A recent email from Marina Ludwigs raises two significant objections to the reflections on “negotiational” justice developed in last week’s Chronicle:

First, Marina points out that, in the area of class relations, negotiation has long ago replaced the victimary rhetoric about the laboring masses common in the 19th century; the rise of labor unions and collective bargaining led to the elimination of the image of the worker as “wage slave.” (Today, as Marina also points out, workers are seen as victims almost exclusively in a racial or ethnic context, where we react to them as victims of discrimination rather than exploitation.)

These observations are well-taken; negotiation, even between unequal parties, didn’t begin in 2001. Negotiations between labor and management were facilitated by labor legislation (e.g., the 1935 Wagner Act), which in turn reflected the workers’ electoral clout. The tendency of the democratic political process, in labor relations as in the judicial system, is to facilitate the regulation of asymmetrical relations through symmetrical negotiations.

Just as the capitalist-communist Cold War has become in hindsight a family quarrel, so has the domestic class struggle. The innovation of the postwar era is the universal application of the victimary model (as opposed to that of “exploitation”) to unequal social relations. In this regard, there is an important difference between labor-management negotiation and the model of negotiational justice conceived as the successor of the victimary model. Workers and capitalists are participants in the same productive operation with divergent economic interests; negotiation between them is a local matter indifferent to broader questions of social justice. Indeed, Marxist revolutionaries condemned “trade-unionism” as a betrayal of proletarian consciousness purchased by the surpluses obtained through imperialist exploitation overseas.

In contrast, in the race-gender-ethnicity case, nothing essential can be negotiated on the local level; the question is not one of divergent interests but of victimage. Negotiation takes place on a higher plane, in the legislative-judiciary system where laws are created and enforced. Here the replacement of the victimary model by the negotiational is signaled by recent debates concerning welfare and affirmative action programs that not long ago could not be questioned without arousing accusations of racism or sexism. Negotiations on these issues put into question, as labor-management negotiations do only implicitly, the overall usefulness of the victimary model. When, instead of as persecutor and victim, we see the parties as social groups with divergent interests, specific remedies can be found for specific inequities without invoking universal guilt.

Marina’s second objection questions the very idea of a negotiational concept of justice:

I am not sure how to apply the negotiation model to cases where both parties feel wronged . . .  To take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Many Israelis feel (and with good reason) that it is they who are the victims in this conflict, historically cheated by the British vitiation of the Palestine Mandate, targeted by terrorism, demographically disadvantaged, and scapegoated by Western countries and the Arab world. . . . Aren’t most ethnic conflicts within and between nation states of this undecidable or contested nature? (See, for another example, the Serbian-Albanian conflict, where, although Western countries sided with the Albanians, the Serbs also had strong justification for claiming the status of the wronged party). [text slightly edited]

My presentation of negotiational in contrast to victimary justice assumed that there would be no difficulty in identifying the privileged party in asymmetrical conflicts. (I refer to conflicts that are genuine social phenomena rather than the work of fanatical gangs without real support in the population, such as the ETA in Basque Spain or the Shining Path guerillas in Peru.) Yet, virtually by definition, this identification is not agreed upon by the parties themselves. The anti-Semite, for example, considers himself an injured party who is merely defending himself against The Jew. In the specific cases Marina cites, Israelis and Serbs certainly do have a claim that they rather than their opponents are the disadvantaged party. This problem is not merely practical but theoretical: if we reject victimary epistemology, on what basis can we assign the stigma of privilege? Isn’t the very fact of saying that one side is more privileged than the other the product of victimary thinking?


On the practical side: in each of the cases Marina adduces, as well as in virtually all the others she might have cited (Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Kurds in Turkey, Chechens in Russia…), the broad consensus as to which side is stronger includes most of those who favor the stronger party. However sympathetic one is to Israel, one can hardly deny that the Israelis–like the Serbs, the British, the Singhalese, the Greeks…–hold the stronger hand.

