Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: What is Jewish (If Anything) in Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy?

Dikla Sher – Isaiah Berlin vs. Hannah Arendt: Their Political Ideas through the Prism of their Jewish Identities

Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt were very different thinkers. Berlin was quite open in his contempt for her. Much of their differences can be seen in their different experiences with totalitarianism and their criticism of Enlightenment. Berlin opposed the over-rationalism of the Enlightenment. The claim that human’s are the same everywhere and should have one reason. This comes from the Platonic ideal of one universal that applies everywhere. Such monism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Arendt, coming from her personal experience with Nazi Germany, saw the failure of human rights as something beyond any government. Her criticism is political and not philosophical. For Arendt the most important right is to have rights. Such rights are based on societies and not, as Berlin argued, with individuals.
Berlin divided liberty into positive and negative liberty; he preferred negative liberty. True liberty requires examination, active decisions; to be free is to make an unforced choice. The attraction of totalitarianism is that it allows man to avoid action. Arendt distinguished freedom from liberty. True political freedom cannot be ownership but is part of man’s essence. To be free is to act. This action must take place in a shared public space.

Berlin acknowledged a value to nationalism in that it served the need for a common culture. Arendt’s community is not national; she opposed the nation state. In its place she supported a republican alternative. This is not the classic model of republicanism; Arendt went against Rousseau in that there, for her, is no giving up of individuality to the republican state. Instead one takes on an additional identity; thus making the individual life richer.

Neither Berlin nor Arendt believed that one had to be religious. They do not use Jewish sources. Their Jewish identities, though, were dominant. Berlin celebrated Jewish holidays as a way to identity with his community and heritage, which he wanted to continue. Arendt, writing to Scholem, said that she never felt that she had to identify herself as a Jew; being a Jew was a fact of life. Berlin was a strong supporter for Zionism from the beginning. Arendt saw the power of Zionism in terms of taking responsibility for Jewish problems. She turned against Zionism, though, when she found out that it would be a Jewish national state without cooperation with the Arabs. It was a forced solution after the social one had failed.

Joshua Laurence Cherniss – Judaism, Jewishness, and Liberalism in Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought

There is a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Judaism here can be taken to refer to a set of given beliefs. Jewishness is to be defined in terms of a culture that one is in dialogue with. In terms of Judaism there is not much there in Berlin. He did not use Jewish texts in his writing. Conditioned by his own views of Judaism as an intellectual position, he viewed Judaism as a series of claims that were outside of reason or ethics. A pivotal example of this is God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. Similar to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Berlin saw this as a move against the ethical. For Berlin, to respect Judaism was to reject it.

Berlin was engaged in the situation of Jews in a post emancipation world. For Berlin this emancipation was a failure. This larger course of Jewish history comes from his experience with the Russian situation. There was more persecution, but Jewish life enjoyed a greater coherence and integrity. It was not surprising to Berlin that Zionism was more successful in Russia than in the West. Jews had a model in the Russian intelligentsia to imitate, which Berlin greatly admired this. Berlin also had his experience with British Jewry. They lacked persecution but suffered from a class conscious society. They were caught trying to fit into society that was not made for them, wearing clothes that did not fit. For Berlin liberty was a matter of choice. To be deprived of choice is to be denied the fundamental dignity of a human being. The tragedy of the Jew was that choices were not open to them.

(During the question and answer section there was some discussion of A. N. Wilson’s attack on Berlin as the “dictaphone don” in the Times Literary Supplement, which depicts Berlin in ways that were quite contrary to that of the panelists.)

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