Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Using a God for Politics: a note on the conjunction Athens and Jerusalem


       To Michael Zank who has translated Strauss’s early writings and done pioneering work on understanding their meaning, I wrote that Strauss typically, in titles of books and essays, encourages the reader to think about or “imagine” (his word for what Plato says) one thing, and speaks instead about another.  For instance, in Natural Right and History, natural rights are praised in the first line and then discarded in the second line (as mere instruments to American prosperity and power – his real concern).  By p. 118, he celebrates the classic idea of natural right: inequality.  Natural right – for Strauss, the advantage of the stronger – conflicts with natural rights.

      Responding, Michael made a brilliant point about Athens and Jerusalem which, in these simple and decisive terms, I had not seen:

       “That's exactly right. The same is the case with the ‘and’ in various titles such as Athens and Jerusalem, which people generally take as complete disjunctions, unmindful that it may simply be a copula...”

       Worth repeating.  It may simply be a copula. Consider Natural Right and History.  The surface meaning appears to conflict: the supposedly natural rights of individuals, what the Declaration of Independence fought for, Strauss suggests,  are now losing their authority, are being historicized.  But on Strauss’s deeper, not so hidden meaning: history reveals itself as a succession of  advantages of the stronger (cf. The Athenian Stranger in book 4 of the Laws, Plato’s Seventh Letter).  Natural right in this sense is history.   Here Strauss’s authoritarianism and imperialism – “the principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial” as he wrote to Loewith on May 19, 1933 here – are to the fore.  “And” – the conflict is only apparent, the deeper meeting a copula.

     Or consider Athens and Jerusalem.  A scholarly cottage industry has recently been created by Heinrich Meier and others suggesting on the surface an undecideable chasm between the two.  Two years at the American Political Science Association, I organized a panel with Charles Butterworth,  Steve Lenzner, and Tracy Strong on “The Theological-Political Question.”  There in “Politics and the God,” I argued at some length that the real meaning of this predicament in Strauss is that a philosopher-tyrant (a legislator or Bush-Cheney or Netanyahu who seeks an exclusively “Jewish state”) might invoke a “God” (say, Evangelicism) to put across unjust decrees with people who would otherwise object and dissent.  A legislator, Plato sometimes thought, might put forward just and enduring institutions; no sensible person would think that the neocons, in the US and Israel, want to create anything lasting; following to some extent Strauss’s vision of cataclysm here, they live in a fantasy world of destruction.  Michael points to a swifter way to see this.

        In the Laws, to still objections from the Cretan Klinias, the Athenian Stranger routinely invokes the God.  At the outset, he asks “Is it a god or some human being, strangers, who is given the credit for laying down your laws?” Klinias answers: "A god, stranger, a god…" (line 624a).  In book 4, the Stranger says that the quickest way to change laws, for good or ill (the latter a very un-Socratic thought) is to have a tyrant do it.  The tyrant sets the course; others will follow…(lines 709e-711e).  Klinias is taken aback:  “Nor am I, at least, desirous of witnessing it!“(711a).

      The Stranger then says: “Let us invoke a god in the setting up of the city.  Let him hear us, and having heard, let him graciously and propitiously come to us and take part with us in the ordering of the city and the laws.” (712b).  As if in a trance (Plato’s students might have noticed), Klinias responds with almost evangelical fervor: “Let him come, indeed.”(712b)  Perhaps Klinias forgets the previous exchange; Aristotle did not.

      Strauss’s last book, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973) comments on this argument in detail.  Here indeed is Athens and Jerusalem, the legislator invoking the God to put across often unlovely (and perhaps for Plato, though not so much Strauss, often unjustified) arguments.  Strauss saw this argument, taken much less critically than Plato did (in one persona, the Stranger was a pseudo-Socrates, as Will Altman has suggested in "A Tale of Two Drinking Parties," who did not take the hemlock, but rather escaped to drink wine in fantasy – the cure for hemlock - with Klinias and Megillus and bend them to his will), as central to Al-Farabi and Maimonides, to Arab and Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages.  That is a great scholarly discovery on Strauss’s part, but does not erase his too easy imbibing of “wise” authoritarianism. 

