John Locke in Jerusalem
Written on the 300th Anniversary of the Death of John Locke

Michael J. Thompson



he year 2004 passed without any mention of the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke. But thinking about Locke and his contributions made me think almost at once of the conflict in the Middle East; about ethnocentrism, the role of religious identity and political identity; the ways that secularism and liberalism are unique in their ability to promote peace and social and political progress. Israel is touted as the lone democracy in the Middle East. When it is attacked, democracy too is being attacked. After 9/11 Israel has become a metaphor for what the United States has seen as a changed world: The claim of Israeli democracy has served ideologues of all kinds with different justifications for a variety of different policies. But irrespective of the rhetoric, the claim of Israel as being the lone democracy in the Middle East requires significant justification and it raises the question of exactly what democracy means in a global context where different peoples and ethnicities overlap and all too often degenerate into violence.

One of the things that political scientists examine is the phenomenon of political culture. The basic question of this kind of research is: How do political institutions operate in different cultural environments where different ideas about the state, law, rights and justice prevail? In the Middle East, individuals and parties that align themselves with secular, universalist, democratic traditions and political ideas have been slowly but assuredly eclipsed by the politics of ethnic particularism: a politics of group identity that trumps universal rights and therefore the rights of minorities or any other kind of “other.” There has been an erosion of the ideas and values of political liberalism with its emphasis on universal rights, a separation of religion and the government and an ethic of religious and ethnic tolerance, and a rise of the politics of ethnic particularism where the decisive factor of politics becomes religious and ethnic identity and the interests of the communities defined by these bonds. It is this tendency within Israeli political culture that is most distressing since it predates the active rebellion of Palestinians—something that began actually with the first intifada (uprising) in the late 1980s, an event that marked the first stirring by Palestinians in 30 years.

This does not mean to take away from the progressive elements of Israeli society which have advocated human rights, secularism and which have railed against a culture and politics of Jewish statehood and ethnicity. What does need to be pointed out is that the very idea of a state defined by religious and ethic identity becomes anti-liberal and therefore anti-democratic since it privileges a conception of politics which survives on the basis of exclusion. The erosion of liberal political culture in Israel has led, and continues to lead, to such a conclusion. And there should be no mistake about what is at stake: political culture is an issue of considerable concern because it is out of that mass of beliefs and values that institutions are rationalized, legitimized and redefined. Israel may in fact still possess liberal institutions and a fair amount of liberal notions within its political culture. But there is little doubt that the escalating conflict with the Palestinians as well as the internal conflict between secular and religious Israelis is pointing toward a new reality on the horizon: the demise of liberalism as a paradigm for Israeli politics, culture and society. The claim of Israeli “democracy” therefore needs to be subjected to more scrutinizing analysis.

Liberalism’s Enduring Contribution

The problems of cultural membership, and the particular form of solidarity that it entails, have always been seen to be at odds with ideas of liberalism—and there is good reason to see why this is the case. And it is important to point out that supposedly “liberal” ideas can be co-opted and, in effect, distorted by the politics of identity. In her book Liberal Nationalism, Yael Tamir argues that liberalism’s ideals of autonomy, free choice, and individual rights is in fact not irreconcilable with nationalism and the sense of belonging and loyalty to group identity that it entails. She sees the importance of liberal nationalism in its ability to reconcile the needs of cultural membership that individuals possess as well as the need for individual autonomy that liberalism puts forth. But what is becoming painfully obvious in the Middle East is that the emphasis on cultural membership and its various “obligations,” especially those of a nationalism grounded in ethnic identity, have become not only a barricade to the possibility of peace in the region, but also a cancer on the prospects of liberal democracy inside Israel itself. Once group identity is privileged, the suppression of the “other” becomes ever more possible and, to be sure, more probable. What thinkers such as Tamir have overlooked are the ways that ethnocentrism factors into national identity; the way that nationalism itself can find coherence and strength based on the denigration or devaluation of other nations; and the ways that nationalism feeds the most irrationalist and dangerous elements in politics and culture. What has become obvious by the end of the twentieth-century is that any form of politics which is grounded in ethnic identity and which gives privilege to that ethnic identity over that of universal citizenship and rights forfeits its ability to govern impartially and with any sense of democratic justice, especially in a time of national or regional crisis.

