Azure no. 38, Autumn 5770 / 2009

Uri Avnery and Asa Kasher on Operation Cast Lead, and others.


Operation Cast Lead and Just War Theory


In his essay “Operation Cast Lead and Just War Theory” (Azure 37, Summer 2009), Asa Kasher faithfully plays the role of attorney for the defense, offering a closing statement in the case of “World Public Opinion vs. the State of Israel.” His goal is to justify the IDF’s conduct of the Gaza war, and as a result, he produces the argument of an advocate. His is not the ruling of an objective judge, and one certainly should not discuss it without first considering the claims of the other side. Now, I, too, am not a judge and am most certainly not an attorney for the prosecution. As an Israeli, I can only analyze the arguments of Kasher, who purports to represent my side. I will try to do so here.

First, however, I would like to begin with a few personal remarks: First, the experience of combat is not alien to me. I am not someone who criticizes from “the comfort of one’s armchair,” as Kasher puts it. I was recruited by the Hagana at the beginning of the 1948 war and was wounded at the end of the same year. In between, I took part in dozens of combat operations, some of which were among the harshest of the entire war. I know what a combat soldier goes through, the problems he faces, and how he is most likely to respond to them.

Second, I witnessed many atrocities during that War of Independence, some on our part, and some on theirs. I wrote about several of them in my book The Other Side of the Coin, which was published in 1950. In my experience, “purity of arms” has always been a kind of gratifying myth. I do not believe that we who fought in 1948 were any more “moral” than those who fought in Operation Cast Lead.

Third, the title the IDF occasionally bestows upon itself—“the most moral army in the world”—means nothing to me. Perhaps the IDF’s conduct of the Gaza war was no worse than that of the Russians in Chechnya, the Americans in Fallujah, or the Sudanese in Darfur. I am even willing to believe that it was better than several of them. But this is not what matters to me. My questions are: Does the IDF conduct itself in accordance with the moral standard I demand of the State of Israel under the current circumstances? Can I identify with the standard it upholds? And does it allow me to realize every man’s most basic right: to be proud of his country?

The value of an argument is evident in the language it employs. Throughout his article, Kasher disperses words and phrases such as “terrorists” and “terrorist organizations.” He concludes his piece by referring to the “malicious designs of Hamas.” This is the language of propaganda, and the use of it detracts from the seriousness of his entire argument.

The conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism has persisted for over one hundred years. For 61 years the State of Israel has been engaged in a war with the Palestinian people. For 42 of those years we have been maintaining an occupation regime, accompanied by a settlement of occupied lands in opposition to international law. The Palestinians have responded to this situation, among other methods, with guerilla warfare. Hamas is one of these guerilla forces. A serious article would do well to restrict itself to this term alone.

Hamas is not a foreign force that invaded the Gaza Strip. The movement won the democratic elections held under international supervision in Gaza as well as other Palestinian regions. Members of Hamas come from local families. They do not “hide behind the civilian population,” as Israeli propaganda states. They are part of the civilian population, just as members of the Hagana, Irgun, and Lehi were part of the Jewish population in the British Mandate before 1948. Many Palestinians see Hamas as freedom fighters. We do not have to accept this description, but it is nonetheless clear that the term “terrorists” is erroneous and misleading.

This is an important distinction. According to Kasher, there are restrictions when operating against “harmless civilians,” but everything is permissible when facing “terrorists.” Yet if he were to replace the word “terrorists” with “enemy combatants,” then his claims would be closer to an argument and would not slip, emotionally as well as intellectually, into propaganda.

The same is true of other terms employed by Kasher. He mentions, for example, situations in which there is a threat of our soldiers being kidnapped, and asks what actions are permissible in order to prevent that from happening. It seems the IDF is the only army in the world whose soldiers are “kidnapped” rather than “captured.”

In his essay, Kasher discusses two main issues: the morality of embarking on the Gaza war, and the morality of IDF conduct during the war. I will follow in his footsteps.

Kasher agrees that a country is permitted to go to war only for the purpose of self-defense, and only as a “last resort”—that is, after “all other alternatives have been exhausted.” The official justification for embarking on Operation Cast Lead was the rocket attacks on Israeli citizens originating from the Gaza Strip. Clearly, the state was obligated to protect its citizens from the rocket attacks. But can it really be said that all alternatives short of war were exhausted? Kasher answers with a definite “yes.” He justifies this answer with the claim that “demanding that Israel engage in direct negotiation with a terrorist organization that does not recognize its right to exist cannot be justified.”

This argument is illogical. The purpose of negotiations was not to persuade Hamas to recognize Israel and its right to exist (who needs this, anyway?), but rather to stop the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. If such negotiations had been undertaken, Hamas would likely have demanded that Israel lift its siege of Gaza, open the border crossings, and agree to an exchange of prisoners. There is reason to believe that an agreement could have been reached on this basis.

