Global Dialogues

Carl Schmitt in Jerusalem: Reflecting on the Mob Violence of August 17th

Carl Schmitt (11 July 1888 – 7 April 1985) is alive and well. Thank you for asking. As a matter of fact, he is walking the streets of Jerusalem nowadays, taking notes that confirm his understanding of politics as the realm in which the friend-foe distinction rules. If he were really alive today, he would notice that his distinction permeates everyday life as a series of racial confrontations. Last week, this culminated in an attempted lynching by a mob of Jewish Israeli teenagers of a few Palestinian youth.

On the Friday night of August the 17th, four Palestinian young people from East Jerusalem strolled the city center, trying to enjoy its night life, relaxing after a day of Ramadan fasting. They were attacked by the mob shouting racial slogans, beating them, and leaving one of the Palestinians unconscious and seriously wounded. The attack took  place in the open public, viewed passively by hundreds of people. Only a few intervened, saving the lives of the Palestinians. The rest of the crowd feared for their own life, or worse, supported the mob.

The attack is the latest example of escalating racial violence conducted by both sides. In April this year, another mob, fans of the Jerusalem football club Beitar Jerusalem, violently confronted Palestinian workers in a Jerusalem shopping mall. And on November 2010, a group of Jewish students who mistakenly entered the streets of Al-Issawiya, a Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood, were stoned almost to death, narrowly escaping with the help of the police.

The latest attack aroused a public uproar in Israel. Chief of the Israel Police, Yohanan Danino, acted decisively, denouncing the attack, establishing a special investigating team that soon arrested the suspects, who confessed participating, justifying themselves with a racist agenda. Many of them were seen as teenage drop-outs. Also politicians joined in the denunciations, first among them: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and the Speaker of Parliament Rubi Rivlinwho visited the wounded Palestinian teenager in the hospital.

It seems that the alarming lessons of what happened in Tel Aviv on May 22th, which I analyzed in my last post, has affected the political system. The political leadership uttered the appropriate words, sincerely. Though, as criticized by Eyal Megged, the form of denunciation was not public enough. Netanyahu should have summoned a special address to the nation, condemning the racial violence, pointing out the moral danger we as a nation face. While I think that Meged’s criticism is sound as far as it goes, I don’t think it goes deep enough.

Indeed, speech can act and words have illocutionary power. And yet, words require certain conditions to be able to act, and even then, they are not enough by themselves. The words of denunciation should be accompanied by amending deeds, and not only police enforcement deeds. And amending deeds are nowhere to be seen, to the contrary.

Take the education system as an example. Following week of the mob attack, the Israel education ministry revealed some alarming data concerning the matriculation success rates in Israel in different municipalities. The matriculation results show a growing gap, the strong leaving the weak way behind. Thus, Arab, Haredi (ultra orthodox Jews), and peripheral municipalities are falling behind, with their youth immersed in structural ignorance and poor prospects in advancing their life plans.

This is specifically true in Jerusalem, with its large percentages of Arab and Haredi populations, and with a matriculation success rate of about 42%, less than half of the strongest municipality. This structural ignorance, the result of a gross failure by the State of Israel to allocate resources equally and supervise core curricula, maintains and fuels racism and creates the breeding ground for the escalation of Schmittian racial violence.

And it is not just the general education in the poor municipalities that has such detrimental effects on the Israeli public and Israeli youth (especially the drop-out youth). The civic and democratic education for engaged and pluralist citizenship has suffered a blow under Minister of Education Gideon Saar, who advances Jewish tradition studies at the expense of civic and democratic education. Moreover, in a very controversial decision, supposedly made autonomously by Minister Saar’s Director General Dalit Stauber, the civic supervisor, Adar Cohen, was dismissed.

While the official grounds for dismissing Mr. Cohen were some professional mistakes, unofficial reports disclose a rightist political crusade against him. The right, apparently, considers Mr. Cohen as not sufficiently Zionist, as advancing a too cosmopolitan, pluralist, and critical agenda. Almost replicating the accusations against Socrates, Mr. Cohen is seen as corrupting the minds of the young. (This decision has been suspended for the time being by Minister Saar following the appeal of Mr. Cohen to the ‎Labor Courts.) Under those conditions, it is no wonder that Israeli youth, suffering from structural ignorance and lack of civic and democratic education, is moving from an engaged pluralism into a Schmittian life of racial violence.

