Postcards from Abu Dis (2): Pedagogy Under Occupation

My political philosophy class here at Al Quds University has met either once or twice so far, depending on how you count. I’m told that 19 students are enrolled, but only one showed up on the first day, so I didn’t really teach that much. Four students showed up for class two, so we had a full class. I’m told that this pattern of attendance (or non-attendance) is a bit of a tradition in this neck of the woods: things start slowly at first, and then, little by little, build to a pedagogical crescendo. It’s the reverse of the pattern I’m used to at Felician, where everyone on the roster shows up on the first day of class, but fewer and fewer show up as the term wears on, so that by the last day, you’re lucky if anyone shows up–and at some level, they’re lucky if you do.

There’s a sense in which what I’m doing here at Al Quds is pedagogically controversial and a departure from my usual approach to teaching. Without literally engaging in advocacy in the classroom, I’m taking an overtly political approach to how I’m framing the class. I am, in effect, unapologetically teaching not political philosophy per se, but “Political Philosophy (and the Occupation).” Though it’s not what I would do in the average American classroom, I’d like to think that it could bear scrutiny by observers from back home. So I thought I’d say a bit about it, and invite some scrutiny.

There’s no way to teach political philosophy from a literally neutral perspective. You can’t successfully teach, say, Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan simply by showing up in the classroom, knowing nothing about the interests or psychology of your students, and “covering the material.” That’s a recipe for pedagogical failure. It may work in other disciplines, but it can’t work in philosophy. The problem with it is that philosophical “material” is too open-ended and protean to be approached in this way. There’s no single, standardized “right way” to teach a philosophical text. There are too many choices to be made–regarding translation, selections, questions to be pursued and not pursued–and too many legitimate ways of making them. Choices of that kind are dictated in part by the audience you want to reach, and what you want to achieve with them.


Suppose you decided to teach Plato’s Republic, and “simply” wanted to “cover the arguments,” whether in the sense of merely summarizing them, or summarizing them, laying them out in deductive fashion, and testing each of them sequentially for validity and soundness. I suppose you could do that, and at some level, anyone would have to do a bit of it. But you couldn’t leave things there. The “material” you’d ideally want to cover is not reducible to a summary of the arguments in “the” text, or even reducible to a summary plus a sequential set of tests of the soundness of each argument (assuming that that’s even possible, and waiving questions about how to individuate the arguments in the text). At a minimum, what you’d need in addition to all of that is analysis of the contested concepts of each of the premises of every major argument–and not just a straight “conceptual analysis” as analytic philosophers often use that phrase, but a sort of dialectical and rhetorical analysis that takes stock of what those concepts mean to your students both cognitively and emotionally.

Putting things slightly differently: if you want the material to sink in—in any sense of “sink in”—you have to ask how it connects with the beliefs, desires, habits, practices, preoccupations, etc. (call it the ‘context’) that the students bring to the text. How do they conceptualize “justice,” “friendship,” “harm,” “advantage,” “promises,” “debt,” and so on? If you ignore that personal context, the class will backfire: the text becomes a series of alien and alienating abstractions without connection to the students’ experiences. That’s what makes teaching both challenging and enjoyable, and somewhat analogous to psychotherapy. Whether you’re teaching philosophy or engaging in therapy, you can’t waltz in, hit your “audience” with a Power Point presentation and waltz out. You have to interact with themgoing back and forth between the text and the context they bring to it, until each thing manages actively to illuminate the other. (By the way, this is why online teaching will never become a literal substitute for on-the-ground teaching in philosophy.)


The issue becomes particularly acute when you’re teaching a dialogue like the Republic: dialogues are stories, and readers either relate or don’t relate to a story.There is no successful way to teach “the arguments” of Plato’s Republic while ignoring how students relate to Socrates, Glaucon, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus as characters. You might as well read The Brothers Karamazov “for the arguments” while ignoring the brothers.

In fact, the dialogue form is what makes Plato’s Republic such a hard but great text to teach. What would make Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill easier to teach would be some way of presenting them in dialogue form. But that, of course, is what a class on such texts has to become. What Socrates says to those characters in the Republic is informed by his knowledge of their personalities, and the same thing has to be true of a successful instructor teaching Aristotle and the rest. Absurd and presumptuous as it may sound, once you teach Plato’s Republic, and move on to the rest of the class, you the instructor have to play Socrates to the Glaucons, Adeimantuses, Polemarchuses, and Thrasymachuses in your classroom–but on Aristotelian, Machiavellian, Hobbesian (etc.) material. The classroom has to become an extended dialogue.


As an American, 99.99% of the teaching I’ve ever done has been done in the United States. Even there, regional and institutional differences have always necessitated adjustments to my pedagogical methods. I saw this with blinding clarity one semester when I happened simultaneously to be adjuncting at Princeton University, The College of New Jersey, and Mercer County Community College—three institutions within a few miles of each other, but that may as well have been located in different galaxies. Princeton is an Ivy League university, TCNJ is a small state college, and MCCC is a two-year county college devoted to remedial work.