Yet such a negotiation was never even attempted. Nor were any attempts made to negotiate with the Palestinian unity government in which Hamas was represented. Therefore, the decision to go to war in Gaza—with its civilian population of 1.5 million—was unjustified according to Kasher’s own principles. If a trial were conducted in front of a neutral judge, the prosecution would define the decision to embark on Operation Cast Lead as a crime. Furthermore, we are all aware that alongside the operation’s official goal, there was also an unofficial one: to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza. Since Kasher knows that this is an illegitimate goal, however, he simply ignores it.

He also avoids dealing with the claim that the entire operation was a form of collective punishment. Throughout the war, official Israeli spokesmen declared the need to exact a “high price” from Hamas—in other words, to wreak havoc on a massive scale in order to make life in Gaza as hellish as possible, under the assumption that the population would then revolt and bring down Hamas. What is the moral justification for such a strategy?

One crime leads to another. When a government decides to send its troops to war against a guerilla organization that operates, naturally, from within a civilian population, it is self-evident that such a campaign will inflict horrible suffering on that population. Kasher claims that this suffering—including the killing of 1,400 men, women, and children—was inevitable. In light of such a claim, the only conclusion one can reach is that the decision to embark on such a war is in itself an appalling act.

Kasher, however, makes things easy for himself: He refuses to believe Palestinian and international reports regarding the extent of death and destruction in Gaza, and declares—though his basis for doing so in unclear—that they are erroneous and unfounded. As he puts it, “one cannot judge the operation in a serious, professional, and responsible manner without having adequate knowledge of the actions in question, and one should therefore resist the political and emotional temptation to do so.” He demands instead that we wait for the results of the IDF’s own investigations before we so much as discuss the matter.

Is this really the case? In fact, no self-investigating body is reliable, particularly when it comes to a hierarchal institution such as an army. Moreover, the IDF does not—and cannot—obtain testimony from the primary witnesses to the events in question: the residents of Gaza themselves. An investigation that is based solely on the testimonies of soldiers and commanders, and omits the testimony of the victims, is inherently farcical. What kind of trial does not include testimonies from victims and eyewitnesses? And how many soldiers would actually stand up and accuse their comrades and commanders of war crimes, while putting themselves at risk of ostracism, reprisals, and even being labeled a traitor?

To return to the matter at hand, the essential moral question with regard to military conduct in the field relates to a situation in which soldiers are faced with a target that consists not only of enemy combatants, whom they are permitted to attack, but also of noncombatant civilians whom they are forbidden to attack. Kasher offers several typical examples of such a situation, such as a house in which there are “terrorists” as well as noncombatants. Should an army employ air strikes or artillery against this target, thus killing its inhabitants? Or should it send in soldiers to risk their lives in the attempt to kill only the enemy combatants? Kasher claims that there is no justification for risking our soldiers’ lives in order to save enemy civilians—in other words, an air or artillery strike should be employed.

This does not resolve the issue of why the Israeli Air Force was assigned to destroy hundreds of buildings that were not in proximity to our soldiers, and therefore posed no risk to them. It also fails to justify the killing of dozens of Palestinian traffic policemen at a ceremony marking the end of their training, or the killing of United Nations personnel who were leading food convoys. (Kasher also neglects to mention the IDF’s inappropriate use of white phosphorus, depleted uranium, and other carcinogenic substances.)

Let us return to the example of the building that houses both enemy combatants and non-combatants. During the war, the entire country heard in real time how an artillery shell penetrated a doctor’s apartment and killed most of his family members. According to the testimonies of Palestinian civilians and foreign observers (which Kasher considers invalid) many similar incidents occurred during the operation.

Kasher thinks highly of the methods by which residents are warned of an imminent military strike through handouts, phone calls, and the like. Practically speaking, however, Gaza’s civilians had nowhere to go. There were no clear and safe escape routes; indeed, many were killed while attempting to flee.

We therefore cannot avoid the most difficult moral question: Is it permissible to risk soldiers’ lives in order to spare the enemy’s women and children? Kasher’s answer is unambiguous: It is definitely forbidden. Indeed, the most important sentence in his entire article is “Therefore, in the dilemma at hand, the state should favor the lives of its own soldiers over the lives of the neighbors of a terrorist.” One should read this sentence several times in order to fully grasp its meaning. It states, in effect, that it is permissible to kill enemy civilians without restraint in order to avoid casualties among our soldiers. (In retrospect, we should be glad that the British soldiers who fought the Irgun and the Lehi did not conduct themselves in a similar manner.)

Tragically, it appears that the IDF operated in accordance with this principle during the Gaza war, and to the best of my knowledge, this was the first time it did so. In order to prevent the death of a single one of our soldiers, it was considered permissible to kill ten, a hundred, or even a thousand enemy civilians. The goal was a war with zero casualties for our side, and the statistics reflect this: There were approximately 1,400 casualties in Gaza, one- or two-thirds of which (depending on whom you ask) were civilians, women, and children. In comparison, six IDF soldiers were killed by enemy action (four more died in friendly fire incidents).

