Thoughts on Juan Cole and mandarinism & Levinas was Re: [Marxism] Bush and Blair's unguarded chat

g.maclennan at g.maclennan at
Mon Jul 17 17:08:17 MDT 2006

Juan Cole's comment on the uncensored exchange between Blair and Bush at first struck me as quite good. He wrote

"So, the whole blow-up is Syria's fault, for putting Hizbullah up to making mischief. No reference to Israeli actions in Gaza. No reference to, like, the wholesale destruction of Lebanon by the Israeli air force. And no blame for the Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora. And Bush thinks that Nasrullah of Hizbullah takes direct orders from Damascus. And he thinks that if Bashar al-Asad orders Hizbullah to stop firing its little katyushas and give back the two Israeli soldiers, everything will suddenly settle down.

It is an astonishingly simple-minded view of the situation, painted in black and white and making assumptions about who is who's puppet and what the Israeli motivations are. Israel doesn't appear as a protagonist. It is purely reactive. Stop provoking it, and it suddenly stops its war.

Since Israel is just being provoked and has no ambitions of its own, in this reading, it is useless to begin with a ceasefire. That treats the two sides as both provoking one another. Here, only Hizbullah matters, so you lean on Syria to lean on it, and, presto, peace breaks out.

It is a little window into the superficial, one-sided mind of the man, who has for six years been way out of his depth. 

I come away from it shaken and trembling."

However looking at it again, I think the central problem is that it is another instance of the mandarin mind at work. Within mandarinism everything is reduced to knowledge.  Complex good, simplex bad.  The mandarin who has been excluded from the halls of power, stands of course ready to supply the complex.  After all he understands Arabic and with his additional knowledge of Islamic culture and history he has the key to unlocking the door.  While the crude neo-cons merely want to blow the whole wall down.

But of course this is not an epistemological problem.  It is first and foremost an ethical matter. And there the simplex comes into its own.  What Israel is doing is evil - tout court.

I have been reading Emmanuel Levinas' religious/political writings especially his "The State of Caesar and the State of David". Levinas' whole ethics was built around the simple imperative of being for the other. It is this command which defines us as human and calls us into being as subjects.  However Levinas the Zionist forgets this command.  He speaks of "the painful necessities of the occupation' (Levinas, 1994: 187).  Yet tries to imagine somehow that Israel can become not a power built around "shi'bud malkuyot" (oppression) but one built around monotheism. 

He also rages against the 'facile eloquence" of those who oppose Israel with "a careless moralism, blinded by its dreams and words, and dooming the dispersed gathered back together to rapid destruction and a new dispersion" (Levins, 1994:187).

Against this sophistry one can quote Levinas himself from his preface to Totality and Infinity: 

"Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.  It established an order from which no one can keep his distance; nothing henceforth is exterior.  War does not manifest exteriority and the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same" (Levinas, 1979: 21).

So Israel’s long war against the Palestinian Other has weakened if not destroyed the moral fibre of the Israelis state.  Israel may still be monotheistic but now of the whole Zionist enterprise only the shi'bud malkuyot or the dirty work remains.

Looking today at Israel one can see only a betrayal of the hopes of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who dreamed of a Jewish nation which would not seek to 'exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice [but would] be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom (Maimonides cited in Levinas, 1994: 182).

Maimonides hoped for a land where “Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all” (ibid). The reality is a barely disguised military dictatorship which in its brutal and racist attacks on the Despised Arab Other, has become not a light but rather a blight unto the nations.



Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity : an essay on exteriority, Boston : M. Nijhoff Publishers, 1979.
Levinas, E. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic readings and Lectures
London: the Athlone Press, 1994

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