I’ll admit that I had a few Stand-and-Deliver-type fantasies about teaching my MCCC students by exactly the same standards and methods as my Princeton students, but mercifully, those plans didn’t get past the fantasy stage. The differences between Princeton and MCCC students, learning philosophy within five miles of one another on different sides of Route 1, are a blog post in themselves, but suffice it to say that they demanded drastically different pedagogical treatment. I didn’t happen to teach the same class at both places, but if I had, they’d have to be taught in radically different sorts of ways. And what applies to two or three different schools in Mercer County a fortiori applies to a school thousands of miles away in the Jerusalem Governorate. It makes no sense to teach Palestinians philosophy the way I teach it to Americans.


In general, the American students I’ve taught—twenty-one years’ worth of students at seven institutions in three states—are politically disengaged. They’re preoccupied with personal concerns and personal pleasures that push political concerns to the side: clubbing, drinking, drugs, sex, sports, shopping, and parties on the frivolous end; friends, family, romantic relationships, career choices, money, logistical worries (e.g., transportation, child care, etc.), and medical-mental health issues at the more serious end. Military veterans aside, the political world doesn’t interest them, and to put the point somewhat uncharitably, they rarely have anything of interest to say about it, either. The political issues that concern them are hyperlocal issues of direct consequence to them, e.g., the rules and regulations governing student loans. (It seems to me characteristically New Jersey-esque to think that defaulting on one’s college loans is a significant form of political protest. But I’ve complained about this attitude too recently to spend time on it now.)

The sort of issue that consistently makes its way to the front page of The New York Times strikes most of my students as distant, abstract, and ultimately meaningless. Take the headlines above the fold in today’s edition of the Times (meaning the June 9 edition): “Justices Reject Passport Law on Jerusalem”; “A Raid on ISIS Yields a Trove of Intelligence”; “Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights”; “A Rare Gambit Seeking Justice for a Shot Boy.” I can just hear my students asking:  What does any of that have to do with my life?

It’s tempting to respond that while the details of these stories aren’t directly related to their lives, surely justice, rights, intelligence and passports/constitutionalism are relevant. Isn’t that enough to get students engaged with politics? The answer is “no.” The response presupposes a concern with principle and a degree of empathy for others that isn’t always there (=usually isn’t there), and can’t easily be taught, if it can be taught at all, at least in a classroom (cf. Plato’s Meno).

In my experience, not even crime and race relations are an exception to the general rule of political disengagement, at least not in suburban New Jersey. The events of the last year–Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.–haven’t really changed anything. After all, race relations on campus (my campus) are generally good, and a black guy is president: that tends to be good enough to preserve the equilibrium of complacency. As far as my students are concerned, Ferguson, Cleveland, and even Staten Island may as well be foreign countries. So the pedagogical task in the American context is to find a way to make the political personal–to make it matter to students in a personal way.

Here in Palestine, the situation is just the reverse: the political is already personal; the (merely) personal is relatively unimportant. More specifically, for the Palestinian students I’ve met, occupation is their preoccupation. Like anyone, they may well be preoccupied, more remotely, with personal concerns and pleasures (hookahs, cigarettes, coffee, hanging out in cafes), but the burning issue that concerns them is life under Israeli military occupation. What they need (as I see it) is a means of standing back and taking a broader perspective on things than the daily grinding outrage they feel about the situation they’re in. That said, one can’t expect them simply to ditch the outrage and theorize in the abstract.

There’s a balance to be struck here, and it’s a hard balance to find. From experience, I’ve decided this time to push things in the politically engaged direction after having made the mistake last time I was here of pitching things in an overly abstract way. When I lectured here two years ago on Locke, I’d intended to give a relatively uncontroversial overview of themes in Locke’s political philosophy, along with a sketch of Locke’s relevance, at a very high level of abstraction, to the Israel-Palestine dispute. That first lecture (of three) didn’t go well, and its failure was a valuable learning experience for me. (I learned quickly enough to make the second and third lectures more successful, but they were on different topics anyway.) I still don’t think I said anything false, but much of what I said was irrelevant to the audience I was facing. And it’s not that I knew nothing about my audience’s concerns; I knew that they were living under a military occupation and resented it. But I had misjudged the degree and intensity of that resentment. I also knew less than I thought I did about the occupation itself.

Psychologically, I came to realize, my Palestinian audience simply could not focus on Locke qua Locke, abstracting entirely from Locke’s relevance to the occupation. My Locke lecture was, for them, like an outlandish two-hour thought-experiment offered for reflection to people in prison. “You keep talking about rights,” I remember one guy saying. “But we don’t have any of these rights.” And not having them became an insuperable barrier to hearing what I had to say about Locke. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, an objection to anything I had said. I hadn’t after all said that they had the rights Locke says we have. The objection was that in jumping straight into Lockean theory, I had made demands of them that flouted their experience.


