engine—ghoulish voyeurs could type in terms like “decapitated girl,” and up would pop the links—the ooze could not be contained.

Celebrities who take naked selfies, ex-cons hoping to make a clean start, victims of unfounded accusations, the parents of a woman killed in a gruesome accident: all of us have an interest in not having certain information or images about us or our loved ones shared on the internet. Because it provides such a powerful sluice for the spread of that information or those images, Google has become the natural target of those who wish to protect their privacy from the prying or prurient eyes of the public.

[click to continue…]

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George Steiner writes somewhere that the deepest source of anti-Semitism may lie in three Jews: Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Three Jews who formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, an almost unforgiving and humanly unbearable ethics/politics, that the rest of the world, whatever their formal embrace of institutionalized Christianity or communism, has repeatedly bridled at and hated. And never forgiven the Jews for. Setting aside the bit of self-congratulation that lies at the heart of that formulation—ah, we Jews, we’re so ethical and righteous—I wonder if some part of what Steiner says may not lie at the heart of the rage and reaction that Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has elicited over the years. I mean, regardless of what you think of Eichmann’s arguments, you have to admit: the book does get under people’s skin. And not just for a moment, but for more than a half-century now, with no signs of abating. And that may be, taking my cues from Steiner, that there is something unforgiving at the heart of that book. It is a relentless indictment—not just, pace what Arendt herself said later of the book, of one man, but of many men, and women—an indictment, despite Arendt’s best and professed intentions, in which ordinary readers (ordinary men) can’t help but see themselves. And an indictment in the name of (or at least implicitly and distantly in the name of) a difficult and demanding ethics and politics. An indictment that seems to stir the same kind of reaction to Arendt that historically was stirred up against the Jews. Oh, that Hannah Arendt: she sets herself apart; she thinks she’s smarter than the rest of us; she belongs to no one, not even the Jews. Only this time it’s not the reaction of just non-Jews to Jews, but also of Jews to a Jew. Shana Tova.

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I said in my last post that “barring some major developments,” I wouldn’t be posting on the Salaita affair for a while. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you some major developments.

One of the University of Illinois trustees has broken ranks with his colleagues, publicly voicing misgivings about the decision to dehire Salaita, revealing that the boycott has had a definite impact on the university, and, most important, that this case is not closed and that we have an opening to get the Board to reverse course.

In a bombshell interview with Ali Abunimah, the trustee says, well, I’ll just hand it over to Ali.

A trustee of the University of Illinois has added to public criticism over the decision to fire Palestinian American professor and Israel critic Steven Salaita.


“I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty,” James D. Montgomery told The Electronic Intifada today.


He also acknowledged the “adverse” impact that a growing boycott was having on the university’s ability to function.


Montgomery, a prominent Chicago attorney, echoed the regrets expressed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise over her own role in the affair.


Montgomery was careful, however, to say that he was undecided about the merits of the case, but he sounded far less certain and more circumspect than a public statement he signed last month along with other trustees forcefully backing Wise’s decision.



Montgomery laid out some of the issues that the board would be faced with at its upcoming 11 September meeting.


“Obviously there’s a lot of uproar on both sides of the issue from the perspective of students and alums who are offended by the manner in which Salaita spoke,” Montgomery said.


“And there are folks who are claiming that is a violation of the right to academic freedom. It’s a difficult decision in terms of what is right and what is wrong,” he continued.


“I know we’re going into executive session and obviously there are people who are seeking to pressure the university to reverse its decision. It’s coming from very significant places. It’s had an adverse impact because people are declining to participate in university activities and there have been a number of events canceled.”



“How it will turn out is anybody’s guess and I would not hazard one at this point,” Montgomery now says, adding he personally has not made up his mind about the issues the board would have to decide.