Liberalism is therefore not something that can find a neat affinity with nationalism, as thinkers like Tamir suggest. Quite to the contrary: what is radical and progressive about liberalism—and here I am referring to the kind of liberalism espoused by thinkers such as Locke and J. S. Mill, among others—is the way that it removes ethnicity or religious affiliation as a primary concern for political equality; the way that it universalizes rights by abstracting the individual from national, ethnic, racial and gendered categories and therefore separates these categories from the activity of the state and the content of its laws. Liberalism acts as a lever against pre-modern forms of hierarchy, status and superiority. It rails against these things because it promotes toleration, universalism and equality. It prevents the denigration of the civil rights of minorities by ensuring that equality is attached the category of personhood rather than on religious affiliation or ethno-cultural membership. Locke’s notion of liberalism came not only from the notion of a natural right to property, but—and in many ways even more importantly for present circumstances—the elimination of the ascripitive attributes of individuals from the application of political rights. Whatever criticisms may be launched against liberalism for its defense of property and its economic doctrines does nothing to diminish its purely political impulse and the salience it still retains in the context of racial and ethnic conflict.

What was universal in Locke’s liberal political theory was the category of the person—not male, Christian or of any particular social status. Locke’s Deism was profoundly important for his conception of liberalism and the notion of tolerance that it entailed: since God did not intervene in the affairs of men and was only a creator of first causes who had receded from the universe and its unfolding—this was standard Enlightenment Deism, invoking the notion of the deus abscondus that the Protestant Reformation had inaugurated—there was no reason to involve religion with the state or to allow different religious views to lead to different or unequal rights under the state. This became a standard argument during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth-century—indeed, Voltaire would make a very similar argument decades after Locke. This also reinforced the secular character of the state which leads, in more contemporary arguments, to arguments for pluralism: ethnic and racial minorities ought to be accorded equal rights because of their status as persons, not because of any other characteristic they may actually possess.

Whereas Locke’s doctrine would become a radical cry against both the church’s influence in government as well as feudal social arrangements and the forms of hierarchy of pre-modern society, his continued relevance can be seen in the way that his philosophy structured the relationship between the individual, the state and religious affiliation (which in modern terms can be conflated with ethnicity or race). Locke’s immediate concern was the various religious wars of his time—a similar concern of Thomas Hobbes decades before—but his ideas are not bound to their historical roots. Locke’s ideas about toleration were in fact not theoretical insights, spun from the abstraction of philosophy. The time he spent in the Dutch Republic—which was founded as a secular state allowing religious difference to flourish before the Calvinist church took power there—was crucial in forming his ideas about tolerance and the foundations of what we know now as the liberal political ideal of political equality. The conception of religious tolerance has broadened to become one of racial and ethnic tolerance in modern liberal democracies. But it is here that the roots of the cultural and political crisis of the Middle East can be glimpsed: the impossibility of true liberal democracy means not only the reversion to crude forms of nationalism or ethnic particularism, it also means the continuation of what the anti-liberal, Nazi political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt theorized as the centerpiece of all politics: the division between “us” and “them.” Coexistence becomes impossible and, in time, dialogue does as well.

Israel and Anti-Liberalism

An anti-liberal politics has gradually become the norm in Israel, and this translates itself into a crisis that affects both Palestinians and Israelis and their mutual interests in peace and coexistence. In political struggles, we are more often than not defined by what we oppose and this means that both sides are sliding increasingly away from a politics which encompasses the other to one which deliberately excludes the other. We are supposed to believe that Israel, being the only democracy in the Middle East, is under attack just as the West is by Islamic terror. But the problem is that Israel can only be classified as a Jewish democracy, not much more and this leads to the perpetuation and, in many ways, the intensification of the present conflict. In other words, Israel is a democracy that grants a specific group, Jews, legal and political priority over its Arab minority within its legal borders and, of course, the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, whatever the legalistic gains made by petitioning the High Court of Justice and its more recent, liberal leaning—especially the so-called “Barak Court”—Israel’s treatment of its own Arab minority has been less than democratic since the Court itself is weak with respect to policy and has little enforcement mechanisms available to it. Whether it is the seizure of Arab land in East Jerusalem or the As Zionism turns from an ideology of Jewish political autonomy from centuries of political, social and cultural dependence on others to one of political and ethnic tribalism, the chances for truly liberal—i.e., secular and without any form of ethnic orientation—political institutions become increasingly bleak.

