Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Israel and the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a universal ethic, common to all the major religions of the world. With some differences in formulation, the saying has been ascribed to Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Brihaspati, Confucius, various Greek philosophers including Epicurus, and even (in Leviticus 19:18) to God himself.

In past times, it was widely assumed that some people should not benefit from the equal application of the Golden Rule, in that they did not qualify as human beings. It was argued that some people were primitive, childlike, created to be subservient, and were therefore only fit for manual labour. Within that definition, slavery was thought to be morally acceptable or even righteous, even though in practice the slave trade resulted in the deaths of millions of slaves. However, others challenged that idea, and upheld the equal applicability of the Golden Rule to all humanity. The conflict between these ideas resulted in the American Civil War, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The task wasn’t finished with the end of that war, and a century later, America had a further conflict (fortunately with far less bloodshed) over whether blacks should enjoy full civil rights. Fifty years on, the victory of the civil rights movement has enabled Barack Obama to become president.

Similarly, there has been conflict in Europe between the idea of the state having the responsibility to assure equal protection under the law to everyone within its borders, and the idea that a self-defining group of people can form themselves into a state and enjoy the resulting benefits to the exclusion of anybody in the vicinity who does not fall within the ruling group’s definition. World War Two became (in part) a conflict between these two ideas. That war ended up costing tens of millions of lives, including those of approximately six million Jews.

The issue remains active and topical to this day. Seth Freedman has described the conflict he sees between the Zionism of the Israeli political class and “traditional Jewish values” (he includes a specific reference to the Golden Rule). The arguments offered by various commentators in favour of Israeli government actions in refusing to countenance Palestinian statehood bear an eerie resemblance to the justifications for slavery in past centuries. And today, Dimi Reider has described Netanyahu's insistance on using the term "Jewish State" at every opportunity.

As Andrew Brown has suggested, this is a conflict, not a problem, and conflicts have outcomes, not solutions. Either everybody is covered by the applicability of the Golden Rule or they are not. There is no middle ground available. If you take the view that the Golden Rule is universally applicable, then there is ultimately no compromise you can reach with those who would limit its applicability to their chosen people. You cannot condone their activities without accepting their principles.

To expect Israel to treat its whole population (and not merely its Jewish population) equally under the law is not to wish harm to a single Israeli or to a single Jew anywhere in the world. If you accept the universal applicability of the Golden Rule as the guiding principle of morality, there is no scope for antisemitism or any other variety of racism. Nor does expecting Israel to abandon its exclusivist principles in any way immunise Arab governments or political movements from criticism. Many Arab governments are unlovely dictatorships which, for all that they may preach equal protection, fall far short of those ideals in practice. Neither Israel’s nor the Arab world’s failures can be used as an excuse for each other.

Experience suggests that these kinds of conflicts can end up costing large numbers of lives, but that this is by no means inevitable. The apartheid government of South Africa was a pariah not so much because its human rights abuses were particularly bad (there were and are worse examples elsewhere), but because it enshrined unequal protection under the law within its constitution, thus putting it in the wrong side with regard to equal application of the Golden Rule. The demise of the apartheid government was achieved without widespread political violence even though violence was loudly suggested by some to be inevitable almost until the moment when the transfer of power took place. This suggests that an arrangement can be offered to those who practice exclusivist philosophies concerning the manner and the rate at which changes are made, in order to find a way of preventing such a large-scale military conflict with its attendant loss of life.

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