Montgomery’s public statements come on the heels of Chancellor Wise’s statement yesterday to the faculty that she herself was not the decider in the Salaita affair but rather the agent of the trustees’ wishes. In other words, all those folks, including some commenters here, who credited Wise with making a principled and judicious academic decision, must now come to terms with the fact that she has distanced herself from her own decision, claiming that it was not even hers.

From Illinois Public Media:

The chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana campus Thursday expressed regret about the way she came to a decision to withdraw a job offer to a professor who posted inflammatory comments on Twitter – a decision she said was “pretty unilateral.”


Chancellor Phyllis Wise said members of the Board of Trustees told her in July that they likely would not approve the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita. A week later, Wise sent a letter to Salaita rescinding the job offer.


“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine.” She said. “And I did it because I thought I was doing something humane for him.”


Humane, she said, because she didn’t want Salaita to move his family to Urbana only to learn his appointment was not approved.


Wise also admitted in another colloquy (with students) that she did not involve the faculty in the discussion in the way she should have:

 

I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little bit more deliberate and had consulted with more people before I made that decision.


So here are the takeaways:

First, you have a university leadership in total disarray. The fact that a member of the Board of Trustees and the university’s own chancellor would be publicly voicing so many misgivings is not merely a sign that they made a bad decision that they are now regretting; it’s also a sign that no one is in control and all the principal agents are speaking out of turn, on and for their own behalf. That’s a bad sign for the university politically and legally: when you see this kind of unraveling, you’re likely to hear someone in authority say something that they shouldn’t have said, which will come back to haunt the university in court.

Second, this is not a done deal. Montgomery clearly says that he has no idea how or what the Trustees will decide, and how he will vote.

Third, a member of the Board of Trustees and the university chancellor have now publicly admitted that the faculty should have been involved in this decision.

Fourth, as Bonnie Honig pointed out to me, the UI Board of Trustees is small. There are twelve members, two of whom (students) can’t vote. That means we don’t have to sway a lot of individuals. At least one out of ten of the trustees is undecided, with the potential ability to bring some folks with him. (As an important side note, Martha Biondi wrote this on my FB page: “Faculty in African American Studies should write to James Montgomery [the trustee who’s broken ranks], who once served as an attorney for the family of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and remind him that African American Studies would never have entered the academy without the principle of academic freedom. He has a history fighting racial discrimination as a lawyer. We need to appeal to this history.”)

Fifth, when we went through a similar battle over BDS at Brooklyn College, this is how it happened. One key figure cracked, then they all fell down. No predictions, no guarantees. But this could be the beginning of the end.

Sixth, and most important, email the Board of Trustees. We have an opening, so let’s take it. Be polite, be firm, reach out to them as people. All of you have gotten us to this point. Now take us all the way there.

Again here are the emails:

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees: chris@northbankandwells.com


Robert A. Easter, President: reaster@uillinois.edu


Hannah Cave, Trustee: hcave2@illinois.edu


Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: estradar@metrofamily.org


Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: patrick.fitzgerald@skadden.com


Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: lnfrye2@illinois.edu


Karen Hasara, Trustee: hasgot28@aol.com


Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: pholmes@schiffhardin.com


Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee: timothy.koritz@gmail.com or tkoritz@gmail.com


Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: dleibo2@uic.edu


Edward L. McMillan, Trustee: mcmillaned@sbcglobal.net or mcmillaned@msn.com


James D. Montgomery, Trustee: james@jdmlaw.com


Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: pbstrobel@comcast.net


Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: bearrows@uillinois.edu


Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: kies@uillinois.edu


Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: lmckeever@wpmck.com

There are many developments today in the Salaita affair.

This morning, the News-Gazette released 280 pages of documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act revealing extensive donor pressure on Chancellor Wise.

As news spread in late July about a new University of Illinois faculty hire and media outlets began publishing some of his profanity-laden tweets, a number of wealthy donors threatened to stop giving money to the university, recently released documents show.


The letters about professor Steven Salaita started arriving in Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s inbox July 21, and the writers did not hold back.


“Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one UI business school graduate.



