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The spirit of Spinoza

THREE HUNDRED and fifty years ago this week, Baruch Spinoza, the greatest philosopher ever produced by the Jewish community, was excommunicated, expelled, cursed, and damned by the exilic Portuguese Jewish authorities in Amsterdam. The dark shadow of the Christian Inquisition in Portugal still traumatized this most free and enlightened Jewish community of its time. The exact nature of his ``abominable heresies" and ``monstrous deeds" were not specified. Yet the challenge of Spinoza (then only 23) to his beloved Jewish community was primarily Socratic: to examine themselves and question the narrow framework they deployed by elevating unarmed truth and moral integrity over parochial prejudice and myopic vision.

Twenty-one years later this most noble and beloved of modern philosophers died with his masterpiece, ``Ethics," unpublished and his eyes weakened by his painstaking job of grinding lenses. His pioneering and profound conceptions of religious tolerance and democratic government would influence another future refugee in Amsterdam, John Locke. And the rest is history. Even the greatest Jew of the 20th century (and a hero of mine), Albert Einstein, described himself as a disciple of Spinoza -- one who boldly pursued truth and justice.

As we witness another sad chapter in the Middle East -- the loss of precious human beings, the presence of deep hatred and revenge, and the absence of Socratic questioning and empathy for all -- the spirit of Spinoza haunts us.

Where are the courageous thinkers who ask the hard questions that shatter our simplistic and sentimental frameworks of pure Israeli heroes and impure Arab villains (or vice versa) in the conflict? Is it possible for Jews to reject the ugly Israeli subjugation of Palestinians, the plight of their prisoners in Israeli jails (especially the women and children), or the anti-Arab bigotry in Israeli society without being demonized a self-hating Jew?

Is it possible for Arabs to reject the pernicious rhetoric of pushing Israel into the sea, the barbaric practice of suicide bombers and the anti-Jewish bigotry in Arab communities without being demeaned a traitorous Arab? Have the wars of the blood-soaked region so coarsened consciences, hardened hearts, and closed minds such that the spirit of Spinoza is dead and buried?

This spirit of Spinoza is not hard to define at the present moment. It requires security for Israelis, justice for Palestinians, and dignity for Lebanese. The colossal failure of Arab politicians to speak boldly and act courageously for these three aims is pathetic. Oil interests and fear of democratic reform at home cripple Arab political leadership -- and now threaten their legitimacy and stability.

Here in the United States, oil dependency and moral hypocrisy drive our policy. We rightly support the security of Israelis -- the world must never ever permit another Holocaust against Jews. Yet we wrongly talk and act as if the life of an Arab -- especially Palestinian or Lebanese -- has less value than that of an Israeli -- especially Jewish. Hence the low priority on the lives of those under the vicious Israeli occupation or on innocent Lebanese victims of Israeli bombs.

This moral hypocrisy yields a double standard regarding which UN resolutions we call to enforce -- no to those that condemn occupation like 242 and 338 and yes to those that call for disarming people who resist occupation like 1559. It also seems that American moral outrage focuses on precious Israelis more so than equally precious Palestinians or Lebanese.

Spinoza pleads for resurrection. Unlike his fellow Jew, Jesus, only we flesh-and-blood humans can resurrect Spinoza by our bold Socratic questioning and our genuine compassion for Jews and Arabs.

Cornel West is a professor of religion at Princeton University and author of ``Democracy Matters."

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