Liberalism and Ethnic Cleansing

In his post below, A.M. Lamey mentions a new (or newly revived) magazine called The Liberal. Interestingly, one of the contributers to The Liberal is Benny Morris, the controversial Israeli historian. Morris is known for arguing that 1) the founding of Israel involved a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, with the nascent state deliberately making life so miserable for the Palestinians that they had to flee and 2) this ethnic cleansing was completely justified, although some actions by Israeli soldiers (such as the rape of Palestinian women) were indefensible.

I’ll leave point #1 to the historians. It’s point #2 that’s interesting.

Here is what Morris said in a 2004 interview with Ari Shavit:

“There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.”

Well, it’s good to know that Morris is anti-rape. Maybe that’s what makes him a liberal. Another quote:

“There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.”

This is not a rhetorical question but asked with genuine puzzlement: how is support for ethnic cleansing compatible with liberalism? I know that in the past liberals believed in all sorts of horrible things: John Locke supported slavery and John Stuart Mill was an ardent imperialist (in an era when imperialism led to mass starvation in Ireland and India). Still, in the early 21st century, ethnic cleansing seems like something liberals shouldn’t support. (And I note that Morris is also a contributor to the New Republic, supposedly an organ of American liberalism).


5 thoughts on “Liberalism and Ethnic Cleansing

  1. I admire the creative genius that went into this post. One xenophobic historian gets a piece in a magazine called The Liberal, and a perfume of innuendo descends upon liberalism as a whole, its hidden tolerance for ethnic cleansing finally revealed.

    I encourage anyone seriously interested in this topic to read Samantha Power’s book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which recounts the honourable efforts of many liberal-minded men and women to stop one of the great horrors of our time.

  2. Well, the post would be innuendo if Morris were an exceptional case. But the fact is many people think the way he does: that the founding of Israel required ethnic cleansing. Some go even further and say that Israel should still be carrying on ethnic cleansing, should in fact be working to expel those Arabs who still have Israeli citizenship. (Daniel Pipes wants to give Arab Israelis money to leave). And people who feel this way are not unwelcome in liberal circles. Pipes has written for the New Republic, as has Morris. You wouldn’t have to search too far in the back issues of the New Republic to find xenophobic statements to equal that of Morris.

    So I’m not sure that Morris can be written off as an anomaly.

    Nor is this an example of Israeli exceptionalism. Certainly many of the great liberal nation-states have participated in some form of ethnic cleansing during the founding (think of the treatment of the aboriginals in the United States, New Zealand and Australia; or the Acadians in the British empire).

    I think the problem has to deal with the very nature of the nation-state. Liberalism came of age with the nation-state; the nation-state has been the chief agency that has allowed liberalism to flourish. The concept of citizenship is key to both liberalism and the nation-state. The problem is that the nation-state as it has historically existed is an exclusionary institution; key political decision about national identity revolve around who belongs and who doesn’t. Hence the rise of the nation-state has also seen the rise of ethnic cleansing and genocide. (As I understand it, this is why theorists Arendt and Agamben are so suspicious of the nation-state and the attendent language of human rights).

    I’ve read Samantha Power’s book but I took a very different lesson from it than A.M. Lamey does. He sees it as a story of the “horourable efforts of many liberal-minded men and women to stop one of the great horrors of our time.” I read it as a book about failure, in inherently doomed enterprise. Liberal-minded folks might want to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide but they fail again and again. Why? Because they are committed (as we all are) to an international system based on nation-states. And the nation-state is a terrible machine for generating ethnic cleansing and genocide.

    Any progress that comes has to involve re-thinking the nation-state, a re-thinking that is now only starting to happen. But unless we question the nation-state, we’ll be stuck with liberals like Benny Morris, who think that ethnic cleansing is a sometimes necessary evil, the omelet that has to be broken to make the egg.

  3. Seeing Arendt dragged into this argument is a bit like seeing someone use a beautiful antique piano to belt out a Jefferson Starship tune: strictly speaking it’s doing what it was designed for, but in a crude and garish way.

    Arendt points out that the overwhelming power of the modern state is what makes genocide etc. possible in the first place. However, the problem she speaks of applies to modern states as such, not just liberal ones. Indeed, while liberal states have often failed to intervene to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing–a serious and undeniable shortcoming–throughout the past century the genocide or cleansing itself has usually been carried out by non-liberal states (Ottoman Turkey, Nazi Germany, Communist Cambodia, Serbia, Sudan etc.) It is therefore misleading to suggest, as you seem to want to, that liberal states–or liberalism as such–is somehow especially guilty here. If anything the history of genocide in the 20th century suggests the opposite: liberal states, for all their problems, are not as bad as the historical alternatives.

    Similarly, the 19th-century tragedies you speak off stemmed not from the fact that the states in question were liberal or proto-liberal, but due to the racism that was common to everyone–liberal, conservative, socialist–at the time.

    Finally, I do not understand how you could have gone from your previous comment, about the role of the state in economic development, to writing this post. You appear to have gone from celebrating strong central governments to invoking the two philosophers, Arendt and Agamben, who are the most wary of them (to the point of paranoia in Agamben’s case, I would say). Whatever liberalism’s failings, at least defending it does not require the desperate thrashing about that attacking it clearly does.

  4. I’m not sure if there is such a contradiction between my comments on the other post and this one. In the other post I said that a strong, centralized state is a necessary pre-condition to economic growth. Here I’m say that the modern nation-state is a terrible engine for creating ethnic cleansing and genocide. Surely the two can be compatable — and in fact in making my argument about economic growth I deliberately cited one of the worst and most blood-thirsty of nation states: Communist China, which has killed lots of people and has a good record over the last thirty years of improving the economic lot of its citizens. The nation-state is a double-edged sword: essential for economic progress but also murderous. Hence the real political problem most of the world faces: how to build up the state and also limit the damage it does. (And also the question of how to move beyond the nation-state while preserving the social gains made under it).

    It’s not my intention to suggest that contemporary liberal nation-states or modern liberals are especially guilty of ethnic cleansing — far from it. If you look at the original post, I expressed “genuine puzzlement” that a magazine that calls itself The Liberal would publish and article by Benny Morris, an intellectual who speaks in favour of ethnic cleansing. The puzzlement comes from the fact that in the early 21st century, liberalism seems incompatable with support for ethnic cleansing. (And as I noted earlier, Morris also writes for another liberal magazine, The New Republic).

    To put it another way, while Morris is welcome in the pages of the The Liberal and The New Republic there are liberals who are opposed to ethnic cleansing who would not find a receptive audience from those magazines: one thinks here of Tony Judt. Which suggests that support for a certain set of militarized policies in the Middle East is damaging the ethical instincts of liberals.

  5. There is a strong strain of consequentialism in modern liberalism. For example many support affirmative action because of what they believe its consequences are — inclusion of minorities in the ruling classes. This in spite of manifest problems with it, both ideological and practical.

    Morris’s argument is pure consequentialism: better to forceably dispossess some people of property and place, than other people of lives. Lives are generally held as more valuable to protect than property rights. Of course it may be argued whether or not the alternatives before the Israelis really were to accept their genocide or perpetrate ethnic cleansing; but if you buy into that idea, then the mere fact of their violating rights seems to me to be something a consequentialist would support.

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