Liberalism, Power and Justice and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

The question for liberals and radicals is a fundamentally different one. Liberals ask how can something proximate to justice be achieved, given the restrictions placed upon the situation by powerful interests? In other words, the oppressed are asked to compromise, to peacefully accept a more reasonable version of their dispossession  Those who refuse are called intransigent, impractical, or even “terrorists”, while those who accept are lauded with complements like “pragmatic”, “forward looking” and the like.

Radicals, on the other hand, ask how can the circulation of power be shifted to fit the requirements of justice, or even how can it be shifted by the requirements of justice. Radicals, in other words, take justice itself to be a power, a source of motivation, a cause for sacrifice. Not merely an “ideal”, but a force that aims towards an ideal, thrusting to bring it about.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and different approaches to “solving” it, serve as a paradigmatic examples of this divergence between liberal and radical approaches. I am not, however, going to argue that liberals are those who endorse a two-state settlement, whereas radicals are those who demand a one-state resolution to the conflict. Rather, the distinction can be found in what attitude a person takes towards the Israeli government and electorate, who have since the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel continually refused to accept the principle of partitioning the land according to International Law. Liberals take the feelings of those in power to be part of the game, and demand that a compromise acceptable to both sides be found in the space between the desires and aspirations of the two parties. In such a compromise, justice is never actualized but at best approximated, and the greater compromise is always taken by the weaker party. Radicals take the feelings of those in power to be part of the problem, an obstacle to Justice and something not to be appeased but struggled against. If the oppressor feels offended by the struggle, this is not a problem for a radical, although it becomes part of the tactical landscape. Whereas, for a liberal, it is more important to change the feelings of the parties concerned, so tactics that alienate are to avoided at all costs.

This distinction over tactics, over caring for the feelings of the oppressor, truly divides liberals from radicals. Not because liberals are nicer, or because radicals are mean, but because radicals believe politics to be about the reforming of the structures of power, while liberals believe politics is about changing what those in power do with that power. Liberals don’t want Israelis to have any less power, they just want them to use it for good rather than ill. Radicals, on the other hand, see the imbalance of power as a basic cause for the reproduction fo injustice in the situation, and something to be overturned through struggle.

Part of any radical position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will very likely include support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). This is because the BDS movement has adopted a set of goals that conform to basic requirements of justice and international law, and pursues them by means of a non-violent strategy that can be adopted equally by anarchists, marxists, and pacifists. Liberals will likely reject BDS on the basis that it does not propose a solution based on the mutual compromising of aspirations between Israelis and Palestinians, pretending them to be parties with equal power in a disagreement. However, there are also radicals who might reject BDS and appeal instead to another formulation of the requirements of justice, and try to mobilize a movement on this basis. Two examples of this have been the prominent intellectual and critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein, and the International Socialists.  Finkelstein has expressed concern over BDS not because he is a liberal, but because he is not convinced that its formulation of the requirements of justice can reach and motivate a broad public. The International Socialists reject BDS on the basis that it alienates the Israeli working class, and draws the delineation of the conflict along the colonial, effectively national lines, as opposed to along class lines. The International Socialists are not liberals, but they are radicals who draw the requirements of justice from a class rather than colonial analysis of the situation, and therefore disagree on the question of who is the oppressor, and therefore, whose feelings do we not need to consider when developing a politics.

It is easy to say that there ought to be unity between radicals, but radicals can be separated from each other almost as easily as they separate themselves from those who stand in the way of the requirements for justice. This is why it is so valuable for the prescriptions set by radical groups to not throw justice into conflict with power, but do so in a way that is motivating to a broad base. The BDS movement at this time is by far the largest radical Palestinian solidarity movement existing in the world today, due in no small part to the fact it has broad support from Palestinian civil society and approval from all the Palestinian political factions. There may be alternatives, but none that I know of which don’t alienate a significant portion of the Palestinian population, as well as a large portion of activists.

The question for intellectuals today is: do you want to be part of power’s self-justificatory functioning? Or, do you want justice to enter the field of power as an actor, do you want to be motivated by a social force which can turn against the realities of power, and be another actor in the field of history?



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