A political philosophy analysis of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
It is October 2023, and the Israeli colonisation of Palestine has reached an unprecedented level of violence. It started with an attack by Hamas — a radical sect of Palestinians hailing from Gaza who seek to overthrow the oppressive apartheid regime of the Israeli government through violence. In response, Israel has bombed Palestinian hospitals, cut off water and food supplies and denied humanitarian aid to civilians. We are witnessing a genocide in real time. While the Western media leans into a narrative favourably towards Israel with outright condemnation of violence by Palestinian groups on a backdrop of pro-Palestine protests erupting around the world — issues of determining who is right and who is wrong in this conflict calls for a political philosophy analysis. To answer this question, we must first determine what conditions give rise for civil disobedience to be considered just? And, at what point is it acceptable for civil disobedience to give way to violence? But at the heart of both questions is the need to pursue practical real-world justice.
This question of justified civil disobedience lies at the intersection of the theoretical disputes between John Rawls’ theory of justice and Laura Valentini’s theory of non-compliance and their practical implications in the pursuit of justice. Where Rawls perceives civil disobedience as a stabilising force in a nearly just society, Valentini offers a nuanced understanding of its global implications, which considers the context and uniquely human element of political disputes. But while most theorists argue against the use of violence and caution a steady and tactful approach — steeped in traditions of Western civility — I argue that there exists a philosophical basis for violent resistance by the Palestinian people. This essay aims to discern the practical applicability of these two philosophical notions of justice when contextualised within the Israeli-Palestine conflict using Andrew Sabl’s principles of civil disobedience.
I. Rawls and Valentini’s Theories
John Rawl’s influential work, A Theory of Justice, stands as a foundational argument for promoting ideals of social cooperation and fairness as justice in modern democratic societies. This theory is founded on two premises: The ‘Original Position’, where individuals who are blind to their personal characteristics and social status are then tasked with establishing the foundational principles for a just society. The idea of this premise is to not only create a level of impartiality within the thought experiment but also provides a moment for individuals to pause and consider the circumstances that they would be subject to should they have found themselves born into a less-than-fortunate social position. The ‘Original Position’ provides the architecture for Rawls’s (i) principle of basic liberties, which promotes equality of opportunities and (ii) the difference principle, which aims to address economic inequalities. In sum, Rawls provides an argument for a form of justice that strikes a balance between equality and diversity by addressing systemic differences by promoting fairness and equity.
In her critique, Laura Valentini argues that Rawls’s theory lacks practical applicability and falls short of engaging with the complex nuances of real-world conditions. Valentini believes that the Rawlsian theory of justice maintains an unachievable bar of virtuousness to the point of promoting unrealistic concepts of justice that would otherwise only be achieved in a utopian society. In its unattainability, Rawlsian theories lead to impractical prescriptions that fall short of addressing actual societal challenges. In contrast, she gives us the non-ideal theory — a theory that moves towards acknowledging and taking into account existing power dynamics and structural injustices. Valentini’s approach to justice advocates for recognising the nature of real-world contexts within societies when addressing justice issues by acknowledging the obstacles that will naturally exist through the self-interest of parties and historical, cultural and political contexts that inform the fabric of societal injustices. In essence, where Rawlsian justice maintains a level of utopian idealism, Valentinis offers a justice that is imperfect and arguably ‘non-ideal’ but somewhat attainable — however, this attainability comes at the cost of accepting some elements of the status quo, even if it is unjust.
II. Practical Implications of Theoretical Disputes
Late nineteenth century philosopher Henry David Thoreau first coined the term’ civil disobedience’ in his 1903 lecture as a moral duty to not support a government with unjust laws, where unjust laws are defined as a code that is enforced by the majority on a minority that degrades human personality. The Israeli-Palestine conflict provides the context to examine Rawls and Valentini’s principles of justice as applicable to civil disobedience. Where Rawls may argue that civil disobedience can be used to address injustices within a just society, applying his perspective to this conflict would support acts of civil disobedience that aim to advance a peaceful coexistence between the two States, one where human rights are upheld, and a fair resolution for both parties is the desired outcome. Rawls’s theory of justice emphasises civil disobedience as ethically grounded actions designed to improve the existing system of society. In essence, when applied to civil disobedience, Rawlsian principles of justice dictate that civil disobedience is just when it is measured, controlled and contained within a nearly just society.