Kasher explicitly states that it is justifiable to take the life of a Palestinian child in order to kill a hundred “terrorists,” because the “terrorists” might kill children in Sderot. In reality, however, such thinking leads to the killing of a hundred Palestinian children in order to eliminate a single “terrorist.”

Once we get rid of the rhetorical flourishes in Kasher’s theory, it boils down to a simple rule: The state must protect its soldiers (“uniformed citizens,” as he puts it) at any price. This necessarily leads to killing any person and destroying any building that might possibly pose a risk to these soldiers—in other words, to the creation of a scorched-earth territory, emptied of people and houses before the advancing army. Any moral person can deduce a single conclusion from this, which completely contradicts Kasher’s: From now on, every decision to embark on warfare in heavily populated areas is a war crime.

Uri Avnery
Tel Aviv 

Asa Kasher Replies:

In response to my article “Operation Cast Lead and Just War Theory,” Uri Avnery faithfully plays the role of attorney for the defense, and attempts to justify Hamas, its point of view, and its actions. As a result, he produces a predictable and obvious piece of propaganda.

I will begin with the most essential point: Avnery’s opinion of Palestinian acts of terror. In the same way that the Turkish sailor reported that Malta yok—“Malta doesn’t exist”—Avnery tries his best to convince us that “terror yok”—there is no terror. As he puts it, “Words and phrases such as ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorist organizations’… [are] the language of propaganda.… For 42… years we have been maintaining an occupation regime, accompanied by a settlement of occupied lands in opposition to international law. The Palestinians have responded to this, among other methods, with guerilla warfare. Hamas is one of these guerilla forces.”

The expression “terrorist” refers to a man who intentionally performs acts of a certain kind. These are acts of murder or the attempted murder of human beings who belong to a certain group. The purpose of such acts is to spread fear among that group in order to achieve religious, ideological, or political goals. It is no wonder that the word “terrorist” has taken on negative moral connotations, given that an act of terror is, in its essence, an utterly immoral act. Nor is it a surprise that Avnery does not want us to use the term “terrorists” to describe the Palestinians—with whom he identifies—because of these negative moral connotations. He himself does not wish to be morally tainted as someone who identifies with

This means that Avnery does not want us to refer to a man who blows himself up in a hotel dining room, together with dozens of civilians celebrating the Passover seder, as a “terrorist.” Avnery also does not want us to refer to a man who launches a rocket into Sderot, with the aim of killing its civilian residents, as a “terrorist.” Avnery does not want this, but what he wants is of no importance. For the world is filled with recognized bodies that unquestionably view the members of Hamas as terrorists and therefore worthy of unambiguous moral reproach. It is, for example, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Japan, and its military wing is considered a terrorist organization by Britain and Australia as well.

Avnery tries hard to convince us that we should refer to Hamas terrorists as “freedom fighters,” or at least as “guerillas.” Yet such a propaganda effort is doomed to moral failure. Avnery likes the description “freedom fighters” or “guerillas” because he thinks it will remove the moral blemish inherent in describing members of Hamas as “terrorists.” The conceptual truth, however, is that a man can be a “freedom fighter,” a “guerilla fighter” and a “terrorist” simultaneously. The supposedly positive connotations of the term “freedom fighter” and the supposedly neutral characteristics of the term “guerilla fighter” do not abolish the negative moral connotations of the term “terrorist.” Someone who wholeheartedly identifies with a “freedom fighter” can also be wholeheartedly identifying with a “terrorist,” whose actions are characterized by malicious intentions and unjustifiable means.

The passages I have quoted typify Avnery’s entire letter. He utters not one word of dissent about any act committed by a Palestinian against Israelis. A man’s complete identification with a certain group, to the point of a constant and total unwillingness to say anything negative whatsoever about it or any of its members’ actions, is one of the main identifying features of extreme and impenetrable nationalism. Avnery’s indifference to or indulgence of the evil manifested in the actions of Palestinian terrorists simply reveals the extreme-nationalist, one-sided, and immoral nature of his arguments.

I will now respond to several of Avnery’s criticisms of specific aspects of my essay:

1. “According to Kasher,” claims Avnery, “everything is permissible when facing ‘terrorists.’” I said no such thing. In the beginning of my essay I point to the obligation to “pay special attention to every aspect of the operation that is related to moral and ethical values. Decisions, commands, and actions should be closely examined in order to determine whether they appropriately manifested the moral principles of the State of Israel, the ethics of the IDF and the General Security Service, and the laws to which Israel is subject.” None of these principles, values, or laws conclude or lead to the conclusion that “everything is permissible,” nor does this assertion appear anywhere in the essay itself.