Pedagogically, one has to make a choice here that one doesn’t, I think, have to make back home. If I’m going to get students here to open up psychological space for theorizing, I can either motivate that theorizing as a good thing in general, or as a good thing as a form of resistance to the occupation. And I’ve decided to go with the latter. I don’t see the point in pretending that I’m neutral on that subject, or even that the purpose of the class is neutral with respect to it. I’m not neutral, and neither is the class. The occupation is unjust. The class is a form of resistance to it. Enough divides me from these students as it is, even in the context of that agreement, to justify using the agreement to forge a common bond, and letting it promote classroom rapport. I’m teaching here to help them think their way out of the occupation, insofar as that can be done.

I’m teaching Plato tomorrow, but I think the point can more easily be conveyed by thinking about Locke. In teaching Locke here last time, I realized that one can’t teach Locke in Palestine by putting the text of the Second Treatise at the forefront and keeping the occupation on the backburner. One has to bring Locke to the occupation, and vice versa. To give a sense of what I mean, imagine a hypothetical class or set of classes on the first five chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise, as follows.

The class begins with Locke’s account and definition of “political power” in ST I.3. The definition seems straightforward enough; I don’t recall any of my teachers or interlocutors spending much time on it. But the details of the definition have a certain subtle significance in a Palestinian context, as applied to the Oslo definitions of Areas A, B, and C in the West Bank. Who (it’s worth asking) has Lockean “political power” in each place under that arrangement–Israel or the Palestinian Authority? That way of asking the question turns out to be both illuminating and disorienting. On a conventional view, the Palestinians rule Area A, there’s joint rule in Area B, and the Israelis rule Area C.* But that’s not the question. The question is: Who has Lockean political power over the West Bank? And the answer is that the Israelis do. That’s why the tripartite division of the West Bank doesn’t change the fact that the West Bank remains as occupied as it ever was: it remains occupied by Israeli political power in the specifically Lockean sense, not the conventional one, something worth bearing in mind when one faces someone who insists that the West Bank is “no longer occupied.”

Move to book II of the ST, which discusses Locke’s conception of the State of Nature. Most of PoT’s readers can probably recite some version of an undergraduate lecture on this topic: “A Lockean State of Nature is a hypothetical state of affairs in which persons exist with rights of freedom and equality, but without a common political power.” The sticking point is “hypothetical.” Yes, that’s what the words say, but what is a State of Nature really like? Nozick is somewhat helpful in clarifying this a bit:

To understand precisely what civil government remedies, we must do more than repeat Locke’s list of the inconveniencies of the state of nature. We also must consider what arrangements might be made within a state of nature to deal with these inconveniences…Only after the full resources of the state of nature are brought into play…will we be in a position to see how serious are the inconveniences that yet remain to be remedied by the state, and to estimate whether the remedy is worse than the disease. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 10-11).

At this point, however, Nozick offers a very abstract (some would say implausible, fantastic, and rationalistic) account of protective associations, dominant protective associations, invisible hand explanations, and the task of backing into the state. It’s intended as a just-so story, but it sort of seems like a fairy story.

But there’s another way, a more concrete way, to see how serious are the inconveniences of life without a state. Go to a place that doesn’t have a state and take a look around. For instance, go to Area B in the West Bank and ask: is Area B a Lockean State of Nature? What inconveniences arise from the absence of a state here? What improvements, if any, would be made if a state could be brought into existence? What kind of state would improve things, and how? Your answers may not generalize to every State of Nature, but they may tell you something that you won’t get by reflecting from your armchair (a la Nozick) on Proudhon, Schelling, Rothbard, and Boulding. (Incidentally, go back and re-read p. 4 of Anarchy on this very under-remarked issue–how exactly do we conceptualize the State of Nature–and the question turns out to be both central to Nozick’s conception of political philosophy, and totally unresolved. But that’s a topic for a different post.)

Move now to book III of the Second Treatise, on the State of War. It might be valuable to apply a similar approach to this topic as to the last one. We can all read Locke’s definition of the State of War without any trouble, but how does it apply to particular cases? For instance: is the Palestinian Authority in a (Lockean) State of War vis-à-vis Hamas and/or Israel right now? Can the Palestinians be in a State of War vis-à-vis the Israelis if Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has sworn off “armed struggle” as a means of dealing with the occupation? Can a State of War obtain between two parties, like the PA and Hamas, that have formed an alliance with one another, albeit in a state of nature? Questions like that give Locke a poignancy in the Palestinian context he wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Book IV of the Second Treatise discusses slavery: some sensitive topics come up here. On Locke’s view, slavery is “the State of War continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive” (ST IV.24.16ff). Does that mean that the Israeli occupation is a form of slavery in Locke’s sense? Arguably, it does. Though Locke is famous for the view that suicide is morally impermissible (since we’re all God’s property, ST II.6.19), he leaves the door open for suicide under slavery (ST, II.23.13) while “resisting the will of [one’s] master.” But if you can commit suicide under slavery as a form of resistance to your master, can you kill your master while you’re at it? If the occupation turns out to be a form of Lockean slavery, that gives Locke a closer kinship to Hamas and Islamic Jihad than anyone might have expected, a thought that seems to have escaped most academic interpreters of Locke I’ve read.

