Prof. Avishai Margalit is considered to be the country’s foremost philosopher. In granting him this year’s Israel Prize for Philosophy, the prize committee described Margalit as “one of the most important philosophers in the State of Israel and one of the most valued in the world today.”
Known as a clear thinker, eloquent speaker and incisive writer, he is on the left of the political spectrum and advocates what he calls a return to “the little Israel” of 1948.
While defining the current situation in the Middle East as “a moment of truth,” Margalit doesn’t believe a solution will be imposed on Israel and the Palestinians by the US, although he wishes President Barack Obama would “bump their heads together.”
His specific appeal to the government as Israel marks Independence Day is to lift the blockade on Gaza it imposed in June 2007 when Hamas took control of the territory.
“To create this huge jail and believe that something good will emerge because now it’s quiet, that’s an illusion,” he says. “Actually, it’s moral bankruptcy and a terrible illusion.”
Born in 1939, Margalit grew up and was educated in Jerusalem and did his IDF service in Nahal.
He received his BA, MA and PhD summa cum laude
(1970) in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, becoming a lecturer and head of the philosophy department at the university before retiring as professor emeritus in 2006.
Margalit is currently the George F. Kennon Professor at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, and has taught at several prestigious universities in the UK and US, including Oxford and Standford.
A founding member of Peace Now in 1978, he later served on the board of B’Tselem.
He has authored a few highly acclaimed books, including On Compromise and Rotten Compromises
, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies
, The Ethics of Memory
and The Decent Society
Margalit has also published articles for The New York Review of Books
on a range of social, cultural and political issues, writing profiles on politicians including Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, as well as on philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Martin Buber and Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
He is married to Edna Ullmann-Margalit, who is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, and both of them are members of the university’s Center for Rationality and Decision Theory. They have four children and five grandchildren.
Margalit spends much of his time researching and writing at the Van Leer Institute’s library in Jerusalem, where I interviewed him – in English – last week.How would you describe the state of the nation of Israel this Independence Day?
I think it’s in a troubled state. I mean life inside Israel, inside the Green Line, is very pleasant at the moment. But I think all recognize that it’s a troubling state of affairs since we face a clear-cut dilemma: If we go on as is, as we did in the last 42 years, from ’67 on, which means one political entity from the Jordan to the Mediterranean – call it whatever you want – it’s clear that this is an entity that most Israelis and most of the world cannot live with. Which means eventually it will emerge into an apartheid state, whether you like it or not, because the only way to keep the Palestinians in line is on more and more repressive terms, and that’s the logic of the situation.
I think for Israel it’s the defeat of Zionism in a grand way, and the
only way is basically the small Israel, with all the dangers that it
involves. We never expected after ’48 to live in a happy state; we knew
that we’d take risks but at least we created a coherent society, and
now I think it’s an incoherent society that either will be morally
defeated or live in an intolerable situation for most of the people in
it, on whatever grounds. So I think this is actually a moment of truth.
In your new book, you write that “rotten compromises are not
allowed, even for the sake of peace.” What do you mean by
The tenor of my book is that I prefer just a peace over a just peace.
Namely, sometimes an imperfect peace that is not just is preferable to
struggling for a just peace that can create tremendous injustice on the
way. So the main tenor is to advocate compromise. There are cases in
which keeping an inhumane regime or making a deal with an inhumane
regime even for the sake of peace is unjustified.
I don’t think that if Switzerland or Sweden made peace with Germany,
this was justified. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they should
have gone to war with Germany because maybe they couldn’t afford to go
to war. But to make peace with Germany was unjustified. So to make a
peace with an inhumane regime which is cruel and humiliating in an
unjust way is unjustified.
You were born in Jerusalem and have spent most of your life in
Jerusalem. Has anyone ever turned to you, as Israel’s top philosopher,
for a creative solution on Jerusalem?
Actually, I was born in a hospital in the Jezreel Valley, but I have
lived here all my life. Jerusalem has become a misnomer for so many
After ’48, there was a consensus in Israel, that the borders of ’48 are
the borders of Israel, including the Galilee, which consists mostly of
Arab Israelis. After ’67 there was no consensus and in order to create
a consensus, they used the term “Jerusalem.”
The Jordanian Jerusalem was less than 2,500 acres. The Jerusalem of now
is an infinite land, which includes 40 villages – and who would call
[the Palestinian neighborhood of] Shuafat Jerusalem? Jerusalem is just
an appeal to annexation, that will be consensus. That’s what Jerusalem
means. The holy basis of Jerusalem, the historical core, is less than
one percent of Jerusalem. That’s the historical truth. The whole City
of David is just 15 acres. That’s what we are talking about.
Jerusalem is such a misnomer. People actually swear in the name of
Jerusalem who can’t stand the city. The Zionists never liked the city,
because it reminded them too much of old Europe, and the city that I
like they can’t stand. They rush to Tel Aviv on Thursday from the
Knesset. Most of them don’t live here. They won’t even send their kids
on a field trip with the school to Jerusalem. Yet they swear in the
name of “heavenly Jerusalem” – which is utterly non-concrete Jerusalem
– with no feel for the city.
But do you have a solution to what you call “the historical core of Jerusalem”?
