Is there a connection between academic quarrels over the legacy of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential German philosophers of the twentieth century, and the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip?
However spurious or bizarre that question may seem at first glance, an article by Michael Marder in the New York Times suggests that such a link does indeed exist. The source of what Marder describes as the “menacing chill forming around the work of Heidegger” also stalks attempts by philosophers, who work in an atmosphere of “ideological censorship,” to expose the nefarious nature of Zionism.
What’s involved here is a complicated story. Nonetheless, it is one that needs to be understood, if only because it illustrates the growing dominance of anti-Zionist opinion in academic and media discourse. Centrally, what it shows is that, to an ever greater extent, anti-Zionism in the academy isn’t so much a stance that one adopts in relation to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel as it is a philosophical system for interpreting the persistence of conflict in the world in general.
With that in mind, we can better grasp what Marder is driving at in the claims he makes about Heidegger and his legacy. If there is one detail of Heidegger’s biography that is widely known, it’s that he joined the Nazi Party in 1933, at the peak of his career, and remained a member until the defeat of the Nazi regime. As far as Marder is concerned, that bald fact is an irritant, since it’s clear to him that there “is a profound disconnect between Heidegger’s anti-Semitic prejudice and his philosophy.” In other words, if you want to properly appreciate Heidegger’s oeuvre, it’s imperative to regard his Nazi affiliations as, to borrow the infamous words of the French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen about the Nazi gas chambers, a “minor detail” in the history of the Second World War.
In discussing Heidegger’s “detractors, who are determined to smear the entirety of his thought and work with the double charge of Nazism and anti-Semitism,” Marder mentions only one–the French scholar Emmanuel Faye–for his temerity in suggesting that Heidegger’s key philosophical concept of Dasein (“Being-in-the-World”) should be reexamined in light of the philosopher’s anti-Semitism. Significantly, Marder does not refer his readers to Berel Lang, the American philosopher who authored a highly regarded book on Heidegger and the Jews. In that book, Lang asserted that “Heidegger’s silence” on the Jewish question before and after the Holocaust was a telling illustration of the “limits” on the thought of a man who, “more than any other twentieth century philosopher, attempted to break through the very notion of the limits of thinking.”
However, following this route into Heidegger’s writings is something of an inconvenience for Marder. It gets in the way of his insistence that the “smear” of anti-Semitism is a deliberate attempt to mask the value of Heidegger’s output, motivated by the same parochical Jewish imperatives that get in the way of a proper appraisal of Zionism.
Here is where the Gaza conflict comes in. Readers of the Times may well have been puzzled by Marder’s claim that “opposition to Zionism and the thinking inspired by Heidegger” are united insofar as both incur the unscrupulous charge of anti-Semitism. In part at least, that’s the fault of the Times‘ editors, who didn’t think it necessary to advise their readers that Marder’s position on the Palestinian issue is what informs his approach to Heidegger.
Look a little more closely, and you will find that Marder is also the author of several opeds for Al Jazeera, with such titles as “Why settlements will lead to a one-state solution” and “Here is why deconstructing Zionism is important.” In the latter piece, he argues that “deconstructing Zionism is not just a critique; it is an exercise in unravelling its philosophical suppositions.” For Marder, the wider problem is that the false assumptions imposed by Zionist ideology–whether the subject is Heidegger or Israeli policy–block proper philosophical inquiry.
Where, though, is Marder leading us? He’d like us to think, as he says in his “deconstructing” piece, that he’s motivated by “intense concern for the Jewish Israelis, who are set on a path of self-destruction.” But before we take him at his word, let’s recall that he edited a book entitled Deconstructing Zionism with the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. Yesterday, Vattimo told the Italian network Radio 24 that Israel is “a bit worse than the Nazis,” and that, for good measure, he’d like to “shoot those bastard Zionists.”
In the current climate, it would be unwise to assume that Vattimo’s “bastard Zionists” are located only in Israel. What about those thousands of Jews in Europe who vocally identify with Israel, and who have been targeted by mobs in Paris, London, and Berlin? What about those scholars who “smear” Heidegger as an anti-Semite much as they do those self-regardingly courageous academics who, in the name of the Palestinians, speak “truth to power?” Are they among the “bastards?”
I can’t say for sure how Michael Marder would answer those questions. But if he wants to be consistent, he will need to tell us that just as Heidegger’s Nazi Party membership was an irrelevance, so is Vattimo’s shrill exhortation to grab a gun in defense of Hamas. The New York Times, doubtless, will readily offer him the space to do just that.