Finally, consider Locke on property, with an explicit view to the implications of his views on property disputes in Israel and the West Bank (ST V). Here’s a short laundry list of questions that occur within the first few paragraphs of Locke’s discussion:

  • If, as Locke tells us, we’re to rely on reason and revelation for our account of property (ST V.25.5), does that mean that Islamic sharia is a legitimate source of norms regarding property rights? Sectarian prejudices aside, why wouldn’t it be?
  • While we’re on the topic: Is Locke pro-Palestinian or pro-Zionist or neither? Is Locke’s labor-based conception of property an implicit defense of the Palestinians’ natural right to stay on the land in defiance of legal processes that evict them, or is just a set of anachronistic apologetics for Labor Zionism?
  • According to Locke, initial appropriation of land proscribes wasting it, demands its improvement, and requires leaving ‘enough and as good’ for others (ST V.31-33). The model Locke seems to have in mind is agriculture—even more specifically, the English enclosure movement. But how does that relate, if at all, to nomadic Arab Bedouins in Israel/Palestine?
  • According to Locke, God gave the use of the land to “the industrious and rational” (ST V.34.5). Do Bedouins qualify as “industrious and rational” in the relevant sense? Or is Israel right to think that they’re neither: that nomadism wastes land, environmentally degrades it, and uses too much space, so that there’s a justification for expropriating Bedouins by force and putting them in settled and civilized housing projects?

That’s just a hypothetical set of classes on Locke. I doubt even the most proficient instructor could do more than scratch the surface of the issues I’ve mentioned in an actual class. But what’s true of Locke ends up being true across the board. To teach Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli (etc.) in Palestine, you have to ‘Palestinianize’ those texts. I don’t mean, of course, that you read them for things that aren’t in them. I mean that you have read them for what’s in them in relation to the context that surrounds you, where the context picks out features of the text or approaches to the text you might not otherwise have focused on.

The irony is that doing so makes these texts both easier and more difficult to teach at the same time, but in different respects. Easier because it gives them a concentrated focus that they would otherwise lack. More difficult because one rarely reads them in this way back home, and the task of integrating theory and practice is a difficult one where an outsider like me is forced to do a fair share of groping in the dark.

I told my students the other day that life under occupation gave them an advantage that few people have, and that as students of political philosophy, they ought to be grateful for it.

That got their attention. One of them asked me (with all due respect) what the hell I was talking about. I told her (them) that the advantage in question was epistemic: few people in the world live under military occupation, from which it follows that few people know what it’s like to live under one. Arguably, that goes for most philosophers, including most (though not all of) the philosophers we’re about to read in the course. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Mill didn’t (as far as I know) live under occupation-like conditions, though arguably, Machiavelli, Locke, and Marx did.

Since (I suggested) Palestinians can’t wish the occupation away, they might as well capitalize on whatever features of it can be put to their advantage. Political philosophy gives its devotees a perspective on their immediate political situation that facilitates a comprehension that they might not otherwise have had. But it works the other way around as well: ‘naïve’ readers may well have something to teach the giants of philosophy what they would never have thought of on their own.

That, at any rate, is my bet. I’m curious to see if I win it.

*Thanks to Kate Herrick for spotting a typo in the original version of this sentence.

34 thoughts on “Postcards from Abu Dis (2): Pedagogy Under Occupation

  1. “Whether you’re teaching philosophy or engaging in therapy, you can’t waltz in, hit your “audience” with a Power Point presentation and waltz out. You have to interact with them, going back and forth between the text and the context they bring to it, until each thing manages actively to illuminate the other.”


    More seriously, this is a fantastic and fascinating post. It simultaneously inspires me in thinking about my teaching and makes me ashamed that my teaching has so infrequently had anything like the kind of impact I’d want it to (of course, I’ve taught a lot of introductory and intermediate Greek and Latin, which doesn’t exactly maximize opportunities for the kind of impact you’re talking about here). I’ll be eager to read more about how your classes go.

    I couldn’t help but reflect on how your course and your approach to it look in light of the recent disputes about sensitivity and trigger warnings and the like in the U.S.. Here, we have on the one hand people who have been sexually assaulted and therefore are understandably sensitive to representations of sexual violence and flippant discussion of it in classrooms, and on the other hand people who are at least arguably just offended by certain views; in both cases the suggestion is at least sometimes that both groups should just be shielded from what makes them uncomfortable, or at least that we, their instructors, should do everything in our power to minimize their discomfort. There, you have people who are daily subjected to direct oppression of a sort that might make even the trauma of sexual assault seem relatively tame; but the suggestion that the right way for you to proceed would be to avoid discussing sensitive issues or presenting ideas that might conflict with your students’ beliefs unless you do it in a way designed to minimize discomfort would seem pretty obviously absurd. Instead, you begin by telling them that their experience puts them at an advantage, a claim that you surely know is likely to strike some negative emotional chords, and yet which seems quite right (and which resembles a kind of ‘standpoint epistemology’ that is usually associated with the kind of self-styled radical thought that gave us the notion of a trigger warning). In general, your whole post could be read as an argument for the thought that effective and valuable pedagogy will not seek to minimize discomfort or avoid painful and controversial issues, but use them to make the course material matter. It’s no doubt harder to do it your way than to just present it all abstractly, quiz the students on their superficial knowledge of the texts you assign, and then go home. But even if the class doesn’t turn out as well as you’d ideally like it to, I can’t believe it won’t be far more valuable for you and the students than it would be if you followed the kinds of guidelines we’re now being asked — or required — to implement here.