There should really be joint sovereignty over this part, and the
administration of it should be by UNESCO. Don’t change the physical
part of the city, because it’s a treasured heritage of the whole world,
and of the Abrahamic religions. The administration should be made up of
both Israelis and Palestinians.
Do you think Netanyahu and Abbas can reach a deal of some kind?
There is nothing stable here. Lots of people who were willing to go
along with Oslo have become disenchanted and are not willing to give it
another try. There is tremendous mistrust on both sides. The prospect
now of a deal out of free will of the two sides seems too remote and
What will happen if [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad
declares an independent state along the borders of 1967, but we are
willing to negotiate a swap one on one? And then get recognition from
almost all the world, and de facto recognition from the United States?
Then people will have to talk differently. I believe that on both
sides, including in Gaza, more or less 70 percent of the population can
gradually agree to live under the conditions that Clinton outlined. I
don’t say they will do it on their own initiative, but passively they
can live with it and accept it. But then there are 30 percent on both
sides who are more vehemently opposed to this, and there is no
political mechanism on both sides to bring it about.
I believe we are left with what Yeats said: “The centre cannot hold...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate
And that’s the situation we are in.
Do you think Israel should talk to Hamas?
About what? There is very little to talk to with Hamas. If you can
talk, you should talk. Indirectly, directly. This is not the issue.
What is intolerable is the belief that you can put a million and a half
people under siege and believe that something good will come out of it,
and this will undermine the Hamas regime. This collective punishment is
inhumane. I am surprised that the world accused Israel of doing it and
not Egypt. Obviously Egypt is part of the siege. Both do it.
I see the dilemma. You don’t want the Hamas to succeed because that’s
what they want. They want to be the avante-gard of the Palestinian
community, to show that they can create a mobile society, and they need
one place like Gaza to succeed. And Israel rightly doesn’t want them to
The other extreme is to push them so hard that something will happen. I
think in between there are lots of options. They don’t have to succeed.
You don’t have to make their lives easy in terms of a success story,
but on the other hand to create this huge jail and believe that
something good will emerge because now it’s quiet, that’s an illusion.
Actually it’s moral bankruptcy and a terrible illusion.
In what way?
Because collective punishment is unjust. There are kids, there are
people who want to study and go abroad. There are people who want to
conduct some semblance of life. You can’t put a million and a half
people, most of them refugees, under siege and then start lamenting the
settlements that were destroyed. After all, we gave them the license to
vote. They voted for Hamas with the understanding that it’s acceptable.
So your appeal to the government would be to lift the siege?
There are things that you should take seriously to make sure that you
get as much as you can, but basically, lift the siege, yes! I think
that the siege can’t go on, and I think that it is a disaster.
Basically, the Hamas smashed the Fatah. They took over Gaza.
I believe there was a preemptive strike. I think both the Americans and
[former Fatah chief in Gaza Muhammad] Dahlan tried to mount a coup in
Gaza, which failed. It’s not that the Hamas are squeamish, but they
were quite afraid of taking over by military means, I think.
But when they discovered that they were threatened, they became wild. I
think that the decision to allow the elections was a major disaster, a
major mishandling of the situation.
And we went along with it. I think that Bush and Condoleezza Rice
wanted to show that democracy in the Middle East is all over, in Iraq
and here, and for that fantasy, for this PR showcase, they were willing
to do this thing, which was mad on the face of it. There’s no point now
in blaming Sharon, but we went along with it, and the people who voted
had all the reasons to believe at the time that this was acceptable. No
one told them that this is unacceptable, and suddenly because of the
result of the vote, there is a serious problem.
What is your reading of the so-called crisis in the relations between Israel and the US?
I think there is a change in America which is not a superficial one.
For the first time, after 42 years, actually after 62, I think there is
an army lobby run by Mullen, Petraeus and McChrystal, and the idea is
the following: We tried Fallujah in Iraq, namely destroying the
insurgency the way Israel did in Gaza. It didn’t work. We have to win
over their minds, and the strategy is to separate.
The only solution in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to separate the
Taliban from al-Qaida. For that we need to win a possible compromise
with the Taliban, and disassociate them from al-Qaida. Since the
conflict here became so evocative in recruiting political Islamists all
over the world, we have to tone down the conflict or eradicate it.
That, I think, is the common wisdom. That’s what Petraeus, in his
testimony, said. And for the first time, the Israel lobbies, which is
AIPAC and the others that are basically right wing, face a counter
lobby which Obama can unleash at any time.
That’s a new ball game. In that sense, something dramatic changed, I
believe. This doesn’t mean that Obama will impose a solution.
I don’t believe that anyone can impose a solution that the two sides
won’t accept. What Eisenhower did in ’56, that was a different era. I
don’t see a direct threat on the Americans, with the Sixth Fleet in
Haifa, so to those who wait for Obama to solve the problem for the two
sides, I say: He can help, he cannot solve. It’s like waiting for Godot.
I don’t believe that’s a realistic expectation. I wish he would impose
something on the two sides, and bump their heads together, but I don’t
believe he will do this unless the stakes are high for him, and I don’t
see it that way.
Finally, let me ask you, what is your dream for the future?
Back to the little Israel that we knew and loved, all of us, and I
think that we should do it with as much agreement as we can. We should
go back, roll back, and concentrate on Israel. Ending the occupation is
a moral and Zionist imperative.