Last January, my wife and I flew to Israel and spent over a week touring with a joint Christian-Jewish group associated with Austin Presbyterian Seminary. One key topic that we explored was the Palestinian issue, particularly in the West Bank. We visited this troubled region, spoke to both sides, and saw first-hand the complex issues. Palestinians living in the West Bank have self-rule but are surrounded by Israel who heavily police. Palestinian land is not recognized as a state. For a Palestinian living in the West Bank to travel to another country, they must first cross into Jordan and seek a visa through the Jordanian government. Occupied West Bank Palestinians do not have a passport. This process is difficult, time-consuming, and costly. Palestine is a stateless region without a way forward towards statehood.
On our last evening together, our tour group met in a restaurant and shared dinner together. I sat across from Julie, our Jewish American tour guide who immigrated to Israel from New York and later married an Israeli. I peppered questions to her about Israeli politics. I learned that Arabs who live in Israel have the same rights of citizenship as Jewish Israelis. The Arab Israelis can choose secular or religious schools, vote in Israeli elections, and participate fully as an Israeli citizen. There are several Arabs elected to the Knesset. Sadly, Arabs and Jewish Israelis seldom interact except through commerce or government.
When the subject of the West Bank came up during our dinner conversation, she stated that peaceful negotiations are not possible anymore. The last time that Israel gave land back to the Palestinians in exchange for peace, the land was used to launch missiles into Israel. I threw out a hypothetical question: would Israel ever allow the Palestinians to be Israeli citizens if Palestinians pledged peace and became trusted neighbors? She quickly said “Never!” I inquired as to why since the West Bank was part of Israel during Biblical time. Her reply stunned me: “The population of the West Bank Palestinians would make the Arab population within Israel greater than the Jews. Israel will always be a Jewish state. The Israeli Arab population must be a minority.” Democracy is important, but only if the Jewish population has the majority! Self-interest power is more important than inclusivity.
In his 1932 publication, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Must Have Books, Victoria, BC, 2021), Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr discusses in Chapter 4 “The Morality of Nations.” National self-interest is paramount. “The selfishness of nations is proverbial. … ‘No state,’ declares a German author, ‘has ever entered a treaty for any other reason than self interest,’ and adds: ‘A statesman who has any other motive would deserve to be hung.’ … It is obvious that human communities have greater difficulty than individuals in achieving ethical relationships.” (page 54) Nations are complex societies unified by the force of laws, powerful interests, and emotions. Individuals are held together by a narrower range of morality and able to reduce their egos. “The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. … That is why the hope of solving the larger social problems of mankind, merely by extending the social sympathies of individuals, is so vain.” (page 57)
Niebuhr stated that an individual’s lust for power and prestige (i.e., ego) is projected upon the nation and is difficult, if not impossible, to check. “A combination of unselfishness and vicarious selfishness in the individual thus gives a tremendous force to national egoism, which neither religious nor rational idealism can ever completely check.” (page 59) Although Niebuhr wrote his book in 1932, more than 90 years ago, his writings can still be applied to current politics. Little has changed, except the people occupying the nations.
Niebuhr gave several examples of national moral hypocrisy that occurred during his lifetime. I witnessed the political hypocrisy of the two major American political parties during my lifetime. During the storming of the capital on January 6, 2021, I observed the silence of the many Republican party leaders. What would they have said if the Black Lives Matter protestors had stormed the capital? Presidential candidate Biden condemned the Trump government immigration policy, yet President Biden took over two years to change it (reluctantly). I recently read that Henry Kissinger told President Nixon that the Vietnam Peace Treaty would ultimately fail, but by the time it failed, American forces would be out of the country and able to walk away from South Vietnam. So many lives wasted to save national ego.
“Nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough. A perennial weakness of the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national life.” (page 65) Is there any hope? Niebuhr offers little and seems resigned to this tragedy. “Perhaps the best that can be expected of nations is that they should justify their hypocrisies by a slight measure of real international achievement, and learn how to do justice to wider interests than their own, while they pursue their own.” (page 66) Another way to reduce the national ego is by placing power in a broader governing population, thus reducing the concentration effect of power within a few individuals.
Niebuhr forecasted in 1932 that the widening of economic inequality and social injustices would result in national destruction. His prediction has not happened within the US primarily because of a strong middle-class and its steady progress on civil rights. Some nations can change through the ballet box or public protests. I will next explore Niebuhr’s writings on the ethical attitudes of privileged classes.