The Letter Wars
The horrific war in the Middle East has unleashed a paper war of public letters, where academics, artists, and students sign letters and statements supporting one side or the other. An early letter from student groups at Harvard argued that Israel was fully to blame for the Hamas terror attack on Israel:
"Today's events did not occur in a vacuum. The apartheid regime is the only one to blame. Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for 75 years.”
Hundreds of business leaders signed a letter taking the opposing view, offering full support for Israel.
"Over the last 24 hours, leaders from the venture capital community convened to address the recent terrorist attacks against Israelis that have taken place. We stand united in our support for the nation of Israel, and we condemn the senseless and barbaric acts of terrorism that have occurred in the past week. While we hope and pray for peace in the region, we also acknowledge Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas, and all other terrorist organizations who threaten the very existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people."
At Columbia University, students also issued a letter in support of Hamas and its attacks on Israel. Then a group of faculty members posted a letter supporting the students and arguing for the need to “recontextualize” the brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas on October 7, 2023, “pointing out that military operations and state violence did not begin that day, but rather it represented a military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years.” These faculty thus seek to justify Hamas’ attacks, writing that “One could regard the events of October 7th as just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies, or as an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation, something anticipated by international humanitarian law in the Second Geneva Protocol.”
A second letter, also signed by hundreds of Columbia faculty, responds, arguing that, “there is no excuse for Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israeli civilians, which was an egregious war crime.” This second letter adds, “We are horrified that anyone would celebrate these monstrous attacks or, as some members of the Columbia faculty have done in a recent letter, try to “recontextualize” them as a “salvo,” as the "exercise of a right to resist" occupation, or as “military action.” We are astonished that anyone at Columbia would try to legitimize an organization that shares none of the University’s core values of democracy, human rights, or the rule of law.”
What lies behind these warring letters? Why do faculty and artists and others sign such letters? And why did one Columbia professor, Professor Bernard Harcourt, sign both opposing letters from faculty at Columbia?
One thing is clear, signing these letters is popular. It gives a sense of acting without actually doing much of anything. Instead of thinking for oneself, articulating one’s own views, and making an argument, signatories to such letters simply join a collective statement. Instead of standing by oneself, one stands with a crowd. The ubiquity of letters of solidarity raises the question of when, and if, one should make a practice of signing such letters.
Hannah Arendt once signed a public letter. It was a letter to the New York Times protesting a visit to the United States by Menachem Begin to raise money for his newly formed “Freedom Party”. Arendt, along with Albert Einstein and others, signed a letter that brought to bear facts and arguments to show that Begin’s party had participated in a massacre of Palestinians, that it was “ultranationalist,” and that it supported “racial superiority.” The letter was designed to present “a few salient facts'' and urge American Jews not to financially support the new party.
The letter Arendt signed was not, as so many of the letters circulating today, a form of virtue signaling. It was not about joining a mass movement. It was written and signed by people who avoided mass actions and were calling upon people to look at the facts and to stop and think before supporting a movement they found to be duplicitous and dangerous. The letters at issue today are filled with slogans of solidarity. There is very little of value in these letters, which is why they only are read insofar as they cause a scandal. How much better off would our public discussion be if every person who signed such a letter were to actually take the time to research the facts of the situation for themselves and write down their own considered opinion. Instead of a war of opposing slogans, we would actually see a plurality of opinions, recognize nuances, and begin a thoughtful debate. That is not what they letters offer.
Most recently, a group of so-called philosophers has issued a new letter. Seyla Benhabib was asked to sign the letter, and she refused. We are publishing her response not because we agree with everything in it, but because it is a serious and well-thought out response of a leading member of the Arendt Center community. Benhabib writes:
I owe it to my friends and to myself to get our ideas clear. Let me first say that ever since I was a student activist in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 1960’s, I have supported the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and as I have reflected over the Israeli-Palestinian and also the Arab-Israeli conflict — and the two are not the same — over the last half century, I have advocated sometimes a binational state; sometimes one state, sometimes a federated structure.
My objection to your letter is that it sees the conflict in Israel-Palestine through the lens of “settler-colonialism” alone, and elevates Hamas’s atrocities of October 7, 2023 to an act of legitimate resistance against an occupying force. By construing the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of settler-colonialism, you elide the historical evolution of both peoples. Zionism is not a form of racism, though the actions and institutions of the State of Israel towards the Palestinian people of the occupied West Bank, the refugee camps and, of course, Gaza, are discriminatory on the basis of nationality, not color, and reflect the continuing state of emergency that exists between Israel and its neighbors.
Historically, many Israeli leaders, including none other than Ben Gurion himself, had pleaded for the return of the territories Israel conquered in 1967 because they feared that it would change the democratic and Jewish character of the state. At the time there was no Palestinian AuthorityAuthority, but diverse Palestinian liberation movements emerged in the course of the 1970’s such as the Popular Front for the Liberal of Palestine, led by Goerg Habash, and the Palestine Liberation organization, led by Yasser Arafat. Palestinian nationalism, just like many other nationalisms, including Zionism, emerged in the crucible of the struggle for recognition by its opponents. Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms mirror each other, and at the end of the day they have to live cheek by jowl and share the territory with one another.
There is no sense of history in your statement nor any sense of the tragedies that befell these peoples, and the many missed moments when another future seemed possible. Although you refer to “the conditions that produce violence,” you do not mention that Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish extremist and Anwar Sadat, after his visit to Israel, was killed by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological progenitor of Hamas. You write: “the people of Gaza have urged allies worldwide to exert pressure on their governments to demand an immediate ceasefire. But they have been clear that this should — this must — be the beginning and not the end of collective action for liberation.” In endorsing these demands, you also endorse Hamas’s position as the supposed vanguard of the Palestinian “liberation struggle.” This is a colossal mistake. Hamas is a nihilistic organization which treats the civilian population of Gaza as its hostage. The leader of the organization, Ismail Hanniye, sits in a luxury hotel in Qatar, while children on the streets of Gaza die. Yes, as Amnesty International has said, “Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world,” but this is also due to the fact that Hamas is an exterminationist organization, whose Charter endorses the destruction of the State of Israel. You also implicitly seem to support this when you write that, “If there is to be justice and peace, the siege of Gaza must be lifted; the occupation must end, and the rights must be respected of all people currently living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, as well as those of Palestinian refugees in exile.” Amen to that! but do you see Hamas a political organization dedicated to “respecting the rights of all people currently living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean”? This defies history and logic. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel; I do not support that. Do you? What moral or political logic is guiding your reasoning here?