Stuck in the middle, did Levinas say what others impute he said about the Palestinian people or about Islam? Was Levinas a racist? At what critical junctures does his ethical project collapse? Oona Eisenstadt and Claire Katz weigh in on universalism and parochialism, ethics and ethnocentrism, and the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in their recent article at Telos entitled “The Faceless Palestinian: A History of an Error.” You can read the whole thing here.
From Martin Jay to Howard Caygill to Judith Butler, Katz and Eisenstadt trace the evolution of readings that place Emmanuel Levinas as either tending towards or squarely in the reactionary camp –based on the single interview with Levinas right after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen acting under the protection of the IDF during the first Israeli war in Lebanon. (The full interview entered as “Ethics and Politics” in The Levinas Reader). Sifting through the material, what complicates the picture as presented by Eisenstadt and Katz is how for Levinas the universal and the particular are rooted in each other, even as the political and the ethical are disassociated, the way theory bumps up against history.
The starting point might be, as Martin Kavka has here made clear, that the ethical face for Levinas is a transcendental structure, not an empirical datum.
This may or may not be a defensible position, but it is most certainly Levinas.’ The mischief begins on the assumption that there is a distinction between ethics, which for Levinas is predicated on the form of the face, and politics, which Levinas was sufficiently realist to know is not an ethical relation. The mischief deepens when the transcendental philosophy is applied to an empirical datum represented by a political nation-state.
Eisenstadt and Katz observe, “whether these arguments are right or wrong, there is no doubt that the situation in which the other is named or categorized, e.g., as Palestinian, is for Levinas a political situation rather than an ethical one, which is to say that it treats not a subject and an other but a set of collectives with different names and competing interests. A political situation, to be sure, remains one in which one is called on to strive for justice! But it is not a face-to-face encounter. As Robert Bernasconi puts it, ‘the Palestinian is not as such the Other of the Jew.’ This is the gist of Levinas’s response. Alterity pertains to ethics, not politics. It is clear that even if he could at this point have fruitfully been pressed on the matter of Israeli politics and the ethical limit, what he has done instead is to retrench, returning the interview to a philosophical square one.”
That Levinas was very much a creature of his time –the time of the Holocaust and the decades that followed– contributed to his many blind spots about Israel. In this he is very much on the same foot with his generation of other post-Holocaust Jews and Jewish thinkers. As it turns out and as Katz and Eisenstadt make clear, Levinas had very little to say about Islam, Arabs, or Palestinians, not one way or the other. Until only recently, Islam was an invisible religion and Arabs invisible people to the west –even in France after Algeria. But Levinas did not call the Palestinians “faceless,” nor did he limit the ethical relation to Jews and Christians, which would have overstepped what he himself guarded as the distinction between ethics and society or politics.
Eisenstadt and Katz point out in the middle of their essay:
“Levinas finishes the interview by speaking of old books, as he often does when discussing Zionism or Israel. He asserts that ‘not enough has been said about the shock that the human possibility of the events at Sabra and Shatila—whoever is behind them—signifies for our entire history as Jews and as human beings,’ and then he mentions that the old Jewish books are “in jeopardy.’ Finkielkraut queries this, and, to explain, Levinas turns to two passages of Talmud (LR 296). The first valorizes ‘those who are defamed without defaming’ and links this virtue to the military victory of Deborah in Judges 5, suggesting that even when one has just led a successful conquest, one must be prepared to bear defamation rather than defaming others. The second text also deals with defamation, as it arises in the talmudic account of the story from Numbers 13 in which Israelite spies go into Canaan and return to the desert telling lies about the land, lies for which God strikes them dead. Levinas interprets: ‘if calumny of that which is ‘but stones and trees’ already merits death, then how serious, a fortiori, must be calumny related to human beings. . . . A person is more holy than a land, even a holy land, since, faced with an affront made to a person, this holy land appears in its nakedness to be but stone and wood’ (LR 296–97). Brief as they are, Levinas’s analyses of these texts weigh against an association of triumphalism with Zionism and against the idea that the land itself is sacred. They weigh in favor of a morality that forbids the slaughter of a person in the name of a land, and that shoulders the blame in a case where blame is in doubt. Levinas might be thinking of many things when he says that the old books are in jeopardy, but it is these ideas that he brings out, these ideas, we must assume, that he believes are in danger of being lost and must be preserved” (emphasis added).
While it might be false to claim that Levinas ever explicitly said that Jews could not persecute other people, there is the definite sense that he was unable to imagine such a thing. The Kahn Commission that investigated the massacre was very clear about the blame carried by Ariel Sharon and by the nation that he represented serving then as its Defense Minister. About that there’s no way past except to recognize that Levinas in the interview fell short, and that he may have very little to say about these things, things like violence and Jewish racism in Israel that today we can more clearly see and recognize than he could given his own vantage point.
Perhaps what irks Katz and Eisenstadt, and rightly so, is the imputation of a programmatic racism based on a particular set of commitments peculiar to Levinas as a post-Holocaust Jewish thinker. By this I mean commitments to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel. Whatever their motivation, for many of his critics there is the strong sense that the one group of political commitment that can be held against a commitment to universal values are Jewish commitments. Still more irksome is the very idea that this particular commitment, including a commitment to an ethical form of political Zionism, could only be an uncritical one, not amenable to deep correction –regardless of whether or not Levinas himself was able to make successfully that correction that late in life.
No, Levinas was no racist, not here at least, even as his own weasel words about the Sabra and Shatila massacre represent an ethical failure that continues to cause many of his readers to shudder. Sifting through these meticulous readings and counter-readings about ethics and politics, Levinas and racism, one wonders what’s worse. Is it the assumption that ethics and politics are rigorously demarcated, that ethics can transcend the political? Or is it the confusion between one and the other, as if one’s own political commitments was marked off at some ethical height? Levinas was too humble to presume the latter. He understood that it is at junctures of crisis and failure such as at Sabra and Shatila that the “relationship between ethics and politics is being decided.” He could only call it “dangerous” (LR: 193). A critic might be forgiven for wondering if that conflict between ethics and politics at its sharpest and most cruel was something his thought was able to accommodate. About the massacre, Levinas had no ready answer except formally empty appeals to responsibility and a trust, as firm as it was misguided, in the Jewish ethical tradition and in Jewish innocence.