Postscript to a German Book-Banning -- A Reply to the Absent Professor Micha Brumlik, About Zionism, Neo-Zionism, Palestinian Terrorism, and the Prejudice of Semitism

by Ted Honderich

This is a slightly edited version of a what contained a few lines of direct quotation from Professor Brumlik, which kind of quotation from personal communications is not unknown in academic publishing. Still, if this quotation does not begin to compare with crimes against humanity that are the subject of this postscript, or with lesser offences, it is better avoided, as a good German journalist has pointed out to me. Professor Brumlik can choose his public words for himself -- and have my help in getting them heard.
(1 August 2010)

    In 2003 my book After the Terror in its German translation was condemned as anti-semitic by a professor of education at the university in Frankfurt, Micha Brumlik, also the director of an institute for the study of the Holocaust. The next day the famous German philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote in the same liberal newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, that the book was not anti-semitic. However, he wrote so condescendingly as to distance himself from something charged with anti-semitism -- and also as to make it incomprehensible why he himself had secured its translation by the distinguished publishing house, Suhrkamp.

    The book was then banned by the means of being withdrawn from sale by Suhrkamp. There then appeared a piece by me in the Frankfurter Rundschau stating that Professor Brumlik should be sacked by his university for violating academic principle. There followed a 'firestorm' in the German media -- a few hundred pieces of writing or mentions, tv from England, radio, etc. Also riot police for a lecture in Leipzig arranged by the distinguished and courageous German philosopher Professor Georg Meggle.

    After the Terror was then republished in translation by a different German publisher. He was and is Abraham Melzer. He is Jewish, German, and Israeli. His further distinctions include acuteness and personal bravery.

    Another book by me, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist Wars: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... came out in Britain and America in 2007. It contains the same notable propositions as After the Terror.

    These propositions are that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism within historic Palestine against neo-Zionism -- the latter defined as the taking of at least their autonomy from the Palestinians in the last 1/5th of their historic homeland. Their struggle against neo-Zionism is as justified and sacred as that of Zionism itself -- the project of founding and preserving a Jewish homeland in the 1948-67 borders of Israel, with all of the actually necessary defence of that homeland.

    In July 2010 a German translation of the new book was to be published, by the same German publisher, Melzer. There would be a publication-day discussion of the book in particular, or of its subjects more generally, or a general debate or discussion of Palestine. It would be in Frankfurt, where the publisher is located, maybe at Frankfurt university. I got in touch with Professor Brumlik, of course out of mixed motives, one of which was to get a hearing for the book. I asked him to take part in the meeting. He could just take a tram. He declined. But we had convivial email exchanges.

    The meeting went ahead, for three hours. It was spoken to by me, by Professor Meggle of Leipzig, and by Professor Moshe Zuckermann, the sociologist, historian and philosopher at Tel Aviv University. Many things were clarified by Meggle and Zuckermann and by a vigorous audience.

    Professor Brumlik's reasons for not taking part in the meeting, and what is to be said of them, and something they imply, are the subject of this small essay.

    The first of his reasons in his emails for not participating, I take it, is the judgement that he is opposed to the intentional killing of innocents, or perhaps of non-combatants. The distinction is not made. Such killing, we are to understand, is always wrong, indeed always unspeakable -- which fact is an obvious one, in no need of any supporting reason. Professor Brumlik's manner of speaking of the judgement suggests the past doctrine of ethical intuitionism, the direct apprehension of indubitable moral truths.

    Put aside the matter of whether and how this opposition is a reason for not engaging in public discussion, of course discussion as distinct from incitement. What is to be said of the judgement against ever killing innocents itself?

    Anyone wanting to make it, as everyone does, certainly including me, faces a clear difficulty. It is familiar. It is that the intentional killing of innocents or non-combatants, in the only clear and settled understanding, including the legal understanding, is action of which the foreseeable consequence is the death of an innocent or a non-combatant. By this understanding, all wars, such as the war against Hitler and fascism, include the intentional killing of innocents. It needs no saying in this day of Afghanistan. So too do typical struggles to establish or enlarge states, say the state of Israel, include the intentional killing of innocents.