2. In my essay, I discuss the question “Was the decision to launch Operation Cast Lead justified under the principle of last resort?” given its goal of effective self-defense. According to Avnery, I answered this question “with a definite ‘yes.’ [Kasher] justifies this answer with the claim that ‘demanding that Israel engage in direct negotiation with a terrorist organization that does not recognize its right to exist cannot be justified.’” Again, I said no such thing. Since I do not have full and precise information regarding political contacts between Hamas and Israel, I expressed myself carefully: “The continued rocket attacks on Israel by the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel’s continued abstention from any large-scale military response in the face of this aggression, give rise to a presumption of justification regarding the state’s decision to take military action as a last resort.”

As an example of an option the Israeli government did not “exhaust” before embarking on a large-scale military operation, Avnery raises the possibility of direct negotiations with Hamas. I replied to this claim in my essay. First, there is no moral justification for demanding that a state legitimize, via direct negotiations, an organization that openly and explicitly wishes to destroy it, and deliberately and persistently attempts to harm its citizens. Such legitimization would only provide a basis for the continuation of the organization’s hostile activity against the state and its citizens. Direct negotiations with Hamas would not reduce threats, but would instead increase them.

A familiar response to this is that direct negotiations with Hamas would imply that the organization does in fact recognize Israel. This is erroneous, because the essential problem is not Hamas’s de facto recognition of Israel as an existing entity, but its unwillingness to recognize in principle Israel’s right to exist here as the independent state of the Jewish nation. Such recognition is not implied in direct negotiations about a ceasefire. Second, indirect negotiations may not provide legitimization, but they may assist in reducing threats. Therefore, it is worthwhile to pursue this option before embarking on a large-scale military operation. Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas have indeed taken place, but they did not reduce the threat to Israeli citizens from Hamas rockets.

3. Avnery claims that I fail to contend “with the claim that the entire operation was a form of collective punishment.” This is untrue. “A necessary condition for the justification of war,” I wrote, is that “the military action be carried out for the purpose of self-defense.” Collective punishment is not considered an act of self-defense and is therefore unjustified. I did mention the issue of “historic revenge” and the like as examples of wrong intentions that negatively reflect on the justification of a war. The statement that the operation was intended as a “form of collective punishment,” however, is an interpretive claim disguised as a factual one. As such, it does indeed assist Avnery’s efforts at distortion, but I am unaware of any substantial justification for accepting it.

4. Avnery is infuriated that I do not “believe Palestinian and international reports regarding the extent of death and destruction in Gaza.” He is unwilling to accept my claim that “it is impossible to reach any moral, ethical, or legal evaluation of an operation before an investigation of its political background and an inquiry into the military’s professional performance are completed.” It is at this point that the immoral nature of Avnery’s propaganda style is revealed. He states, “An investigation that is based solely on the testimonies of soldiers and commanders, and omits the testimony of the victims, is inherently farcical.” Therefore, a military investigation is unreliable. In contrast, according to Avnery, an investigation based solely on the testimonies of Palestinians in Gaza, and not on testimonies of soldiers and commanders, is unquestionably reliable; it is a genuine “report.” This is an obvious double standard. Avnery appears to believe that a one-sided investigation is reliable so long as it serves the interests of the Palestinians with whom he identifies, but it is not reliable if it raises or may raise any factual evidence that he may find inconvenient.

Professional integrity requires avoiding a detailed response to the various allegations that Avnery raises with regard to Operation Cast Lead, due to lack of reliable and available facts and testimonies on which to base it. Although the words of a propagandist are written with unhesitating ease, a writer of integrity should not carelessly draw factual or moral conclusions from insufficient data.

5. In the last section of his letter, Avnery deals with “the most difficult moral question: Is it permissible to risk soldiers’ lives in order to spare the enemy’s women and children?” “Kasher’s answer,” he responds, is “unambiguous: It is definitely forbidden [to risk soldiers’ lives].” Once again, I said no such thing. This is neither the question nor the answer. Public debate regarding a difficult moral question requires the careful use of a surgeon’s scalpel. Avnery, it seems, prefers the blunt axe, which he waves in all directions, so fervent is his desire to condemn Israel and justify its enemies.

Without meticulously analyzing the profusion of fallacies that appear in the last paragraphs of Avnery’s letter, it is fitting to clarify several central points, though I will not repeat all the arguments upon which my point of view is based. These arguments were partially presented in my article in Azure and fully presented in an article I wrote in conjunction with Major General Amos Yadlin, “The Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: Principles,” published in Philosophia 34 (2006).

