Emmanuel Levinas, the Political, and Zionism: Michael Morgan’s Levinas’s Ethical Politics, a Review Essay


When I was a graduate student in Jewish thought and philosophy in Israel and the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s we were all reading Emmanuel Levinas. Some of his major works had recently been translated into English and Hebrew (all were written in French) and his dual commitment to continental philosophy and Judaism made him, for many of us, the Franz Rosenzweig of our generation. Levinas quickly became a cottage industry among American scholars of Judaism, from those interested in Rabbinics who read his Nine Talmudic Readings, to those interested in phenomenology and ethics who read Totality and InfinityOtherwise than Being and Time and the Other, to those who were interested in a philosophically sophistical apologia for Judaism who read his In the Time of the Nations and Difficult Freedom. Dissertations were written about him, journals were full of essays on his work, and a North American Levinas Society was established in 2006 with conferences and symposia. Levinas stood at the center of Jewish philosophical though for at least two decades.

In many ways, Michael Morgan came late to the party. Morgan made his reput ation as a historian of philosophy, writing on everything from Plato to Emil Fackenheim (Morgan’s teacher) to the Holocaust and antisemitism, and with his 2001 Interim Judaism: Jewish Thought in a Century of Crisis, ventured into constructive Jewish theology as well. Morgan held the Chancellor’s Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University until his retirement in 2008. It was in that same year that Morgan’s first book on Levinas, Discovering Levinas, was published with Cambridge University Press. Morgan then edited The Cambridge Introduction of Emmanuel Levinas in 2011. Just last year (2016), he published his newest book on the topic, Levinas’s Ethical Politics.

Morgan’s late interest, in some ways coincided with diminishing interest in Levinas’ work in Jewish Studies. Yet it has produced some of the most serious studies on the French-Jewish thinker. Discovering Levinas, for instance, pushed Levinas into areas he had not occupied before, specifically introducing his work to the analytic philosophical tradition that largely viewed Levinas as another phenomenologist that they had little interest in reading.

A topic which has never quite satisfied many of Levinas’ readers was his politics, and more specifically, his relationship to Zionism. This is at least partly due to a controversial interview Levinas gave on French radio in September 1982 in the wake of the Sabra and Shalita massacre in Lebanon where Christian Lebanese philangists murdered between 700-3000 Muslims, men, women, and children, mostly Palestinian, in the Shatila refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Israel’s IDF had jurisdiction over this camp and the Israeli courts later found the IDF complicit in allowing these philangists to enter the camp knowing their murderous intentions. It was a defining moment for Israel and massive protests ensued arguing that those responsible should be duly punished.

In the interview, Levinas refused to openly find fault with Israel’s behavior, instead speaking about generalities concerning the ethics of responsibility. An ardent defender of the notion that ethics is about “the face of the other” some critics wondered if, for Levinas, the Palestinian had a face at all. That is, was Israel responsible for them as a matter of principle? There has been much ink spilled on these questions but no one, until now, has devoted a book-length study in English to the question of Levinas and the political that includes a detailed and in-depth discussion of his Zionism. Below I offer my reading of Morgan’s Levinas’s Ethical Politics as it grapples with these questions not distinct from, but as an integral part of, Levinas’ ethical and philosophical philosophy.



Morgan’s Levinas’s Ethical Politics delves deeply into what may be, from a Jewish Studies perspective at least, one of the most precarious aspects of Levinas’s thought: the relationship between the ethical and the political—and, in particular, how his philosophical work, aptly captured in the title of one of his essays “Ethics as First Philosophy,” squares with his advocacy of Zionism and Jewish nationalism. I divide my remarks into two parts. First, the relationship between ethics and politics in relation to Israel, including Morgan’s extensive remarks on Levinas’s radio interview in France after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon; and second, the notion of messianism as an ethical concept and the role it plays in Levinas’s understanding of the political and in particular, the case of Sabra and Shatila.