On the theoretical plane: A synthesis, in Hegelian terms, is not the abolition but the “sublation” of the lower-level opposition it succeeds. What determines the asymmetry of such conflicts and the relative position of the parties is indeed the same old victimary epistemology whose criterion is resentment. To abandon the victimary model is not simply to reject this resentment but to “raise it up” to another level where it is understood as the sign of a problem to be solved rather than of a crime to be punished. In all these conflicts where one side is more convinced than the other of being the victims, it is up to the other side to take the lead in finding means to mitigate this resentment.

What of the limiting case, where neither side will relinquish its victimary posture? In this case, very simply, negotiations cannot take place without the intervention of a “symmetricalizing” third party. It should not be forgotten that I am not proposing the negotiational model as a universal ideal, merely as the only viable framework I can conceive for regulating asymmetrical conflicts that cannot be assimilated unproblematically to the victimary model.

To return again to the most urgent and resonant of these conflicts: however much the Israeli population is justifiably resentful of the violence visited upon them by Palestinian terrorists, it has been clear at least since 1967 that Israel is the more powerful party and that Palestinian resentment must be taken into account in peace negotiations. Military occupation is an unambiguously asymmetrical relationship, even if it is unfair to assimilate this particular occupation, the result of a defensive war, to persecution. The fact that Barak’s far-reaching concessions were not accepted does not prove that, in the long term, Israel cannot obtain peace by continuing to reach out to the Palestinians and to move toward a symmetrical state-to-state relationship. And this “long term” may be closer than the recent hostilities make it appear.

* * *

A note on periodization: To speak of postwar or post-millennial “eras” is not to deny the dynamism of historical processes. The dominant model of human relations in each era operates much like Thomas Kuhn’s scientific “paradigms”: native to one revelatory situation, as the victimary model was to the Holocaust, it is applied to others in succession until domains are reached where its application raises problems it no longer appears suited to solve. Thus the victimary model, first applied to obvious inequities, comes to be used in increasingly more controversial cases of asymmetry (gender parity, homosexual marriage, slavery reparations…). If the beginning of a new era is characterized by the emergence of a newly attractive model, its universal application is the sign that it has reached the limits of its usefulness.

Coda: two and one-quarter stages of anti-Semitism

The postwar transformation of anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism is not simply a change of name, even if most of the propaganda materials remain the same. The difference is not verbal but structural. Unregenerate Western anti-Semites still hate Jews rather than Zionists. They follow prewar anti-Semitism in presenting The Jew as secretly powerful yet insisting that the Aryan population, if made aware of their thralldom to the Jews, have the power to crush them. Anti-Zionism, however much it reproduces the old stereotypes, reflects a very different relationship between the parties. The center of gravity of anti-Zionism is not Europe but the Middle East. Israel, vulnerable as it may be, is more powerful than the surrounding Arab states; it offers a demonstration of Jewish power that was unavailable, and unnecessary, to prewar anti-Semites. Thus anti-Zionism follows, in its unsavory way, the victimary pattern that came into existence after WWII. The old anti-Semites hated the Jews for their suspected secret powers; the anti-Zionists’ hatred reflects the demonstration of their own material–economic and military, if not demographic–inferiority.

This situation, however distressing, offers an opportunity to the Israelis that was not available to the Jews of Europe. Traditional anti-Semitism was a scapegoating operation against a stigmatized and essentially defenseless minority. The fact that the preponderance of resentment was on the side of the anti-Semites implied neither that they were victims deserving of compensation nor that they were, questions of blame aside, the weaker party whose resentment the Jews should attempt to defuse. But the Holocaust did away with the traditional scapegoating structure. Anti-Zionism is directed at an entity that is powerful enough to have some capacity for deferring the resentment it arouses, that is, to move the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation part-way out of the victimary and into the post-millennial era.

Which leads us back to the Palestinian question. Until this is resolved, there is little point in Israel’s seeking better relations with the dictatorships that surround it. If, conversely, some kind of peaceful modus vivendi is established with a Palestinian state, the surrounding Arab populations might be susceptible to more moderate influences. A modernized, democratic, secular Palestine would set an example for other Arab states to follow. This may be a dream at the moment, but it is one those subjected to anti-Zionism have some hope of realizing, whereas the victims of anti-Semitism had only despair. This contrast alone is sufficient to justify Herzl’s Zionist solution for the anti-Semitism of Europe.