Israel’s Moral Erosion

Amid global anger over militants citing the Koran as a defense for terrorism, less attention gets paid to Israel citing God’s will as expressed in the Bible as the moral justification for stealing Palestinian land, an ethical crisis that is eroding Israel’s world standing, writes Alon Ben-Meir.

By Alon Ben-Meir

I have long maintained that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank defies the moral principle behind the creation of the state. Contrary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion, the occupation erodes rather than buttresses Israel’s national security and cannot be justified on either security or moral grounds.

Unless Israel embraces a new moral path, no one can prevent it from unraveling from within only to become a pariah state that has lost its soul, wantonly abandoning the cherished dreams of its founding fathers.

A section of the barrier -- erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians -- with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy's famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner." (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

A section of the barrier — erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians — with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

There are four ethical theories, Kantian, utilitarian, virtue-based and religious, that demonstrate the lack of moral foundation in the continuing occupation, which imposes upon Israelis the responsibility to bring it to a decisive end.

The first moral theory is deontological ethics, whose greatest representative is Immanuel Kant. According to this theory, consequences are irrelevant to the moral rightness or wrongness of an action; what matters is whether the action is done for the sake of duty or out of respect for the moral law.

Kant provided several formulations of the moral law, which he refers to as the categorical imperative; for our purposes, what is most important are his first two formulations. The first is the principle that morality requires us to act only on those maxims we can universalize. As he puts it, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In short, never do anything that you couldn’t will everybody else do at the same time.

The question is whether the Israeli occupation is a policy that can be universalized and pass this test of moral reasoning. The answer is clearly no; the policy of occupation is rationally inconsistent, as it requires Israel to exempt itself from moral and political norms that the rest of the international community recognizes (and which serve to protect Israel itself).

Israel is making an exception of itself which is the capital sin, according to Kant, as in effect Israel is saying: “We don’t have to live by the same rules as everyone else.” This is evident from the fact that Israel denies the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and justifies that in the name of national security, even though the achievement of absolute security would invariably render the Palestinians absolutely vulnerable.

Whereas Israel has agreed to a two-state solution, it continues to usurp Palestinian land, thereby violating international agreements which Israel is signatory to (UN Resolution 242, the Oslo Accords). In doing so, Israel is clearly defying the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which as Kant showed, requires us to honor our agreements and contracts.

That is, Israel is acting on a maxim or policy of breaking its agreements to serve its self-interest, which cannot be universalized without contradiction because then the institution of reaching international agreements cannot be sustained.

Although many countries break international contracts, that does not affect Kant’s argument as he knew full well that people lie, cheat and steal. His concern is with the principle of morality and what it requires regardless of whether these requirements are in fact met. By maintaining the occupation, Israel is flouting the moral law while expecting the Palestinians to uphold the same norms.

The second formulation is to never treat another person merely as a means, but always also as an end in themselves. In other words, what Kant is saying is that as free rational beings who can act in accordance with morality, each of us possesses intrinsic worth which implies that we must respect the inherent dignity of each individual.

In the case of the Palestinians who are under occupation, Israel is treating them as objects rather than persons who can rationally consent to the way they are being treated. Israel is coercing the Palestinians physically and psychologically by denying them human rights, through, for example, administrative detention, night raids, and expulsion, thereby robbing them of their dignity and denying them their autonomy.

The second moral theory is Utilitarianism, which in its modern form originated in England with the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In contrast to Kantianism, this theory places all emphasis on the consequences of our actions. It states that an action is morally right if it produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

The moral evaluation of any policy depends on whether it maximizes utility. Utilitarianism agrees with Kant on one fundamental point, which is that morality prohibits making an exception of oneself. For obvious reasons, governments give greater priority to their own people. But does the occupation maximize the security and well-being of all Israelis?

In spite of the fact that Israel takes extraordinary measures to enhance its security, the occupation is in fact undermining the security of the state, as is evident from the repeated bloody clashes. Moreover, if Israel were to extend its moral considerations beyond its own people to include the Palestinians, then the policy of occupation still fails on utilitarian grounds even more acutely.

