Avvenire, Rome, December 22, 2005

by Andrea Lavazza

The Case: An English intellectual mocks the anti-terrorism laws in an essay legitimating Palestinian terrorist violence

The highly esteemed British thinker is not anti-Semitic, but he denounces the 'aggression' of Zionism.  He issues the challenge that against this action by Israel, the Palestinians have the right to resort to the use of force, even against Israeli citizens. Ted Honderich's endorsing in London of Arab self-defence also challenges Blair on the matter of civil rights. Two years ago the same professor scandalised Germany with a book on 9/11. The book was withdrawn from sale, but Habermas defended it.

He is a celebrated philosopher, with the aplomb of a British country gentleman, and bearing a vague likeness to Bertrand Russell, with whom, in a rare manifestation of protest many years ago, he took part in a sit-down in Parliament Square in London. Now Ted Honderich wouldn't mind ending up in prison, a new Socrates, as a result of violating ‘unjust’ laws of a state. He surely does not want  to drink hemlock like the Athenian master, or to die in a cell like the scandalous psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich -- but rather to be like Russell himself, who in 1918 had a comfortable six months in jail for opposing the war.

Honderich, true to the old Labour Party rather than New Labour, offers a personal challenge to Tony Blair and to his anti-terrorism proposals, which will issue in punishment for every kind of defence offered on behalf of violence. The new laws would make the case of Honderich a little more similar to that of the less elevated negationist David Irving, arrested recently in Austria.

At the age of 72, the Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, author of a couple of dozen much-cited texts, and an authority in the field of studies of determinism and free will, is now ready to publish, in April, his new book, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., the latter being the date of the terrorist attacks in the heart of London. The English publisher' lawyers are at work checking the manuscript, for a reason you will come to understand, and the book has not yet been publicized.

It is a reflection on moral responsibility, and also on democracy and the central role of equality in it -- sacrificed today, as it seems to Honderich, with serious repercussions for liberty. But the hot part of the book will be the thesis (much discussed and very debatable) that the Palestinians have the moral right to fight the Israeli occupier with all possible means. Honderich's political argument is that the Jewish State has full legitimacy within the frontiers of 1967, but the expansionism that has enlarged its borders to the detriment of the Arabs is unacceptable. From this arises a philosophical argument: the Palestinians do not have any other possibility than armed self-defence. This is asserted as a matter of fact, and hence of a moral right.

But this does not imply the exaltation, and much less the incitement, of terrorism. Here Honderich distinguishes liberty of expression -- the liberty, Honderich remembers, that the American Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter asserted, in connection with Sacco and Vanzetti. The judge permitted free speech advocating the use of force even in order to bring about political change. This is the freedom that the British government is minded to suppress.

The United Nations in its Declaration of Human Rights also speaks of rebellion against tyranny and oppression, if only in the last resort. The author emphasizes this, while while not dwelling on the the specifics of the Middle East situation and the fact that the suicide bombers often aim at the unarmed civilian population without even an explicit warning.

All this may lead you to forecast a repetition of what happened two years ago in Germany on the publication of the previous book After the Terror, the one that Honderich gave over to an analysis, from an equally provocative perspective, of the attacks on the Twin Towers. He remarked on the omissions of the rich world with respect to the poor world, taking as an example that 20 million lives that could be saved in just four African countries. This was on the lines of the most famous radical intellectual, Noam Chomsky. Also in the book was the criticism of ‘neo-Zionism’, i.e. the presumed aggressive version of Zionism.

Reviewers were not scandalized in England and the United States (the book was published by university publishing houses). Then two newspapers raised the case, in Canada and in Frankfurt. The press campaign convinced Oxfam, one of the more active international NGOs, to refuse £5,000 in royalties that Honderich had destined for medical assistance in the occupied Territories  -- the money was subsequently accepted by another humanitarian organization.

In Germany the controversy caught fire. The then director of the Centre for Studies of the Holocaust in Frankfurt, Mischa Brumlik, accused him in the Frankfurter Rundschau of being a ‘philosopher who hates the Jews’. The debate increased. One of Honderich’s meetings was presided over by tens of policemen. To his (lukewarm) defence came Jurgen Habermas, who stated he had recommended translation of the book to the publisher Suhrkamp -- which nevertheless then withdrew the volume, 3,000 copies having already been sold.

The author denied being anti-semitic, having married a Jewish woman, and having declined to visit Germany until the fall of The Wall out of respect for the victims of the Shoah. Then Abraham Melzer, a Jew himself, for a period resident in Israel, offered to republish the book (with some modifications, for example, about an exaggeration of the number of Russians who emigrated to the Middle East) for the readers of Melzer Verlag, very critical of Jerusalem.

Will Honderich the philosopher-activist all the same end up in hand-cuffs? More probably, out of prudence, the publishing house will convince him to some adjustment of his new book. Or the book will first see the light in the United States, by way of Seven Stories Press.

Some of Honderich’s theses -- in particular the postscript to the 2002 book in which he proceeded to speak of humanitarian terrorism -- although they are philosophically sophisticated, turn out to be unacceptable. In any case, they pose a dilemma that will stay with us for a long time. How are we to conduct ourselves in a free society with respect to the same arguments, advanced not by a soldier but by an intellectual who claims the right of free expression?

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