First, we must differentiate between a military operation in a territory that Israel effectively controls, and a military operation in a territory that Israel does not effectively control. The term “effective control” is borrowed from the laws of war, and indicates a combination of authority and the ability to rule an occupied territory. Effective control applies to an entire territory, such as the Golan Heights or the Gaza Strip, and not to a kibbutz in which terrorists have barricaded themselves, or a bank taken over by armed criminals. In a state of effective control, the responsibility for distinguishing between terrorists and noncombatants is placed upon Israel’s shoulders, since it is the effective ruler. In such a situation, a military operation against a terrorist is akin to a police action, which does not justify causing incidental harm to the lives of noncombatants. Under such conditions, it is possible that soldiers’ lives will be endangered in order to avoid harming noncombatants, just as it is possible that policemen’s lives will be endangered in order to avoid harming a criminal’s neighbors. On the other hand, when Israel does not have effective control over a territory, the responsibility for distinguishing between terrorists and noncombatants is not placed upon its shoulders, since it is not the effective ruler, and thus the nature of its actions is different.

Second, anyone who wants to describe the IDF’s goal as “a war with zero casualties,” as Avnery puts it, is obligated to describe it more inclusively, for example: “The goal is a war with zero casualties among Israeli civilians, zero casualties among Israeli soldiers, and zero casualties among enemy noncombatants.” The state’s responsibility, in an operation such as Cast Lead, is threefold: to minimize harm to Israeli civilians, to decrease harm to the soldiers fighting on its behalf, and to reduce harm to enemy noncombatants.

Third, the responsibility for minimizing injury to noncombatants, given that they are not involved in terrorism, entails the responsibility to separate them from terrorists, and to remove them from the area where combat is taking place. The IDF has done so in various ways, some of which were unprecedented both in their nature and in the effort involved in their preparation and implementation.

Fourth, if there is a contradiction between the attempt to minimize injury to soldiers and the attempt to minimize injury to noncombatants during a military operation in a territory that is not under Israel’s effective control—and after considerable and often successful efforts have been made to separate noncombatants from terrorists—then it is morally and ethically appropriate to give priority to the safety of the soldiers while still trying to reduce, as much as possible, harm to noncombatants.

Fifth, a military operation against enemy forces naturally poses a risk to soldiers’ lives. During Operation Cast Lead, soldiers were endangered by sniper fire, roadside bombs, mortar bombs, various rockets, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), booby-trapped buildings, kidnapping, and many additional threats. Placing soldiers in this kind of danger is justified because it is an inevitable part of fighting the enemy. Operating under such ever-present threats includes efforts to minimize injury to noncombatants, so long as such efforts do not involve increasing the danger to soldiers’ lives beyond that which is already present in any combat situation.

Once one takes these points into consideration, it is clear that there is no basis to Avnery’s claim that my viewpoint “necessarily leads to killing any person and destroying any building that might possibly pose a risk to these soldiers—in other words, a scorched-earth territory, emptied of people and houses before the advancing army.” It appears that Avnery does not comprehend my perspective, and perhaps he does not want to, since it negates his defense of Hamas. For Avnery, everything I have written in my essay to present and justify my approach is nothing more than “rhetorical flourishes.” It stands to reason that he is trying to exempt himself, under false pretexts, from seriously contending with complicated arguments that do not fit his simplistic and extremist perspective.

The moral and ethical questions surrounding the war on terror are important and complex. Public debate on the principles of this war should take place in an honest, responsible, methodical, and professional manner. Crude and baseless propaganda does not contribute to such a debate.

Discourse on Hope in Politics


Alan Mittleman’s article “Hope in Politics: A Jewish Perspective” (Azure 36, Spring 2009), which studies politics as a harbinger of salvation, awakens a spirit of hope for political discourse and its possibilities. The importance of the article lies not only in the questions it raises—to which I would like to call attention here—but also in the very fact of its attempting to incorporate the concept of hope into a concrete political discourse. Indeed, the proposal to treat politics as an ethical realm that should be rightly influenced by the discourse of hope is in itself an admirable political act.

I wish to point to the importance of the question raised by Mittleman, and to wonder whether or not he gives it the proper response. Mittleman asserts that “hope” is significant because it motivates people to direct their resources toward political endeavors. It seems to me, however, that he does not pay enough attention to the importance of hope within the political endeavor itself. Or, in terms appropriate to philosophical discourse, the possibility that the political realm must also be an ethical one.

The question of hope can be posed in terms of ethics: Are ethics and politics two distinct spheres that ought to be connected? Should we relate to politics as a realm of “possible action,” in contrast to ethics, which is the realm of “proper action”? Should we see “possible action” as subordinate to “proper action”? Should we defer to ethics when we move into the realm of politics? Is the willingness to devote time and energy to political action an ethical act in itself? And finally, is it possible to propose a different option for ethical-political action, in which political action can be determined by ethics and attempt to operate in an ethical manner?

I think that an in-depth answer to these questions can be found in our willingness to internalize the idea of hope. Mittleman’s answer, on the other hand, limits itself to addressing the realm of politics. By contrast, the thinkers he discusses—Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber—allowed themselves, or demanded of themselves, the possibility of formulating a political discourse based on hope.