The letters from donors, some of them identifying themselves as members of the UI’s $25,000-plus “presidents council,” have also raised questions about the motivation behind the administration’s decision to not forward Salaita’s name to the board of trustees for formal approval last month.


The chancellor, however, through a spokeswoman, maintains her decision was not influenced by them, but was based out of concern for the students, campus and community.


Then tonight Phan Nguyen sent me 443 pages of documents he had posted online. These are all the documents released by the UIUC in response to four different FOIA requests from various news organizations. I’ve now spent the entire evening reading through these documents and here are some of the highlights. [click to continue…]

We are getting reports out of the University of Illinois that Chancellor Wise is going to forward the Salaita appointment to the Board of Trustees for a vote on September 11. A group of Gender and Women’s Studies students reports the following:

From GWS Undergraduate Stephanie Skora’s report back on meeting with Chancellor Wise on Monday, September 1, 2014:


The meeting with Chancellor Wise was a success, and we have gained some valuable information and commitments from the Chancellor!


We have discovered that the Chancellor HAS FORWARDED Professor Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees, and they will be voting on his appointment during the Board of Trustees Meeting on September 11th, on the UIUC campus! Our immediate future organizational efforts will focus around speaking at, and appearing at, this Board of Trustees meeting. We will be attempting to appear during the public comment section of the Board of Trustees meeting, as well as secure a longer presentation to educate them on the issues about which Professor Salaita tweeted. Additionally, we are going to attempt to ensure that the Board of Trustees consults with a cultural expert on Palestine, who can explain and educate them about the issues and the context surrounding Professor Salaita’s tweets. It has been made clear to us that the politics of the Board of Trustees is being allowed to dictate the course of the University, and that the misinformation and personal views of the members of the Board are being allowed to tell the students who is allowed to teach us, regardless of who we say that we want as our educators. We will not let this go unchallenged.


Additionally, Chancellor Wise has agreed to several parts of our demands, and has agreed upon a timeline under which she will take steps to address them. The ball is currently in her court, but we take her agreements as a gesture of good faith and of an attempt to rebuild trust between the University administration and the student body. She has not agreed unilaterally to our demands, and but we have made an important first step in our commitment to reinstating Professor Salaita. In terms of his actual reinstatement, the power to make that decision is not hers. This is why we have shifted the target of our efforts to the Board of Trustees, because they alone have the power to reinstate and approve Professor Salaita’s appointment at the University. In regards to the rest of our demands, which we have updated to reflect the town hall meeting, we have made progress on all of those, but continue to emphasize that it is unacceptable to meet any of our demands without first reinstating Professor Salaita.


We have made progress, but we all have a LOT of work left to do. We must organize, write to the Board of Trustees, and make our voices and our presences known. We will not be silent on September 11th, and we will not stop in our efforts to reinstate Professor Salaita, regardless of what the Board of Trustees decides.


Please keep organizing, please keep making your voices heard, and please‪#‎supportSalaita‬!


Also, feel free to message or comment with any questions, comments, or concerns.


Assuming the report is accurate, I can think of two interpretations of what it means.

If the UIUC is thinking politically, it would be an absolute disaster for them to open this can of worms, to act as if Salaita’s appointment is now a real possibility, to raise expectations for two weeks or so, to encourage all the organizing this will encourage (I can imagine the phone calls and emails that will now start pouring into the Board of Trustees), only to have the Board vote Salaita down. From a political perspective, this would be a disaster for the university. The strongest weapon the UIUC has always had is the sense that this is a done deal, that they will not budge, that we can raise all the ruckus we want, but they simply don’t care. Opening the decision up again calls that into question. Where does this line of reasoning lead us? To the possibility that the UIUC Trustees will vote to appoint Salaita on September 11, throw Chancellor Wise under the bus (remember, the Executive Committee that upheld her decision is only comprised of three Trustees, not the full Board)*, and say it was all a misunderstanding wrought by an incompetent chancellor. Who’ll then be pushed out within a year. The advantage of this approach is that it will effectively bring this story to a close. There will be angry donors, but everything I’ve ever read and experienced about that crew suggests that their bark is often worse than their bite. The ongoing atmosphere of crisis and ungovernability on campus is not something any university leader can bear for too long, and this threatens to go on for a very long time.