In contrast, Laura Valentini’s theory argues that Rawlsian principles neglect important facts about real-world politics and calls for citizens to comply with the law unless it is unquestionably unjust. Valentini’s Ideal Theory assumes full compliance within a just society, while her non-ideal theory considers partial compliance within unfavourable conditions. When applying Valentini’s theory, we see an argument that calls for caution and, discourages acts of civil disobedience and emphasises the need to protect the status quo and maintain order over the pursuit of justice through acts of disobedience.
In terms of differences regarding policy approaches to conflicting interests, Rawls seems to encompass natural law principles that advocate for the law to be changed to remedy injustices and focuses on the system adjusting to the needs of the people. At the same time, Valentini appears to lean towards a more positivist approach by emphasising compliance and valuing systemic order over the disorder that would come with civil disobedience. When we apply this to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, where Israel operates as the oppressor and maintains and benefits from an apartheid regime over Palestine, Rawls would most likely be in favour of civil disobedience against Israel, while Valentini would caution disrupting the already established system by the dominant power. However, one glaring problem arises for both approaches — which is that both argue that civil disobedience ought to be non-violent when based in a society that is considered nearly just; and yet it is unclear as to what conditions must be met for a tipping point to occur — essentially, at what point does injustice justify violent action?
III. Andrew Sabl’s Principles of Civil Disobedience
Andrew Sable’s principle for civil disobedience provides the following criterion for when civil disobedience is justified: A society must possess a ‘piecewise justice’, whereby the dominant group practices justice amongst itself but perpetrates injustices towards an oppressed group — in this, it is a nearly just society but is not one that quite fulfils the requirements of Rawls’ ideal just society. However, while Sabl provides that civil disobedience can be considered a duty to defend one’s liberties that overrides one’s duty to comply with the laws, there remains an overarching and universally agreed upon restraint — that civil disobedience ought to be wholly non-violent. This exercise in restraint raises two issues for oppressed Palestinians. The first is that non-violence requires the oppressed group to exercise good faith towards their oppressors, the Israeli government. Second is the problem of residual obligation — which raises the question of why oppressed people subjected to systemic injustice ought to retain any duty towards an oppressive regime. Sabl attempts to resolve both paradoxes by arguing that (i) a sense of natural duties, (ii) a forward-thinking attitude, (iii) and targeted objectives that consider the possibility of a mutually beneficial coexistence between the oppressed and (former) oppressors. Combined, these principles ought to inform any decisions to engage in civil disobedience. Practically speaking, civil disobedience serves as both a check on and a catalyst for justice, with its validity stemming from the exercise of restraint and non-violence. However, while Sabl acknowledges that there is a natural inclination towards violence, she falls into the similar pitfalls of Rawls and Valentini, who, while calling for universal pacifism, nonetheless fail to elaborate extensively on the role violence could play in civil disobedience.
IV. An Argument for Violence
Two scholars, Kai Nielsen and John Morreall, effectively argue in favour of violence by cautioning against complacency and contend that an immediate dismissal of violent acts as morally wrong is not feasible without possessing a comprehensive and accurately factual context of the dispute at hand. Nielson argues that the role of violence in international affairs are often subjected to a highly emotional and ideologically distorted narrative by the media — an element that is particularly relevant in the current Israeli-Palestine conflict. He further advocates that acts of violence in socialist revolutions ought to be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that although violence is often a sign of desperation in a revolutionary movement, it can sometimes be morally justified in regimes that are cruel and overtly oppressive, giving rise to a moral and worthwhile end. Nielson argues that while pacifism is often the morally preferred form of resolution in democratic societies, it can nonetheless give rise to coercion and undermine the duty to seek justice in societies that may be less than democratic.
Meanwhile, Morreall questions the justification for perceiving violence as being inherently unjustifiable in civil disobedience while tolerating other forms of violence, such as coercive and oppressive regimes to exist. He argues that violence in civil disobedience can be justified when there exists a fundamental violation of individual prima facie rights, and where the law is immoral or there exists a higher moral obligation to pursue justice; individuals are justified in breaking the law and committing violent acts that may supersede the rights of their oppressors. When applying the theories of Nielsen and Morreal, an argument that supports acts of violence by Palestine to overthrow an Israeli apartheid regime emerges.
The theoretical constructs presented by Nielson and Morreal provide a convincing framework to evaluate situations where violence can be justified in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. This is particularly relevant for instances of resistance by Palestine in its struggle against an overtly inhumane apartheid regime that has been responsible for the displacement, violence and human rights violations experienced by Palestinian people since the 1940s. Moreover, while Rawls and Valentini provide a theory that can be broadly accepted; Nielson and Morreal vehemently iterate for careful study of nuances within each dispute — urging observers of conflicts to exercise careful scrutiny before reaching any immediate condemnations of violence.
