Continuous Argument Within a Tradition

After the summer’s war in Gaza, so much ink has been spilled wringing our hands over the situation in the Middle East, and the state of utter non-dialogue that pervades the global Jewish community on this topic, that I largely remained silent for lack of anything to contribute to the deluge.  However, as someone who believes that a fix to the latter problem may well be the only way towards a solution to the former, I want to explore the issue from a different perspective.

I just finished reading Alastair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a dense but really important work of political and moral philosophy.  There are many aspects of modern society which MacIntyre sees as leading directly to our present morally-deadlocked state, where we cannot productively talk about almost any issue of importance with any hope of making progress.  However, there are three areas that receive special attention, and one of them bears directly on the issue of Jewish dialogue about Israel/Palestine.

That is the matter of “tradition” — the concept, for MacIntyre, of interacting in some way with where we came from, even if that interaction largely consists of rebellion.  This ties directly into a second of MacIntyre’s three major characteristics of a virtuous society, that of “practice” — for MacIntyre, a practice (like gardening or chess) can only be properly understood historically.  But to understand a specific practice historically necessitates gaining an understanding of the larger tradition(s) of which it is a part.

I therefore think that MacIntyre would agree that to have any meaningful conversation about Israel/Palestine today, we have to begin by charting a narrative history of what all of the given traditions involved in the conflict have inherited as their histories.

However, that is not all.  While MacIntyre may be helpful in understanding the larger contexts in which such discussions must happen to be productive, what really stood out for me in After Virtue in this context is what he said traditions need in order to continue to exist:

“So when an institution — a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital — is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is.  Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (pg. 222, emphasis mine)

I hear this as such a deeply Jewish statement, that I almost expected a footnote citing the Talmud as an example of such a vital tradition.  Judaism has prized, as part of the legacy of our tradition, the notion of such continuous argument.  And yet, it is nowhere to be seen in our generation when speaking about the State of Israel, with the current exception being the Open Hillel movement.

Speaking about his experiences at the recent Open Hillel conference, Peter Beinart echoed MacIntyre when he said:

“The young American Jews at Open Hillel who are flirting with anti-Zionism are not anti-Semites. (Although, of course, some anti-Zionists are). They are merely doing what young people always do: Challenging settled assumptions based on a different life experience. They don’t need the American Jewish establishment’s legitimization; that establishment is illegitimate to them. What they need, in the best Jewish tradition, is to be argued with.”

So it’s not just that, because we pay lip service to the virtue of vital argumentation, we as a Jewish community should figure out how to speak productively about Israel/Palestine. It is simply because if we do not, we will cease to be a vital tradition, at least concerning the modern manifestation of Jewish political power.


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