The other possibility is that the UIUC is thinking legally. One of the many weak links in their legal case was that Wise never forwarded Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees for a vote. She basically did a pocket veto. Salaita’s offer letter stated that his appointment was subject to approval by the Board of Trustees, but Wise effectively never allowed the Board to approve or disapprove. So the UIUC’s lawyers could have decided that the better thing to do would be simply to carry out the full deed.

Many questions remain, not least of which is how accurate is this report. Stay tuned. But assuming the report is true, we have to operate on the assumption that the first interpretation is a very real possibility and that we have a lot of work to do in the next ten days.

*John Wilson reminds me in this post that all the members of the Board did sign a letter supporting Wise’s position, which I had forgotten about.

Update (11:15 pm)

Just to clarify my blog post: Like all of us, I have no idea what Wise and the Board are thinking (though we can assume that they are making this decision together). But while I think we have to be as strategic and smart about this as possible (fyi: John Wilson thinks I’m wrong; he may have a point), and gather as much information as we can, there’s always a tendency in these situations to play armchair strategist, to try and read the tea leaves, to figure out the pattern of power, as if we didn’t have hand or a role in shaping that pattern of power. Particularly when questions of law get involved (in a country of lawyers, Louis Hartz reminded us, every philosophical question is turned into a legal claim.) We have to resist that tendency. We have to treat this announcement, assuming it’s true, as a golden opportunity. To use the next 10 days as a chance to shift the balance of power on the ground. Remember the Board will be meeting and voting on campus. There are students, faculty, and activists on and around that campus. That’s an opportunity. Remember these trustees are individuals who can be called and emailed round the clock. That’s an opportunity. Between now and 9/11 (they really chose that date), let’s be mindful of the constraints, but also be thinking, always, in terms of opportunities.

The New York Times has weighed in with a strong piece on the Salaita affair. This is significant for two reasons. First, while we in academia and on social media or the blogosphere have been debating and pushing this story for weeks, it hasn’t really broken into the mainstream. With a few exceptions, no major newspaper has covered it. Now that the Times has, I’m hoping Salaita’s story will get even more attention, possibly from the networks as well. Second, in addition to covering the basics of the case, the piece shows just how divisive and controversial Chancellor Wise’s decision has been, and how it has isolated the University of Illinois. [click to continue…]

Follow the Money at the University of Illinois

by Corey Robin on August 25, 2014

Inside Higher Ed has gotten some of the preliminary documents on the back and forth between Chancellor Wise, officials at the University of Illinois (including a top person in charge of fundraising), and a high-level donor, before Wise made her initial decision to dehire Steven Salaita. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the external and internal pressure that went into this decision (though from my own experience with this issue I can only assume that that fear of external financial pressure was very very high on the part of the university’s administrators), and as the article notes, none of these emails tells us what ultimately prompted Wise to make the decision she did. Still, it’s telling that in the days leading up to her decision, she received 70 communiques (in one instance from a very high-level donor), regarding the Salaita hire, only one of which was urging her to keep him on board.

The communications show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university. [click to continue…]

I’m still on vacation and mostly staying offline but I wanted to do a quick update on the Salaita affair.

1. Tomorrow, August 22, the Executive Committee of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet again. The Executive Committee met on Monday, August 18. In an email, Phan Nguyen wrote to me, “According to the listing of BOT Executive Committee meetings on the website, there haven’t been two such meetings held within four days of each other” in quite some time, if ever. But where the Monday meeting agenda explicitly stated that employment and litigation matters would be discussed, the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting specifies no topics for discussion. And where Monday’s meeting was listed a closed meeting, this meeting doesn’t say if it’s closed or not.