V. Rawls, Valentini and Sabl: An intersection in the Israeli-Palestine Conflict
Rawls and Valentini offer distinct viewpoints that, when applied to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, are intertwined with Sabl’s civil disobedience theory. Together, they delve into the philosophy of political resistance that demands a moral justification in situations that encompass complex issues of racial and religious divide, societal fairness and the balancing of rights where inequalities exist. In response to the recent events that have occurred in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, each theory provides a different application relating to the nature of which side carries the strongest moral feasibility for its actions.
Rawls’s A Theory of Justice emphasises the value of fairness, equality and a well-ordered society. In this context, Rawls might advocate for a comprehensive peace settlement that respects the fundamental rights and liberties of both the Israeli and Palestine peoples, with particular emphasis on the difference principle — which may see a scale back on Israeli actions to accommodate and support Palestinians in reaching a status of equality equivalent to their Israeli counterparts in order to address historical injustices. However, given the nature of the conflict and Israel’s historical record of numerous human rights violations, it is unlikely Rawls has any real-world application in this conflict at a passive level, but rather it serves as a foundational call for oppressed Palestinians to seek justice for the current injustices they endure.
Valentini, with her focus on achieving objective outcomes grounded in reality, expands on Rawls’s ideas by advocating for a global justice approach that has a more systemic focus that calls for the responsibility of states and individuals to address transnational issues. Her approach to the conflict would be to uphold pre-existing dispute resolution mechanisms and would align with previous attempts to resolve the conflict through diplomacy, such as the Oslo Accords.
Last, Sabl’s perspective in Looking Forward to Justice highlights civil disobedience as a legitimate means of addressing injustices within a nearly just society, where individuals believe their fundamental human rights are violated. Sabl’s theory could be applied to the Israeli-Palestine conflict if it can be proven that Israel qualifies as a nearly just society, one where there is a practice of justice and fairness amongst and towards its own citizens. However, the Israeli government has a practice of creating social disparities even amongst its citizens, where welfare rights are obsolete and the status of rights to education, health, housing and employment are regulated to the realm of consumer goods subject to market forces, rather than an inherent human right. Considering that Israel cannot maintain a system of fairness and equality for its own citizens, and its long history of violations and disregard for international law, it is safe to conclude that Israel fails to meet the test of being both a nearly just society and a reasonable actor on the international plane. When this is established, the argument for passive, non-violent civil disobedience becomes obsolete.
In conclusion, the intricate and multifaceted nature of societal and political conflicts, such as the Israeli apartheid regime over Palestine, calls for a nuanced philosophical analysis to determine the moral strength of violent or non-violent actions. Rawls, Valentini and Sabl’s theories provide a unique lens through which conflict can be viewed — underscoring different facets of justice and equity that inform civil disobedience respectively. While Rawls envisions a society grounded in fairness and equal opportunity, Valentini raises questions of idealism and insists on realistic strategies that do not fully dismantle existing systems. However, while the general consensus is to lean towards non-violent and diplomatic forms of dispute resolution, a central question remains: when and under conditions could violent resistance find a legitimate moral justification? The arguments presented by Nielson and Morreal suggest that in certain contexts, particularly where there is established evidence of an overtly oppressive and unjust regime, violence may indeed have a moral basis when used in the pursuit of justice. In sum, when considering the current Israeli-Palestine conflict, where certain acts can be regarded as morally abhorrent at first glance, it is vital to consider actions in light of the human rights violations that have been inflicted on Palestine and the level of desperation that informs the decisions to engage in violent retribution.
A note to the reader: This essay is written in response to a prompt for a university assessment. The question posed was: Do the theoretical disputes between Rawls and Valentini make any practical difference in the pursuit of justice? Apply this critique to Andrew Sabl’s principles of civil disobedience. I chose the current events unfolding in the Israel-Palestine conflict as a case study for this essay as I have a special interest in de-colonisation, human rights and international law. Finally, to clarify — this article is not intended to encourage acts of violence against innocent civlians, but puts forward an argument for violent resistence, where the government and the mechanisms that allow for an apartheid regime to exist are effectively dismantled. This essay does not reflect the views of any association or organisation that I am affiliated with.
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