Poor Thomas Kuhn . Superzionist, a.k.a. Yoram Hazony, author of the quirky The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, has drafted the author of the seminal but flawed classic of the philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to explain why everyone hates Israel.
I’m late in getting to Hazony’s essay, Israel Through European Eyes which he e-mailed to his fans last July 14. But it just reached me, through a series of forwards long enough to man every team in the World Cup. Like all of Hazony’s writing, it displays great erudition, has lots of footnotes, and makes some obvious points while parsing them all wrong.
Behind the excess philosophical baggage, Hazony says something that has been said before—that the antipathy that Europe, and especially Europe’s political left, displays toward Israel is deeply rooted in the Holocaust. Hazony correctly notes that Zionism and the European left learned two disparate lessons from Hitler’s genocidal program. Zionism claimed that no one would defend the Jews if they did not defend themselves, while the Europe emerged from World War II horrified at the death and destruction wrought by chauvinistic nationalism and concluded that national feelings were too dangerous to be left to politics.
The Zionists established a Jewish state, while the Europeans sought to create a pan-European political framework that would make it difficult for the fanatics of any one European nation (but those of Germany in particular) to persecute outsiders and to seek to impose hegemony on the entire continent. So we have Israel, and we have the European Union.
But Hazony can’t just say that. In keeping with his neoconservative heritage, it’s not just enough to make a political point. The issue has to be presented as the product of a fundamental philosophical error—because in the neocon universe, its ideas, more than people, that are the actors in history. Hazony offers an extensive explanation of Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms, but I’d suggest that anyone who wants to understand it look elsewhere. Hazony likes Kuhn because Kuhn argued that certain basic sets of ideas, which he called paradigms, inhabit different universes of ideas and therefore cannot be compared or weighed against each other in any rational way. Hazony claims that the European and Israeli views of nationalism and the nation-state are two such incompatible paradigms. Israel defends itself, and Europeans accuse it of Nazism because Israel defends Jews and not humanity as a whole.
But that’s a false dichotomy that applies only to the most ideologically hidebound of Europeans and Israelis. Auschwitz doesn’t have to have just one meaning. Most Israelis outside Hazony’s Shalem Center instinctively understand that being a Zionist does not require one to view the Holocaust solely as a crime against the Jews, and most Europeans do not view it as only a crime against humanity, rather than one against the Jews. The claim that the Jewish people deserves and needs its own nation-state does not contradict the claim that nation-states can be hazardous in the wrong hands. One can believe in the nation state as an essential political framework for preserving and advancing national cultures and protecting distinct groups, while acknowledging that power-hungry rulers and intolerant national majorities have and continued to use nation-states to oppress outsiders and minorities. Nation-states are not an absolute category; there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones build into their laws the proper checks and balances needed to ensure that national pride does not turn into xenophobia and oppression.
Israel has real enemies in Europe, people who accuse the Jewish state, and only the Jewish state, of being heir to Hitler. But when Europeans deplore Israeli settlement of the Palestinian territories, or the botched handling of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, they do not automatically reject the claims of Zionism. Defending Israel against its enemies requires us to assert the fundamental justice of the Zionist cause—but also to work to fight racism, messianism, and political shortsightedness in Israeli politics and society. This is the important work being done in Europe by left-wing, pro-Zionist groups such as Britain’s Engage.
Kuhn’s theory of paradigms, in its bare-bones form, is almost as over-cited as the ostensible Chinese curse about living in interesting times. It can be roped in to apply to nearly everything, a sure sign of its weakness. But it’s especially unsuited to application to politics because of its categorical structure. In Kuhn’s schema (again, taken simplistically), every scientific endeavor belongs either to one paradigm or another. Nothing is in between. You can make an argument that this is a valid way of looking at the natural sciences (although I think even there it is very problematic). But in politics there are, by and large, no hard categories. A nation-state is not a hard category. There are nation-states of all different kinds, and Europeans of all different kinds, and Zionists of all different kinds. Politics is the art of finding balance between competing and often irreconcilable values. In the real political world, philosophical clarity that ignores contingencies can lead to extremism and disaster.
The irony of Hazony’s essay is that Kuhn’s philosophy leads inevitably in a direction that Hazony would deplore. Hazony wants to assert ultimate truths, one of them being the Jewish people’s right to cultural and political self-determination. But Kuhn’s view of science leads to relativism—to the assertion, made most explicitly by Paul Feyerabend, that all systems of knowledge are equally valid. Notably, most working scientists think that Kuhn’s paradigm theory doesn’t really accord with the way they pursue their work—it’s too stark and simplified. Most working Zionists should be equally skeptical about Hazony’s theoretical scaffold.