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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Ophir's Public Lecture

Date: 4 February 2009

Time: 5.30pm

Venue: Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College

Title: From Hannah Arendt to Ariel Sharon - Notes for a Political Theory of Man-Made Disasters

Large scale disasters, i.e., events in which death abounds and is accompanied by the devastation of whole regions and populations, become objects for political theory in two different contexts: in one, anticipation, prevention, and mitigation of large-scale disasters become part of what one normally expects from a ruling power; in the other, the creationandongoing administration of such disasters become a modus operandi of this power. My lecture will be limited to the latter context.

Hanna Arendt is arguably the first political theorist to devote systematic attention to large scale disasters caused by acts of States: wars, deportations, terror and massive use of violence against civilian populations. Arendt thought about her epoch as marked by "political catastrophes" and "moral disasters" and made these the focus of her analysis of the historical present. Most explicitly, Arendt was interested in "the disasters of totalitarianism." In more general terms, she was preoccupied with the growing power of States to eliminate their own populations, and with the bureaucratization of power, whereby "governments by laws were replaced by administration by arbitrary decrees" and made "man an agent of the natural law of ruin, thereby degrading himself into the natural tool of destruction."

However, in Arendt's work there is no explicit theory of political, man-made disasters. In my lecture I will present a sketch for such a theory, based mainly on passages from The Origin of Totalitarianism and Eichman is Jerusalem and some minor texts from the early fifties. This theory consists of three elements:

1. A detailed analysis of two forms of political rule, imperialism and totalitarianism, to demonstrate a specific, immanent relation between two specific forms of power and the political disasters which they produce, and to show how the "catastrophization" of living conditions of large populations has become an integral part of the modus operandi of these two regimes.
2.  A model of a "perfect" political disaster in relation to which all other political disasters become or may appear to be partial instantiations or approximations.
3.  Principles for a typology of political disasters with which to distinguish types of political disaster on the one hand, and relate them to types of state power on the other.

In order to exemplify this typological reasoning and start complementing Arendt's partial typology, I will dwell briefly upon the recent catastrophization of the Gaza Strip since the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada) in the Occupied Territories, and its culmination in Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan." I will argue that what we've been witnessing in Gaza is a newly emerging type of political disaster that should be related to the peculiar type of state power formed in Israel by the end of the fourth decade of enduring occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.