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Israel's occupation is morally indefensible

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 2 June 2017


I have long maintained that 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. Unless Israel embraces a new moral path, no one can prevent it from unravelling from within only to become a pariah state that has lost its soul, wantonly abandoning the cherished dreams of its founding fathers.

There are four ethical theories—Kantian, utilitarian, virtue-based, and religious—that demonstrate the lack of moral foundation in the continuing occupation, which imposes upon Israelis the responsibility to bring it to a decisive end.

The first moral theory is deontological ethics, whose greatest representative is Immanuel Kant. According to this theory, consequences are irrelevant to the moral rightness or wrongness of an action; what matters is whether the action is done for the sake of duty or out of respect for the moral law.

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Kant provided several formulations of the moral law, which he refers to as the categorical imperative; for our purposes, what is most important are his first two formulations. The first is the principle that morality requires us to act only on those maxims we can universalize. As he puts it, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In short, never do anything that you couldn’t will everybody else do at the same time.

The question is whether the Israeli occupation is a policy that can be universalized and pass this test of moral reasoning. The answer is clearly no; the policy of occupation is rationally inconsistent, as it requires Israel to exempt itself from moral and political norms that the rest of the international community recognizes (and which serve to protect Israel itself). Israel is making an exception of itself – which is the capital sin, according to Kant, as in effect Israel is saying: ‘We don’t have to live by the same rules as everyone else.’ This is evident from the fact that Israel denies the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and justifies that in the name of national security, even though the achievement of absolute security would invariably render the Palestinians absolutely vulnerable.

Whereas Israel has agreed to a two-state solution, it continues to usurp Palestinian land, thereby violating international agreements which Israel is signatory to (UN Resolution 242, the Oslo Accords). In doing so, Israel is clearly defying the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which as Kant showed, requires us to honor our agreements and contracts. That is, Israel is acting on a maxim or policy of breaking its agreements to serve its self-interest, which cannot be universalized without contradiction because then the institution of reaching international agreements cannot be sustained.

Although many countries break international contracts, that does not affect Kant’s argument as he knew full well that people lie, cheat, and steal. His concern is with the principle of morality and what it requires regardless of whether these requirements are in fact met. By maintaining the occupation, Israel is flouting the moral law while expecting the Palestinians to uphold the same norms.

The second formulation is to never treat another person merely as a means, but always also as an end in themselves. In other words, what Kant is saying is that as free rational beings who can act in accordance with morality, each of us possesses intrinsic worth which implies that we must respect the inherent dignity of each individual.

In the case of the Palestinians who are under occupation, Israel is treating them 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.

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The second moral theory is Utilitarianism, which in its modern form originated in England with the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In contrast to Kantianism, this theory places all emphasis on the consequences of our actions. It states that an action is morally right if it produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

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?

In spite of the fact that Israel takes extraordinary measures to enhance its security, the occupation is in fact undermining the security of the state, as is evident from the repeated bloody clashes. Moreover, if Israel were to extend its moral considerations beyond its own people to include the Palestinians, then the policy of occupation still fails on utilitarian grounds even more acutely.

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About the Author

Dr. 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.

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