    • Thanks. I haven’t had time to summarize the first text-based class I did on Wednesday, covering the first third of Republic I (from the beginning until the entrance of Thrasymachus). It was almost like something out of a script. Here we are, covering Republic I, and as Professor Khawaja is carrying on his amiable conversation with the Polemarchuses of the class, in steps a Thrasymachus roaring into our midst, annoyed at the way in which we talking like naive people, and politely giving way to one another. Also annoyed that I’m just asking questions and not giving real answers. And then he says: “What matters in politics are your temporary, always changing interests, your strategy for realizing them, and the power to do so. Socrates has nothing to teach us about any of this!”

      That aside, I just found myself marveling at the sheer brilliance of the opening passage of the Republic, from the beginning until maybe 336b or so, because it’s a picture-perfect allegory or dramatization of the ideological-rhetorical-political circumstances of a place like Palestine. Every character–Socrates, Glaucon, Polemarchus, even Adeimantus (328a), Cephalus, and Thrasymachus–has a kind of analogue in the political scene here.

      Just one tiny example: Socrates is coming back from the Piraeus with Glaucon, and is stopped by Polemarchus, who threatens to “detain” him. Socrates asks whether persuasion is a possibility, and Polemarchus suggests that it isn’t. Glaucon infers that the situation is hopeless. Polemarchus underscores that. And then Adeimantus offers the totally random assertion:

      Adeimantus: You mean to say you don’t know that there is to be a torch race on horseback for the goddess tonight?

      My first reaction was: WTF? What does that have to do with anything?

      But now that I’ve had a few conversations here, I get it. It’s a kind of enthusiastic, tension-reducing-outburst that changes the subject away from (force versus persuasion) to an exciting spectacle. It’s a distraction. But the distraction is visual, and Socrates uses the object of visual interest–the image–to ease everyone back into operating by dialectic. It’s a mini-instance of the kind of ascent he’ll discuss in Republic VII, and the kind we get in the Symposium. That interpretation may be totally off, but I came up with it after encountering Adeimantus-like responses in actual conversations.

      It would take a whole paper to explain what I mean by that, and I’m not confident I’m the one to write it. But I’ll try to sketch it here at some point, just to see whether it has any potential as a paper.

      I’ve been thinking about how my course here interacts with the trigger warning phenomenon as well. I’ve only taught three classes, though, so it’s premature to say all that much. Just a few preliminary thoughts:

      (1) I’m really not looking to minimize discomfort with these students. Our first full class was somewhat “tense,” by design. But if they can handle checkpoints and the rest, I think they can handle Khawaja. On my end, teaching these students reminded me a bit of teaching students in New York City (at John Jay)–the same sort of brash, assertive confidence coupled with engagement of a kind I don’t really get at Felician.

      (2) I understand that the prevalence of sexual assault may be high, but I think we need to stop being blackmailed by handwaving appeals to PTSD by people who want to dictate how we teach our classes. Here is just one example of the complexity of the research out there. And with all due respect, I think common sense dictates the recognition that the legal term “sexual assault” is very broad. Yes, all sexual assault is equally a boundary violation and ought to be treated that way by the law. But is it all of the same clinical significance? No. It’s become a kind of heresy to say this, but no sane clinician would treat an unwanted touch as equivalent to a case of violent rape. But when “triggering” is the issue, one is not allowed (and not permitted) to ask whether the PTSD that is alleged to arise in a given case arises from the one thing or the other. To subordinate the free flow of classroom discussion to demands of that sort is unacceptable. But they’re made.

      (3) That said, I think it’s an exaggeration to describe daily life here as a form of “direct oppression of a sort that might make even the trauma of sexual assault seem relatively tame.” It’s not that. It’s more like being locked in the county you live in and needing official permission to be able to leave. You could live comfortably like that without ever encountering–or often encountering–direct violent oppression. The oppression arises if you try to leave. Of course, there are tricks you can use for getting out, and during periods of low tension, they work fairly well. But every now and then, I’m told that the IDF bursts its way into town, and engages in random sprees and rampages of violence (I’m reporting here; I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen its effects and regard the claims as credible). If you keep your distance, you can probably keep out of trouble. But if you’re “in the way,” or have to go through checkpoints, it’s a daily, grinding affront.

      I think the real problem is that the Israeli government has not stopped viewing the Palestinians as a conquered population, and cannot stop reminding itself and that population of their status as a conquered population. It’s less a matter of direct physical violations than of affronts by weapons-toting youngsters. Perfect example: my first night here, we were stopped at an impromptu checkpoint in Area B, right before the city of Ezariah. It involved a delay of maybe ten minutes or so, and when we got to the actual checkpoint, we were waved through fairly quickly. But here is what stands out: Behind the soldiers were blue lights hung up in the trees, depicting two huge Stars of David and the number “67,” harking back to the Israeli victory in the 1967 war. It was so gratuitous: we weren’t even in Israel any more. But they had to display it there, loud and clear. It’s as though they can’t stop saying: “See? We won. See? We won. Guess who won? We did. Not you. Us. Now stop your car and get out.” The extreme attitude is the one in that Jerusalem Day video I blogged awhile back.

