Peter J. Haas: Crossing The Line! : A Conversation of the Issue of Israel Studies and Jewish Studies Faculty Support of BDS Against Israel- A Moral Perspective

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A Conversation of the Issue of Israel Studies and Jewish Studies Faculty Support of BDS against Israel

A Moral Perspective

Moral Philosophy is the academic endeavor dedicated to adducing descriptions of particular acts as right and wrong. The description of an act as right or wrong ultimately draws on adjectival dichotomies such as good vs evil, just vs unjust, selfish vs universal or even divine vs demonic.


Coming into the modern period, moral philosophy developed along two tracks, both attempting to replace revelation or Church teaching as the foundation for moral behavior. One such development, deontology, was given its classical definition by Immanuel Kant and was based on the notion that there is an objective “ought” out there that defines what is right for us to do. For Kant this had to do a kind of reasoned understanding of human obligations which included, among other things, a commitment to universalizability ( that is, that any rule I make has to apply to everyone everywhere in equal measure, including myself). For Kant, such commitment to the reasoned and universalizable carried with it the sense of duty to what he termed the moral categorical imperative. This duty was incumbent upon the individual regardless of consequences or even one’s personal moral or intuitive feeling.

The other stream of modern moral thinking was Utilitarianism, most often associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This approached ethics as action to be judged on the outcome or consequences of certain actions, sometimes reduced to the simple formula of the greatest good for the greatest number. Obviously this approach was fraught with the in effect insoluble problems of determining how to quantify various “goods” measured against various “harms” as these applied to various affected populations. The calculus here obviously becomes infinitely complex. The practical issues of such Utilitarian, or “consequentialist” moral thinking rendered this approach as philosophically rich but of little real-world value.

What both share is a conviction that there is in principle an OBJECTIVE content to ethics that can be adduced through the rigorous application of reason and logic. In other words, the common denominator of modern moral philosophy, whether of the deontological or the utilitarian sort, was the conviction that, having thought through the issue with proper detachment, one can arrive at a correct, true and generally recognizable reading of what one “ought” to do in a given situation. It is important to keep in mind that this “ought” is an absolute. It is truly what one should or should not do.


These “modern” notions of ethics as representing an absolute, whether derived at through consequences or a duty to a categorical imperative, were already under question by the middle of the nineteenth century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche – to name two of the more prominent names – both “relativized” the moral absolute by arguing that ethical claims are rooted in certain relationships, be these economic (Marx) or power (Nietzsche) or whatever. Ethics moved to being broadly speaking “situational” or contextual. This does not mean that all ethics now becomes totally relative. It does mean, however, that what anyone group regards as truly moral depends on the specifics within which the moral question arises. It is not only the what, but the who, when and where. To take a classical example, a French nobleperson would conceivably have a very different notion of the good and the right as compared to say a French peasant. In short, modern ethics with its moral absolutes defined in rarified philosophical considerations was giving way to a “post-modern” ethics in which the particularities of each situation and its actors became part of the moral equation. There was no longer an absolute imposed from the outside.

Contemporary moral philosophy is based on this transcendence of the modern discourse of absolute oughts and is predicated on the “moral turn” as defined by Jacque Derrida and especially Emanual Levinas”, as having occurred in the 1980’s or so. The focus of current “post-modern” moral thinking is not on adducing the “objective” and impartial content of what “ethics” demands, but on establishing the proper relationship with the other, or the “Other”. It is a matter of negotiation between the parties involved. The premise is that it is the other who imposes a moral obligation on me, just as I do on the other. Under this understanding, the ethical happens when I meet the other not as totally “other” and alien, but as another moral agent who has claims (and obligations) as regards me. In other words, it is the relationship of me and the other, facing each other seriously as moral agents that creates the moral moment. It is of course assumed that the moral commitment on my part to the other is matched symmetrically by the commitment of the other to respond to me. As Buber might put it, the moral emerges from an I-Thou relationship, not an I-It one.


In light of this contemporary or “post-modern” understanding of ethics, the BDS movement, insofar as it claims the moral “high ground” fails on at least two significant grounds.

1. While open to the claim of the Palestinian Other; it is not open to the claim of the Israeli “Other”. That is, it reverts to a modern paradigm of one Truth and so a dichotomous, one might say Manichaean relationship. By this I mean that if one side is just or good, then the opposing side is, by definition, unjust or bad. Hence, if the cry of the Palestinian Other is moral; it follows without remainder that the Israeli side is ipso facto the opposite, that is, immoral. It is a sort of zero sum game. The irony here is that this entirely contradicts the “post-modern” turn and reverts to the discredited moral philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The post-modern understanding of morality as relationship is suppressed in favor of, frankly, a colonialist and triumphalist attitude that there is only one Truth (capital “T”) and I have it, and my duty is to impose it on you. In violation of post-modern thinking, the narrative of one side is privileged over the moral claims of the other.

2. The second “post-modern” moral failure of the BDS movement is even more pernicious, it seems to me. By proposing BDS, the movement in fact reverts to force and violence (in some sense) as opposed to relationship and discursive interchange. This is of course bound up with the colonialist turn mentioned above. In response to what it sees as the immorality of the imposition of the powerful (in this case the Israelis) onto the powerless (in this case the Palestinians, or the Arabs or the Muslims), it reverses the poles in an attempt to impose its view on the Israelis on behalf of the Other. While this is often couched in terms of only allowing the Palestinian Other to be heard, it in fact represses the Israel voices and privileges a select Palestinian voice. This failure is compounded by the resort to the language of non-violence. Certainly isolating, boycotting and vilifying the Other is an act of violence by other means. The BDS movement thus papers over rhetorically its own breach of post-modern, post-colonial ethics, an ethics it itself invokes.


As we all know, discourse, moral and otherwise, can (and in fact very much does) take place between Israelis and Palestinians on various levels. This actual “post-modern” discourse is ironically being ignored, if not downright repressed, by the BDS movement in the name of the very ethics it claims to uphold. This reversion to an earlier, colonialist and power based approach not only runs counter to this new understanding of the moral moment, but in fact actively denies and undermines it. In a very profound sense, then, it seems to me, that the BDS movement is based on a deep hypocrisy. There are of course various reasons we can use to account for this – political one-upmanship, anti-Semitism, whatever. The bottom line, however, is that the use of force to impose one’s morality on another runs counter to the very principles the academic left largely claims to own. They need to be called on this.

Peter J. Haas: Crossing The Line! : A Conversation of the Issue of Israel Studies and Jewish Studies Faculty Support of BDS Against Israel- A Moral Perspective

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Peter J. Haas

Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies

Director, The Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies

Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Ohio



  • Modern History of The Middle East



  • Western Religions ( Judaism, Christianiy, Islam and their Interrelationships )


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