The Arch of Justice
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was oft quoted as saying, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I only know this because Barack Obama loved to quote it and credit King. But he credited him with uttering the aphorism. Evidently, the originator was Theodore Parker in 1848 who offered it as a brief ode to hope and a belief in ethical progress. As Obama and others have recognized, however – this became a major theme of his final presidential address to the nation – the arc only bends if the people stand up and make it swing down and touch the earth. Without that effort, justice shoots off to the heavens to become an icon of aspiration instead of a practical reality here on earth.
Given the recent American election, can people still believe this is true? Can it be true of the Middle East? Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what is the nature of that justice? And justice for whom?
Parker was a Unitarian, an abolitionist and, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist. Parker, like many before and after him, was especially influenced by the new Higher Biblical Criticism as those who followed were influenced by Source Criticism. He became convinced that the tales of dreams and prophecies of the Torah and of miracles and miraculous births of the New Testament lacked any truth value. He emerged from his spiritual quest as a naturalist, convinced that the divine was an intimate part of all of nature. What remained true in Christianity was its moral essence, the ethical teachings of Jesus.
Hence, he became a modernist. Religion required obedience to a higher Being. It required constructing a dependence on God and the institutions on earth responsible for conveying that message of obedience and even conformity with its rules. Morality, as Immanuel Kant had argued, was another matter and could not be reduced to religion. For moral principles were the sine qua non of behaviour without which there could be neither good nor bad. The basic principles of morality were a priori, as fundamental to the laws of human behaviour as gravity was to the laws of nature. They were transcendental preconditions of moral behaviour altogether and could not be distilled into religious directives. Morality requires right action and obedience to the conscience of the individual. Religion required obedience to an Other – God, the Church or an Authoritarian regime in a political system built on the same principles as religion while dispensing with God.
The attraction to authoritarian rule was almost as innate as conscience, but it was a propensity, not an a priori transcendental principle. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being, to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need.” But it was a planted feeling, one inculcated in both slave owners and their slaves, in religious leaders as well as their followers, in politicians who sought dominion and in citizens who sought an escape from the burdens and responsibility of freedom. When the heart is full of hope, divorced from personal effort, joy fills the air and a leader may be blessed. When that hope comes crashing down to earth, rejoicing turns to despair and the followers will seek to burn their fallen leader as an effigy. However, if one accepts that the whole world is divine, if one accepts that God lives within oneself, if one accepts that it is one’s responsibility and one’s responsibility alone to create the world as a living and vibrant moral universe, if one becomes convinced that this responsibility cannot be displaced onto another, then you have the premise for being both a moral and a responsible individual, two sides of the same coin.
It would be a theology that would be the counterpoint to authoritarianism so that even a religion as communitarian as Judaism would fall under its spell as liberal Jewish theologians became enamoured with the “autonomous self” as the only alternative to the authoritarianism of politicians and rabbis alike. The conviction of Theodore Parker became so pure that it even initially pushed him outside of even the pale of the Unitarian Church for a time before that church “canonized” him. Martin Luther King Jr. never went nearly that far. He was a communitarian in his heart and soul and believed in the power of his people, as Black Americans and as Americans of any colour or ethnicity. Individual conscience was never enough. One needed the power of the people to sustain oneself in battle and to provide the foot soldiers for that battle.
The issue was whether the people were to be lead by men of conscience or by reprobates, by liars, by those who were at base misanthropes, by men (perhaps even sometimes women) of no conscience, by men who fed off but showed utter disdain for the power of the people that they exploited in the name of attacking the institutional powers in place. Secular Protestantism was susceptible to seduction by the charms of a charlatan. And there were plenty around who offered to lead the people to greatness rather than to live under a brighter light, offered “our” power rather “theirs,” offered power at all rather than movement towards self-empowerment.
If the arc of justice is to be your guide, if it requires your effort to bend that arc towards the earth for the benefit of humanity, how does that help you in dealing with major international political problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is one thing to rely upon the metaphor as a guide for domestic politics and social organizing. It is quite another to use it in service of international negotiations. But it is very far from impossible.
First, it requires each party to recognize the Other, however inferior that Other may be in the power it holds, in fact, in spite of the weak position of the Other. It requires recognizing the Other as worthy of equal respect and dignity as humans. This applies as well to the recognition required by the weak party as well. They too must see the Other, not as an overbearing demon, but as a group driven by demons of insecurity and fears. But also driven by its own dreams and aspirations. Respect of each party of the other becomes a primary condition for reconciliation and peace.
Second, it requires not relying on outsiders to bring pressure and force to bear on settling the matter. Influence, certainly. But not external authority or power. The mantra that the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can make peace must be a fundamental building block.
Third, it requires realism. If the arc of justice is to bend towards the earth, then the justice required is the justice on the ground, the justice that takes into account the needs and desires and aspirations of all of those wherever they live in the territory of the conflict. The mistake in Gaza was not the military withdrawal of the Israelis, but moral withdrawal of the Israelis, the decision to abandon not just leave Gaza and, thus, also to surrender to an evil principle of Judenrein. Because the Palestinians made a contractual deal virtually impossible and told the Israelis, in effect, to get out without any arrangements, this does not excuse the moral lapse. I myself participated in that lapse in supporting the total withdrawal. In retrospect, it was wrong to say, “To hell with you, we’re leaving.” At the same time, the political practices that are moral must be as realistic as they are idealistic. Escape from responsibility will not allow a party to achieve freedom. It is a very tough balancing act.