Levinas offers an intervention into the on-going dilemma of the particular and the universal in Judaism by suggesting what he calls “the particular beyond the universal.” This is the notion that the particular houses and serves as the very foundation of the universal, whose very purpose is the fulfillment of responsibility to the other. It is a particularism where universalism is not effaced by the primacy of the proximate but is the place where the true universal is born. This is illustrated in what Levinas calls “austere humanism,” a humanism where responsibility to the other is paramount, overriding even one’s responsibility to the self. This humanism stands at the center of how Levinas defines Judaism, and it is a humanism that can never be upended without Judaism being erased.

Levinas’s definition of Judaism is in many way an extension of earlier articulations in Jewish philosophers such as Moritz Lazarus, Leo Baeck, and more prominently Herman Cohen, albeit each viewed the universal as the vocation of the Jew without Levinas’s return to the particular (this may be one reason why in our multicultural world Levinas resonates far more than the people just mentioned). There are important differences between Hermann Cohen and Levinas not relevant here, but one difference worth mentioning how each understands the relationship between ethics and politics. Cohen, as is known, was adamantly opposed to Zionism precisely because his understanding of a Jewish nation-state (he died in 1918 so such a nation-state was only theoretical) would be a political reality where the ethics of Judaism could not flourish. Once Judaism became mired in politics, he opined, it would lose its special role as the arbiter of universal ethics. Normalization would be the end of Jewish distinctiveness.

Levinas, on the other hand, because of his commitment to the particular beyond the universal, believed that Zionism was an opportunity for Judaism to fulfill its universal mission through a nationalist frame. Zionism was, for him, the great experiment to see whether particularism beyond the universal could actually work. On this Morgan writes, “The State of Israel is about the humanity of man, as Levinas puts it. He calls this ‘Israel’s unrepentant eschatology’ as odd expression for some…the historic work of the Jewish state is to be Jewish, which is to be just and humane…” (24).

Morgan invokes a distinction made by Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe between leftist politics and liberal politics to mark the distinction between Levinas (who would be on the liberal side) and Judith Butler, a critic of Levinas on the question of the political (on the leftist side). Morgan offers a defense of Levinas against Butler’s sharp critique in her Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. But I wondered how far apart Butler and Levinas really are in regards to Judaism. Butler may be a secularist (even if one who fully embodies her Jewishness) and Levinas a defender of religion, but both view ethics as the cornerstone of their view of authentic Judaism. What separates them might be the way each views the reach and impact of the political on the ethical, or nationalism on Judaism. Here Butler may be similar to Martin Buber who, as a Zionist, was well aware of the hazards of nationalism as an ethical project and was not shy in his criticism of Israel when it did not live up to ethical standards, specifically regarding the Arab population. Buber favored a bi-national state of Arabs and Jews, which in today’s terms might be called a one-state liberal democracy. Where Buber would stand today is anybody’s guess. In any event, I am sympathetic with Morgan’s  argument against Butler when she says Levinas fails on his own terms, that for him the Palestinians are not the “other” to whom Jews are ethically responsible. Yet I question whether in principle there is much light between Butler and Levinas’ views on Judaism. That is, for both, it very viability rests on the foundation of ethics.

Morgan notes two things in his chapter on the famous interview in 1982 worth rehearsing on whether Levinas lived by his own standards: Levinas’ failure in his response to address the Palestinian at all and his comment that “the kin is also the neighbor,” which implies that there is, or can be, a hierarchy of neighbor which may justify the prioritizing of ethical responsibility. If this is the case, one could argue that in effect, the particular beyond the universal might not stand the test of political realities, even though elsewhere Morgan notes that Levinas is clear that the neighbor in the case of Zionism must include the non-Jewish other. And it is clear even from the Israeli perspective that they failed the ethical test in Sabra and Shatila.