To be sure, while Israel resorts to utilitarian arguments to justify its treatment of the Palestinians, in the process Israel reveals the classic pitfall of utilitarian thinking, which is that it ultimately does not provide sufficient protection and respect for human rights. This contempt for human rights in fact directly erodes Israel’s moral standing within the community of nations.

The third moral theory is virtue ethics, whose greatest advocate is still Aristotle. In virtue ethics, an act is moral if it is performed as a result of having a virtuous character. Virtue ethics is not primarily about codifying and applying moral principles, but developing the character from which moral actions arise. In this context, the Israeli occupation, while having a major adverse effect on the Palestinians, also has a morally corrupting influence on Israelis themselves.

Virtue ethics recognizes the importance of acquiring the habit to act ethically which involves moral upbringing; as Aristotle is to have said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

The occupation is not educating Israeli youth towards moral virtues, but hardening their hearts as they can live with regular prejudices, discrimination and dehumanization against the Palestinians. As such, the occupation fails to meet the principles of virtue ethics because it creates an environment which degrades the moral substance of the Israelis themselves. As a result, they continue to commit transgressions against the Palestinians without any sense of moral culpability.

One might argue from a certain Israeli perspective (i.e. the settlement movement) that the occupation engenders virtues such as national solidarity, social cohesiveness, loyalty, courage and perseverance. While this may appear to be true on the surface, the occupation is in fact tearing the Israelis’ social and political fabric apart and undermining the conditions under which moral virtues such as caring, compassion, and magnanimity can grow and thrive.

Moreover, the longer the occupation persists, the greater the damage is to Israel’s moral character, and Israel will become increasingly disposed to compromising its fundamental values and ideals as a democracy committed to human rights.

Finally, we need to consider the moral theory which says morality is acting in accordance with what divinity commands from us. There are two basic theories, both of which can be traced back to Plato’s Euthyphro where Socrates raises the question: “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

The first is the divine command theory, which states that what makes an action moral or right is the fact that God commands it and nothing else. The second theory, defended by Socrates, is that God commands us to do what is right because it is the right thing to do. In other words, morality precedes God’s will and is irreducible to divine command.

In the context of this ancient debate, the usurpation and annexation of Palestinian land may appear to be defensible on the basis of the divine command theory because if God requires us to perform any set of actions, then by definition it would be the moral thing to do.

Many orthodox Jews hold to the divine command theory, as they interpret the concept of “mitzvah” (good deed) first and foremost as “command,” the goodness of which cannot even be contemplated apart from the fact that this is what God has commanded us to do.

As such, those who take the Bible as the revelation of God’s commands use it to justify the concept of Greater Israel. As a result, they view the Palestinian presence as an impediment God placed before them to test their resolve. Therefore, their harsh treatment of the Palestinians becomes morally permissible because it is consistent with divine decree.

By adopting the command theory, they are ascribing to a position which has and continues to be used to justify acts which are blatantly immoral. The defender of this theory may counter that because God is good, he does not command anything which is immoral.

However, this argument is hollow because if morality is simply what God approves of, to say that God is good is merely to assert that he approves of himself and his own will. In this case, there is still no safeguard against the extremists who use the command theory to justify even the most heinous crimes.

Furthermore, if the command in question satisfies a deep seated psychological need, say, for a God-given Jewish homeland, then what humans ascribe to God eventually becomes “the will of God.”

Another problem with the divine command theory is that, as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz observed, it turns God into a kind of Tyrant unworthy of our love and devotion: “For why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy for doing just the opposite?”

Turning to the theory that God commands us to do the good because it is good, what becomes clear is that any action must derive its moral worth independently of God’s will. In that case, the Israeli policy toward the occupation will have to be morally justifiable without reference to some divine mandate.

We have already examined, however briefly, Israel’s policy in light of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics, and found that it comes up short and fails to meet the basic requirement of these theories. Therefore, it lacks independent moral justification on which God’s commands could possibly be based on.