      In his 1957 letter to the National Review, Strauss saw the "nearness of biblical antiquity" among Jews in Israel.  What he referred was precisely a conjunction between laws and leadership on the one hand (tactically flexible, he praises even former union leaders and an independent judiciary in this context) and, on the other, the God.  The literal meaning of Athens and Jerusalem is also the title of my essay “Politics and the God.” Contrary to a common but deceptive (sometimes self-deceived) Straussian stereotype, they go together in Strauss’s inimicality to the separation of church and state, to toleration. See here, here and here.  The God is needed only for Strauss to sustain a people’s intolerance, to mobilize, a la Carl Schmitt, against an enemy. 

      I had hoped that Strauss, who admired Al-Farabi and Arab Platonists and had no whiff, philosophically, of bigotry might have undermined the characteristics of Israel as a colonial settler-state.  He was unusual among early Zionists (outside of Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt whom I will post about shortly, I.F. Stone and the communist party of Palestine which until the mid-1930s united radical Jews and Palestinians) for having no prejudice toward Arabs.   But having suffered the holocaust, to create a new state, Jews drove out Palestinians.  Having suffered long injustices and genocide, the Israeli regime was founded, like others, on a great injustice.  Still, Strauss might then have helped Israel settle in the Middle East rather than become an outpost of American imperialism. This was not then to be.    In fact, Strauss calls for reviving the original God, supposedly seen by moderns with the same verve as ancient worshippers did.   But there has always been this alternate possibility.

       Strauss died before the unlovely possibility of “Greater” Israel emerged.  But I want to emphasize now how his ideas are inimical to the egalitarian and democratic tradition of the Jews, to the foundation of Israel as a decent place at least for Jews and the remaining Arabs, of finding a home in the Middle East, one among the others.  It is not inevitable that Strauss would have chosen – as some of his reactionary followers do – the course of "Greater" Israel.  But there is much in Strauss to license it and as far as I can see – please send questions and counterarguments – nothing in principle, and almost no words at all (see below for an attempt), to discourage it.

       With the illegal occupation after 1968, the fate of Israel has been endangered.  Israel could exist as a regime true to the prophets and the equality of human beings, a state self-consciously equal to those of other semites and trying to work with them, or as a state whose continued existence would rest on more and more unjustified and nakedly aggressive war against Palestinian civilians with the aim of a new and larger transfer, a state which illegally expelled 4,500 Arab residents from East Jerusalem last year alone, which subsidizes rapacious and illegal settlements.   Inimical to democracy, every hour of occupation fuels indecency toward Palestinians, betrayal of the heritage of the prophets and the democratic dreams of Israel, movement toward authoritarianism.  In contrast, a decent Israel must work for a two state, or a single state with equal rights for Jews and Arabs.  Israel is strong (and has the great military power America as its backer).  It needs to take initiatives toward a decent peace, not as with Netanyahu and Lieberman, to betray it.

           Ironically, Strauss was a Nietzschean and detested the Jewish prophets (on whom he blamed modern secularism here and here).  In his 1957 celebration of Israel, he invoked Biblical antiquity – the anti-slavery egalitarianism of Jews and later Christians – for an unequal and inegalitarian purpose. In an essay, I named his views: Politics and the God.  He does not speak for the religion which inspired those who have fought slavery, segregation, the oppression of workers and injustice wherever it may be found.  No, he opposes it and, incarnating Nietzsche, wishes to substitute for the masses an horrific pseudo-Judaism of the kings.  Today that is the project of “Greater Israel.”

      In critiquing the Breslau manifesto on behalf of the authoritarian wandering Jewish youth organization, the Wanderbund Blau-Weiss, in 1923, Strauss calls for a return, for the masses, to a God, supposedly seen by moderns as ancient worshippers did. In contrast, recently an heroic group of patriotic Israeli soldiers, Breaking the Silence, has spoken out against war crimes in Gaza (the killing of 300 children, the shooting of an old woman, on command, walking several hundred yards away and the like).  The crimes of IDF troops in Gaza are condemned starkly by the principles in Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars.  Based on the Israeli military in conflict with Arab powers (not, as far as I can see, ever with the indigenous Palestinians), Walzer emphasizes a sharp demarcation of fighting soldiers from murdering civilians.  Michael speaks for Jewish social-democratic traditions. 

