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20 February 2020   The Moral Devastation of the Continued Occupation (Part 2) - By: Alon Ben-Meir

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20 February 2020

The Moral Devastation of the Continued Occupation (Part 2)

By: Alon Ben-Meir
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* A version of this article was originally published on December 10, 2015. The changes from the original article to this piece below encompass the inclusion of Trump’s so-called “deal of the century”, which will only perpetuate the occupation. Sadly, the situation has not changed in the past four years, and given how the situation currently stands, I do not expect things to change anytime soon *

Four ethical theories—Kantian, utilitarian, virtue-based, and religious—demonstrate the lack of moral foundation in the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and especially in Trump’s “deal of the century”. In my previous article I discussed Kantian and utilitarian moral theories, and in the following I cover the virtue-based and religious theories as they apply to the occupation.

The theory of virtue ethics, whose greatest advocate is still Aristotle, says that an act is moral if it is performed as a result of having a virtuous character. 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, which Trump’s “deal of the century” effectively perpetuates, while having a major adverse effect on the Palestinians, also has a morally corrupting influence on Israelis themselves and massive adverse repercussions on Israel’s moral standing.

Virtue ethics recognizes the importance of acquiring the habit to act ethically which involves moral upbringing; as Aristotle is to have said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The occupation is not educating Israeli youth towards moral virtues, but hardening their hearts as they can live with regular prejudices, discrimination, and dehumanization against the Palestinians.

As such, the occupation fails to meet the principles of virtue ethics because it creates an environment which degrades the moral substance of the Israelis themselves. As a result, they continue to commit transgressions against the Palestinians without any sense of moral culpability.

One might argue from a certain Israeli perspective (i.e. the settlement movement) that the occupation engenders virtues such as national solidarity, social cohesiveness, loyalty, courage, and perseverance. While this may appear to be true on the surface, the occupation is in fact tearing the Israelis’ social and political fabric apart and undermining the conditions under which moral virtues such as caring, compassion, and magnanimity can grow and thrive.

Moreover, the longer the occupation persists, the greater the damage is to Israel’s moral character, and Israel will become increasingly disposed to compromising its fundamental values and ideals as a democracy committed to human rights.

Finally, the we need to consider the religious moral theory, which says morality is acting in accordance with what divinity commands from us. In this regard, 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.”

The first is the divine command theory, which states that what makes an action moral or right is the fact that God commands it and nothing else. The second theory, defended by Socrates, is that God commands us to do what is right because it is the right thing to do. In other words, morality precedes God’s will and is irreducible to divine command.

In the context of this ancient debate, the usurpation and annexation of Palestinian land may appear to be defensible on the basis of the divine command theory because if God requires us to perform any set of actions, then by definition it would be the moral thing to do.

Many orthodox Jews hold to the divine command theory, as they interpret the concept of “mitzvah” (good deed) first and foremost as “command,” the goodness of which cannot even be contemplated apart from the fact that this is what God has commanded us to do.

As such, those who take the Bible as the revelation of God’s commands use it to justify the concept of Greater Israel. As a result, they view the Palestinian presence as an impediment God placed before them to test their resolve. Therefore, their harsh treatment of the Palestinians becomes morally permissible because it is consistent with divine decree.

By adopting the command theory, they are ascribing to a position which has and continues to be used to justify acts which are blatantly immoral. The defender of this theory may counter that because God is good, he does not command anything which is immoral.

However, this argument is hollow because if morality is simply what God approves of, to say that God is good is merely to assert that he approves of himself and his own will. In this case, there is still no safeguard against the extremists who use the command theory to justify even the most heinous crimes. Furthermore, if the command in question satisfies a deep-seated psychological need—say, for a God-given Jewish homeland—then what humans ascribe to God eventually becomes ‘the will of God.’

Another problem with the divine command theory is that, as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz observed, it turns God into a kind of Tyrant unworthy of our love and devotion: “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 the good because it is good, what becomes clear is that any action must derive its moral worth independently of God’s will. In that case, the Israeli policy toward the Palestinians will have to be morally justifiable without reference to some divine mandate. We have already examined, however briefly, Israel’s policy in light of deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics, and found that it comes up short and fails to meet the basic requirement of these theories. Therefore, it lacks independent moral justification on which God’s commands could possibly be based.

Israel’s perpetual occupation, as Trump’s plan will certainly lead to, cannot be defended on moral grounds or in terms of national security. Israel can defend itself and prevail over any of its enemies now and in the foreseeable future, but it is drowning in moral corruption that the continued occupation only deepens. It is that—the enemy from within—that poses the greatest danger Israel faces.

* Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. - alon@alonben-meir.com

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