How does one retain responsibility while surrendering authority to the Other and granting the Other the right to empower itself? That is the task, not a premise. That is the goal of a peace agreement, not the foundation for one. How does one create and continue to engage in a positive sum game wherein there is both true mutual recognition and where the power of the Other is allowed to grow as a release and expression of the energy of a people while ensuring that this energy is not a threat but a partner, a complement rather than an antagonist. Much easier said that done. That is why the task of peace is so difficult. But it will never be made easier with the intervention of external superegos which remove the ethical and political responsibilities from the parties themselves to forge a peace. And each party must recognize its own shortcomings in such a quest.
That is what is fundamentally wrong with Resolution 2334. It attempts to pre-empt that discussion. It raises the status of the Palestinians quite justly, but only by demonizing and derogating Jewish Israelis and their position. Not only are realities ignored, not only are established principles torturously arrived at set aside, but the supporters of the Resolution – quite aside from the myriad of deficiencies – have surrendered to the belief that external parties must not only be helpful to the parties, but weigh in on the debate so that in terms of power, the weight clearly still remains with the Jewish Israelis that cannot be offset by all the abstract moral weight and economic clout put on the other side of the scale.
When that is done in bad faith, when that is done without loving-kindness, when that is done in the name of helping the so-called underdog, it is done without respect of the power and recognition the Palestinians truly deserve as a self-governing people responsible for who they are and what they want to become. It is done by ignoring the authoritarian institutions and corruption which impede their self-development. It is done by ignoring the long strides Palestinians have made in managing their own security. And it is certainly done by ignoring the realities of Jewish Israel and denigrating its motives and its position.
Given these parameters, it is why the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference are so superior to those of Resolution 2334. All states, including that of Israel, should recognize Palestine as an aspiring state. That is what Palestinians want. That is what they should have. That is what only a minority of Jewish Israelis let alone a minority of all Israelis want to prevent. The majority of Jewish Israelis accept the goal of creating a Palestinian state side-by-side Israel.
Let me offer a concrete example. If an outsider determines in advance that Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, a determination that was never previously made in either an agreement between the parties or even by an authoritative international body, that is an illegitimate move. If a country wishes to do so in recognition of realities that do not pre-empt the discussion – such a moving an embassy to West Jerusalem – that may be an imprudent act given the timing, but it is not an undercutting action. One can even argue such an act is needed to make a statement about reality.
That is why the Paris Peace Conference was far superior to the UNSC Resolution 2334 even as it endorsed that Resolution, but did so in a way that offered some re-balancing. It was an influence conference, not a peace conference. Neither of the disputants were represented or there. The participants reaffirmed their support “for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference endorsed negotiations between the parties as “the only way” to achieve enduring peace while recognizing that current trends (on both sides) on the ground, not only the expansion of settlements but “continued acts of violence,” impede progress towards peace. The conference endorsed “meaningful, direct negotiations.”
Resolution 242 was not superseded by another UN resolution, though all UN resolutions were acknowledged. Instead, the conference endorsed a negotiated two-State solution that would meet the legitimate aspirations of both parties for both sovereignty and security “and resolve all permanent status issues on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 and 338.” If a framework was helpful in such negotiations, the Conference tipped its hat to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians as well as Israelis were urged to be governed by international humanitarian and human rights law. Instead of using international humanitarian law as a club, let alone the threat of economic coercion, the participants expressed a readiness to offer its support where needed, including economic aid and economic incentives as positive inducements.
One item emphasized was an offer to facilitate civil society dialogue between the two parties in contention. The focus was not on external pressures, but on strengthening civil society and direct dialogue between and among citizens from both sides. The conference was clear in its strictures against steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees. Though Netanyahu could wave away the results of the Paris Peace Conference as irrelevant and futile, and the Palestinians could welcome the conclusion by ignoring the strictures against their own positions and practices, reassurance came for me from a surprising quarter. Though he did not express any regret for not vetoing Res. 2334, John Kerry reassured Netanyahu that there would be no further UN Resolutions before Trump took over and no international action following from the Peace Conference. The timing of the conference and the results seem more intended to send a message to Donald Trump rather than to either Abbas or Netanyahu.
As I interpreted the Peace Conference, it went some way to offset the destructive elements of UNSC 2334, but the concluding statement lacked the legal authority of the UN. There were also other efforts on the ground that proved to be more promising and could serve as a precedent for partial deals rather than a comprehensive one. After six years of negotiations, a concrete deal was made on sharing water resources between Israel and the West Bank, including of a Joint Water Committee to work out the details of implementation.
However, on the international stage, the fallout from Resolution 2334 inviting unilateral actions on the international stage can be very destructive of efforts to implement a peace deal. I will deal with those consequences in my next blog.