      Breaking the Silence notes the role of rabbis in the army.  These are not decent rabbis, Abraham Heschels, who honor the human spirit.  These are bloodthirsty fanatics with a vision of God commanding them to rid the land of Zion of gentiles.

     Some are official military figures like Brigadier General Avichai Rontski.  Others are authors of pamphlets circulated in the military.  The army journal has recently praised the role of such rabbis.  Haaretz has been running articles featuring what these rabbis say.  For instance, Yitzhak Shapira asserted that “it is just to kill gentile babies” – those of Palestinians - to expand illegal settlements. Killing babies is permissible “because their presence assists murder, and there is reason to harm children if it is clear that  they will grow up to harm us.” That carries pre-emption a bit farther than Cheney, though perhaps in the spirit of 1% doctrine (if there is a 1% chance that an enemy will grow up and attack the United States in 20 years, take that enemy out now!).  The rabbi continues: “it is permissible to harm the children of a leader in order to stop him from acting evilly.”  And John Yoo stands before us, saying how, in exercising “commander-in-chief power,” Bush might crush the testicles of a terrorist’s child in order to get “information.”*

     Another pamphlet, Haaretz reports, written by rabbi Shlomo Aviner (not to be confused with the wonderful political theorist of almost the same name) said: “A comparison is possible because the Philistines of the past were not natives and had invaded from a foreign land [he is speaking of the Palestinians who already lived in Palestine when Jews were settling]…They invaded the Land of Israel, a land that did not belong to them and claimed political ownership over our country. Today the problem is the same.  The Palestinians claim they deserve a state here, when in reality there was never a Palestinian or Arab state within the borders of our country.  Moreover, most of them are new and came here close to the time of the War of Independence.”  Note the “nearness of Biblical antiquity” which Strauss stressed in 1957 in Aviner’s formulation.  These are not Strauss’s words even in 1923 and not in 1957.  But their spirit is, sadly, the same.

     On Strauss’s behalf, I might point to the flexibility of his admiration for Israel.  In his 1957 letter to the National Review, Strauss says, a conservative (he is not one; he agrees with conservatives only proximately) should admire the former trade unionists who are leaders and pioneers in Israel.  He should celebrate “the diadem of an independent judiciary.”  That seems a broadly liberal admiration – as close to such a thought as Strauss ever came.  But the conservative, Strauss insists, should also admire the “nearness of biblical antiquity.”  Strauss feared that this spirit would, with the encroachment of modernity, fade.  

       In the altered circumstances of “Greater Israel,” the Supreme Court and the Knesset are becoming imperial shadows.  But there is a new chance for that “nearness” to survive.  Listen again to Shapira’s and Aviner’s words…

     Brigadier-General Avichai Rontzki, the leading rabbi in the IDF stated that those who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned.”  Soldiers must preserve themselves at all costs, including butchering civilians (or with Shamir, children).  Rontzi says this inspires fighting spirit (Yiddishkeit) in Israeli “soldiers.” But the soldiers in Breaking the Silence were repelled.  The 68 high school students who face jail for refusing to serve in the occupied territories were repelled.  Perhaps one may speak of Rontzki’s “zeal,” but only if those who carried out pogroms had such a spirit…

          Rontzki and others betray the noble idea that the unequal should free themselves from chains, which Judaism represents in the world. As my teacher Michael Walzer describes in Exodus and Revolution and Barack Obama reiterates in Dreams from my Father, exodus is the movement of the slaves out of bondage, their journeyings for 40 years in the desert, and, finally, their emergence into freedom.

         Politically and in literal terms, we do not read Strauss, as Strauss suggested he had once failed to read Spinoza, literally enough  (last line of his 1962 Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion; reprinted in Liberalism Ancient and Modern, ch. 9).  Athens and Jerusalem, as Michael Zank notes, the God at the service of a state increasingly devoted to authoritarianism and inequality.  Imperialism and colonialism have always harmed democracy.  Today, they do so no more sharply than in Israel and the United States. To secure democracy in America and Zion, it is high time to act against them.

*As cited in Akiva Eldar, “Who is funding the rabbi who endorses killing gentile babies,” Haaretz, November 17, 2009.  The article is on government funding of Shapira’s yeshiva.


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