Never Again: The Imperative of Ethical Zionism

At this opportunity of my first entry with the Times of Israel, I would like to thank the editors for placing their trust in me as a contributor to their platform.

Today I hope to examine and establish a working theory of “Ethical Zionism” as a categorical moral imperative. My intent is to establish this in as few and basic terms as possible, before proceeding, in future posts, to apply this theory to various practical scenarios that the State of Israel has encountered in recent history, may encounter in the future, or is presently contending with. While outlining the basic philosophical argument behind this concept may seem abstract and impersonal, I view this as a necessary preliminary step to furthering the discussion of Israel’s national aspirations and moral obligations.

Let us begin with “Never Again.” The phrase “Never Again” has, over the past few decades, become iconic of perhaps the most universal conception of Jewish culture, notwithstanding its close association with Zionism. Indeed, at times it seems to be the one thing that we can all agree on: That the Holocaust was bad, and that it should not happen again. While this axiom enjoys widespread popularity, it has unfortunately not translated into a workable and practiceable framework for ethical behavior, resulting in a world in which we are seemingly as ambivalent as ever toward the suffering of our neighbors. On the prescriptive level, the most direct application of the concept would seem to suggest a responsibility incumbent on nations to intervene in defense of human rights across territorial boundaries. In practice, this rarely occurs, as can be demonstrated by the many instances of genocide and other crimes against humanity that have been committed, often with impunity, since then.

What, then, does this concept we all ascribe to really mean, and how should it inform our behavior in practice? In this post, I intend to argue that, far from a simple platitude or a tool of identity politics, “Never Again” represents an actual categorical imperative that is compatible with and derived from Kantian ethics – and that, consequentially, it also represents a real and viable standard that we should hold our government to.

Under Kantian ethics – one of the foundational theories of Western philosophy – we encounter the concept of the “Categorical Imperative” as the descriptor of ethical behavior. In summary, an “ethical” behavior is one that we should want applied universally – or that is “Universifiable” – and not only to our given circumstances. [1] This theory is well illustrated by John Rawles’ conception of the “Veil of Ignorance,”[2] a descriptive exercise whereby the ethical legislator must dictate the rules of society from a position of artificial ignorance of their own personal status and circumstance. Since the legislator does not know if they are male or female, black or white, rich or poor etc., it behooves them to establish the system of governance that will most thoroughly protect and benefit them under the worst case scenario – in other words, to govern based on only categorical, rather than subjective, imperatives.

Seeing as the imperative of “Never Again” arose from a particular shared Jewish experience, it could be easily dismissed as a subjective imperative, rather than a true categorical imperative; i.e., that we make such a demand of the world only on the basis of our own phenomenal experience as the victim, without accounting for broader noumenal axioms that might justify the inaction of foreign powers in their own roles under similar circumstances. Here I contest this viewpoint: If anything, the Jewish experience in the Holocaust should be seen as the embodiment of Rawles’ Veil of Ignorance, wherein the Jewish people truly found themselves in the hypothetical worst-case-scenario on a national level. If this is the “point of origin” for determining and governing based on categorical imperatives, it stands to reason that “Never Again” represents the purest form of ethical prescription, as it is the standard adopted by the weakest to protect the weakest, thus constituting a clearly universifiable principle.

Bearing this in mind, we, as Israelis (assuming the Jewish experience and culture to be integral to the shared identity thereof, though this can be discussed separately), must ask ourselves: How does this concept of “Never Again” interface with the ideology of Zionism, upon which our country is founded? After all, as a form of nationalism, Zionism would seem to champion the preservation of the national “self” over defense of the foreigner. Indeed, some would argue that Zionism rests on the premise of a national responsibility to protect the members of the Jewish ethno-religious group being born of the presumed ambivalence or antipathy of foreign powers to our safety and wellbeing, as outsiders to their societies. Nationalism ostensibly holds the political interest of the group above that of the global society by distinguishing and prioritizing the localized society over the global [3], so how can Zionism coexist with the seemingly globalist categorical prescription of “Never Again,” as formulated above?

Here I should pause to note that I consider myself to be an ardent Zionist and nationalist, and that I see no contradiction between these concepts and the ethical argument presented above. The nationalistic establishment of the welfare of the localized community as a categorical imperative – or, “Patriotism,” as one would have it – can be just as easily derived of Kantian ethics, since it is expressly an interest of the weakest member of society to have their cultural identity acknowledged, their communal rights preserved and their option to defend such identity and rights recognized and respected universally. And if nationalism and, consequentially, Zionism are seen as universifiable concepts derived of Kantian ethics, then it follows that they must be compatible with parallel categorical imperatives derived of the same, such as the imperative of respecting the national aspirations of others – or the imperative to defend the rights of individuals in spite of such national prerogatives, thus bringing us full circle. As a fellow derivative of the same axiom, Zionism must interface accordingly with this principle by balancing the political with the universal, and remaining conscious and responsive to other ethical imperatives it encounters.

By this line of reasoning, we can conclude that the same principles of ethical behavior that underpin our Zionist roots as a national liberation movement also demand our true adherence to the mantra of “Never Again,” not as a political platitude, but as a model of behavior whereby we view our government as morally compelled to defend human rights concurrently to national rights, universally, if and where practicable – an important caveat that remains to be addressed.

In future posts, I will refer to this corollary as “Ethical Zionism” in shorthand (with apologies to any others who might have previously made use of this term), and examine its implications on the behavior of our government and society in various dilemmas involving foreigners that have arisen in the past, as well as such that are ongoing, including, without limitation: The oppression of Christian Gazans; the plight of the Syrian Druze during that country’s civil war; the struggle for recognition of the Armenian genocide; our diplomatic and commercial ties with China in light of its ongoing human-rights offenses; the sale of Israeli weapons to conflict zones; the struggle for Kurdish independence; the plight of African refugees in Israel; and, finally, the question of Palestinian statehood.

[1] Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Königlich-Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin, 1902–38), pp. 421.
[2] Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice (Original ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 118.
[3] As attributed to Carl Schmitt, Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political by Charles E. Frye, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Nov., 1966), pp. 818–30, Cambridge University Press

About the Author
My name is Kovi Skier. I was raised in a small Ultra-Orthodox community in Milwaukee, and made Aliya at the age of 18. I volunteered in the IDF and continue to serve in the reserves. Today I work and research in the field of law, while enthusiastically pursuing my hobbies of historical and political research and discourse. I am a husband and father of two. I see it as my civic duty to strengthen and contribute to my society in any way that I can.
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