This fundamental issue can be formulated by using the terminology employed by the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the preface to his book Totality and Infinity (1969), in which he asks if any discussion of politics defers a discussion of ethics. Does the ethical discourse weaken man and society? Levinas’s answer to this, which he couched in terms of messianism, refers to hope as part of political and historical discourse. The importance of messianism is not that it offers an ultimate solution to politics. Rather, it is that it introduces into history the possibility of creating an ethical-religious horizon for man.

Messianic discourse and messianic belief can be described in a simple, even childish manner as concepts that leave the final resolution of historical problems in the hands of God. Messianism can also be seen as a discourse of despair in the face of one’s current reality, as though history were so lost that an outside force is needed in order to save it. But it can be described in other ways, too. For example, as the introduction of a different kind of spirituality into history, one that has the power to save man from man and to salvage the human species from the calamities that it brings upon itself.

Hermann Cohen saw a thinking that lacks a messianic perspective as tainted by desperation. According to this point of view, history is devoid of an optimistic perspective, and political action is subject to extant reality. Messianic discourse, however, is the introduction of an alternative—that of hope—into the discourse of the despairing. As long as we continue to hold on to despair, politics will keep going around in circles without any real possibility of breaking out in the direction of justice or peace. As long as we continue to view man as a fundamentally evil creature, we will continue to relate to political action as a type of compromise whose sole aim is to restrain mankind’s aggression. Peace, then, becomes little more than the mitigation of war, as in the famous Latin saying Si vis pacem, para bellum, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” Under such circumstances, we will operate peacefully as long as we are able—or desire—to defer actual war. We will instead turn it into a verbal war, or into declared but not actually implemented aggression (in accordance with the criticism voiced by Weber, vis-א-vis Kant, regarding the possibility of viewing politics as a profession).

Can one propose another possibility for politics in this historical reality? Cohen responded in the affirmative: We can do so by introducing hope into history. When we succeed in changing humanity’s perspective toward the future—toward hope—we can produce political action that does not merely seek to mitigate aggression, but also seeks to direct humanity’s efforts toward a positive future. This is the most profound message of the prophets of Israel: Man can direct his efforts toward the future because it is better than the past. The end of something is better than the beginning.

According to Cohen, to believe in the end of days and the coming of the Messiah is not to despair of the here and now, but rather to embrace the great hope that can enter into current reality. Cohen’s approach to politics emphasized the difference between political action based on despair and political action based on hope. Political action based on despair is incapable of attaining anything more than deferral and concession. The Zionist endeavor, Cohen claimed, is such an act. It despairs of Judaism, despairs of humanity, and despairs of hope. Zionist thought, which appears to be practical, viewing reality “as it is,” in truth structures and generates political action that is based on despair and is thus unable to see beyond it. There is significance to the basic insights that motivate people and the political horizons they create.

This is also how we should understand Franz Rosenzweig’s remark that redemption is the day that knows that it is more than today. When Rosenzweig writes that redemption is coming into the world, when he describes and explains its internationalization in the life of this world, he means not the salvation of the realm of the spiritual alone, but rather the very possibility of a spiritual action within the bounds of current reality.

Pessimistic thought, which acts in the face of death, is capable only of making an accounting of despair that deals solely with the present and cannot see beyond itself. The introduction of a dimension of eternity into the finite, however, has an impact on reality and on the willingness to act within it.

Cohen’s insight, however, goes farther than Mittleman gives him credit for. Cohen was not naןve, nor was he convinced that politics and political action would necessarily lead to the good. On the contrary, he was concerned about the power of the political act and wanted to change it. His declared goal is to act on two ethical levels of a complicated reality—the ethics of justice and the ethics of compassion. While an ethics of justice is based on equality and applies equally to all citizens under the law, regardless of race, religion, or sex, an ethics based on compassion takes into account the differences between people and the uniqueness of each one of them. This ethics is the product not of politics, but of the religious dimension. Standing before the One God, a God who is transcendent and wholly other, orients man toward his fellow men, each respected in his uniqueness and difference.

The ethical discussion proposed by Cohen includes a far-reaching, neo-Kantian discourse regarding the meaning of ethics and the manner in which it operates. But this ethical discourse did not satisfy Cohen, and he identified both its limits and the limits of ethical action deriving from it. As a result, he addressed the issue of religious discourse, which recognizes the importance of the individual in his uniqueness. The profound meaning of religion is not that it reveals the unity of creation but rather that it incorporates the different and the unique into social and ethical discourse. The meaning of messianic thought is not to defer hope until the end of days, but rather to introduce a divine dimension into reality through the possibility of acting in this world while aiming at a better future.

This demonstrates the importance of the discourse Mittleman is discussing. This discourse is based on the profoundest understanding of the ethical and its meaning for human action: The ethical is not self-evident. It is complicated, and guides man to different types of good and different modes of action. Ethical action in the name of human unity differs from ethical action that is committed to the unique and to the multiple aspects of humanity.