One of the central themes that Morgan treats in his book is the complex way Levinas defines “Zionism.” On the one hand, we read, “Zionism is the solution to the Jewish problem, the problem of the precariousness of Jewish existence in a non-Jewish world, in which Jews have been subject to the persecution and oppression of anti-Jewish forces.” This sounds very much like the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who defined Zionism simply as “enabling the Jew not to live under the auspices of the goyim.” A purely political definition. But Morgan continues that for Levinas there is another condition (necessary or sufficient I do not know) of Zionism; its ethicalcomponent: “taking responsibility for the life and well-being of others, where the other are one’s own family and fellow Jews.” (278, 279). Here Levinas sounds closer to Buber. For Leibowitz, Judaism has no ethics per se, or more accurately, there is no Jewish ethics. Ethics for Leibowitz can have no modifier, it is simply a universal way human beings should treat one another, as individuals, and as collectives.

Morgan notes elsewhere that for Levinas when there is an irreconcilable conflict between the political (the solution to the Jewish problem) and the ethical (being responsible for the other in your midst), the ethical musttake precedence.  What might that mean? The dissolution of the state? Perhaps the state will lose its “Jewish” character but might still be necessary? Butler, who is actually quite closely aligned here to Buber, might say, “this is precisely the reality of the present state of Israel, not only circumstantially, but structurally.” (Think of the recently passed Amona bill enabling that state to confiscate Arab owned property). Are we to say that what stands between Levinas and Butler is merely a different view of the reality? Or is there something more substantive than that? Butler claims that the best way for Judaism to thrive  is in the diaspora and Levinas believes that Jewish sovereignty is the best way, or certainly a possible way, to truly achieve Jewish ethics, which is Jewishness itself. As I said above I do not think Bulter’s definition of Judaism is fundamentally that far from Levinas’. What Morgan has done here is set the table, as it were, that can enable us to see whether Levinas’ “great experiment” is working.

This brings me to Morgan’s masterful analysis of Israeli jurist Ruth Gavison and scholar Chaim Gans on the question of a Jewish and democratic state. While in American Jewry, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is often taken as a maxim, in Israel it is, and has been for some time, a hotly debated issue among legal experts, political scientists, and philosophers. In a series of essays Gavison makes the case that a Jewish democratic state is possible but only if Jewishness is defined purely culturally, that is, in a secular fashion, and in a way that is loosely defined (she opposes any constitutional or legal definition of Jewishness in regards to the state).

Democracy for Gavision needn’t be a liberal democracy- she advocates for the viability of an “ethnic democracy” –  but “[it] can be a state that privileges one identity or group while at the same time requiring others to be treated, both individually and collectively, with respect…” (209). That is, using Levinasean terms, the political realm can be unequal if the ethical realm is secured. In that case, though, the political does not serve as the vehicle for the ethical – Levinas’s “great experiment.” Rather, the ethical serves to save the political from itself, the ethical serves as a stop-gap to save politics’ inclination toward inequality.  Gavison is essentially trying to thread the needle of the political and the ethical here by saying that a political definition of Zionism (the right to self-determination of one group) needn’t by definition trample the ethical requirements of Jewishness, or on Levinas’s terms, to be responsible for all “others’ (that is, especially those not in your group). Morgan writes that for Gavison, “The Jewishness she [Gavison] seeks is a concoction of an identity, a cultural way of life of a people, that would suit secular Jews and would least offend others” (218). Morgan is right to note that Gavison is against any halakhic or biological definition of “Jew” to be formalized politically.  She opts for a cultural definition that could, in many cases, include what normatively we might call non-Jews. Here I think Gavison and Levinas might expose their radical, and arguably unworkable, definition of Jewishness. For Gavison, it is simply about being a part of the Jewish cultural project. For Levinas, it is an adaptation of a communal affiliation whereby the particular is the vehicle for the universal.