      My hunch is that people feel the need to talk (vent) about such experiences, not be shielded from conversation about them.

      Of course, every now and then, someone really does gets shot. Where are the trigger warnings when you need them?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “What matters in politics are your temporary, always changing interests, your strategy for realizing them, and the power to do so.” Um, doesn’t Socrates agree?

    I take your point on 3. I suppose I wasn’t thinking so much of literally daily experiences, but of the fact that virtually every one of your students will have witnessed some severe violence first-hand and likely have had relatives or acquaintances die as a result. No doubt it’s possible to avoid trouble yourself if you’re careful about it, but I think even the people who haven’t been directly subjected to violence themselves are still experiencing oppression with a frequency, immediacy, and severity that most of our students in the U.S. haven’t. That’s not to diminish the seriousness of what some of our students face; it’s to recognize the seriousness of what your Palestinian students face.


    • Ok, I suppose it’s disingenuous to suggest that Socrates agrees. Sure, he could agree to the statement taken literally, but presumably your Thrasymachean student thinks that there’s nothing more to our interests than the ones that are temporary and always changing, which Socrates rejects. Even so, it’s always seemed to me like one of the strengths of the Republic that Socrates agrees with Thrasymachus and his ilk that politics is about achieving what is good for us and not about subordinating our genuine interests to something outside of them. That’s a slightly contentious interpretation of the Republic, I guess, but I’d stand behind it; few of us will agree that our genuine interests can be so neatly identified with the interests of a community, but the argument is that justice is in our interest.


      • I was still puzzling over what you meant by Socrates’ agreement. But yes, the student thought there was nothing more to our interests than being temporary and changing, and more fundamentally, nothing more to our interests than our regarding them as our interests (which is why they’re so changeable).

        Re coincidence of interests, I think there’s a real danger in this (meaning the Palestinian) context of lapsing into the following pattern of thought:

        1. The Palestinian national movement’s interests are defined by the nation’s realization in the form of a Palestinian state.
        2. So whatever is required to bring about a state is in the national movement’s interests.
        3. As a Palestinian, my interests are identical with and constituted by those of the Palestinian national movement.
        4. So whatever is required to bring about a Palestinian state is in my interests.

        On a view like this, your identity qua human gets subsumed in (or by) your identity qua Palestinian. There’s no independent criterion of an interest that isn’t constituted by your Palestinian identity. But it seems to me that that gets things backwards: a “national” identity, insofar as it has any value, has to measure up to some conception of flourishing qua human that is independent of national identity. Likewise with the legitimacy of a state based on such a nationalist conception. But that’s a very hard thing to sell here.


      • Well, I taught the second half of Republic I today. I don’t have time to blog it, but the Thrasymachus Faction (really one student of the dozen or so who showed up) was pretty forthright about their sympathies:

        Khawaja: So there are three possibilities here. Either justice must be done because it’s to our advantage, or must not be done because it’s to our disadvantage, or should be done despite being to our disadvantage. Which seems most plausible to you?

        Palestinian Thrasymachus: Is that even a question? The answer is obvious.

        Khawaja: So what is it?

        PT: Injustice would be the thing to do and the trait to have, as long as you could get away with it. Injustice gets you everything. Justice makes you lose out. That’s obvious. Why are we even having this conversation? It’s stupid. No one in his right mind would be just if he had a feasible way of being unjust.

        Khawaja: So the Israeli occupation is unjust, isn’t it?

        PT: Yes, and totally advantageous to them. They don’t lose anything by occupying us. It’s absurd to think that they do.

        Khawaja: Would you trade places with them if you could?

        PT: Of course I would. Any honest person would admit that. Right now, they’re occupying us because they’re stronger. We’re weak, but if we could gain strength, we would occupy them. Of course. I’d do it in a minute if I could. There’s nothing ‘disadvantageous’ about it at all.

        Khawaja: But then they’re not doing anything wrong by occupying you. They’re just doing what any rational party would do, and they’re just doing what you yourself would do if you could.

        PT: Yes. You’ve just managed to confuse things by bringing morality and moral terminology into a discussion about politics. Politics is not about morality. Morality has no application to politics. Politics is about power–the power to acquire the resources you need to live. They get them by occupying us. We would get those resources by occupying them. It’s really that simple, not ‘complicated’ as you keep saying, or as Socrates thinks, or whatever.

        Khawaja: But on that view of things, you can’t appeal to third parties on moral grounds for help. You are not fighting a just cause against an unjust power. You’re not morally justified in resisting occupation, and the Israelis are not morally wrong for imposing it on you. You’re both just engaged in a non-moral struggle against one another, like animals or insane people. And third parties have no moral incentive to care about the prospects of either side.

