The Role of the Intellectual

by Lawrence Davidson Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history from West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic research focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He taught courses in Middle East history, the history of science and modern European intellectual history. Lawrence Davidson was born in 1945 in Philadelphia PA. He grew up in Elizabeth NJ in a secular Jewish household. In 1963 he matriculated at Rutgers University for his BA. At Rutgers, Davidson developed a left leaning activist orientation to the problems facing the US in the 1960s. In 1967 he moved on to Georgetown University for his MA.At Georgetown University he studied modern European intellectual history under the Palestinian ex-patriot Professor Hisham Sharabi. Sharabi and Davidson subsequently became close friends and one can date his interest in Palestinian, as well as Jewish and Zionist, issues from this time. His years at Georgetown (1968-1970) coincided with the height of the Vietnam war and Davidson became one of the founding members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Georgetown. Davidson managed to both strongly agitate against the Vietnam war and complete his MA during these years.In 1970, with the breakup of the SDS, Davidson left the United States for Canada. This was a voluntary exile. He spent the next six years in Canada and obtained his PhD (1976), also in modern European Intellectual history, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. At that point he returned to the United States.The mid 1970s was a bad time for the academic job market in history. Davidson spent several years as an adjunct instructor at various colleges and universities, as well as working for a time as a middle manager at Alexian Brothers Hospital, a Catholic hospital in St. Louis. Subsequently he was contracted to write the history of Alexian Brothers’ oldest hospital. This led to his first book length work, The Alexian Brothers of Chicago (1990). During this period he also published numerous articles in a number of different areas including medical history, history of education, US foreign policy and, increasingly, articles having to do with Zionism and the Palestinian question. Many of these latter pieces appear in the early issues of the Journal of Palestine Studies edited by Professor Sharabi.In 1989 Davidson joined the faculty of history at West Chester University as a tenure track professor. He remained at this institution for 27 years and maintained an increasingly productive publishing record.  He retired from WCU in May of 2013. 22.05.2014

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 slaughter? 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 Siegfried 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 silent. 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 Julien 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 bodies.” 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 embraced. 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 question. 

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.

For Lawrence Davidson's own web site, To The Point Analyses, please click here.

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