But who would this exclude? Who would not be “Jewish” according to Gavison’s or Levinas’s definition? It certainly might exclude a Jew by pedigree who has no interest in Jewish culture and simply wants to “not live among the gentiles.” Or the religious Jew who doesn’t believe in a Jewish cultural project at all but believes God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. Or a haredi Jew who is anti-Zionist but wants to live in the holy land that happens to also house the nation-state of Israel. These and other groups might simply not be Jews according to Gavison and Levinas and thus would not easily fit into their definition of legitimate members of that society. In addition, what precisely is the “Jewish” problem Zionism is supposed to solve if the definition of the Jew or Jewishness is so far removed from the communities whose persecution was not the result of any shared cultural project (Gavison) or commitment to the ethics (Levinas)?

My point in these examples is merely to suggest that Levinas’ ethical definitions of the Jew and Judaism, and Gavison’s cultural definition of the Jew and Jewishness in regards to Israeli Jewish identity, might seem to be inclusive, but are actually no less exclusive than more conventional definitions of the Jew. One important difference between Gavison and Levinas here is that Gavison claims there is no irreparable tension between nationalism and a commitment to human rights; for Levinas, if that commitment does not become actualized, the entire justification for Zionism collapses. Gavison would call it a flawed Jewish democracy, Levinas might call it an illegitimate Jewish state. Much more rides on the ethical for Levinas than it does for Gavison. Morgan writes that “Awareness of the primacy of interpersonal relationships and attentiveness to living according to their ethical character are central to Judaism and hence, for Levinas, to Zionism as a Jewish political ideology” (226). The question, of course, is what if it is not. And here I turn to Levinas’s remarks on the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

There is much to say about Morgan’s long chapter on the 1982 interview but I want to focus on one major point: why Levinas refrained from directly holding Israel responsible for Sabra and Shatila, choosing rather to develop a series of more general comments about responsibility and focusing on the massive protests of Israelis against the massacre as a sign of Israel’s success. Morgan writes,

Is this whole stretch of thinking a kind of avoidance?…To be sure, Levinas is making a choice. He has chosen to treat the current events in Lebanon as an exemplification of a persistent trope, so to speak. They are events or moments when the ethical and the political come into conflict. They do not discredit or falsify his conception of Zionism or of Judaism. Rather, they are challenges that will regularly occur when a tradition with a strong ethical dimension takes up political arms in its own defense.(281).

This is an important comment. Levinas refuses to point fingers at a guilty party (the IDF under Ariel Sharon’s orders) but seems willing only to say these are events that “we would rather hadn’t happened.” But as Morgan notes earlier in the book, for Levinas when politics and ethics clash, ethics must be privileged. Morgan notes that Levinas invokes Menachem Begin’s famous comment that “Jewish blood must not flow with impunity,” as a recognition of self-defense and both a political and an ethical imperative. But here we are talking about the brutal massacre of innocent women and children. And as Levinas knew well, the claim of perennial victimhood implicit in Begin’s comment arguably absolves a political entity from ethics entirely (Begin was a member of the Irgun, a Jewish terrorist organization in Mandate Palestine).

In the 2012 Israeli film “The Gatekeepers,” directed by Dror Moreh, Israeli intelligence chief Avraham Shalom who headed the Shin Bet from 1980-1986 said, “Stop talking about ethics, in regards to terror, there is no ethics.” I do not think Levinas would articulate it quite that way. Rather, I think he used the protests in Tel Aviv pressing for prosecuting Sharon for his orders as an example of ethics trumping politics, an instance that validates rather than invalidates, his Zionism. Levinas sees Sabra and Shatila as an “interruption,” a temporary moral breakdown, even one of global significance, but not one that destroys his belief that nationalism (politics) founded on Judaism (ethics) is a failed experiment. The protests were his evidence for that and thus that became his focus. The massacre for him was the aberration, the protests the corrective and the norm. For the victim and their families, that does not much matter.

