How ‘enlightened’ are we?

by Dr. Andrew Fagan, Senior lecturer, University of Essex Law School By invitation

Earlier this week we witnessed the latest development in the continuing and terrible disaster that is Gaza. The Palestinian death-toll is now estimated to be more than 35,000 people, many of whom are women and children. The physical infrastructure of Gaza lies in ruins and, even when this conflict ends, will take decades to rebuild. Following the earlier and ongoing case brought by South Africa against Israel in the ICJ, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC finally acted.

In a solemn and very public statement, Karim Khan KC issued an application for the arrest warrants of those he considers to be most responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in Gaza: three senior Hamas leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant. The charges against Netanyahu and Gallant include “causing extermination, causing starvation as a method of war, including the denial of humanitarian relief supplies, and deliberately targeting civilians in conflict.” ICC judges will now determine whether these warrants should be issued.

International response to Khan’s request was swift. Joe Biden described the move as “outrageous”. His Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken insisted that the ICC has no jurisdiction in this matter. The UK and Germany also condemned the Chief Prosecutor’s call. Others, including France, publicly reasserted support for the independence of the court.

The response from Netanyahu and other senior members of the Israeli government was to be expected. Netanyahu rejected the move completely. He angrily denounced what he saw as the false equivalency the charges imply between democratic Israel and Hamas, which is widely considered to be a terrorist organization. He went further and labelled the ICC’s prosecutor as one of the “great antisemites in modern times.”

The Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich echoed Netanyahu and proceeded to attack the ICC by stating that “these arrest warrants will be the last nail in the dismantling of this political and antisemitic court. The friends of Israel and the truly enlightened countries will not be able to allow its continued existence and functioning.” Benny Gantz and the leader of the opposition, Yael Lapid both unequivocally condemned and rejected the move.

Excluding the hostages taken by Hamas, most of the principal victims of this conflict live and die in plain sight. Beginning with the 1200 victims of Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7th, followed by the tens of thousands of Palestinians who are being killed by the IDF and the over half a million Gazans who, according to the UN, face starvation and famine. The effects and dire consequences of this conflict extend beyond those immediately exposed to the warzone. These effects can be summarised in a single word: division. Support for and opposition to the conflict, particularly the campaign being waged by the Israeli war-cabinet has been and remains incredibly divisive, setting people against each other from the UN to university campuses. It has also divided the Jewish community itself.

I am a philosopher and thus am not qualified to comment on the limits of Israel’s legitimate legal right of self-defence. The ICJ and the ICC will, no doubt, rule on this in due course. As a philosopher my attention was drawn however towards one aspect of Netanyahu’s and his finance minister’s response to the ICC, namely their appeal to the “enlightened” and “civilised nations” of the world to demonstrate their enlightened status by rejecting the ICC and continuing to support Israel’s campaign in Gaza. As a philosopher, I am aware that the terms “enlightenment” and “civilised” have been interpreted and evaluated in a multitude of different ways across the centuries. As with most such concepts, things are typically more complex than they appear at first sight. Despite the varying understandings of these terms, I was somewhat surprised to see Netanyahu and Smotrich’s use of them in this context. It’s a characteristically bold move which, I assume, aims in part to drive a further wedge of division between those nations which are “enlightened and civilised” and those which are not. Where, I wondered, does this leave me?

We must remind ourselves that deeply evaluative terms and ideals, such as enlightenment and civilised have befallen the fate of many of our other most fundamental ideals, such as, for example democracy, defence of human rights, and the rule of law. Many of our most cherished ideals have been explicitly and systemically abused and deformed by those few who feel the need to coat their brutal and uncompromising political actions in a veneer of legitimacy to which they are not entitled. Empires and colonial rule have routinely espoused the claim that their domination of others’ is somehow justified by donning the self-declared mantle of being more enlightened and more civilised than those they rule over. There is precedent for the abuse of these ideals.

I am able to confidently distinguish between the abuse and the use of these ideals, despite my philosopher’s knowledge of the varying interpretations of them. So, in response to this latest abusive appeal to the legitimising power of enlightenment and civilised, I wanted to briefly remind us all of what enlightenment and civilised genuinely denote and entail.

A civilised and enlightened nation and people must recognise and acknowledge that reason imposes a number of fundamental constraints upon our actions. It requires us to respect the equal worth of each human life. It requires us to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. It demands the rejection of retributive justice in favour of the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of conflict and disputes. It also requires us to seek to perceive and judge complex situations from multiple perspectives and not merely our own, necessarily partial standpoint. It calls for the rejection of propaganda based upon the wilful distortion of the truth. It demands that we accept the fundamental duty all enlightened and civilised peoples bear towards respecting humanity. Finally, it also expresses our capacity to think and reason clearly and coherently, to enable us to avoid falling for the abuse of our core ideals. As the 18th century enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant once wrote in his treatise on enlightenment, it demands that we dare to think for ourselves. In that spirit, I shall close by posing a simple enough question: would a truly enlightened and civilised nation and people really support the ongoing actions of the Israeli war-cabinet and those who support it?

Dr Andrew Fagan is Senior Lecturer in the Law School, at the University of Essex. Between January 2020 and April 2024, he was Director of the globally-renowned Essex Human Rights Centre.

Photo credit: Mohammed Ibrahim

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