Faced with a serious clash in Jerusalem between two communities divided on the subject of religion, the Roman Empire’s man of the hour, its colonial governor Pontius Pilate made the bold decision to suppress his own opinion and not to intervene in the debate. As a patriotic polytheist, he had no time to waste on disputes concerning monotheistic truth. Instead, he washed his hands before the raging mob. He let those who held local power and who shouted the loudest have their way. His action, dating from two thousand years ago, eventually spawned the proverbial expression, “To wash your hands of the affair.”
When a far more violent crisis broke out in Jerusalem last week, US President Joe Biden demonstrated his own firm resolution to steer clear of an escalating conflict that had begun in East Jerusalem and has now reached beyond Israel’s borders into Lebanon and Jordan. Biden has taken up his post at the washbasin to avoid having to speculate about the truth.
White America’s Burden in the Holy Land
In a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Wednesday, Biden reaffirmed the position traditionally taken by all recent US presidents that consists of deferring to Israel’s every wish. Netanyahu appreciated Biden’s compliance. He reiterated to the media the logic the Biden administration endorsed: “They have upheld our natural and self-evident right to defend ourselves, to act in self-defense against these terrorists who both attack civilians and hide behind civilians.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Unquestionably true, especially when the assertion corresponds to one’s self-interest
When a modern politician bandies about the adjective “self-evident,” it inevitably evokes Thomas Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As a child of the European Enlightenment, Jefferson built his reasoning on philosophical grounds that appear beyond the scope of Bibi Netanyahu’s commitment to self-interested expediency. What Jefferson described as self-evident were “truths.” In contrast, Netanyahu evokes “rights” he considers self-evident, specifically the right to violate international law when Israel feels threatened. Jefferson’s “truths” are the equivalent of axioms in mathematics. They stand as true without being derived logically from any other truth. Netanyahu’s “rights” are self-declared rather than self-evident.
Jefferson modeled his thought on the political philosophy of the English philosopher John Locke, a proponent of government by consent of the governed. Locke insisted on the government’s requirement to respect its citizens’ “life, liberty and property.” Jefferson extended the meaning of “property” by calling it “the pursuit of happiness.” Even non-property owners in a democracy could thus be deemed citizens. (That of course excluded slaves, including Jefferson’s own slaves, who existed as the property of property owners).
Most modern politicians have lost all interest in philosophy. They prefer to evoke half-remembered philosophical concepts and use them as meaningless rhetorical placeholders. In his attempt to sound Jeffersonian, Netanyahu expediently skips an important step in Locke’s and Jefferson’s political reasoning: the philosopher’s insistence that a government’s legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed. That ultimately means that political rights exist not as self-evident principles but as an effect of the law, which is the expression of a social and political consensus serving to limit rather than expand the government’s capacity for aggression.
Netanyahu takes the Jeffersonian idea of a self-evident truth about political systems, turns it on its head and transforms it into the inalienable right of the government to violate the rights of the people under its jurisdiction. Concerning self-evident truths, Locke wrote: “I may warn men not to make an ill use of them, for the confirming themselves in errors.”
Some justly accuse Jefferson of cheating, having glossed over the paradox of slavery while asserting that all men are created equal. Netanyahu’s insistence on Israel’s “self-evident right” to self-defense places him closer to Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of passive obedience to governmental authority, than to Locke. Hobbes’ emphasized the idea of “sovereignty by institution.” It supposes citizens voluntarily yield their rights to the institution and cannot contest its sovereignty.
Bibi naturally assumes the Jews have transferred their rights to his government. He also expects the Israeli Arabs — citizens who theoretically, but not in practice, have equal rights with the Jews — to do the same, but they now may be revolting. As for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, the only rights they can claim are derived from international law, which the Israeli government routinely flouts.
The current strife in Jerusalem began with the cynical, supposedly legally justified expulsion of Palestinians, who had been living in their homes in East Jerusalem for decades after the forced reassignment of residency that followed the Palestinian exodus in 1948. This demonstrates how far from the self-evident truths of Jefferson and Locke the supposedly democratic Israeli government has veered. Property even for Arab citizens of Israel is a purely relative concept. As for life and liberty, the Gazans, in their open-air prison, have no hope of enjoying such rights.
When the Israelis destroyed the building housing the offices of AP and Al Jazeera in Gaza City on Saturday, they demonstrated their disdain for the liberty of the press. Americans and the US government should be appalled at this violation of what they deem to be sacred “constitutional” values. But it has become evident — if not self-evident — that the Biden administration has no interest in promoting a moral reading of the events in Israel. Calling for a voluntary ceasefire is admirable but will have no effect. When he expressed his “hope … that we will see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later,” he appeared hopeful but helpless.
In his victory speech in November, Biden insisted that the nation’s vocation was to “lead by the force of its example and not the example of force.” Faced with the current crisis, he is neither showing an example nor leading, but rather following Israel’s example of leading by force. Many are wondering whether the very idea of leadership by the United States hasn’t lost its former meaning.
In February, clownish UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson effusively announced that “Joe Biden has put the United States back as leader of the free world in a fantastic move that has helped the West to unite.” Johnson was reacting to the speech in which Biden promised to return to the Paris Climate Agreement and move forward with the Iran nuclear deal. The return to the climate accord took place effortlessly but appears to be of little consequence. As for the Iran deal, negotiations have been engaged but possibly too late to expect any enduring success.
The Biden administration’s anemic reaction to the growing crisis in the Middle East demonstrates that, rather than confirming the nation’s status as “leader of the free world,” it would be more apt to call it “the follower of an apartheid state.” A 2017 article in The Atlantic pointed to the persistent but absurd habit reigning in the media of referring to the US president as the “leader of the free world.” The idea of dividing the globe into the free and the unfree worlds theoretically disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union. This time around, what has disappeared is the very idea of American leadership. Fewer and fewer countries believe in it. Biden’s hesitations and inaction on various important issues illustrate why.
Martin Indyck, writing for Foreign Affairs, offers a realistic analysis of the stakes and tactics underlying the superficial game the various concerned parties have been playing in the current crisis. He concludes that “the most basic instincts of the Biden administration are correct.” This is reassuring for the administration, but Indyck may not have noticed the long-term deterioration of the world’s perception of US leadership. He may be mistaken when he sees little risk in simply throwing up one’s hands at yet another Middle East crisis and hoping for a return to “normal.”
Pontius Pilate’s disinfected hands played a role in launching the religion that would eventually dominate Europe. Still, Pilate’s Roman Empire thrived for another three centuries before one of its emperors, Constantine, decided to turn it over to the Christians. How long does Biden expect his empire to last?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.