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Israel Through (Genuinely) Liberal Eyes. Part 3

Israel politics Middle East philosophy sovereignty Arab PalestinianThere is a paradigm that puts Israel on the right side of history. It is Immanuel Kant's conception of international politics.

Kant’s paradigm is decidedly liberal. By "liberal", I mean a framework of accountable government in which individual rights are paramount. This is something broadly compatible with democratic currents from social democracy to modern conservatism.

To begin with, Kant's thought does not wholly militate against nationalism, even if he does serve as an early example of cosmopolitanism. The great scholar of the Middle East, Elie Kedourie, regarded Kant's idea of self-determination, his signal contribution to the philosphy of the Enlightenment, as central to the intellectual development of nationalism.

Kedourie was not hugely enamored of Kant. But its worth noting that when Kant's followers turn their attention to international affairs, what bothers them is not so much the existence of nation-states as the widespread absence of lawfully-constituted states.

With Kant, everything flows from the "categorical imperative," the most fundamental of all principles.

Since human beings possess reason, they are, as the philosopher Thomas Donaldson puts it in an essay on Kant and international relations, "citizens of a single moral order."

When transferred to the international sphere, Donaldson continues, what emerges is "confederation of states in accordance with the concept of a social contract... to afford mutual protection against aggression."

For Kantians as for the UN Charter, war is permissible only in self-defense. Because states do not lose their sovereignty in the Kantian order, they retain their right to self-defense, including, Donaldson determines, the right to act preemptively. This point will not be lost on those who have followed the endless interrogations of Israel's military policy.

What we have here is an alternative Kantian paradigm, one that focuses on the form of government in a state. It recommends the spread of lawful states as the surest means of preventing the anarchy which defines international relations from boiling over.

It's a paradigm in which Israel, far from being the symbol of a reactionary past, is very much a creature of the present. One might even venture that Israel is somewhat avant-garde, given the emphatically anti-republican political culture of the region in which it is located.

Hazony's mistake is to conflate Kant's idea of perpetual peace with Judt's post-national critique of Israel.

Hazony is correct that the Kantian ideal is echoed in such institutions as the European Union, but why should that pose an inherent problem for Israel?

If this ideal consists of democratic, sovereign states bound by commonly-agreed norms and contracts, then Israel is, in the parlance of Zionism, most assuredly "normalized."

This is Part 3 in a 4-part series of essays by Ben Cohen examining the philosophy and motivations behind international delegitimization campaigns against the state of Israel. His starting point is a criticism of Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony’s essay, Israel Through European Eyes.

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