Cohen held that the possible moral price of an ethical discourse based on unity is the danger of nullifying the different, thus ignoring the weak, minorities, etc. When despair is the guiding force behind the political endeavor (as in Zionism), the result can be unethical. According to Cohen, the possibility of acting politically and religiously requires hope. I believe that we can better understand Rosenzweig and Buber—as well as a long and revered line of other thinkers—in light of this view of Hermann Cohen.

It is worth responding here to Mittleman, and emphasizing that hope is not a clear matter that refers us directly to the political; for this reason, the establishment of hope in the human consciousness in general and the religious consciousness in particular is extremely difficult. The willingness to act politically out of hope and not despair requires a change in our perception of reality itself. This cannot be brought about through an observation of history, which is directed toward the past. It can be brought about only through a different way of thinking about the history of Israel and the history of humanity; one that is directed toward the future and the messianic age.

It is only appropriate to mention here Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the words of Ben Zoma and the sages in the Mishna and the Passover Haggada: “The sages say: ‘The days of your life’ are your days in this world. ‘All the days of your life’ include the messianic days.” Indeed, the whole point of remembering the exodus from Egypt and retelling the story again and again in this world is to change human consciousness and guide us toward making an effort to bring about the messianic age. Religious thinking, then, is good, and changes national politics if it succeeds in making people act out of hope and ethical-religious intention.

A reading of the works of Buber should take into account Cohen’s concept of hope, in light of which we can also understand Buber’s ethical expectations of Zionism. Buber’s challenge to the Jewish national movement was his assertion of the possibility of establishing an ethical and just society in Cohen’s terms. The concern that guided Cohen’s approach to Zionism was that a “Jewish state” was liable to lead to non-religious ethical action in the name of Judaism, in effect despairing of Jewish messianic hope.

Is the hope of politics the hope of leveraging the present into the future, to make us act in a world that functions as we would wish it to? Or is the role of hope, perhaps, to introduce new dimensions of the future into the present, causing us to act in the real world in light of the messianic hope?

I think that the question of hope raised by Mittleman can be presented in the Israeli discourse as a real political question: On the deepest level, are we acting out of a despair that harnesses the language of hope? Or are we acting out of a hope that seeks to introduce metaphysical ethics into reality as we perceive it?

Hanoch Ben Pazi
Bar-Ilan University 


In his article Alan Mittleman examines German Jewish thinkers Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig and their approach to politics as both desirable and an activity that aims at and succeeds in achieving salvation and redemption. Mittleman presents a straightforward and exhaustive comparison of these thinkers, who were themselves in frequent and open contact with one another. Unfortunately, the difficulty presented by the German language, in which they wrote the majority of their works, together with their dated theological-philosophical terminology, has the effect of frustrating the English reader (and, all the more so, the Hebrew reader) who seeks to understand their writings. Given the many studies dedicated to these thinkers, which themselves are guilty of employing technical, tedious, and incomprehensible jargon, Mittleman’s work should be applauded not only for its sophistication and content, but also for its vivid and eloquent language.

I have two short comments to add to the discussion—the first pertaining to Rosenzweig and the second to Buber.

Mittleman criticizes Rosenzweig’s call for Jews to abstain from politics for being impractical. He presents Rosenzweig as lacking an answer properly grounded in reality to the question of the degree of hope that should be placed in politics as an effective tool for salvation. Rosenzweig himself, however, acknowledged in his writings that for Jews to sever themselves from politics was impractical. Indeed, Rosenzweig did not pretend that his stance offered the most practical or the most ethically correct tool for attaining salvation in this world. On the contrary, he explicitly stressed the high cost of Jewish abstention from politics. Rosenzweig claimed that this cost was a predetermined measure of suffering that Jews accept upon themselves knowingly, in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Presenting Rosenzweig as someone who minimizes the importance of Jewish politics does not, then, present the whole picture.

With reference to humanity as a whole, Rosenzweig stresses the importance of politics. Although it involves many compromises, and may even require us to wallow in a reality that is far removed from the spiritual ideal, it is necessary in order to enlighten people and places still immersed in darkness. The salvation of the world and of humanity as a whole will come, believed Rosenzweig, from actions in the real world, and for this reason he assigns Christianity, not Judaism, an active leadership role in bringing nearer the future monotheistic redemption through missionary work. Rosenzweig’s exclusion of Jews from the political realm is an exception that in no way indicates disdain on his part toward the theoretical and ethical importance of political action, despite its failings.

Though Mittleman himself in no way denies these assertions of Rosenzweig, his presentation of Rosenzweig as “anti-political” distorts the reader’s impression of his full position regarding the question at hand, i.e., is salvation to be found in politics? According to Rosenzweig, Christianity’s advent in the political realm is an ethical and necessary action for achieving salvation, not only for Christians but also for Jews. This insight bears out my previous claim: Rosenzweig himself acknowledged the validity of Mittleman’s criticism. Despite this failing, however, he reaffirmed the claim that Judaism willingly accepts the painful price of abstaining from earthly politics.

