Conference Re-Cap: Truth & Identity - Jennie Han11-08-2011
Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Jennie Han, gives us an interesting look at the talk by Idith Zertal at the recent Arendt Center Conference. She examines how one's personal identity can sometimes interfere with our search for the truth.
I suspect that for those of us who made it to the end of the Arendt Center’s conference this past weekend, the final panel with Idith Zertal and her discussant, Norman Manea, stands out more as a heated debated about the character of Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian threat than an engagement with the theme of truthtelling. I want to put this discussion aside, however, and talk about what I took to be Professor Zertal’s main point about the nature of truthtelling. Underlying the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine question was, I think, a strong statement about what is required of us if we are to engage with one another as seekers of truth.
One might see Professors Zertal and Manea as speakers of two different “truths,” one of which is the Palestinian experience under Israeli occupation and the other, the Israeli experience of living with a terrorist threat.
As rational and fair as this opposition might seem, it does a grave injustice to the idea of truth and what it is to express a truth. Professor Zertal’s critique of the Israeli government’s use of the Holocaust as a symbol made powerfully clear that regardless of whatever a truth might be, it cannot be a personal identity. To justify, as the Israeli government does, the military occupation of the West Bank by an appeal to Israel’s identity as a nation born out of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, or to assert the authority of one’s opinion, as Norman Manea did, by invoking one’s identity as a survivor of the genocide does not tell any particular truth. Instead, it silences the truth and precludes the kind of thinking about one’s own position and ideas alongside those of others that is necessary for sound judgment and productive discussion.
Arendt locates judgment in the capacity of individuals to “think with an enlarged mentality,” which requires that one “trains one’s imagination to go visiting” (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, p. 43). Interpreters of Arendt usually emphasize the intersubjectivity of Arendt’s understanding of judgment, which defines the faculty by its capacity to transcend the individual thinker’s own specialized knowledge or ability to think. This aspect of judgment is undoubtedly crucial, and it allows Arendt to locate in the individual and his capacity for thought a faculty for public mindedness and worldly concern. In other words, in judgment, the world becomes a part of our individual selves and we, as distinct, thinking individuals, become a part of the world.
But what is taken for granted in this focus on the intersubjectivity of judgment is that individuals possess a mentality that is open to others’ visits in the first place. To experience the enlarged mentality that judgment demands, there must be minds out there that one can actually visit. Professor Zertal’s talk was not as an exhortation to the audience to feel the depth of the suffering of the Palestinian people or to confront the absurdity of the Israeli government’s perpetuation of a people’s suffering in the name of the past sufferings of its own people. It was, at the most basic level, a warning of the dangers, political and personal, that arise when we become so colonized by a particular identity that we are no longer able to imagine ourselves as having any feelings, interests, or desires beyond those dictated by this identity. An identity that is defined by a historical event necessarily excludes the particular: under the vastness and unspeakable catastrophe of the Holocaust, the individuals who died and suffered are transformed into mere instances of a grand event. And when one occupies an identity, one is not open to the visits of others, for one is little more than a representative of an external event that is, at this point, defined as much by those who would manipulate its meaning for political gain as it is by the historical fact of the event itself.
The political dangers of seeing a past catastrophe as an incontrovertible source of authority and accepting appeals to this past as tantamount to a divine authorization to act are tragically evident in the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and the continued occupation of the West Bank. The personal dangers were evident in phenomenon much closer to home: the absence of any real engagement and debate between Professor Zertal and her discussant and her audience, despite her best efforts to have such a debate. Neither the audience nor Professor Manea could step outside of his identity as a supporter of the Israeli military or as a supporter of the Israeli state’s stance on the Holocaust to see Zertal’s critique of the Israeli state as just that—a critique of the Israeli state and not a personal attack on Norman Manea or any audience member. When one understands oneself as an identity, one reduces oneself to a collection of ideas and concepts that have been created outside oneself, and there would be as much reason to visit this mind as there would be to travel abroad if every country in the world were identical in every way.
I think that the point of Professor Zertal’s talk was that in occupying the identity of the particular sort of Israeli Jew that the government wants one to be—one who accepts the unconditional authority of any and all appeals to the Holocaust—one loses oneself as a particular source of ideas and thoughts and effaces oneself as a particular place that others might visit, get to know, and debate and disagree with. Honoring the Holocaust does not mean that one must accept as legitimate whatever action is taken in its name. This is, Zertal points out, to dishonor the individuals in whose lost lives the Holocaust is much more than an abstract event or symbol.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of Idith Zertal’s message that we must imagine ourselves and others as more than mere instances of symbols or historical facts if we are to have any real political, philosophical, or personal discussion was made most clear by way of a negative example of a persistent refusal to see her as embodying anything more than an opposing side. It is possible that Professor Zertal herself helped to create the problem by focusing so much of her talk on a critique not of Israel’s appropriation of the Holocaust as a political symbol, but of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. While her main point was that Israel undertakes these policies in the name of the past, it was at times difficult to see past her particular political position and the strong emotions and political commitments it predictably incites. To the extent that Professor Zertal wants her audience to recognize the problems that arise from the politicization of particular experiences, lives, and positions, and views, even the appearance of aligning herself with a partisan position in this debate could undermine her project. And the audience and Professor Manea’s singular focus on her political views to the exclusion of any discussion of her fundamental critique might in fact be evidence of how Zertal might have undermined herself .
But if we are to take her principal message to heart and acknowledge Professor Zertal as presenting herself as one place that we might productively go visiting, we might come to a better understanding of how at least to think about and engage with others with respect to the question of Palestine and Israel. At her best moments, Professor Zertal embodied what it could mean to tell the truth in an age without any particular truths or facts to tell: she made herself and her thoughts and opinions available to others to visit. She did not hide behind the truth of statistics or figures, relying on their coercive power to do the talking for her. Such facts are undoubtedly important, but because of their supreme importance, I am not sure how significant the bearer of these facts is in relation to them. When we cannot rely on such facts, when there is little more than our own opinions, principles, interpretations, and judgment, we can only invite others to come visit and visit others’ opinions and principles in turn. What we take from the trip and what judgment we ultimately make of another’s mental home need not be one of agreement or approval. But without making the trip, each of us would remain each his own world and identity, unable to speak to or hear anyone else.