Omri Boehm’s ‘Speech to Europe’

On the 5 May, a Viennese public assembled on Judenplatz in the city’s First District to listen to the Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm deliver his ‘Speech to Europe’, the third in the series following Oleksandra Matviichuk (2023) and Timothy Snyder (2019).

The square was packed. People were curious to hear what Boehm, well-known as a dissenting and original Israeli intellectual, would have to say about Israel’s war on Gaza.

Some had already decided that it wouldn’t be to their liking. Vienna’s Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) had campaigned for the speech to be cancelled. The former president of the Kultusgemeinde, Ariel Muzicant (currently interim president of the European Jewish Congress), had even said that, had he been ‘30 years younger’, he would have come to ‘throw eggs on Boehm’.

But the City of Vienna allowed the talk to go ahead. There were no eggs, although a row of protesters stood in the front of the stage, their backs turned to the speaker, blocking the view with pro-Israeli and anti-Hamas signs.

But anyone expecting the philosopher to make a political speech would have been disappointed. Although Boehm clearly condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, he chose to concentrate more on the roots of European tolerance of the violence carried out by both sides.

If anything was truly controversial, it was his argument that such tolerance stems from a set of moral assumptions held not just by the liberal centre but also the de-colonial left.

The universalist belief in the unconditionality of human dignity has, Boehm claimed, been undermined by two tendencies: first, to instrumentalise memory of historical crimes for national and political ends; second, to endorse the subordination of justice and human rights to national sovereignty – particularly among Europe’s former victims.

In this reading, Europe’s position towards Israel must be based not on historical argument – be it the notion of atonement, or the view that any means are justified – but in reason and justice, even and especially when that challenges Europe’s deepest commitments and interests.

It was a brilliant speech, precisely because it spared no-one from criticism. You can read full text here.

Also to look out for among Eurozine’s recent articles: Samuel Abraham’s piercing analysis of the political dynamics in Slovakia leading up to the assassination attempt on Robert Fico on 15 May.

Written while the Slovak PM was still convalescing, the article warned that Fico’s moves on his return would be critical. That warning now rings loud: on 20 June, the populist-nationalist majority in the Slovak parliament voted to close down the country’s public broadcaster and replace it with what is expected to be an organ of government propaganda.

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