In navigating Levinas and the political, Morgan makes a very important distinction between two forms of “other” in Levinas’s thought: the “ethical other” and the “political other.” The ethical other is the neighbor for whom I have infinite responsibility. The political other may be the enemy for whom, I assume, I have no responsibility. In Levinas’s own words, “There are people who are wrong.” That is certainly true. But here perhaps the German legal theorist and member of the Nazi party Carl Schmidt can help us. For Schmidt the enemy is not the occasional consequence of the political, it is its structural consequent. The political by definition creates the enemy similar to the way Hannah Arendt argued that the state creates the stateless. If Levinas wants us to accept a distinction between the ethical other, our neighbor, and the political other, our enemy, than he would need to consider that the political may by definition curtail our responsibility to the other. There will be others for whom we have no responsibility – there will be enemies.

The problem with this is when the political founds itself on a history of persecution and victimhood whereby many, arguably all detractors, become the political other.  The political thus limits our ethical responsibility or, on one reading, weakens Judaism from ostensibly fulfilling its universal mission. Here we can hear the voices of Butler and Daniel Boyarin, perhaps even Hermann Cohen, who would say that the political may serve the need of national survival, but at the price of Judaism as founded on universal responsibility for the other, its “austere humanism.” Both Levinas and Morgan do not believe that. But we can, perhaps should, ask whether current events may be challenging the elasticity of their commitment.

Regarding Morgan’s extensive discussion about Levinas on messianism, I would like to make one point. Morgan discusses how Levinas uses the Talmudic disagreement between Rav and Shmuel in Talmud Sanhedrin 97b-98a between human agency as a condition for messiah or messiah as a pre-determined moment in time. Or, as Levinas puts it, “Is the coming of the messianic era conditional or unconditional?” Morgan summarizes Levinas’s position nicely by writing, “Messianism is, we might say, acts of responsibility in response to the suffering of others.” This reading is no small recovery of the trope of working and waiting, a dichotomy that might be found in the debate between Rav and Shmuel. Not so for Levinas, who takes seriously both poles and reads them in light of the distinction between morality, on the one hand, and politics and economics, on the other.” (235). My question is this: if messianism is for Levinas the ethical act of responsibility toward the other, especially the suffering other, than (1) would it require politics to accomplish that; and (2) what if politics, in the form of the Jewish nation-state, is precisely that which creates the suffering of others? Here we have a case where it is not simply that the political fails to meet ethical standards, as one could argue in the case of Sabra and Shatila, but a case where the political creates, even if not intentionally, the suffering of the other. And by extension, to relieve the suffering of the other would require curtailing the political. This has both ethical and political ramifications. Why, for example, would many Jewish Israelis, certainly not all, feel the government would somehow not be legitimate if it took the Arab List into the coalition? The Arab parties have never been part of the coalition (in many cases, they didn’t want to be) even as today the Arab List is the third largest party in the state of Israel? As part of the coalition, Arab legislators, who are citizens of the state, would be making political decisions for the Jewish majority. Why does this seem so unacceptable? This might be another example of where the “great experiment” of the particular as the house of the universal simply isn’t working. If it would be, the “other,” in this case, the Arab Israeli, would be a welcome part of the political experiment.

If messianism for Levinas does not a priori require the political (why should ethics by definition require the political?) and if the political itself causes, or doesn’t alleviate, suffering, then the political itself becomes anti-messianic. It can return to a messianic trajectory through teshuva (repentance) but that would require acknowledging two things: first, that the political is the cause of suffering; and second, that the other who suffers is an ethical other and not a political other—that is, a neighbor and not an enemy. The ability to do that would require Israel not see itself as a victim as a nation-state and not see its existence more generally solely, or even predominantly, as a response to victimhood.

These are some of the issues I think Morgan’s new book raises. As one can see, they are complex and pertinent. Levinas’ Ethical Politics is not merely a study of these questions in Levinas’ body of work but also an intervention into the larger questions of the political, the ethical, and the role of the messianic in a tumultuous world where Levinas’ “great experiment” is being put to a serious test.


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