Time and again, we have turned to Jerusalem as a source of Western morality, “A Light Unto the Nations.” I grew up in a Jerusalem, thriving with such a potential. I work in such a Jerusalem university, and I believe in her ability to be such a moral light. But as long as Schmitt inhabits her streets, I see no chance of making this dream a reality.

  • Tomasz Kitlinski

    Excellent analysis! And sounds like my East-Central Europe – too much Carl Schmitt’s friend-foe also here, Tomasz Kitlinski

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    Yes, Tomek. Your analysis of the situation in the former Soviet bloc reflecting on Pussy Riot will appear here soon, pointing to an important comparison. I worry about American politics as well, especially as I hear Tea Party Republican describe our elections and our President.

  • Brendan M.

    I’m sorry but I see your use of Schmitt’s name here as purely sensationalistic, gratuitous and, well, misleading. As many serious scholars on all sides of the political spectrum know, Schmitt was an important theorist who made many serious contributions. (Take a look at the Summer 1987 “Telos” special.) We all know that he used his great legal mind for despicable ends — justifying and legitimizing a totalitarian regime. But to simply use his name so loosely and uncritically, as you do here, in the context of racial violence, is to seriously ignore Schmitt’s very real contributions to legal theory, political philosophy and their links to the religious realm. While the rest of this article is interesting, it really has very little to do with Schmitt. You just as easily could have used any number of social and political thinkers from the last 500 years to talk about racial violence. There is nothing uniquely Schmittian about any of what you say. Shall we call what you have used in this piece simply associative guilt?

  • Piki Ish-Shalom

    Hi Brenden. I think your criticism of my use of Schmitt can be divided into two. The first is the style, the second content. Regarding the style, writing commentaries I try to find a path that will be captivating, yet not a series of empty rhetorical slogans. I hope and think I succeeded in it here, but I may indeed, as you indicate, fell to the slogan trap. Let us see how other readers will feel.
    Regarding the content of Schmitt, I think you are wrong. He had indeed a great mind and produced a lot of interesting and serious contributions. I use his political theology in a scholarly piece I write now, and it is helpful. But you cannot dismiss his guilt (not associative one) so easily. His use of his great mind was not something secondary or contingent. It was a very coherent use, and he justified Nazism (not “merely” totalitarianism) using his insights. And the attempted lynch in Jerusalem wasn’t just an accidental collective violence and it does not bear only associative guilt. No. It was purposed violence. It linked very tightly with a sort of racist thinking and motivation, of the type of us versus them. If you had a direct access to the slogans used in the violent occasion (which I don’t have the “poetic” skills to translate into English) you would see how it fits in with the friend-foe distinction. A distinction which is very Schmittian.
    Thank you for your comments. Piki

  • Benoit

    So it is only because Schmitt’s spirit inhabits JRLM streets that one witnessed such an appalling attack?
    Why would it that “The rest of the crowd feared for their own life”? It was clear that the attackers were after “Arabs”, so the rest of the crowd did not risk anything.
    Why Bibi did not hold this special address to the nation?
    …. because there is a serious problem INSIDE Israeli society and politics tout court. And that should be faced. It is too convenient to blame the others.

  • Antonio XV

    Per quello che il mio scarso inglese mi consente di capire si tratta soltanto di una superficiale citazione della teoria dell’amico-nemico associata al nome di Carl Schmitt. Si parla poi di un fatto di cronaca. L’articolo in quanto tale non ha nessun carattere “scientifico” nel senso che non può essere annoverato nella letteratura di carattere scientifico su Carl Schmitt allo stesso modo in cui non basta che una cita Einstein per essere annoverato come uno studioso di Albert Einstein e delle sue astruse (per chi non le capisce) teorie astrofisiche: si cita Einstein per dire che è un “genio” e Carl Schmitt per dire che è un “demonio”… Chi studia seriamente l’uno o l’altro si trova a dover perdere del tempo con citazioni del tutto strampalate e superficiali.