Can We Consider Israel a Decent Society?
"What is a decent society? The answer I am suggesting is roughly the following: A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people. I distinguish between a decent society and a civilized one. A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate one another, while a decent society is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people." ~ Avishai Margalit
Shuhada Street, Hebron.
Photograph © Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times.
This image was given third prize in the General News category of the World Press Photo competition this year. I posted on the announcement of winners several days ago. I will come back to the way such images are understood in a subsequent post. Here I want to use this image to examine some important questions.*
For starters, imagine if the caption read: "Israeli Thug Desecrates Purim by Assaulting and Terrorizing a Palestinian Woman." Then let's note that according to the photographer this thug was not alone. Outside the frame are his complicit companions, none of whom, as far as Castelnuevo reports, did a thing to stop his attack. Did they all have a good laugh at the woman's expense?
Apparently, we have an image here of gratuitous, socially sanctioned cruelty. It is easy enough to see such behavior as what Margalit would call uncivilized. Does it indicate that Israel has lost its decency too? Perhaps. One would have to ask whether the policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians and the effects of the institutions of Israeli society - ranging from indifferent to violent, including complicity with settler violence - provide the context or atmosphere that makes a young thug like this assume it is just OK to attack a Palestinian woman. After all, Hebron is in the Palestinian territories and still the young thug seemingly acts with impunity. Is he at all worried that the authorities - Palestinian or Israeli - might hold him to account?
Margalit is a subtle thinker. He is clear that the sort of humiliation he has in mind is normative not psychological. It is not just that I feel humiliated (like "tea baggers" in the U.S. who, taking the election of an African-American president as an affront to their self-respect, demand that someone give them their country back) but that I have good reasons to think social and political institutions assault and damage my self-respect. Might the woman in this picture have reason to think that Israeli institutions and policies do just that?
* It should go without saying that one might use other images of other bad behavior in other places to raise similar questions. That this should go without saying doesn't mean that I don't need to say it as a way of pre-empting the charge that I am picking - unfairly - on Israel. I have argued here before that the way to engage Israel and Israelis is to engage them. That is what I am doing. This image, unlike those of military violence and its consequences seems to be a better vehicle for the task.