        PT: Well, we don’t care about them, either.

        By this time, the class was in an uproar, with people raising their hands and practically jumping out of their seats to rebut PT’s view (his view really was a minority of one). Almost everyone else in the class agreed with Socrates, whether in the abstract or as applied to the occupation: justice benefits its practitioner; injustice harms its practitioner; the occupation is unjust and bad for both Israelis and Palestinians.

        This is kind of amusing, but when I mentioned the possibility that justice was disadvantageous, but perhaps we ought to sacrifice our interests to pursue it, my translator went blank and said. “Wait. I didn’t get that one. Could you repeat it?” I had to repeat it a couple of times and explain it before it clicked. He sat there a minute, repeated the phrase “sacrifice your interests,” thought about it, and then finally came up with a translation. It was the only translation issue in the whole 90 minute class that caught him off guard. Which pleased me. And is frankly kind of amazing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hmm, that is an interesting translation problem. Especially since it’s not like Palestinian culture knows nothing of acts that many English-speakers would describe as self-sacrificial; suicide bombings apparently do not strike mostly Palestinians as absurdly irrational, whatever else they might think about them. So I wonder: is this because they accept something like the cartoonish Western view of such acts, that they’re giving up their lives but going on to get a bunch of virgins or raisins or something in the afterlife, or is it because they don’t sharply differentiate their individual interests from the interests of the various groups to which they belong?

        It may be worth noting, though, that in the Republic there’s really no consideration of the view that justice is contrary to our interests but we should do what is just anyway. Glaucon & Adeimantus’ quasi-contractualist conception of justice explains why we should do what is just by connecting it to what is good for us; injustice would be better, and so we give up something when we act justly rather than unjustly, but between the (a) the danger of punishment and (b) the contribution that acting justly makes to other people’s willingness to treat us justly in return, we get agent-relative reasons to do justice, even if they’re pretty unstable reasons. There’s nothing like an appeal to universal or agent-neutral reasons to show that we should do justice even though it is of no benefit to us at all. Some people see an idea of that sort entering in with the metaphysics of the form of the good and the like, but I don’t think we get anything like agent-neutral reasons out of that. To my mind, one of the most interesting things about reading the Republic today is that nobody in the dialogue thinks about justice in the way that people today seem to do so most often, e.g., in arguing, for example, that what the Palestinians do to the Israelis or vice versa is wrong because they’re human beings and, dammit, human beings just have rights not to be treated that way. That sort of thought just isn’t on the table.


        • I may be overplaying the translation problem in my post. In other words, the translator was puzzled at that part of what I said, but it’s a leap on my part to think that the puzzlement arose because he had trouble translating “sacrifice of one’s interests.” It could be something else. An alternative explanation: he was operating on mental overdrive and just had a temporary block at that point.

          It’s hard to overstate how hard the translator’s job is here. He’s not only translating English into Arabic and vice versa on the fly, but encountering these texts for the first time. So he’s teaching, learning, and translating all at once. I haven’t introduced any Greek terminology into the mix yet; I just decided (with some misgivings) to treat dike as “justice” and accept the translation into Arabic of “justice” as “adl.” Every move there is questionable, but it would overcomplicate things to try to double back and explain it all. Call it a pedagogical, um, sacrifice.

          Anyway, I was saying: I haven’t introduced any Greek into the mix yet, but tomorrow I start on Politics I, and there I have to talk about the polis. Well, polis will become “city,” and “city” will get an Arabic translation that connotes modern cities. But then, are modern Palestinian cities that different (in structure) from Greek poleis? Maybe less so than ours.

          I actually have two translators whom I should mention by name–Sinan Abu Shanab and Hadi Abu Hilweh. They rock.


    • I agree with (a). Now that I think about it, I agree with (b) as well.

      Come to think of it, though Aristotle and Hobbes didn’t live under occupation per se, Aristotle was exiled for political reasons, and Hobbes lived through a civil war, so the parallels with Palestinian lives are there.

      And Mill was an imperialist, so I guess that’s his connection.


        • Well, I’ve been reading Chris Morris’s paper, “What’s Wrong with Imperialism?” (Social Philosophy & Policy, 2006), and I guess Chris’s point is, if you’re connected to imperialism, you don’t necessarily have anything to complain about:

          There is something good to be said about empire, and our automatic condemnations, although understandable, should not let us lose sight of this. Just as ‘philosophical anarchists’ and other skeptics of the state can admire and support decent states, so anti-imperialists may after all be able to give one cheer for empire. (p. 166).

          So let’s hear it, Roderick–one cheer a piece.


      • Aristotle’s native city was also completely destroyed by Philip II, and one of his close friends (who was, admittedly, a tyrant, oops) was tortured and executed by the Persians. So he was hardly oppressed, but he was more familiar with extreme political violence than most people I’ve met are. I think his experience of that and his reflection on similarly extreme conflicts in and around his lifetime help to account for a lot of what we find in Politics V.


  3. The friend was Hermias, right? I had known that, but apparently it went in my eyes and out of my brain, because I had totally forgotten about it.