    I take it that Professor Brumlik is no absolute pacifist, and that he at least justifies the war against Hitler. I suppose he somehow justifies Jewish terrorism at the time of the founding of Israel in 1948. He now justifies war in defence of Israel in at least its 1948-1967 borders. It must seem, then, that he does not suppose that intentionally killing innocents is always wrong, that there is a universal truth, despite what seemed to be his first judgement in the matter. Is killing innocents only wrong in most circumstances? Which ones?

    I do not know what he believes and must seek to defend. He could have explained if he had come along to the meeting in Frankfurt.

    I am prepared to suppose there are, so to speak, basic propositions in any morality. I have one, a certain principle of right and wrong, of which you will be hearing a bit more. I also have what we all have, reactions and perceptions in particular cases. But I have no idea at all as to the consistency Professor Brumlik might attempt to produce by reflection, say, on the differences between Jewish terrorism in 1948 and Palestinian terrorism now.

    Does he have the idea, perhaps, that all killings of innocents or non-combatants are wrong, but that some have some other justification, perhaps of greater realism, or deeper, or true to human nature, or more rooted his history? Well, that would be remarkable, since judgements as to right and wrong are always understood as summative or all-in judgements, judgements that take into account all reasons for and against, final verdicts all things considered.

    But what I mainly have to say is that much explanation is needed of the position that all intentional killing of innocents is wrong, always unspeakable. No one has ever given such explanation. No one has ever explained why killing one innocent is wrong in order to save the killing of a hundred -- or to prevent the denial to a whole people of the great human goods. Those are not mere questions for undergraduates in moral philosophy. No one has ever given, either, anything remotely like an adequate defence of any conception of intentionality other than foreseeable consequences. Maintaining it exists is typically subterfuge, often subterfuge in a vicious cause. Supposing this killing has not been part of all war is innocent and in fact inane.

    Professor Brumlik departs from what can seem to be the simple position, the intuition of a moral truth that all killing of innocents or non-combatants is wrong, the pretended fact that this is a kind of fact that needs no argument. He departs from this intuitionism or whatever and does cite and repeat an argument.

    It is the familiar utterance of the philosopher Immanuel Kant that we must treat all others not only as means but also as ends in themselves.

    That is an utterance that continues to appeal to some philosophers and others. High obscurity usually does. But it has never, to my knowledge, been given determinate content. It has never, that is, been clarified into a principle that enables anyone to come to an argued conclusion in a matter of dispute. Perhaps there are Kantian moral philosophers who half-imply that the utterance -- it is no more than that, not an articulated principle -- issues in a defence of neo-Zionism. There plainly can be Kantian moral philosophers on the other side who use it to say a word for Palestinian violence against neo-Zionism, say against the massacre of Gaza in the aid of neo-Zionism.

    The Kantian utterance, to my mind, is like a good deal else in being an expression of a moral attitude that in fact is indeterminate or inexplicit. The attitude does not begin to make clear, even to try to make clear, what is to be done when it seems that each of two sides can be said not to be treating the individuals on the other side as ends as well as means. It is nothing so clear as another of Kant's declarations, in favour of the retribution theory of punishment, and more particularly to the effect that an island people, if they were dissolving their society and leaving their island forever, would have one final obligation, to execute any murderer in their prison.

    But perhaps Professor Brumlik, having written books on various subjects, has a way of giving useful sense to Kant's utterance about ends and means. If so, he might have done something to improve the level of discussion of neo-Zionism in Germany. He might have come along to the meeting and done Germany and the rest of us that service. He might have provided Angela Merkel, the German leader, with clear reason for her alignment of Germany with Israel, and, it seemed, with neo-Zionist Israel. Unfortunately he was absent.

    Professor Brumlik, with whatever intention, had a third thing to say in his emails. A remark was directed against the common idea that terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong. The remark was that the 9/11 attack on America was carried out not by 'the weak' but by affluent young men of what we might call the middle class.

