|BANNING A BOOK
STATEMENT BY PROF. DR. JURGEN HABERMAS
This is a translation into English of an article by Habermas, the doyen of German philosophers, that appeared in German in the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. It is a translation made by Mr. Anthony Alcock. Habermas's article appeared on 6 August, a day after the publication of an open letter in the newspaper in question, from the director of a Holocaust centre. That letter declared that my book After the Terror is an anti-Semitic work, and demanded that the publisher withdraw it from sale. Habermas finds nothing in the book to justify the charge of anti-Semitism, however embarrassed he may be to be in the neighbourhood. You can also read his piece in German. On 7 August the publisher announced that it would not be reprinting the book, in effect that it was taking it off the market.
A SHIRTSLEEVES TRACT: WHY I RECOMMENDED THIS BOOK
by Prof. Dr. Jurgen Habermas
Micha Brumlik’s letter gave me something of a fright. I recommended Honderich’s book to Suhrkamp and so am partly responsible for a publication which, according to Brumlik, should be “taken off the market immediately”. I think my friend Brumlik has lost his sense of perspective if he thinks that After the Terror is on a par with Möllemann’s pamphlet and Walser’s novel (the publication of which I opposed at the time).
When I got Honderich’s typescript at the end of last year, I had just come back, feeling depressed, from my annual visit to America. I felt depressed by the climate of public opinion in that liberal country, where the government was preparing for war against Iraq even in the media. It was appealing to the anxieties felt by a people who, not surprisingly, had been deeply shocked by the horrendous attack of September 11, while the voices of the opposition were almost entirely silent. I breathed a small sigh of relief when I saw that the typescript of my respected English fellow-philosopher brought quite a different perspective to bear.
The text reveals the passion for justice felt by an old social democrat who has thought long and hard about the real and actual consequences of a monstrously uneven distribution of the world’s goods for the life times, life chances and life histories of those utterly powerless and exhausted peoples of the marginalized sections of the world and now sees a chance to shake up the social conscience of the “average citizens” of the western world.
The writer, who time and again strongly condemns what was done on September 11, wants to draw the attention of the reader to the context within which this criminal act came about and to the moral significance it may have for us. This does not mean that he is trying to unravel the complexities of the act. The subject of the book is indicated by the chapter heading “Our Part in September 11”, which has a moral-philosophical meaning. Honderich asks:
"Is it possible to suppose that the September 11 attacks had nothing at all to do with the omissions of America and of ourselves of which we know, nothing to do with Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Sierra Leone? That these were not a necessary context of the particular intentions having to do with Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia? In thinking about it, remember that the attacks on the towers were indeed attacks on the principal symbols of world capitalism."
In this connection Honderich spends some time reflecting on the conflict in Israel, because he considers the fact that it has remained unsolved for several generations, “rightly or wrongly”, as one of “the main causes of international terrorism”. Unfortunately he reaches a conclusion within the framework of a moral philosophy which I do not share: he does not distinguish his political evaluation of Palestinian terrorsim from the moral justification of it.
This statement has since given rise, as I understand from a footnote, to a discussion in the USA with which I am not familiar. Brumlik also criticises factual inaccuracies. I can say nothing about these. But, above all, Brumlik raises the charge of anti-semitism against Honderich. So I read the German version of book once again yesterday evening, as I say, with some trepidation. I know Honderich only slightly from one professional meeting. I can find nothing in the text to justify Brumlik’s charge.
Sure, it’s a shirtsleeves work by an academic philosopher to reach a wider public. The one-sided sketch of the history of that conflict, which began, according to Honderich, with the foundation of the state of Israel is a long way from satisfying the claim to historical accuracy. Philosophers who are not historians are always tempted to tailor examples to suit their needs, because they are not interested in individual cases but in the analytical core of a more general problematic. This is even truer of analytical philosophers, who are even further removed from the disciplines of the humanities. But there are generalizing statements that made me groan slightly when I read them: "Having been the principal victims of racism in history, Jews now seem to have learned from their abusers."
Sentences like this can always be used for anti-Semitic purposes, even against the author’s intention, if they are taken out of context without any attempt to explain them.
Political statements depend to a great extent on context. Unlike with academic statements you can ask: “Who says this ? When ? Where ?” and “Who’s he talking to ?” At the first reading I could hear Honderich’s voice in my head. He lives in a different contemporary context from ours and he is addressing a different public. Brumlik’s intervention now makes me think less of the context of the author than of the context of the German reception of the book. The Iraq war polarised attitudes here in Germany also. Sensitivities grew. Those who think the policy of a government that can be voted out wrong and, if the policy is pursued, fateful are soon accused of anti-Americanism. And this suspicion soon leads, via the Bush-Sharon association, to a further suspicion. I can well understand the reasons and fears of an apparently large section of our Jewish population. The friends I mean have, like many Poles for different historical reasons, greater trust, when the chips are down, in the protecting force of the Americans than in a Germany that has just worked its way, with great difficulty, out of the greatest political-moral catastrophe in its history.
If I have offended these feelings by my recommendation of this book, I am sorry.
Original German version
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