Temple Mount, Jerusalem

The Real Source of the Mideast Dispute: Hobbes vs. Locke

Temple Mount, Jerusalem


The conventional wisdom regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict is that peace in the Middle East hinges on the settlement of a land dispute.

All that’s required for the warring cousins to lay down their arms is the cool, calm, collected presence of an objective arbitrator who is empowered by both sides to settle all lingering differences.

After all, Jews living in Tel Aviv and Haifa are no different fundamentally from Arabs residing in Gaza or the West Bank.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not an Arab hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as everyone else? If you prick both an Arab and a Jew, do not both of them bleed?

In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s plea for tolerance transforms him into a sympathetic character.

Yet while the universalizing of humankind based on superficial similarities has a dramatic and literary resonance, it is a grossly negligent approach to foreign policy.

For the modern nation state is based on the idea that groups of people who share the same history, traditions, or language are justified in living in a particular area under one government.

The existence of distinctive cultures, religions, ideologies, and values is the foundation stone of national sovereignty.

And nowhere else in the world are the contrasts between nations more stark than between Israel and its neighbors.

Israeli society is guided by the liberalism of John Locke, the 17th Century English philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Locke’s political thinking was based on social contract theory. Locke believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. In a natural state, all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions.”‎

Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers.

In contrast, the worldview of the ruling governments of Israel’s neighbors is in line with that of Thomas Hobbes, another 17th century English philosopher and political theorist who advocated rule by an absolute sovereign. Hobbes maintained that chaos could be averted only by a strong central government, which would protect people from their own base desires.

The extremity of Hobbes’ state of nature is typified as the “war of every man against every man.”

Despotic regimes across the Middle East act under the guiding principle that rights come from the state, the Hobbesian perspective. However, in Israel it’s assumed that certain rights are independent of the government or state, which was Locke’s view.

As such, the dispute over the land is a diversion. The ongoing state of belligerence between virtually all Muslim nations and Israel is a clash between the 17th Century Age of Enlightenment and the 12th Century Fatimid Islamic Caliphate.

Can even the most honest of brokers bridge such a yawning chasm?


Read other essays by Gidon Ben-Zvi that have appeared in the Algemeiner here.

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