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Jewish World Review
April 8, 2004
/ 17 Nissan, 5764
An Overrated Virtue
There's no such thing as an intellectual justification for Palestinian murderers
A long time ago, when I was a freshman in college, I sat in a classroom at
Columbia University and learned why intellectuals are so dangerous.
The course was the second semester of Contemporary Civilization, or "C.C.,"
as we called it, the heart of the school's vaunted undergraduate core
curriculum that mandated the study of the great books of Western civilization aka
the works of dead, white European males.
But the course also covered the work of Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), the
German-born philosopher who became the intellectual hero of the New Left of the
Marcuse, a Jew who came to America after Adolf Hitler's rise to power, styled
himself a "Marxist humanist," whose work in "critical theory" provided an
intellectual framework for attacks on capitalism. But Marcuse is remembered
because he set out to "prove" that basic freedoms, such as the right to free
speech, ought to be denied to those who opposed the cause of "progressive"
These thoughts were set down in a famous and disastrously influential
collection of essays titled "Critique of Pure Tolerance," published in 1965. Anyone
who wants to understand the violent student protesters of that era needs to
come to grips with Marcuse.
TOO STUPID TO GET IT
In his essay "Repressive Tolerance," Marcuse laid out the case for the
repression of all nonleftist thought. This was music to the ears of radicals, who
wanted to not merely debate their opponents but shut them down. Marcuse wound
up being an apologist for not just a failed economic theory, but for violence
in the name of left-wing "ideals" by groups such as the Weathermen.
Unfortunately, my C.C. instructor was a passionate follower of Marcuse and
eager to indoctrinate the impressionable minds in his charge. Schooled in the
dialectic of both Karl Marx and Marcuse, this teacher was none too pleased with
me when I piped up and pointed out that what he was teaching us was nothing
more than an argument for dictatorship.
Though he charted out the "logic" of this theory on the blackboard, I still
demanded to know the difference between the Nazi claim to a monopoly on power,
and that claimed by those whom Marcuse approved of? Eventually, the class
moved on, with the teacher letting me know in no uncertain terms that I was
obviously too stupid to grasp such a high-flown concept.
Maybe he was right about me, but the history of the last century should have
soured all thinking persons on the idea that repression was a good thing. It's
a memory that sticks in my craw, but I count it as one of the most important
lessons I've learned.
I was reminded of this incident when reading an essay in The Philadelphia
Inquirer on March 31 by writer Crispin Sartwell, in which he defended suicide
bombers as being selfless and virtuous.
A philosophy professor and nationally syndicated columnist, Sartwell makes
the case that those who commit violence for what they believe is a good cause
are not merely "heroic," but better than the rest of us, as it shows they're
able to rise above petty self-interest.
A MURDERER? SAINTLY?
In a piece so morally obtuse that only someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy
could have written it, Sartwell links suicide bombers with the moral heroism of
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Abraham Lincoln.
In a telling passage, Sartwell describes how as a youth, he, too, was
"willing to commit acts of violence to show the seriousness" of his beliefs. "In
fact," he writes, "I did blow up some things (but no persons). And even if what
I did was wrong, I did it to show my moral commitment."
Following Marcuse's lead, Sartwell thought his righteousness gave him the
right to act violently. But he is not repentant. Instead, he sees himself as
"more mediocre" for having packed his bomb-making kit away with his college
Sartwell's defense of suicide bombing, and, in particular, the enormities of
the Palestinian terrorist organizations, is not incidental to his philosophy.
The writer thinks the Palestinian cause can "demand and justify selfless
Using the same twisted logic that my prof tried out decades ago, Sartwell
claims there's a big difference between Hitler-types and the Palestinians who
plot the mass murder of Jews in Israel. Thought he concedes that the results of
suicide bombing are "monstrous," it is, in his bizzaro universe, an act of
"moral heroism." These killers are good, because they are sincere and want to
help their people, he would tell us. But what he forgets is that as the Nazis,
Communists, contemporary Islamo-fascists and all others who thought they had a
monopoly on the truth proved sincerity is a very overrated virtue.
At the bottom of his fatuous philosophizing are a few sentences that assert
that Israel's "military and political machine" is a "direct instrument of
repression" of Palestinian culture. Too busy branding Israel with the sort of
agitprop labels the leftists of the '60s applied to America, he applies no
intellectual rigor to determining whether Palestinian propaganda is based in fact,
or is, in reality, a jihad to wipe out the Jewish presence in the country.
Sartwell is not interested in the facts about the Mideast conflict, which
stem from repeated Palestinian rejections of peace or compromise. He cares
nothing about the gist of the intifada, which was chosen by Palestinian leadership
in 2000 as a ploy to avoid a two-state solution.
Having branded the Israeli people as criminal oppressors and subtly linked
Israeli leaders to Hitler, Sartwell waxes lyrical about the willingness of some
to sacrifice their lives to oppose it. Though he throws in a weasel-word
disclaimer that he opposes the death of innocents on buses, he's still prepared to
declare the suicide bomber a "saint," albeit a "monstrous saint."
To defend himself against the inevitable opprobrium, Sartwell is quick to
point out that he's Jewish. To which I answer: So what? Those who claim to wish
Israel or the Jewish people well cannot at the same time be neutral about their
right to defend themselves.
It is even more infuriating when a piece such as Sartwell's appears in a
newspaper such as the Inquirer that highlights misleading coverage of Israel's mea
sures of self-defense against terror while downplaying stories about the
Palestinians use of children as suicide bombers.
The moral of this story is that clever people can always be relied upon to
provide a justification for the indefensible. Far from being harmless
intellectual musings, the defense of murder can never be condoned by a truly moral
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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.
Let him know what you think by clicking here. In June, Mr. Tobin won first places honors in the American
Jewish Press Association's Louis Rapaport Award for Excellence in Commentary as
well as the Philadelphia Press Association's Media Award for top weekly
columnist. Both competitions were for articles written in the year 2002.
Jonathan Tobin Archives
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