Is it ever right to be­tray?

David J Gold­berg is frus­trated by a promis­ing study. Amanda Craig muse son mis­an­thropy On Be­trayal

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Avishai Mar­galit David J Gold­berg is cur­rently writ­ing a book with the work­ing title ‘Al­most an English­man, Not Quite a Jew’.

Har­vard Univer­sity Press, £19.95 Re­viewed by David J Gold­berg

AVISHAI MAR­GALIT is a dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of phi­los­o­phy at the He­brew Univer­sity and a for­mer fac­ulty mem­ber of the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study in Prince­ton. Over a long ca­reer, he has gar­nered a host of aca­demic awards and ad­mir­ing peer recog­ni­tion, wears his wide-rang­ing eru­di­tion lightly, writes with flu­ent el­e­gance, and is the au­thor of sev­eral im­por­tant works in the field of an­a­lyt­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. This, alas, is not one of them.

For­merly, philoso­phers af­fected what Ber­trand Rus­sell dubbed “the lordly style”, as though they were par­tic­i­pat­ing in an elite Pla­tonic Sym­po­sium. Nowa­days, they dis­arm the gen­eral reader by adopt­ing a con­ver­sa­tional tone, to show they are not eggheads but one of us. On Be­trayal falls into that cat­e­gory. Mar­galit slices the sub­ject of be­trayal into sev­eral thin sub-sec­tions, presents his ar­gu­ments wit­tily and apho­ris­ti­cally, and blends eclec­tic ex­am­ples from the Bi­ble, his­tory and per­sonal mem­oir in or­der to ex­am­ine “thick”ties of loy­alty be­tween mem­bers of the same fam­ily or eth­nic group and “thin” re­la­tions be­tween, say, em­ploy­ees of a global mega-cor­po­ra­tion, or strangers bound to­gether in a so­ci­ety based on civic na­tion­al­ism.

But the trou­ble with an­a­lyt­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is that its con­stant sharp­en­ing of Oc­cam’ s Ra­zor be­comes bor­ing if one

never ac­tu­ally gets around to cut­ting. As Mar­ion Adams, a friend of Henry James, fa­mously said about The Mas­ter, “He chewed more than he bit off”.

An ex­haus­tive sur­vey of many types of be­trayal from adul­tery to trea­son to

apos­tasy yields the dis­tinctly ba­thetic con­clu­sion that, “if be­trayal is the price we pay for the type of con­ceal­ment nec­es­sary for civilised life, then it is a price worth pay­ing.”

As com­pen­sa­tion, there is an acute- ly orig­i­nal as­sess­ment of the Drey­fus Af­fair and a bril­liant chap­ter on Jose­phus and col­lab­o­ra­tion gen­er­ally; but I won’t be the only reader to turn with height­ened cu­rios­ity to the sec­tion on adul­tery, only to find it dully unimag­i­na­tive. Adul­tery is all about the emo­tions and there­fore is not amenable to dis­pas­sion­ate Rea­son.

In his open­ing chap­ter, Mar­galit tells the story of Uri Ilan, a kib­butznik para­trooper. In 1954, he and his squad were cap­tured in­side Syrian ter­ri­tory and sub­jected to bar­baric tor­ture. Ilan com­mit­ted sui­cide in jail.

When his body was de­liv­ered back to Israel, it was found that he had writ­ten on scraps of pa­per hid­den be­tween his toes: “I didn’t be­tray. I com­mit­ted sui­cide.” At his fu­neral, chief of staff Moshe Dayan only quoted “I didn’t be­tray”, be­cause sui­cide went against the ethos of the Is­raeli army.

Else­where, Mar­galit pass­ingly con­sid­ers EM Forster’ s no­to­ri­ous state­ment that, if he had to choose be­tween be­tray­ing a friend and be­tray­ing his coun­try, he hoped he would have the guts to be­tray his coun­try.

Per­haps if Mar­galit had used th­ese two start­ing points to ex­pand on the moral and philo­soph­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of be­trayal in all its com­plex­ity, we would have been treated to a “thick” dis­sec­tion, rather than the dis­ap­point­ingly “thin” slices we are served up.

He slices the sub­ject into sev­eral thin sub sec­tions


Mar­galit: witty, apho­ris­tic and con­ver­sa­tional style of philo­soph­i­cal anal­y­sis

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