2. Going into Monday’s meeting, many of us thought something —a decision, a deal, something—was afoot. But according to this report in the local media, no decisions were made at the meeting.

“There are a number of issues being discussed,” President Bob Easter told The News-Gazette after the meeting, but trustees are “not at a place where I can say” if resolution is close. He declined to talk further because it was a closed session about personnel.


Ali Abunimah has some further news: [click to continue…]

In the last week, the campaign for the University of Illinois to reinstate Steven Salaita has gained momentum. Over 14,000 men and women have signed a petition demanding his reinstatement. Many have sent emails and letters of protest to Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

And over the weekend, scholars began to organize discipline-specific campaigns of refusing to engage with the University of Illinois until Salaita is reinstated.

Philosophers have organized their own statement of refusing to come to the University of Illinois; political scientists have organized a similar statement. English Department faculty across the country have upped the ante, saying they will not “engage with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as speakers, as participants in conferences or other events, or as reviewers for the tenure and promotion of your faculty.” Finally, just this morning, historians, scholars of composition/rhetoric, and sociologists organized their own campaigns of refusal to engage.

All told, nearly 300 faculty—including Michael Bérubé, Jacob Levy, Paul Boghossian, Jeff Goodwin, Adolph Reed, Bruce Robbins, Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig, William Connolly, Jason Stanley—are refusing to engage with the University of Illinois until Salaita is reinstated. [click to continue…]

1. Yesterday, University of Nevada professor Gautam Premnath called the University of Illinois to protest the hirefire of Steven Salaita. A giggly employee in the Chancellor’s office told Premnath that Salaita was “dehired.”

2.Within 24 hours, nearly 8000 people have signed a petition calling on the University of Illinois to reinstate Salata. You should too. While you’re at it, please make sure to email the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, at at pmwise@illinois.edu. Please cc Robert Warrior of the American Indian Studies department (rwarrior@illinois.edu) and the department itself: ais@illinois.edu.

3. Personally, I disagree with the notion that anti-Semitism can be explained, justified, or understood in light of Israel’s actions. But if you think an academic should be hiredfired for saying something like that, you would have had to have been prepared, back in 2002, to fire Nathan Glazer for saying just that at a conference at NYU: [click to continue…]

Until two weeks ago, Steven Salaita was heading to a job at the University of Illinois as a professor of American Indian Studies. He had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech; everything seemed sewn up. Now the chancellor of the University of Illinois has overturned Salaita’s appointment and rescinded the offer. Because of Israel.

The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza….


For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”


In recent weeks, bloggers and others have started to draw attention to Salaita’s comments on Twitter. But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told The News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”


I’ve written about a number of these types of cases over the past few years, but few have touched me the way this one has. For three reasons. [click to continue…]

Capitalism and Slavery

by Corey Robin on August 1, 2014

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.


Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.


But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.


What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.


There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.


Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

The Higher Sociopathy

by Corey Robin on July 28, 2014

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.


That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

 

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it’s now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?


A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.


And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

A Gaza Breviary

by Corey Robin on July 27, 2014

1. One benefit of the carnage in Gaza is that it has given people who’ve never said a word about the carnage in Syria an impetus to say a word about the carnage in Syria.

2. On Friday night, there was a fundraiser for “Friends of the IDF” at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. On Shabbat. Which means cessation, stopping.

3. “It’s all but inevitable…that civilians will die.” A law professor defends Israel’s actions in Gaza.

4. Next time someone tells you that an academic boycott is a bad idea because Israeli universities are bastions of dissent against the Israeli state:

Tel Aviv University is giving students who serve in the attack on Gaza one year of free tuition.


“Tel Aviv University embraces and supports all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel, including its students and employees called up to reserve duty,” the institution says in 24 July statement on its official website. [click to continue…]