Israel’s occupation cannot be defended on moral grounds or in terms of national security. Israel can defend itself and prevail over any of its enemies now and in the foreseeable future, but it is drowning in moral corruption that the continued occupation only deepens. It is that, the enemy from within, that poses the greatest danger Israel faces.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. alon@alonben-meir.com. Web: www.alonben-meir.com

image_pdfimage_print

16 comments for “Israel’s Moral Erosion

  1. Anthony Shaker
    December 11, 2015 at 9:47 am

    I don’t think one could speak of the moral “erosion” of a race colony built on the ruins of another people, the Palestinians–the original inhabitants…a colony that lays claim to this land based on a biblical text widely recognized to be effectively spurious.

    The Torah (Old Testament) text does not even mention the mysterious “Israelites” (who are nowhere mentioned in ancient tablets, documents, etc.) actually settling in Palestine on the basis of this claim. In that period, of course, Jews, who did not exist as a religion before the so-called Babylonian Exile, clearly have no bearing on any entitlement to the land, supposing there was a “promise” made by a tribal god.

    Moral “erosion” assumes that Israel stood on moral ground to begin with.

    The “exile” was supposed to be a forced “mass” expulsion but, like most Old Testament tribal myths, contrary evidence has been found. It was in Babylon that the Jewish Torah, by then irretrievably lost, was reconstructed from fragments and priestly interpretations directly interpollated into the text and subsequently claimed to be part of the Torah.

    The Torah is simply a religious text of a people claiming the status of both a religion and a people. We should just let it rest there.

  2. Lusion
    December 11, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Interesting thoughts…

    “Many orthodox Jews hold to the divine command theory, as they interpret the concept of “mitzvah” (good deed) first and foremost as “command,” the goodness of which cannot even be contemplated apart from the fact that this is what God has commanded us to do.”

    I’m a dyed in the wool atheist, but if I were a believer in the Abrahamic god as revealed in the bible, esp. the old, but also the new testament, I would HAVE to categorically go by the command theory.

    How else would you explain all the commands along the lines of
    “Go and utterly destroy the Amalekites!”

    How is it, that an all-powerful god WANTS to resort to visiting plagues on the Egyptians in that historically unfounded tale, and finally to killing off all the first-born boys, instead of just having the Pharaoh “see the light”, so he lets them go?
    Why not send an angel, say?

    So to me it is obvious that the Abrahamic god is traditionally demanding immoral deeds of his followers, just like he resorts to killing innocents himself, if he wants to achieve something for his chosen people. It’s not for nothing that immense atrocities are said to be of “biblical proportions”.

    • John P
      December 11, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      I’m an atheist to, but I think there is an internal spiritual warmth from doing good for other people. I had rows with fundamentalist Christians using the arguments:
      – How did an unpowered boat gather all the paired animals around the world?
      – How come they never got sick from all the animal waste? And what a stench !
      – If it rained for 40 days and 40 nights say to cover Mt. Ararat then it came down at a rate of about 212 inches per hour (3.5 inches a minute) all around the world I think it was. Please don’t ask me to calculate it again.
      – Would not all the plant life be dead, and wouldn’t the soil be mud unable to grow anything for some time.
      – Where did the water come from, and where did it go.
      – And yes, would a loving God tell a favoured people to kill every man woman and child and the land would be theirs?

      The people had no idea of germs, viruses, disorders like epilepsy. It was all put down in terms of a super being working for them (tribal societies of the day).
      Perhaps there is some superpower somewhere looking after the universe, but it’s a very inhospitable and violent place and worlds like ours are a very infinitesimal parts of it.

      It seems to be human nature for people in power to look down on those less advanced, God’s journeys as reveled through the settlements of South Africa, North and South America, and Australia attest to that idea. And that is the view from which the scriptures were written.

      I think today, it is, follow the money as it is with most things.

      The Jews in Palestine before the introduction of Zionism, didn’t want the Zionists arriving and spoiling the good life they already had living in harmony with the others of the area.

      • Lusion
        December 12, 2015 at 6:47 am

        “I think there is an internal spiritual warmth from doing good for other people”

        Well put! I believe we are a compassionate and cooperating species, coming with an internal moral compass, but unfortunately this cerebral algorithm works with an in-group-bias.

