Challenging Habermas on Israel

Alieddien Hilal, Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

Arab intellectuals must challenge the support for Israel’s war on Gaza given by prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, writes Alieddien Hilal



gainst the background of a shifting political and media landscape and the unfolding Israeli war on Gaza, social scientists and philosophers have been delving into profound issues such as the concept of a just war and the legitimacy of the use of force.

This discussion has been prompted in part by the endorsement of Israel by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in a stance challenged by Moroccan thinker Mohamed Al-Maazoz.

The gravity of this endorsement has been underscored by the eminent position held by Habermas in European thought and his place as a leading figure in sociology and political philosophy in Europe. A proponent of the idea of “communicative action,” Habermas contends that rational and free discourse in a democratic society is the sole path to truth, unmasking ideological claims and ensuring equality in power dynamics through debate.

Habermas places modernity on the pillars of reason and ethics, with the aim of establishing a society where freedom and happiness prevail. This ethical system can be achieved through rational and free discourse, he says. He envisions a global human society, with knowledge serving its common interests. Autonomy and liberation are paramount among human interests, according to him, based on communicative rationality.

In the wake of the Israeli war on Gaza, Habermas and three political philosophy professors from Goethe University in Frankfurt issued a statement titled “Principles of Solidarity” on 13 November last year. They expressed their solidarity with Israel and justified its actions as responses to the “atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October.”

The statement criticised rising anti-Semitic sentiments in Germany, asserting “fundamental principles justifying solidarity with Israel and Jews in Germany.”

These views provoked criticism from the Moroccan anthropologist and political scientist Mohamed Al-Maazoz. He contested Habermas’ position, characterising it as representative of the majority of Western thinkers who view the Arabs, Islam, and Palestine through an inherently hierarchical lens, with the West always assuming superiority.

Al-Maazoz not only criticised Habermas’ foundations, such as the reliance on Greek civilisation and the Old Testament as the roots of European ethics, but also called for a critical distancing from Western philosophical discourse. He urged the creation of an Arab philosophical and ideological system that would counter the justification of Israel’s actions within the Western discourse.

The intellectual debate extends beyond the Habermas-Al-Maazoz exchange, encapsulating diverse perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its midst, the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation carried out by Hamas on 7 October represents not merely a localised storm, but an issue of global significance, prompting a reevaluation of the relationship between Western philosophers and the Arab world.

Arab intellectuals, especially those working in philosophy and political philosophy, are called upon to play a pivotal role in shaping this ongoing conversation.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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