Avishai Margalit is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and currently a visiting professor of law and philosophy at Stanford.
 (January 2016)

‘A Knack for Handling Power’

David Ben-­Gurion, 1971
Clarissa Eden, the widow of Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill’s niece, once asked my late wife, Edna, and me if we had an idea for someone capable of writing her husband’s biography. “What kind of biography do you have in mind?” Edna asked. “I want a big fat book that …

The Spell of Jabotinsky

Vladimir Jabotinsky, 1935
One shouldn’t be judged by one’s friends but by the quality of one’s enemies. On this view, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, was lucky. He had formidable enemies, including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Berl Katznelson, the leading ideologue of Labor Zionism and the founder and editor …

In the Shadow of Sharon

Ariel Sharon discussing the 1982 invasion of Lebanon at Tel Aviv University, 1987
By all accounts, Ariel Sharon had an astoundingly quick mind. But he was either untrained for, or simply distrusted, any form of abstract thinking. Once, when he was prime minister, he heard a highly theoretical presentation given by a high commander of the military’s Southern Command. At the end of the presentation, I was told, he asked the general, “But where in all of this is the killing of Arabs?”

Palestine: How Bad, & Good, Was British Rule?

The King David Hotel in Jerusalem, headquarters of the British Mandate Administration, after it was bombed by the Irgun paramilitary group, July 22, 1946
The British rule over Palestine lasted roughly thirty years, from 1917 until 1948. In a country that has three thousand years of recorded history, thirty years is a tiny fraction. If we conceive of three thousand years on a scale of one day, the period of British rule takes barely eight minutes. In comparison, Turkish Ottoman rule over Palestine, which lasted four hundred years, takes an hour and forty minutes. Yet the influence of these thirty years was deep and wide-ranging.

Obama and the Rotten Compromise

In reading the reports on President Obama’s Nobel speech in Oslo, one gets the impression that the President was offering a dose of realism to a gathering of fjord-loving well-meaning village idiots. He reminded them that an imperfect world should be governed not only by a pacifist vision of non-violence, but also by a theory of just war that tells us under what conditions a war is morally justified. This invocation of just wars was praised by both conservatives and liberals, who have applauded what they call Obama’s “Niebuhrian realism” and his drawing on a “venerable moral tradition” to give legitimacy to military engagement with “hostile regimes and networks in the world.” But having a realistic view of what a war can accomplish is part and parcel of just war doctrine, and it is precisely Obama’s realism about the war in Afghanistan that we should question.

Israel: The Writers’ Writer

A story used to circulate among members of the Russian intelligentsia: boxing contests in Hamburg, it was said, were rigged so that the popular boxers would win, thus pleasing the public. Yet the boxers were keen to know who the real champion was, and once a year they used to …

Israel: Civilians & Combatants

Israeli soldiers returning from the war in Gaza, near the Israeli town of Sderot, January 18, 2009
In 2005, Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin published in an American academic journal “Assassination and Preventive Killing,”[^1] an essay that explores the issue of “assassination within the framework of fighting terror.” There are good reasons to believe that the political and practical significance of this essay goes far beyond its …

The Lessons of Spinoza

In his beautifully written book The Courtier and the Heretic, Matthew Stewart examines the lives of two great philosophers: Spinoza and Leibniz. As the title of the book indicates, he stresses the contrast between Leibniz’s career as a courtier and adviser to German princes and Spinoza’s meager existence as a …

The Genius of Spinoza

A friend visited the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire just before he died last year. Hampshire was able to talk only with difficulty but managed to say, “Spinoza was right. In the end it is all biology.” The friend, as he was leaving, muttered politely, “See you soon.” Hampshire replied, “I …

Seeds of Revolution

Theodor Herzl, founding father of the Zionist movement, was not a gifted novelist. Nevertheless, his novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land), is one of the most remarkable books of the twentieth century. Although Herzl finished it in 1902, the visionary ideas expressed in this “fairy tale,” as he called it, belonged firmly …

After Strange Gods

On the right bank of the Euphrates, near the Syrian border with Iraq, was once the ancient kingdom of Mari. From the immensely rich archive in the king’s palace, found by archaeologists in the 1930s, we learn that prophets and prophecy were already known before 2000 BC. At that time …

The Wrong War

At this writing it seems certain that there will be a war in Iraq. It is the wrong war to fight. I am not waiting for the next report of Hans Blix: I already believe that Iraq is hiding chemical and biological weapons. I also believe that it is hiding …

The Suicide Bombers

In its official count of the number of “hostile terrorist attacks,” the Israeli government includes any kind of attack, from planting bombs to throwing stones. By this count suicide bombings make up only half a percent of the attacks by Palestinians against Israelis since the beginning of the second intifada …

Occidentalism

In 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of Japanese philosophers got together in Kyoto to discuss Japan’s role in the world. The project of this ultra-nationalist gathering was, as they put it, to find a way to “overcome modern civilization.” Since modern civilization was another …

Settling Scores

POPULATION MAP OF THE WEST BANK AND GAZA Before the deluge of the second Intifada, when Israelis and Palestinians were still trying to talk through their differences, they faced three large problems: 1) The future of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which is tantamount to …

The Middle East: Snakes & Ladders

  1. As a boy I used to play the rather menacing game of Snakes and Ladders. The ladders, at least in the Israeli version, enabled you to skip rows on your way to heaven. Snakes brought you down to hell. At the top of the game board, just before you …

The Odds Against Barak

“The two sides just could not get there,” President Clinton said in July after two sleepless weeks of intense negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians at Camp David. Now we know. The “there” is Jerusalem, and the two sides could not agree on sovereignty within it and over it.

Israel: Why Barak Won

In Israel’s new electoral system, which brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 1996 and then brought him down in May 1999, each voter casts two ballots. One is for the prime minister, and the other is for one of the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. This system …

The Other Israel

Somewhere in the south of Israel, far from Tel Aviv but not very far from Gaza, lies the poor, sleepy town of Netivot. In the election for Prime Minister in 1996, the results for Netivot were clear: 86 percent for Netanyahu, 11 percent for Peres. Netivot was established in 1957 …

The Chances of Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres first met David Ben-Gurion in 1946, when Peres had just been nominated secretary of the Labor movement’s youth movement; he was, in his own words, “the young unknown.” Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Jewish Agency, already “a legend.” Peres had to get to Haifa. There weren’t many cars …