The moral devastation of the continued occupation - Pakistan Today

The moral devastation of the continued occupation

  • The Israeli occupation does not satisfy any ethical theory

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank defies the moral principle behind the creation of the state. Contrary to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion, the occupation erodes rather than buttresses Israel’s national security and cannot be justified on either security or moral grounds. Trump’s “deal of the century” amounts to perpetuating the occupation, to Israel’s detriment. Unless Israel embraces a new moral path and ends the occupation, no one can prevent it from unravelling from within only to become a pariah state that has lost its soul.

There are four ethical theories—Kantian, utilitarian, virtue-based, and religious—that demonstrate the lack of moral foundation in Trump’s peace plan.

The first is deontological ethics, propounded by Immanuel Kant. According to it, consequences are irrelevant to the moral rightness or wrongness of an action; what matters is whether the action is for duty or out of respect for the moral law.

Kant provided several formulations of what he calls the categorical imperative; what matter most are his first two formulations. The first is that morality requires us to act only on what we can universalize.

Is the Israeli occupation a policy that can be universalized to pass this test? Clearly no; the policy of occupation requires Israel to exempt itself from moral and political norms that the international community recognizes (and which protect Israel itself).

Israel is making an exception of itself, as in effect Israel is saying: ‘We don’t have to live by the same rules as others.’ This is evident from Israel denying the Palestinians’ right to self-determination because of national security, even though achieving absolute security would invariably render the Palestinians absolutely vulnerable.

Israel’s perpetual occupation, which Trump’s plan will certainly lead to, cannot be defended on moral or national security grounds. Israel can prevail over any of its enemies foreseeably, but is drowning in moral corruption the continued occupation only deepens. It is that— the enemy from within— that poses Israel’s greatest danger.

Israel continues to usurp Palestinian land, thereby violating international agreements it signed. Israel is thus clearly defying the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which requires honouring agreements. Israel has a policy of breaking its agreements to serve its self-interest. By maintaining the occupation, Israel is flouting the moral law while expecting the Palestinians to uphold those norms.

The second formulation is to never treat another person merely as a means, but always also as an end. That is, each of us possesses intrinsic worth which implies we must respect the inherent dignity of each individual.

Israel is treating Palestinians who are under occupation 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, formulated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Unlike Kantianism, it places all emphasis on the consequences of actions, stating an action is morally right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number.

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?

Despite Israel taking extraordinary measures for security, the occupation is in fact undermining it, as evident from the repeated bloody clashes, which have intensified since the unveiling of the peace plan, and the costly state of readiness that Israel must maintain. Moreover, if Israel were to extend its moral considerations beyond its own people to include the Palestinians, then the policy of occupation fails even more acutely.

While Israel resorts to utilitarian arguments to justify its treatment of the Palestinians, it reveals the classic pitfall of utilitarian thinking. It ultimately does not provide sufficient protection and respect for human rights.

The theory of virtue ethics, best advocated by Aristotle, says an act is moral if done because of its virtuousness. 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 adversely affecting the Palestinians, is also morally corrupting Israelis themselves and has massive adverse repercussions on Israel’s moral standing. The occupation is not educating Israeli youth towards moral virtues, but hardening their hearts as they can live with mistreatment of Palestinians.

As such, the occupation violates virtue ethics because it creates an environment which degrades Israelis’ moral substance. Thus they continue to transgress without any sense of moral culpability.

A certain Israeli perspective (the settlement movement) says the occupation engenders such virtues as national solidarity, social cohesiveness, loyalty, courage, and perseverance. This may appear superficially true, but occupation is tearing the social and political fabric apart and undermining the conditions for moral virtues.

Finally, the religious moral theory says morality is acting in accordance with what divinity commands. 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.”

There is the divine command theory, which says what makes an action moral is that God commands it and nothing else. The second theory is that God commands us to do what is right because it is right. In other words, morality precedes God’s will and is irreducible to divine command.

The usurpation of Palestinian land may appear defensible by it because if God requires any actions, then by definition they are moral.

Many orthodox Jews hold to the divine command theory, as they interpret the concept of “mitzvah” (good deed) as “command,” the goodness of which cannot even be contemplated apart from its being what God has commanded.

Those who take the Bible as the revelation of God’s commands use it to justify the concept of Greater Israel. Thus they view the Palestinians as an impediment from God to test their resolve. Therefore, harsh treatment of Palestinians becomes morally permissible.

They thus take a position used to justify blatantly immoral acts. The theory’s defender may counter that God is good, so does not command anything immoral.

However, this argument is hollow because if morality is simply what God approves, saying God is good merely asserts he approves of himself and his own will. There is still no safeguard against the extremists using the command theory to justify the worst crimes. Further, if the command in question satisfies a deep-seated psychological need— like a God-given Jewish homeland—then what humans ascribe to God eventually becomes ‘the will of God.’

Another problem is that, as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz observed, it turns God into a kind of Tyrant: “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 good because it is good, it means any action must derive its moral worth independently of God’s will. Israeli policy towards Palestinians has to be morally justifiable without reference to some divine mandate. We have already examined, however briefly, Israel’s policy and found it fails to meet the basic requirement of these theories. Therefore, it lacks independent moral justification.

Israel’s perpetual occupation, which Trump’s plan will certainly lead to, cannot be defended on moral or national security grounds. Israel can prevail over any of its enemies foreseeably, but is drowning in moral corruption the continued occupation only deepens. It is that— the enemy from within— that poses Israel’s greatest danger.

Dr Alon Ben-Meir

Dr Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]