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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Role of the Intellectual

The Role of the Intellectual

By Lawrence Davidson
May 21, 2014

Part I -- Watershed Moments

World Wars I and II created watershed moments in the lives of
Western intellectuals, defined here as those who are guided by
their intellect and critical thinking, and understand various aspects
of the world mainly through ideas and theories which they express
through writing, teaching and other forms of public address.

Just how were they to respond to the call of patriotic duty that
seduced the vast majority of citizens to support acts of mass

What constituted a proper response is often debated.

How most of them did respond is a matter of historical record.

During the world wars, most intellectuals on all sides of the
conflicts uncritically lent their talents to their government's
war efforts.

Some did so as propagandists and others as scientists.

Some actually led their nations into the fray, as was
the case with Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson held a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, had
taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr, and Wesleyan, and became
president of Princeton University.

Eventually he was elected President of the United States and
having taken the nation to war, sanctioned the creation of
a massive propaganda machine under the auspices of the,
"Committee on Public Information."

He also supported the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918 to
suppress all anti-war sentiments.

Wilson never experienced combat, but another intellectual,
the British poet Siegried Sassoon, did so in the trenches of
the Western front.

After this experience he wrote, "war is hell and those who
initiate it are criminals."

No doubt that was his opinion of the intellectual President
Woodrow Wilson.

In 1928 the French philosopher and literary critic Julien Benda
published an important book, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals.

In this work, Benda asserted that it is the job of the intellectual
to remain independent of his or her community's ideologies and
biases, be they political, religious or ethnic.

Only by so doing could he or she defend the universal practices
of tolerance and critical thinking that underpin civilization.

Not only were they to maintain their independence, but they
were also obligated to analyze their community's actions and,
where necessary, call them into question.

However, as the memory of the intellectuals' complicity in World
War I faded, so did the memory of Benda's standard of behavior.

By World War II it held little power against the renewed demands
of national governments for citizens to rally around the flag.

Thus, in that war, with even greater atrocities being committed,
most intellectuals either supported the slaughter or remained

Some became fascists, others communists, and all too many once
more lent their talents to propaganda machines and war industries
in all the fighting states.

As a result the debate over the proper role of the intellectual
in relation to power and ideology continues to this day.

It is not a question that needs a world war to be relevant.

There are any number of ongoing situations where nationalism,
ethnicity, or religious views spark intolerance and violence.

And with each of them the intellectuals, particularly those whose
home states are involved, have to make the same age-old choice.

Do they follow Woodrow Wilson's path or that of Julian Benda?

Part II -- The Fate of the Jewish Intellectual

This problem has recently been raised in reference to the
seemingly endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

On 14 April 2014 Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew
University, published an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz
entitled, "Is It Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?"

In this piece she sets forth two opposing positions: one is the
Zionist/Israeli demand for the primacy of "ahavat Israel," or the
"love of the Jewish nation and people" -- the claim that all Jews
have a "duty of the heart" to be loyal to the "Jewish nation."

The other position is that of the lone intellectual (here her model
is the philosopher Hannah Arendt), whose obligation is to maintain
the "disinterested intelligence" necessary to, if you will, speak truth
to power.

Illouz explains that Zionists have a "suspicion of critique" and use
"the memorialization of the Shoah" (the Holocaust) and "ahavat
Israel" to mute it.

"The imperative of solidarity brings with it the injunction to not
oppose or express publicly disagreement with official Jewish

It is within this context that she can ask if it is still possible to be
a Jewish intellectual, at least as portrayed of by Julien Benda.

Illouz's conclusion is that it has become exceedingly difficult to be
so, particularly in the diaspora communities, where the demands
for Jewish solidarity are particularly "brutal."

Illouz is unhappy with this situation.

While she feels the allure of ahavat Israel, she ultimately supports
the position of the independent-mindedness of Benda's thinker.

She insists that the "contemporary Jewish intellectual has an
urgent task ... to unveil the conditions under which Jewish
solidarity should, or should not be accepted, debunked, or

In the face of the ongoing, unrelenting injustices toward
Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel, his/her moral duty
is to let go, achingly, of that solidarity."

Part III -- The Primacy of Group Solidarity

While the portrayal of the intellectual as a thinker insisting on
and practicing the right of critical thinking about society and its
behavior is an ancient one (consider Socrates here), such behavior
is not common in practice.

This, in turn, calls Benda's notion of a proper intellectual into

Thus, the description of an intellectual offered at the beginning
of this essay (which is in line with common dictionary definitions)
does not reference any particular direction of thought.

For instance, in practice there is nothing that requires an
intellectual to think about societal or government behaviors,
much less take a critical public position on such matters.

And, no doubt, there are many very talented minds who, deeply
involved in aesthetic matters or certain branches of scientific,
linguistic, literary or other pursuits, do not involve themselves
with issues of the use or abuse of power.

In addition, one might well be judged an intellectual and be a
supporter or even a perpetrator of criminal policies and actions.

Woodrow Wilson might fall within this category, as might
Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, and many others.

Indeed, from a historical perspective most people of high intellect
have sought to serve power and not critique or question it.

This is quite in line with the fact that most non-intellectuals accept
the word of those in power as authoritative and true.

According to Eva Illouz this reflects the primacy of group solidarity
over truth.

She is correct in this judgment.

That, no doubt, is why the independent-minded, outspoken
intellectuals demanding moral integrity and responsibility
from those in power are so rare, be they Jewish or gentile.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University
in Pennsylvania. His academic work is focused on the history of
American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches
courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual

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