Margalit, Avishai 1939-

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MARGALIT, Avishai 1939-

PERSONAL: Born 1939. Education: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ph.D., 1970.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Philosophy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel 91905. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lecturer, 1970-72, senior lecturer, 1973-79, associate professor, 1980-97, professor, beginning 1998, currently Schulman Professor of Philosophy. Other academic positions include visiting scholar at Harvard University, Oxford University, Free University, and Max Planck Institute.


(Editor) Meaning and Use, Reidel (Boston, MA), 1979.

(Editor, with Edna Ullmann-Margalit) Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration, Hogarth Press (London, England), 1991.

(With Moshe Halbertal) Idolatry, translated by Naomi Goldblum, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.

The Decent Society, translated by Naomi Goldblum, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.

Views in Review: Politics and Culture in the State of the Jews, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.

The Ethics of Memory, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2003.

(With Ian Buruma) Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, Penguin (New York, NY), 2004.

With Gabriel Motzkin, author of "The Uniqueness of the Holocaust," an article for Philosophy and Public Affairs, winter, 1996.

SIDELIGHTS: Avishai Margalit is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Margalit's body of literary work covers such weighty topics as the nature of the best society and the nature of idolatry. His Meaning and Use, which was published in 1979, is a collection of essays by philosophers and other scholars on epistemological topics. Epistemology is the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge. Many of the authors who contributed to Meaning and Use examine human perception and the language that is used to describe human perception. One author discusses the notion that words spoken with a certain mood do not always have a certain force behind them. Another contributor looks at anti-realism and its construction of truth, and others explain the thought process behind such statements as "this (wooden) table might have been made of stone." Simon Blackburn, writing for Philosophical Review, called Meaning and Use a "worthwhile and thought-provoking volume."

Margalit collaborated with Moshe Halbertal to write Idolatry, which was translated from the Hebrew by Naomi Goldblum and published in 1992 by Harvard University Press. Margalit and Halbertal deliver a thorough account of religious idolatry in the book. They begin by asking what idolatry is and why it is considered "an unspeakable sin." Margalit and Halbertal note that the accusation of idolatry has historically come in two different forms. The first type is the worship of gods other than a "true" God. "The ban on idolatry is an attempt to dictate exclusivity," write Margalit and Halbertal, "to map the unique territory of the one God." Organized religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are monotheistic. That is, they forbid the idolizing of gods other than their own declared "true" God. This form of idolatry is used by monotheistic religions to establish a boundary between paganism, which is the worship of the "wrong" god or gods, and non-paganism. The second form of idolatry places a ban on manners of worship that are at odds with the particular religion. When a religion bans the worship of certain physical images, Margalit and Halbertal observe, it presents itself as the only way to worship.

The policy behind forbidding idolatry has changed throughout the centuries. In biblical accounts, idolatry was viewed as a form of sexual betrayal. In the Old Testament the Jews thought of God as human and themselves as married to God. The worship of the wrong god or a "false" physical idol was considered tantamount to adultery. Because religion and politics were so intertwined, idolatry was also considered a form of political betrayal.

In the twelfth century, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote of a God who was abstract, and not a tangible human entity. To Maimonides, the idea that God could be human was itself a form of idolatry, and this kind of idolatry transformed idolatry from a sexual sin to, in the words of Margalit and Halbertal, "the sin of the great error." The sin of idolatry became less about the performance of strange, unsanctioned rituals and more about the "harboring of alien beliefs."

As the centuries passed, idolatry became widely understood as either the worship of the wrong god or the belief in wrong religious principles and practices. The development of societies has added nuances to the notion of idolatry, making idolatry a fluid concept. As humans worship other idols, such as money, secular institutions, and even football teams, the accusation of idolatry must expand to thwart the new idols. New York Review of Books critic Wendy Doniger commented that the book "teaches us both why monotheistic religions have thought that they were right and everyone else was wrong." Idolatry, according to Doniger, is "a remarkable book, which tells us, more thoroughly and persuasively than anyone has done so far, why and in what ways religions hate one another."

The Decent Society is another ambitious book about a complex topic. The book discusses optimal society, but it does not attempt to outline the nature of a utopian society. Instead, it works within recognizable reality to suggest a paradigm for the best possible society. Theorists have long opined on the nature of the best society. More often than not, such endeavors revolve around ideas of justice, civility, tolerance, or fairness. The most important recent thoughts on the subject are in John Rawls's trend-setting 1971 book A Theory of Justice, in which Rawls seeks to explain the best society in terms of justice. According to Rawls, the best society is one that focuses on economic fairness and equal liberty. Margalit offers an alternative to Rawls in The Decent Society. For Margalit, the best society is one in which institutions avoid humiliating people—such a society, writes Margalit, would be a "decent" society.

Margalit does not endorse a particular theory, but explores the concept of "society" and its potential. Margalit notes that when Rawls talks about justice in society, he is, in a way, concerned in part with decency. In promoting the broad concepts of decency and respect, Margalit seeks to shift the focus away from the Rawlsian notion of justice toward preserving the dignity of social beings. Margalit asserts that a society may be civilized without being decent if it humiliates its members. Furthermore, a society may be civilized or just to its own members, but not to members outside of that society. Margalit, who is Jewish, observes that Arabs living in Israel demand equal rights not just to gain equal distribution of goods and services: "The fact that they are denied these goods, even by a society they do not identify with, is perceived not only as injustice but also as humiliation."