        Capitalism with its view of humanity as primarily competitive, fond of consuming and above all else striving to be at the top of the food chain is therefore short sighted. Free wheeling capitalism is bound to be deeply unsatisfactory, even leaving aside ecological concerns of endless economic growth.

        Anyway, my favourite argument vs. people retreating to a deistic position upon getting prodded:
        If you think the universe and us in it are too complex to have come from nothing – how come a god complex enough to create all of that came out of nothing?

        Take a look at the (Reformed) Satanic Temple, lead by Lucien Greaves: http://thesatanictemple.com/

        I do actually hold their seven tenets:

        – One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.

        – The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.

        – One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.

        – The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To wilfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own.

        – Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.

        – People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.

        – Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

    • free your mind
      December 11, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      The Yahweh god was a pantheon war god, selected over numerous Hebrew gods/goddesses, as the God of the Cosmos. What a better method for rallying the troops.The reason the Jews continuously create trouble is because their war god told them they were chosen over all other human beings and they were given dominion over the Earth. They chose a pantheon war god to defeat all enemies. And who are all their enemies? According to the Talmud, all non-Jews. That is why they rejected the Jesus figure as their long-awaited Messiah, The Hebrews were expecting Yahweh war god Jr, not the peace god. (WAR=Peace) What they are doing to the Palestinians, is what they will do to the rest of us. Was that lesson not learned in Bolshevik Russia? Until this very sick religion is called out for exactly what it is, a psychopathic pantheon war god created by desperate men living in the desert during the Bronze Age, much more sick behavior will continue to be justified. Isn’t 3000 years plus long enough?

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 11, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I scanned this essay twice, and as expected learned once again that Israel routinely lies, cheats, and steals. (To that I’d personally add that the inhabitants of the apartheid hellhole also casually torture and murder the subhuman Palestinians.)

    But as expected, I failed to see a single corrective suggestion by Mr. Alon Ben-Meir.

    No mention of cutting the enormous US payments to Israel from US taxpayers. No hint of stopping the mindless backing in the UN of whatever horror Israel is currently doing. And of course, nothing whatever about backing the world-wide efforts to isolate the shitty little nation and make it stew in its own vile juices by means of the Boycott, Diversify, and Sanctions campaigns.

    One wonders what Mr. Alon Ben-Meir believes he is accomplishing with the endless series of essays advocating nothing other than pious handwringing.

  4. RA Landbeck
    December 11, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    The stealing of Palestinian land began long before the state of Ireal was created and that theft was the necessary prerequisite for an influx of Jewish immigration which began what Palestinians call: Al-Nakba. One might therefore suggest with good reason that the very state of Israel, whatever it’s idealism and religious pretensions may have been, was founded upon a ‘moral erosion’ that only continues to this day. The question is whether the internal contradictions of that ongoing erosion will at some point so weaken cultural fabric as to threaten the Jewish state?

  5. Bob
    December 11, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    INTERESTING ARTICLE–BUT MOSES NEVER EXISTED, THE EXODUS NEVER HAPPENED.

    This is a good article and makes some great points.

    But the Judaists should not follow the Torah because it a piece of fiction, a forgery.

    See “Forgery of the Old Testament” by Joseph McCabe.

    Moses never existed. Exodus never happened.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 12, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      “Moses never existed.”

      Moses was likely some minor figure who got inflated into the Biblical hero of the Old Testament. .

      “Exodus never happened.”

      True.

  6. Peter Loeb
    December 12, 2015 at 7:28 am

    “EYES OF THE CANAANITES”???

    The above is one of Mr. Alon Ben-Meir’s best contributions. As
    Zachary Smith points out it includes no specific actions mostly political.

    Instead, I recommend the late Michael Prior CM’s thorough
    analysis of what the Bible actually says and links it to
    an in-depth analysis of Zionist history in:

    THE BIBLE AND COLONIALISM: A MORAL CRITIQUE

    `Of course none of this refers to any of the very specific political
    goals which Zachary Smith mentions and which I support.

