In the Shadow of No Future: Justice Claims and the Israel-Palestine Conflict?

Two actors facing each other onstage in Samuel Beckett's play Endgame.
Still from a performance of Endgame by Samuel Beckett at Shimer College in Chicago in November 2009. Shown are characters Nagg and Nell, portrayed by Thomas Matysik and Raya Carr.

In a short essay for the AJS Review, I consider how claims of justice work when teaching the Israel-Palestine conflict – a topic which figures centrally in my teaching both for Religious Studies (REL 371, offered every spring) and Political Science (PSC 344 – the Israel-Palestine Conflict).

One common way to approach this question is through classical notions of tragedy: one is dealing with conflicting – and perhaps essentially irresolvable – claims of right.  Such claims are tragic because resolving them means, in effect, that everyone must lose – at least a little.  No one will get everything to which history, theology, or commonsense belief tells them they are entitled.  Doing justice means denying it, since compromise necessarily involves some degree weighing inner belief against the vagaries of power and interest.  So understood, negotiation is simply the art of apportioning out such denial in a manner that all sides can accept – or at least, tolerate. 

One temptation is to become cynical: to view justice and compromise as set-pieces in a rhetorical game and give them up. Think of all the rules and procedures that ‘stop up’ or complicate so many aspects of our public lives.  Such rules often seem like unnecessary impediments – ‘red tape’, getting in the way of commonsense solutions to everyday problems. Do PTA meetings really need to be run by Robert’s Rules of Order?  Are we really going to let a manifestly guilty defendant go free because the evidence needed to convict her was obtained without a warrant? 

One insightful – but only partially satisfactory – answer to such questions draws on the distinction between regulative and constitutive rules.  One ‘must’ follow the rules not because some outside power requires it and will exact punishment upon transgressors, but because doing so sustains the game. 

If this seems abstract, here is an example.  Think of mastering chess.  Would it be easier if one could move the pieces any way they liked?  Sure; but are you still playing chess?  What point is there to mastering the rules?  By the same logic, courts and trials would be considerably streamlined if rules of search and seizure were optional – but would such verdicts be just?   Justice cannot be claimed in the abstract. It must done – enacted and seen.

The point is insightful because it reminds us of our role in making the world – in producing institutions and values that we might otherwise take for granted: if we do not do such work, who will?  It’s also insightful because it points to a connection between justice and fashion – what appears just in one moment may not appear so in the next.  Last year’s winter coat may now look out of fashion – but not because it somehow became less warm over the summer. 

Here is an experiment: spend a morning in a local courthouse or state legislature with a friend.  What name do you give to what you have both seen?   Is it ‘the peoples’ business’ getting done?  Or is it a ‘swamp’ of small, self-serving hypocrisies: earmarks, plea-bargains, self-dealing?  What if it’s a little of each?  What if you see the former, but your friend sees the latter?  You could both be right.  Even the best, most justly-governed communities will sustain – even suborn – quite a bit of everyday violence, unfairness, and suffering.  How do those who ‘fight the good fight’ keep coming back, once they realize this? 

The sociologist Max Weber – hardly a cockeyed optimist – noted that a basic faith in the future was part of what sustained those who did such work.  Politics, he said, “was the slow boring of hard wood,” nourished by a belief that such work will someday bear fruit – the state, or God, or history, would someday make good on our efforts.  Today’ tragedy will be tomorrow’s comedy – “those who sow in tears shall reap with joy.”

Weber’s point is not (necessarily) prescriptive: he’s not saying we must believe this to be good and decent folk. He’s saying rather that those who do such work often nourish, or rely upon, such a belief. 

What happens when such beliefs ‘go out of fashion’ – come to feel irrelevant, passé, or unattainable, because the future can no longer be believed in? 

That’s the question I try to take up here. The pictures alongside the essay come from a play by Samuel Beckett – Endgame – which takes up this question.