In January of 1956, Albert Camus decided to withdraw from public debate about the future of his beloved Algeria. Although born into a pied-noir family and steeped in French culture, Camus deplored the cruelty with which the French mlitary suppressed the Algerian revolt and spoke out as vigorously against Algeira’s rulers as he did against the terrorism of the Front de Liberation Nationale. Yet at a certain point he decided to silence himself and focus on small, tangible deeds on behalf of the people of Algeria:
“Because of my inability to associate myself with either of the extremist camps, and with the disappearance of the third camp which still made it possible to maintain one’s composure, and because I am doubtful both of my certainties and my knowledge, and being convinced that the true reason for our madness lies with the leaders and the functioning of our intellectual and political society, I have decided no longer to participate in the endless controversies….Personally, once again, I am only interested in actions which prevent bloodshed here and now.”
How powerfully these words echo in our own day. The state of Israel and the occupied territories are contested between two peoples. Most Israel political parties are divided into ideologically determined blocks that allow little sympathy for those who, while anchored in one camp, strive to reach out to the other. Intellecutals who, like Amoz Oz, speak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle “between Right and Right” are vilifed by both sides – as defeatist and naive, on the one hand, or hypocritical and paternalistic, on the other. (The ongoing dispute over Camus’ character – was he a moral hero or a liberal collaborabor? – proves my point.)
At a certain point, one is tempted, like Camus, to fall into silence, to watch one’s words and make do with concrete, practical deeds. Is self-imposed silence virtuous if accompanied by moral action? Or is it an escape from responsibility – responsibilty to construct a future order that will depart radically from the noisome present? Camus himself appears to have had the latter thought, as he re-entered the political debate in 1958, with the publication of his remarkable Algerian Chronicles. Silence, he decided, cannot vanquish evil.