    Michael Prior was a Catholic theologian and a passionate anti-Zionist.
    His work includes analyses of Zionist history as well as other
    (non-Zionist) colonial adventures. It approaches Zionism and
    religious colonialisms not from the perspective exclusively of
    “atheism” but through an exhaustive study of what the
    Bible itself says and doesn’t say, its history, archeology. Much of
    the book was written while Prior was in Palestine. Prior also
    addresses in detail how Christian liturgy has dealt with
    OT (Old Testament) narrative. (I myself feel he is unneccessarily
    partial to parts of the NT (New Testament) but that is my personal
    judgement.

    Since getting Michael Prior’s analysis, it has become my “bible” or my
    (Mao’s) “little red book” if you prefer.

    Prior also wrote another book on Zionist history but the print size
    is so tiny, it is almost impossible to decipher. I suggest only “THE
    BIBLE AND COLONIALISM…”

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA.

  7. diogenes
    December 13, 2015 at 12:41 am

    The title is a hoax. The Zionist project in Palestine was, from its inception, centered on the idea of acquiring land from inhabitants and moving them off it to move colonists onto it. Through its early decades this was done by purchasing land from absentee feudal owners resident in Istambul, Paris, etc. and evicting the occupants — out with the goyim, in with the jews. The project was colonialist and racist. What’s “moral” about that? Israel has no “morality” to “erode.”

  8. diogenes
    December 13, 2015 at 12:42 am

    The title is a hoax. The Zionist project in Palestine was, from its inception, centered on the idea of acquiring land from inhabitants and moving them off it to move colonists onto it. Through its early decades this was done by purchasing land from absentee feudal owners resident in Istambul, Paris, etc. and evicting the occupants — out with the goyim, in with the jews. The project was colonialist and racist. What’s “moral” about that? Israel has no “morality” to “erode.”

  9. mikael
    December 15, 2015 at 7:40 am

    Very good article and true.

    I am baffeled by the ignorance about reality and how the force fields that makes everything to become manifested as matter is gone completely out of sight and mind.
    In the end its about energy/soul witch is an energetic entety, wrapped in by your body.

    Everything living have it, the varable is Only in witch fiield the rest their soul into, we have our own, also along with theirs but not the same field in generall.
    Even thoe we all in the end, is floating in the earths own field, you can go out right now and see it if you just knew how to filter out the noice, this goes to the mind as well, focus isnt about finding someing spectaculare new, but to filter out NOICE in the complex information system that makes physicaly out as our brain, our brain isnt more than an releay station, located of course in different areas, to maximise the effective use of space/fields.

    Why do someone insist upon the right to Mock/Riddicule/and so on, of others culture and religion is beyound me, I simply dont see it as anything else then an negative emotional barrier, this goes to the energetic level to, the prodjection of negative energetic effects, witch effects also the fields.
    Love have the same effect.
    This is the first one of them all, the reason for morale and good deeds.
    It even may sound egoistic, but if love is prodjected from you, and you resive it back, then there is ballance, and ballance is whats the univerall law of our mother nature.

    Evil is about reducing the ballance, any act reduces the ballance, we are born with an energy and that one can be altered by our self only, reduce or grow.
    The gift from our creatore, free will.
    You reap what you saw, it goes both ways.

    peace

  10. PJ London
    December 15, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Thank you for a brilliant analysis, I have not seen the various philosophical approaches so well compared before.
    Of course it could just be that the Israelis are lying, selfish, greedy, sadistic, psychotic and murderous.

  11. Gregory Kruse
    December 17, 2015 at 10:45 am

    I think it would be morally wrong for me to fail to praise Dr. Ben-Meir for an excellent and useful article.

  12. Duglarri
    December 19, 2015 at 1:47 am

    Israel could also be faulted on the basis of English common law, all of which rests on two principles: do unto others, and keep your commitments.

    It’s pretty easy to find the points where Israel fails to “do unto others”, and the list of failing to keep commitments is pretty lengthy.

    I guess the real question is, if you fail in terms of such a comprehensive set of moralities and law, does it matter?

    Not as long as you control Congress.

Comments are closed.