global politics, relationally

On History and Fear, Then and Now


This is a guest post by Piki Ish-Shalom, A. Ephraim and Shirley Diamond Family Chair in International Relations and Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is part of our series on The International History of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It is in response to the article that Daniel Levine describes in his post earlier this week

On one level this article is an exemplar of Daniel Levine’s writing. Levine is probably the most voracious reader among IR scholars and his work is simply a carnival of knowledge and intellectualism offering a display of learning of unsurpassable breadth. His numerous areas of expertise cover IR theory, critical theory, Judaism, Zionism, and Middle East politics and history. And indeed this article is no exception while adding European history and historiography to Levine’s areas of expertise. The article is a trove of knowledge just like all Levine’s articles and its pages present us with such familiar and forgotten names as Zalman Rubashov (the third President of Israel), Friedrich Meinecke, Jakob Burckhardt, Jürgen Habermas, Hayden White, Theodor Herzl, Leopold von Ranke, Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Judith Butler, and Walter Benjamin. These and many others are part of the colorful mosaic which Levine assembles for his readers. And then there is the epistemological and ethical bottom-line which I could not agree with more. As Levine concludes,

one cannot properly speak of history or theory as isolates; theory is always in history and predicated upon it. If that is so, the appropriate questions are less about epistemology than ethics: what modes of critical self-reflection are necessary, and sufficient, for the student of international politics who wishes to be something other than a partisan actor within history?

A noble question, no doubt. But on another level his article exemplifies the inherent problems that such a perspective raises; it raises questions I keep struggling with when I consider these issues: how to moralize the academic endeavor of theorizing without politicizing it? Which criteria distinguish the academic from the political and the moral from the ideological?

The article left me feeling unsure that there can be adequate answers to these questions, and not only because Levine offers no answers. I surfaced from my reading bothered that he had failed profoundly in this article and had blundered into a moral (or is it political and/or ideological?) morass. I kept wondering about the aims of his comparisons and the criteria that guided his choice of whom and what to compare. Were there any moral/political/ideological intentions behind his choices, and were those choices conscious? Levine’s reference to the historian Hayden White wasn’t much help in allaying my worries: “What matters less than the factual basis of claims made by particular historians is what White (1975) has called their figurative content: their ability to artfully and compellingly summon up a world that coheres morally, ontologically, and aesthetically. Factual and procedural-methodological disagreements are of course possible; but they are also, at least partly, beside the point (104).” And here ostensibly, Levine assumes the historian’s role of locating the origins of social and political theory.

This left me with two concerns. The first one is meta-theoretical while the second is more concrete and moral. On the meta-theoretical level: if indeed the factual basis is of no ultimate importance how should we refute alternative facts? What are our resources when we try to moralize and responsibilize academia without falling prey to its politicization? Could it be that all that we are doing is faking facts—albeit more artfully and coherently than, say President Trump? Personally, I am not satisfied with such a relativist answer. Something substantive must delineate academic work from other social endeavors. Otherwise why would “the student of international politics” hope and aim “to be something other than a partisan actor within history?” What can she bring to the public discourse that differs in any way from the “the public use of history (104)” and as such has some added value due to the academic way of doing things? Why should the public take any notice of us and our account of facts that might be not alternative? Levine owes his readers some good answers to these meta-theoretical questions.

The lack of satisfactory answers also projects onto what I consider a concrete and moral failure on Levine’s part. And I return to the questions raised above: What were the aims of the comparisons that Levine conducts and what criteria guided him when he chose whom and what to compare? Were there any moral/political/ideological intentions in the choices he makes and were those choices deliberate? Since although Levine keeps calling for caution in inferring conclusions from his comparisons and warns us not to assume “determinist causal “arrows” between that horror [holocaust] and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (103),” he also adds that “neither does it relegate these events to comfortably isolated moral-political universes (103).” Subtly or not, consciously or unwittingly, when what little methodologically is said and done the comparison is laid out for us. On the one hand there is this Zionist Rubashov, whose historical lesson is a kind of militarism and chauvinism, and on the other hand, we have this German historian, Meinecke, who may even have flirted with Nazism (112) and yet is the bearer of the cosmopolitan message: “German particularism was to be expressed not through conquest, but through the cultivation of German culture (114).” Yes, there were certain historical contexts and events that led Meinecke and Rubashov to draw their obverse conclusions and Levine even acknowledge them. But somehow these historical contexts are set aside for White’s figurative content. It even doesn’t matter much that Rubashov was primarily a politician who didn’t deal professionally with history or philosophy (although he did study them). He is placed side by side with the accomplished and revered academic historian Meinecke. And the comparison does not, to say the least, speak highly of Rubashov. And since Rubashov is the only representative of Zionism in this study[1], Zionism is shown as merely militarist and chauvinist; an ideology that though should not be simplistically compared with Nazism to draw “simple moral equivalences”, is there to be compared with Nazism and is there to fare no better, maybe even worse.

So I ask what were Levine’s criteria in his choice of comparison. Are these criteria legitimate? And what would have happened if Levine had not compared Meinecke with Rubashov but with say Martin Buber or Judah Magnes? What might have been the conclusion if Levine had brought in another intellectual, say a Palestinian, to his mosaic? Then I recall that Levine did briefly mention Edward Said— and who could be a more noble, representative of that cosmopolitan spirit which Levine searched for in vain in Rubashov and Zionism? And I ask myself uncomfortably whether Said is the only Palestinian historian and philosopher around and if he was even Rubashov’s contemporary?

Again, what would have happened if instead of comparing Rubashov to Meinecke, Levine had taken his American contemporaries, the American politicians of the post-world war era, as a baseline for comparison? Or better still some of the American academics populating Ido Oren’s excellent study of American academia (2003)? Perhaps a more methodologically rigorous and complete analysis of the era would have rendered a fuller picture of the republic of academic (or not so academic) letters? Would Rubashov and Zionism have fared any better then?

And let me be clear about my own standpoint. I had my own Noam Chayut moment of awakening to the extent that I found myself in military prison, refusing to serve the occupation. And I am not alone in Israeli academia and I am certainly not alone in criticizing my country and the occupation of the Palestinian people. This is a moral criticism and duty. We Israeli academics who feel morally bound to criticize Israel and the occupation see a lot of McCarthyism and Trumpism in Israel — but not Hitlerism. To compare Zionist history and the Zionist present with Nazism, even in an implicit and subtle way, does a political and ideological disservice to academic integrity and responsibility. Nor does it provide a politically workable and defensible strategy for moving the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock forward.

Perhaps if instead of figurative content we had looked for a real and methodologically rigorous analysis (comparative or otherwise) we might have found the origins of social and political theory and gained ourselves the intellectual space to act as moral and responsible actors within history. Levine’s current (un)methodological choices and poor comparison will consign us to being no more than partisan actors in unbridgeable alternative histories.

But perhaps it’s just me and my sensitivities in these days of BDS.

[1] Noam Chayut, former Israeli soldier and current dissident, is discussed briefly in the article to prove there is another option, is someone who has lost every shred of Zionism.