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Daniel G. Saunders

Rousseau and Hobbes on Gaza

As the war in Gaza moves towards Rafah, discussions are already underway about what should come next, both in the corridors of power and on the internet. What is obvious is that lots of people have diametrically opposed views of what that should be. I’m not speaking of Zionists and anti-Zionists or even Joe Biden and Binyamin Netanyahu, but ordinary Jews, in Israel and outside, who would all define themselves as strong Zionists. My purpose here is not to consider what the solution for Gaza is, but to understand why people of similar backgrounds and values can differ so widely in their outlook as to what is both moral correct and politically feasible.

The greatest help I have had on this point comes from the American economist and public intellectual, Thomas Sowell. Wondering why people so often line up in two groups (broadly, progressive and conservative) even on issues that seem unrelated, Sowell suggested two different worldviews, the unconstrained and the constrained.

The unconstrained worldview, which correlates broadly to the progressive worldview, sees human beings as essentially good and perfectible. Beyond this, people are essentially blank slates, written on by the things they experience. If a person does bad things, it is because he had bad experiences that pushed him towards bad behaviour himself. He is not a bad person. They are idealists and resist compromising their ideals.

The constrained worldview, by contrast, sees human beings as essentially driven by self-interest (although not necessarily evil). This self-interest is largely unchanging. Unrestrained self-interest means that people clash, often violently, unless restrained by external constraints: the rule of law, social sanctions and religious obligations. Constrained thinkers do not believe in utopian solutions, only in trade-offs of negative outcomes.

The unconstrained worldview is similar to that espoused by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, particularly the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The alternative, constrained, view can be found in many philosophies and interpretations of human nature, whether in the Talmud’s belief that people have an ‘evil inclination’ from birth, but don’t gain a ‘good inclination’ until reaching adolescence, meaning, selfish behaviour is innate, while altruistic behaviour requires maturity and socialisation; in the Christian concept of Original Sin; and in Freud’s belief in a selfish id present from birth and a superego that develops over time, again with socialisation. For ease, I will however link it to the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously declared that, in a state of nature, without strong government to restrain violence, the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

We can now ask Rousseau and Hobbes for their opinions on aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and whether they have any hope for the future.

What is the root cause of the conflict?

Rousseau: The root cause of this conflict is clearly the Occupation. Man is born free, yet in Palestine he is in chains. The Palestinians are suffering terrible oppression at the hands of the Israelis. Naturally, they just reflect this oppression back at the Israelis. Remove source of their oppression (the Occupation) and all will be well. Palestinians will act like liberal Westerners. Indeed, it is racist to suggest otherwise. Absent oppression, Enlightenment will follow, as in the West.

Hobbes: Hamas do terrible things because people generally are bad: angry, hateful and violent. Palestinians have no strong, impartial, internal government to impose the rule of law and to prevent violence. On the contrary, the institutions of Palestinian life, whether the kleptocrats of Fatah or the terrorists of Hamas, or indeed the Islamist imams, the government-controlled media and the UNWRA-run schools, have done nothing to stop that anger, hatred and violence, but have rather tried amplify it and to direct it at Israelis. The strength of the Occupation physically restrains them from doing more damage than might otherwise be the case. If the IDF wasn’t there, the violence would escalate, as 7 October showed. If Israel didn’t exist, the anger, hatred and violence would just be directed at someone else, whether Americans, unbelievers or homosexuals.

What about Israel?

Rousseau: Frankly, like most Western countries, Israelis have been corrupted by wealth, technology and materialism. The “Noble Savage” is the ideal, the basic decent core of humanity, and the Palestinians are far closer to this than the Israelis. It’s no surprise that Israeli society has drifted rightwards over the years as their standard of living has grown, abandoning the kibbutz society for Start-Up Nation. If anyone is having their essential goodness corrupted, leading to the oppression of others, it’s Israel.

Hobbes: Israel has achieved the incredible, an island of the rule of law amidst a sea of despotism and extremism. In seventy-five years of independence, it has avoided invasion from without and the threat of civil war or anarchy within. Only a country with strong government and the rule of law could do this. If Israel has moved rightwards, towards even stronger government – well, who wouldn’t, when faced with enemies everywhere?

What are your views on The Peace Process?

Rousseau: The Peace Process is predicated on the idea that that Palestinians and Israelis both want the same things: a life of peace and prosperity achieved through a territorial compromise, the Two-State Solution. Even if some Palestinians think otherwise at the moment, the removal of the Israeli Occupation and oppression will naturally restore them to a state of peacefulness and agreement. People everywhere are the same: gentle and peace-loving. It’s racist to assume otherwise.

Hobbes: People generally want their self-interest. A century of genocidal propaganda have convinced Palestinians that they can get the whole of Palestine for their state if they fight long enough and hard enough. The fact that this belief is backed up by religious propaganda only makes it sound more credible. A compromise solution has to appeal to Palestinians’ self-interest by making peace and a truncated Palestine sound more attractive than war and a Greater Palestine. As Palestinians believe that they attain the highest possible Heaven for dying in jihad and that Greater Palestine is not just possible, but historically inevitable, no this-worldly compromise can compete. Whether Israelis still wants the Two-State Solution after 7 October is a moot point, but there is no evidence that most Palestinians want anything other than to totally destroy Israel.

What if America and the EU kick-start The Peace Process by recognise a Palestinian State before negotiations begin?

Rousseau: This is a most excellent idea! Give the Palestinians a state, remove the hated Israeli occupying troops and see the situation improve immediately.

Hobbes: Ridiculous! Rewarding violence only encourages violence, especially if you don’t acknowledge that many Palestinians want to destroy Israel more than they want a Palestinian state.

Are you hopeful for the future?

Rousseau: Absolutely! The perfection of mankind is inevitable. Eventually, the Israelis and the Palestinians will see the error of their ways and come to the negotiating table and make a compromise for the sake of peace and common humanity.

Hobbes: Absolutely not! Palestinians see no reason not to carry on fighting and dying. Qatar and Iran will keep funding them, the West has nothing to offer them to change their mind and the only thing Israel could do for them is commit suicide. Naturally, Israel will respond with a hard line. Things will only get worse.

The point of this slightly contrived little exercise is to show that arguments about Israel and Palestine have as much to do with our fundamental assumptions about human nature as about the historical facts of the conflict or who hit who first or harder. I think that is something worth considering before plunging into debates.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management.
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