The German Silence on Israel, and Its Cost

Omri Boehm in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_1062 Mar. 10 15.32Look at the media in nearly any country on any given day and you will find that there is no shortage of opinions on Israel and its policies. So when a respected public figure declines to share his own, it’s worth taking note.

In an extensive interview given in 2012 to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was asked for his opinion about Israeli politics. His answer was that while “the present situation and the policies of the Israeli government” do require a “political kind of evaluation,” this is not “the business of a private German citizen of my generation.” (my emphasis).

The reluctance of German intellectuals to speak critically about Israel is, of course, understandable. Many would agree that refusing to comment in this case is only appropriate — German responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust would make it so. Evidently, Habermas’s silence speaks for many other intellectuals, including ones who belong to younger generations.

Still, the problem with Habermas’s answer to Haaretz and the stance it represents is that, in fact, Habermas is not much of a private German citizen at all: when the quintessential public intellectual seeks refuge in privacy; when the founder of a branch of philosophy called discourse ethics refuses to speak, there are theoretical and political consequences. Silence here is itself a speech act, and a very public one indeed.

In order to understand the meaning of this silence, it is necessary to go back to Kant’s concept of enlightenment. In his well-known essay from 1784 — “What Is Enlightenment?” — Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” a process of growing up that consists in finding the “courage” to think for oneself. That does not mean, however, to think by oneself, or alone. On the contrary, Kant insists that using one’s “own understanding” is possible only through a “public use of one’s reason,” in at least two interrelated ways.

More here.