What is needed more than ever is the resurgence of liberal institutions and ideas. The Sharon government’s policy of “disengagement” ought to be seen for what it actually is: the continued expansion of the state of Israel to encompass what a highly mobilized religious minority see as the “Land of Israel” (Eretz Yisrael). It is a policy that serves the ends of both extremist religious zealots as well as extremist secular ends of territorial expansion and national separation from Arab lands. The fuel for this broad policy has rested on the notion that ethnicity is somehow tied to geography and it is ethnicity—not land—that is primary in the Middle East conflict and it is Israel Zangwill’s famous slogan that Palestine was, for Jews, “a land without a people, for a people without a land” which links the way that ethnicity, land and politics are layered in the Middle East conflict.

There should be no mistake about the roots of the perpetuation of the current conflict: the secular Zionism of Sharon and many members of the right-wing Likud party is premised on the very idea of ethnic particularism and the identity of the state of Israel with the people of Israel. The classic distinction made by thinkers like Kant and Hegel between a political community organized by emphasizing the irrational bonds of blood, kinship, and common identity whether it be racial, religious or otherwise (Volkstaat), was contrasted with one organized by the universality of human subjects and held together by rational laws (Rechtstaat). The Israeli Volkstaat has slowly emerged as the prominent path for the future and this can only spell disaster for Israelis and Palestinians alike since it will breed nothing but continued resentment and separation, both distinct and long-term barriers to peace. The choice for both sides is becoming more painfully clear as time goes by: either to side with the liberal, universalist, secular character of the state and its laws which emphasizes rational discourse and deliberation or to choose to have political power fused to ethnicity and identity.

Indeed, whereas many of the founders of the state of Israel were of secular orientation seeing the newly born Israeli state as a chance for socialistic economic and political institutions, the present state of Israel sees itself less and less in touch with the western political ideas and traditions of many of its founders. The liberal tendencies within Israel have been weakening as the ideology of Jewish particularism has been gathering strength, especially from Jewish groups abroad (i.e., the United States). Only once the cultural imperatives of both Israelis and Palestinians are reoriented from particular interests to common interests can there be genuine improvement on this front; and such a reorientation rests on a transformation in political culture away from ethnic particularism and toward political universalism. All forms of political and cultural particularism lead to similar forms of counter-politics that are equally as narrow and eschew broader forms of solidarity and opportunities for dialogue—Israel’s continued exclusion of Arabs and the need to hold on to the anachronistic notion of a Jewish state has created the dimensions of the present Middle East crisis and its continuing pursuit of such policies will only deepen the rift between the two sides even more, allowing irrational and extremist voices to drown out those that are rational, tolerant and progressive.

Only a political order that is founded on justice and equality in universal and secular (i.e., non-ethnic) terms can, over time, solve the problems faced by both Israelis and Palestinians alike. The move away from political institutions grounded in such ethical imperatives can mean nothing more than perpetual violence and the erosion of any meaningful political life outside of mere survival. If Locke’s message was valuable over three hundred years ago, it is certainly more so today. Faced with the currents of globalization and stubborn ethnic particularism, Locke’s insights about equality and the political nature of the individual achieves an even greater relevance. Using the conflict in Israel-Palestine as an example of the relevance of the liberal ideas that Locke helped put in motion does not mean that they are limited to that context. From Iraq with its explosive, imbalanced mix of religious and ethnic identities to the Balkans and Indonesia, liberal political institutions and, perhaps more importantly, a liberal political culture will be the only way for the massive abuses and conflicts that have marked these places be overcome.

In Israel—a thoroughly modern nation in almost every other way—the stubbornness of its ethno-religious identity will continue to serve as an insurmountable obstacle to an enduring peace in the region. By turning away from the ideas of liberal democracy and the universal character of equality, individualism and rights that it embodies, Israel forfeits its ability to act as a progressive force within its own conflicted relationship with its Arab inhabitants who have legitimate rights in their own land. And whatever Zionism’s intentions twenty, thirty or even sixty years ago may have been, they are certainly not what they were when Martin Buber could write with genuine sincerity—if not naïveté as well—about the intentions of the Jewish migration to Palestine: “The more fertile the soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for them. We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them. We do not want to dominate them, we want to serve with them.”

Michael J. Thompson is the founder and editor of Logos and teaches Political Science at William Paterson University.