As for Buber, Mittleman compares Cohen, Buber, and Rosenzweig on the basis of their different views of politics as a tool to be used for attaining religious and ethical salvation. He believes that Buber is both the most realistic of the three as well as the one who holds the most practical and positive outlook toward politics. Thus, Mittleman attempts to portray Buber as the most astute of the three because of his intelligent approach to effective maneuvering in the political realm. Furthermore, he claims Buber was most in keeping with the authentic approach of biblical Judaism. It should therefore come as no surprise that Mittleman is careful to present Buber as a philosopher and not as a prophet. This classification is encouraging, especially in light of a growing tendency to classify modern Jewish thinkers—including Buber—as prophets (See Eliezer Schweid’s approach to this issue in his compilation of articles Prophets to Their People and Humanity (Magnes, 1999) [Hebrew].)

However, Mittleman does ascribe a flattering title to Buber, whose appropriateness I would question: He describes Buber as an astute realist who understood the fundamental value of effective moral action in the political realm. To my mind, this presentation somewhat distorts the definition of realism in politics. Though Buber may be portrayed as a rather astute realist in comparison with Cohen and Rosenzweig, I am skeptical as to whether he can really be presented as such in comparison with generally accepted norms among most theoreticians of ethics and religion. Buber’s thought may indeed indicate the importance of balances and practical compromises, as Mittleman suggests, but in attempting to implement the ethos of a spiritually guided sanctification of reality, Buber, like Cohen and Rosenzweig, relates to reality more as a naןve idealist than as an astute and practical-minded realist.

Nicham Ross
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Alan Mittleman Responds:

I appreciate the close reading and constructive criticism that Hanoch Ben Pazi and Nicham Ross have given to my article. It is entirely appropriate to point out, as they have done, that the thinkers with whom I dealt are more nuanced and complex than I was able to capture in my somewhat typological treatment. My aim was not to provide detailed, scholarly studies of each of these canonical modern Jewish thinkers but to focus on their specific constructions of the concept of hope, especially in reference to politics.

The article was drawn from my now published book, Hope in a Democratic Age (Oxford, 2009). Part of the rather schematic presentation of these thinkers comes from the structure I employed in my book. I paired each Jewish thinker with a Christian thinker who exemplified the same ideal-typical tendency. Rosenzweig was paired with the American Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas; Buber with the German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann; and Cohen with the founder of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch.

Rosenzweig’s view, which Ross correctly notes, is that politics, albeit left to Christianity, remains necessary and valuable. Hauerwas roundly denounces this view. Hauerwas saw politics as an utterly fallen practice, the temptations of which Christianity must resist and renounce. There can be no Christian politics or (contra Reinhold Niebuhr) Christian political ethics. Hauerwas’ view seemed to me remarkably like Rosenzweig’s vis-à-vis the Jews. Considered jointly, these thinkers typified for me a striking mistrust of and disdain toward politics based on religious principle. That each one is more nuanced and dialectical than the contours of my typological portrait suggest, I do not deny. Nonetheless, I would still maintain that, for the Rosenzweig of The Star of Redemption at least, the nations are struggling to attain what the Jews have already achieved. Politics will be shed once the Christians reach the self-sufficiency and perfection of the Jews. Politics is a transient, inferior mode of being.

As to Buber, I meant by “realism” something slightly different from the current usage of the term in political discourse. Once again, the original setting of these studies in my book gave context to this language. I had in mind Reinhold Niebuhr’s concept of a “Christian realism,” a dialectical valuation of politics within a Christian ethics. The current usage of “realism” in foreign policy as a pure appraisal of national interest without moral entanglements is not what Niebuhr meant, although his use of the term does gesture in that direction. (He meant to free the political necessities of “immoral society” from the ethical imperatives of “moral man.”) It seemed to me—it still seems to me—that this sense of realism describes Buber’s approach quite well. (In my book, I attempted to show Buber’s likeness to Niebuhr despite Niebuhr’s own claim that Buber was an overly utopian idealist. Ross has a powerful ally in Niebuhr!) In any case, the advantage of all of these thinkers is that they address the question of hope and politics directly. To the extent that we want to think deeply about this question, these thinkers, Jewish and Christian, provide valuable points of reference.

I am grateful to Ben Pazi for his reflections, particularly for his deepening of the treatment of Cohen and his inclusion of Levinas, a thinker whom I did not consider. Perhaps my “robust sense of reality,” to use Bertrand Russell’s term, restrains my appreciation of Cohen. I do not think that politics can be infused by or subsumed under ethics. I think that a moral pluralism exists, rather like Weber described, which prevents “political ethics” from eliding into ethics per se. How deep this pluralism goes or ought to go is an important question. I think that hope should be scaled to a realistic grasp of the possibilities of coordinated human action. There are circumstances when hope, at least hope for politics, is foolish. I’m not sure that Cohen could make such a claim.