    I doubt that he would advance this consideration as a major one or even a minor one in serious discussion of neo-Zionism and Palestinian terrorism. Perhaps he would, and if so, there would be no difficulty whatever in replying. I will not dignify it by attention here. The truth of the consideration about affluent young men, if true it is, remains trash.
    Perhaps it is his fourth reason for not participating in the Frankfurt meeting that is most important. For him, he says, it is impossible to debate certain moral dilemmas because of a certain fact -- the German past. One such dilemma, connected with the philosopher Peter Singer, is whether it could be right to end the lives of infants who have Down's Syndrome. Professor Brumlik says that in this matter there is the shadow of National Socialism and its euthanasia. Another debate into which he would not enter in Germany, he says, is the use of torture to save the lives of others.

    More generally, it is his conscious rational decision, he explains, not to support public events, such as a meeting or a debate, which serve to form a climate of opinion such that actions that are illegitimate despite being somehow understandable.

    What that comes to, in brief, is the proposition that the danger of a German return to fascism, a return to the Nazis, is such that it is wrong to engage in debate on the subject of neo-Zionism and Palestinian terrorism with someone who asserts the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism against neo-Zionism within historic Palestine.

    The weakness of the factual premise of this line of thought, what is very nearly the absurdity of the proposition of Germany going back to Hitler, is indubitable. I suppose Germany is less likely to become fascist in the foreseeable future than any European or indeed any other society and state. There is about as little force in the idea that critical discussion of neo-Zionism in particular, that leading ideology and movement of some but certainly not all Jewish people, and in particular discussion of the right of the indigenous people of historic Palestine to resist neo-Zionism, is likely to lead in the direction of significantly greater anti-semitism in Germany and what goes with it.

    Professor Brumlik adds a fifth item. It has to do with the work of the American philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn. Since Kuhn's work, according to Professor Brumlik, we know that scientists, and maybe philosophers, live in certain 'paradigms'. The reference is to ruling paradigms in the history of science. Something like this may be the case, notes Professor Brumlik, with respect to he himself and me.

    Kuhn did not think anything simple about the truth or falsity of ruling paradigms in science, let alone paradigms about right and wrong or in ways of thinking about right and wrong. I am sure he would have favoured discussion between people with different views as to right and wrong. If not, he would not be an authority to be cited in this matter.

    To come towards the end of this essay, it is my own feeling that Professor Brumlik has no decent ground whatever for his condemnation of Palestinian terrorism. Certainly he has provided none. Perhaps his books contain a ground that would impress me, but I see no book listed whose title promises this. He could have come to the meeting and given me some guidance and references.

    As for my own argument, it has to do with the Principle of Humanity. This is concerned with bad lives, lives that are deprived or frustrated in six great human desires or goods. These are a decent length of life, a bodily or material quality of life, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, goods of relationship, goods of culture. The Principle of Humanity is as follows.

    The right thing as distinct from others -- action, practice, institution, government, society, possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information is the rational one, in the sense of being effective and not self-defeating, with respect to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives.

    It is clear and determinate, no invitation to self-deception and worse. It is more capable of support, out of our human nature, than any other principle. It is owed to the logic of ordinary intelligence on which good philosophy is a concentration. That is to say it is a concentration on clarity, consistency and validity, and completeness. It has no false pretensions left behind by what progress there has been in moral philosophy. It does not suppose that the relationship between fundamental moral principle and particular moral judgements is simple.

    The argument for the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism in the land of which they are indubitably the indigenous people does of course have more to it than a fundamental principle. It has in it factual premises, more difficult to establish than the principle, notably about the rationality and necessity of terrorism. It has in it reflection on the nature of moral rights, derived from the nature of legal rights.

    The argument also has in it a definition of terrorism, and a defence of the definition. The definition of terrorism is (1) killing and other violence, (2) smaller-scale than war, (3) political and social aim -- the aim of a people? (4) against national or international law, (5)  prima facie wrong. This evidently includes state terrorism, and entails a definition of terrorist war, which is the same but larger-scale.