    Doesn’t Aristotle’s exile to Chalcis near the end of his life count as a sort of oppression, since it was a response to indictment on a charge of impiety? After all, in the Palestinian context, people like Edward Said–well-off, well-educated academics–were regarded as oppressed exiles as well. (One of Said’s books is Reflections on Exile.) “Oppression” is a vague term, but I suppose all that it requires is to be the victim of coercion that significantly (and adversely) affects your life.

    Interesting side point: a colleague in the Philosophy Dept here gave me a copy of an unpublished paper of his in which he compares the status of Palestinians to metics in Athens. I’d have to think about it, but it’s an arresting suggestion (so to speak). The comparison is complicated by the fact that “Palestinians” hold three different legal statuses (formal citizenship in Israel proper, legal residence without citizenship in East Jerusalem, and political limbo under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza). But his point is that the first two statuses reduce in practice to that of being a metic.


    • That’s an interesting comparison. Offhand it doesn’t seem very promising, because metics could advance quite far in Athenian society; Lysias and his family (Cephalus, Polemarchus, et al.) were metics, and while they were treated pretty badly by the Thirty, so were lots of other people.

      I suppose I’d been assuming that the reports that Aristotle was formally charged with impiety were unreliable and that he simply left to avoid any potential trouble. In either case it’s obviously a complication, although one might think that the Athenians weren’t entirely crazy to be suspicious of him given his clear ties to the ruling family of their enemy (and the more or less direct role that some of his followers played in overthrowing the democracy after his death would probably have struck them as confirming evidence).


      • But Palestinians (and Arabs generally) can advance pretty far in Israeli society as well. In fact, that’s one of Israel’s bragging points, intended to deflect attention from criticism: there are Arab members of the Knesset, and elsewhere in government, and some do well in business.*

        Even in the West Bank, Ramallah is a booming, affluent city, despite the fact that West Bank Palestinians are stateless. All of that sits alongside the Palestinians in refugee camps, the poverty of the Bedouins, the unemployment, the daily struggles, etc. Palestinian society is highly stratified, but its upper crust can both advance in society and be badly treated by it, while its “lower crust” can’t advance and is ill-treated simultaneously. Though I wouldn’t say that Palestine is a rentier state (for one thing, it’s not a state), it has some of the features of one, and my guess is that that accounts for some of the stratification.

        What Palestinians have in common is not a common material predicament but a common political (non)-status: they’re stateless and citizenship-less. They’re an indigenous population that has come to be regarded as immigrants–the equivalent of legal immigrants in East Jerusalem, and illegal immigrants in the West Bank. But famously, immigrants (even illegal ones) can do well in their adoptive societies, as long as they do it as non-citizens. On the other hand, even in an immigrant-friendly country like the US there are the illegal immigrants who live lives of desperation (to say nothing of, eg, the UAE etc.). So I think the metic/immigrant/alien analogy is illuminating.

        *One caveat is that the Druze and some of the bedouins have effectively negotiated a separate peace with Israel that gives them special advantages over non-Druze, non-bedouin Arabs.


        • Well, there seem to me to be two important disanalogies: 1. Palestinians are, as you say, an indigenous population; metics in Athens (which had more of them than any other city state, so far as I know) were, as a class, not indigenous; it’s true that some of them may have been born there to metic parents, but for the most part metics were citizens of other cities who came to live in Athens. 2. Metics in Athens were not, as a population, subjected to the same kind of violence and arbitrary treatment that Palestinians can and often are subjected to; here it helps that metics were typically not seen as members of a different race, ethnicity, or religion. Another thing that makes the comparison complicated is that metics were recognized as free people rather than slaves, and while certainly non-membership in the polis made for a different kind of status and relationship, on the whole Greeks sustained a kind of solidarity with one another as free people that was available to them in part because of the prevalence of slaves in their society. Athenian ideology put a premium on the notion that free people should simply not be treated in certain ways no matter what their status, and from what I know the evidence suggests that they largely lived up to it.

          I don’t mean to imply that the comparison wouldn’t be illuminating, just that the differences would be a big part of what does the illuminating.


          • That sounds right. I wonder whether the metic analogy works better for Israeli Palestinians or Jerusalemite Palestinians as opposed to West Bank or Gaza Palestinians. Unlike metics, people in the first two categories are mostly indigenous, but unlike West Bank/Gaza Palestinians, they’re not (under those descriptions) living under military rule. So legally or formally speaking they’re not subjected to the kind of violence or arbitrary treatment characteristic of the other two groups. Unlike metics, Israeli Palestinians are full citizens; like metics, Jerusalemite Palestinians are legal-residents-of-Jerusalem (rather than full citizens of Israel, or anywhere else). Left-leaning Israelis make a valiant attempt to sustain a kind of solidarity with Israel/Jerusalemite Palestinians despite the fact that they’re seen as members of a different ethno-religious group (and in particular, a conquered ethno-religious group). So there’s a similarity there with metics sandwiched in a difference.

            I guess I’m agreeing that the comparison is illuminating but only within the context of a series of contrasts, provisos, distinctions, etc.

            Know anything worth reading on metics?


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