Margalit recognizes that it may be impossible to eradicate humiliation between individuals, so he concentrates on humiliation inflicted by institutions. He also recognizes that injustice may exist in a decent society; people may be exploited in a decent society, whereas exploitation may not exist in a just society. Margalit also recognizes the difference between a civilized society, where all individuals treat one another with respect, and a decent society, where only institutions are required to treat persons with respect. Rather than design a utopia, writes Margalit, he seeks to suggest "a utopia through which to criticize reality."

An analysis of dignity, self-respect, and humiliation lies at the heart of The Decent Society. Humiliation, to Rawls, occurs whenever someone's self-respect is damaged. Anarchists insist that a decent society is impossible to achieve because all institutional power is designed to humiliate. Stoics, conversely, argue that decency is irrelevant to persons who have sufficient self-esteem. Margalit questions these theories and points out their various vulnerabilities.

Margalit's book on the optimal society is considered by many critics to be the best answer to Rawls's arguments. Margalit's book, commented Michael Ignatieff in Times Literary Supplement, "is a model of how philosophers, using only a fine attention to distinctions between similar-sounding moral terms, can help to clarify, and by doing so, purify our moral language." "Compared to the sloppiness of so many 'virtue' books," remarked Alan Wolfe in New Republic, "Margalit's book offers a great deal, especially an opportunity to argue with someone who is really thinking. A decent society would have more books like The Decent Society." New York Review of Books critic Alan Ryan commented that it "is serious without being ponderous, it is unassuming but ambitious, and it is engagingly unorthodox, both in its concerns and in the way it pursues them."

Views in Review: Politics and Culture in the State of the Jews is a collection of previously published essays by Margalit. The essays deal with a variety of political and social topics in Israel, such as the Shimon Peres legacy, the work of philosopher Martin Buber, the cultural and political oversight of the Israeli kitsch, and Palestinians. Critics praised Views in Review. Library Journal contributor Sanford R. Silverburg called the work "a pleasant read, offering a warm and sympathetic review of the humanity inherent in the Israeli national soul." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Views in Review will "appeal to readers who want to improve their knowledge of Israel's complex reality."

Six lectures by Margalit are collected in The Ethics of Memory, which examines the question of whether there is an obligation to remember, whether it be atrocities of war or a person's name. Key concepts in this discussion are the distinction between morality and ethics, the existence of communities of memory, the role of moral witnesses, and the effects of forgiving and forgetting. Margalit says morality influences "thin" human relations, those between people with only remote awareness of each other, and calls ethics part of "thick" human relations, which exist between those whom people know and love. In concluding that memory is ethical not moral, he suggests that democratic societies, which typically focus on the individual and shaping the future, would benefit from a greater awareness of the past.

Reviewers noted that The Ethics of Memory is not a specialist's work for other specialists. Margalit himself comments in the book that he is an "e.g." philosopher, not an "i.e." philosopher; he would rather make his points through real life examples rather than definitions and hypothetical situations. Reactions to the book included questions about its completeness and individual assertions, but critics generally found favor with Margalit's line of inquiry and purpose. In the Los Angeles Times, Lee Siegel said Margalit had crafted "a novel illumination of memory's moral implications" but added, "he traverses such difficult, boundless terrain that he has a hard time balancing his restless inquiries with full examinations." In the Guardian Gale Strawson challenged the author's suggestion that everyone wants to be remembered after death, yet characterized his work as "a lovely and often brilliant book." Commenting on the importance of Margalit's ideas in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Jonathan Lear wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Margalit is an astonishingly humane thinker. His philosophy is always tied to making sense of us humans in all our complexity. And yet he is committed to making sense of us in ways that will make us better." And in the New Republic, Michael Walzer was relieved to find that this "fashionable subject" was not dealt with in the usual "sentimental or cynical" way. Walzer described The Ethics of Memory as "a wonderfully effective antidote to both the marketing of memory and the 'discourse' of memory, a gift to all of us who are engaged by the contemporary arguments and who are radically unhappy about them."



Margalit, Avishai, The Decent Society, translated by Naomi Goldblum, Harvard University Press (Cambridge), 1996.

Margalit, Avishai, and Moshe Halbertal, Idolatry, translated by Naomi Goldblum, Harvard University Press, 1992.


Guardian (Manchester, England), January 4, 2003, Gale Strawson, "Blood and Memory: Do We Have a Duty of Remembrance to the Dead?," p. 8.

Library Journal, October 15, 1998, Sanford R. Silverburg, review of Views in Review: Politics and Culture in the State of the Jews, p. 84.

Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2003, Lee Siegel, "The Morality of Remembering," p. R12.

New Republic, May 27, 1996, Alan Wolfe, review of The Decent Society, p. 33; January 20, 2003, Michael Walzer, "The Present of the Past," p. 36.

New York Review of Books, April 21, 1994, Wendy Doniger, review of Idolatry, pp. 55-58; July 13, 1996, Alan Ryan, review of The Decent Society, pp. 17-20.

New York Times Book Review, February 9, 2003, Jonathan Lear, "Anger Management," p. 22.

Philosophical Review, January, 1982, Simon Blackburn, review of Meaning and Use, pp. 128-131.

Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1998, review of Views in Review, p. 36.

Times Literary Supplement, March 7, 1997, Michael Ignatieff, "The Necessary Sting," pp. 10-11.


Avishai Margalit home page, (November 15, 2003). *