    You will know there is more to be said on this and much else. There is more and different to be said on Zionism, Neo-Zionism, 9/11, Iraq, the 7/7 terrorism in London, Afghanistan, and the bestiality of what has been done to Gaza. There is more to be said on selectivity in horror. There is more to be said of the necessity of mass civil disobedience in Germany and England, and of Col. Rainsborough of the 17th Century civil war in England, he who said "For really I think the poorest he hath a life to live, as the greatest he...."

    For more of all this, you must go elsewhere, perhaps first to the audience hand-out for the talk given in Frankfurt. For German readers, there is also the book published on that day.

    I come back now, at the end, to Professor Brumlik.

    It is my feeling and judgement that in place of full and articulated argument in support of his condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, there is something else. There is a different kind of explanation of his condemnation.

    His resistance is not argument, not logic. It is something else. It is the opposite of the prejudice of anti-semitism. Anti-semitism is prejudice or hostility against Jews in general. It is viciousness against them, cheating against them, denying their humanity. Semitism is prejudice or hostility in favour of Jews in general and against others. The two prejudices feed off one another. Semitism too is viciousness, cheating, denial of humanity. If it has not had the awful effect of anti-semitism, it has had a comparable effect on the Palestinian people. In its consequences for them it has been vile.

    It is typically a prejudice that in connection with Palestine is concealed by way of some proposition or other, typically to the effect that the Palestinian problem is difficult and complex. The problem is not difficult at all, incidentally, but in fact simple. What Israel can rightly and perfectly safely do is abandon neo-Zionism, as a book by one of many honourable and acute Jews maintains -- The Case Against Israel, by the philosopher Michael Neumann.

    The prejudice of semitism is also typically concealed by way of some proposition about recent events. Professor Brumlik indicates that he does not approve of the recent massacre in Gaza, the killing of parents and children in a prison camp by their unspeakable captors. This does not change my mind about his motivation at all. I would like to hear from him an unequivocal declaration about the simplicity of the Palestinian problem.

    Of course my belief that Professor Brumlik is a proponent and victim of racism and racial prejudice is may be a mistake. He may not be a fellow made less than courageous by a kind of self-doubt, a doubt that he has only prejudice to speak. Had he made his way to the hall in Frankfurt, I might now have a better idea as to his attitudes and what reasons he can give for them. He might have educated us all a bit. He might have shown me that one of my truths is trash. But he did not take that opportunity.

    The Principle of Humanity, to return to it, is like all such principles. It is an attitude, something with desire in it as well as ordinary truth. It is a moral truth for you if it gets hold of you. It is an attitude against, among other things, convention. It is against the convention of accepting as reasonable only what is conventional. It is an attitude that is unconstrained by a kind of realism, by absurdity as to what is possible and what is necessary, absurdity that is the servant of selfishness and self-interest in all its strength and variety.

    In the present case, then, despite a small doubt, the principle issues finally in a certain repetition. The Goethe University in Frankfurt, and in particular its Faculty of Education, should reconsider its employment of Professor Brumlik. He should not be Professor Brumlik. The university and the Faculty of Education should give no place either to anti-semitism or to semitism in its professoriate. Germany has left behind book-burning, and mostly left behind book-banning, and has embraced the idea and ideal of inquiry and debate. A principal university of Germany and a faculty of it should act on that idea.

    Perhaps he has something to say, indeed much, against this judgement. Having missed the meeting at which he might have said it, he can say it now. Given the commitment of the Principle of Humanity to the free expression and consideration of opinion, I for one would listen to and consider what he has to say, and give it publication.

Further reading: Frankfurt audience hand-out; Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., Continuum, 2007 (U.S edition titled Right and Wrong, And Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., Four Stories Press, 2007); translated into German as Humanitat Und Terrorismus, Semit Edition, 2010; After The Terror, Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press, 2003, translated as Nach Dem Terror, 2002, Suhrkamp, and Melzer Verlag, 2003; Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (Pluto, 2005);  Stephen Law, ed. Israel, Palestine, and Terror (2008); papers etc at

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