Book Review: Enduring Injustice

Enduring Injustice, Cambridge University Press, 2012
Jeff Spinner-Halev
Reviewed by Olivera Simic, Griffith University

In his new book Enduring Injustice, Jeff Spinner-Halev draws upon a critical appraisal of liberal political theory to provide a fresh outlook on historical injustices. To this end he examines a variety of cases from around the world, focusing his attention on Israel, India, and the United States, but also taking in, if in a more abbreviated manner, Australia, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. Spinner-Halev argues that while advocates of remedying historical injustices invite communities and individuals to take responsibility for their past, their arguments are ambiguous about whether all past injustices need remedy or just those that concern groups suffering from current injustice. The advocates, according to Spinner-Halev, often focus on one or two historical injustices without providing arguments why some injustices should matter more than others – and as such, demand the attention of political community – while others should be ignored.

Instead of focusing on finding the party responsible for an injustice, Spinner-Halev argues that we should use history to help us understand why some injustices are on-going. We need to turn our attention to what he calls ‘the enduring injustice’ – injustices that have roots in the past and that continue to the present day. Spinner-Halev is critical about the imperative to remember the past and its overriding significance. He raises an important question: which injustices should a political community remember? He points out that remembering the past is always a process of choosing to remember a particular past, because ‘remembering means choosing’ (26). Often the communities are urged to remember and are, in some sense, made responsible for remembering past injustices but it is not actually clear which past injustices need to be remembered or redressed. In order to shape a narrative about the past, we are forced to pick and choose particular events as those that need to be redressed in the present.

Yet choosing and deciding that some injustices, but not others, should be remembered assumes a certain interpretation of history and a particular view of both the past and the present. For Spinner-Halev, the heart of the matter is not that some peoples suffered injustices in the past, but they still suffer them today – they suffer from enduring injustice (58). These on-going injustices, according to the author, are moral failures of liberal societies, which demand a meaningful response (210).

Spinner-Halev is also critical of the increasingly popular idea of apologising for the past crimes and urges us to think about the idea of acknowledgment, which he sees as a crucial process that leads to an apology. He carefully distinguishes between the two and argues that, in contrast to an apology, an acknowledgment is a process, not a moment in time. An acknowledgment may promise less than an apology, but, in return, it is better able to recognise the difficulty of ending the enduring injustice (106). Apology as a moment in time is highly emotive and affective: it can give people a false hope that once it is given, the matter at hand will be resolved. Spinner-Halev believes that an emphasis on acknowledgment can pave the way towards genuinely recognising, understanding and overcoming the difficulties of addressing, and ending, the enduring injustice.

Enduring Injustice offers new outlook on past injustices and suggests a convincing and innovative way for long-term and on-going injustices inflicted on various communities across the world to be dealt with. The author urges us to acknowledge enduring injustices – those injustices that happened in the past, but still exist in present. This is important because our aim should be not just to remember the past, but to try to make the future better for today’s victims of injustice (208). In order to come closer to this aim, liberal democracies need to expand their horizons, to pay attention to their failures and, at times, to see the world through a variegated rather than a unitary lens (209).

I found some of the Spinner-Halev’s arguments problematic and in need of further examination. While he argues that apology is an important moment in time, according to Spinner-Halev, it needs to be sincere if “there is a real desire to change behaviour that allows injustice to occur” (99). Thus, it is not enough that government officials apologise for the past injustices but the apology has to be sincere if it is to make any sense. Of course, to prove that one’s apology is sincere is almost impossible and serious questions arise as to what makes a political apology sincere. Finally, it is problematic to argue that the only historic injustice that matters is that which persists. Such claims threaten to turn remedial into distributive claims and fail to attend to the intrinsic importance of historical injustice.

Despite these shortcomings, Spinner-Halev’s new book is articulate, succinct and easy to read. It offers a thoughtful look at the past and at the problems societies face if they fail to acknowledge that for some people past injustices still continue and they need to be addressed in the present. The book will be useful for those interested in history, memory studies, politics and ethics, transitional justice studies and peace and conflict studies. The book is a welcome addition to the growing literature in the area of historical (in) justice.

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