In ‘Dissent’ debate, Walzer hints that leftists who focus on Israel are anti-Semitic

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Michael Walzer
Michael Walzer, photo by Peter Valckx

Dissent Magazine has published an excellent exchange over Israel’s future between Berkeley sociologist James B. Rule and the political theorist Michael Walzer. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a thoughtful exchange between heavyweight intellectuals. It is excellent for two reasons:

1, Rule makes a compelling case that American liberals are not applying democratic values to Israel; the article is titled “The Great Disconnect,” and is aimed at what we call PEP, Progressive Except Palestine, the exception for Israel that liberals make in pressing “universalistic” US policies on civil rights;

2, The gloves soon come off, the debate becomes heated and angry and personal, and so exposes the basis of Walzer’s support for Israel: he is afraid of what will happen to Jews in America. He states that he was made “uneasy” by the Presbyterian debate last spring about divesting from three companies that serve the Israeli military occupation. 

I think Walzer’s fears are irrational and no basis for Americans to support “ethno-nationalism,” but I am grateful that he expressed them. We can now discuss the evidence of his fears: why churches possibly divesting from three companies that serve an occupation that Walzer says is undermining Israel actually threatens the place of Jews in America. I think this is slightly paranoid; and that younger Jews (Walzer is 77) won’t buy his line.

The “Dissent” pieces are behind a fire wall, but worth buying. Here’s a summary and excerpts:

Rule begins by saying that he went to a wedding at the Park Avenue Synagogue and was put off when the rabbi began by exhorting those present to maintain steadfast support for Israel against its enemies. Had this happened in the Presbyterian church Rule grew up attending, with a minister exhorting the congregation to support Protestants in Northern Ireland, he’d have walked out. He didn’t.

But no one left the synagogue because liberals make a great exception for Israel. Ordinarily we believe that equal rights should be granted to all citizens of a state regardless of the citizens’ ethnic and religious community. But American liberals have respected a state that was created by expelling 2/3 of the Arab population and that grants second-class citizenship at best for Palestinians, a place whose civic test is what is “good for the Jews.”

Liberals bear responsibility:

Israel’s systematic communal inequalities pass under the radar screen both of American policy makers and (more strikingly) of liberals who would be quick to decry them elsewhere.

Rule goes through a litany of civil rights abuses inside Israel against Palestinians and says:

It is hard to imagine that any of these policies could win the support of American liberals if they occurred elsewhere the world.

Rule also addresses the power of the lobby:

In very imperfect and ambivalent ways, this country today provides support to human rights and opposes communal discrimination in many countries around the world. Were it not for the overweening influence of right-wing Israeli interests in Washington—acknowledged by every candid observer, yet rarely challenged—the United States would be in a unique position to uphold these same principles in Israel and Palestine.

Liberals should be crying out for sanctions against Israel: 

American liberals should insist that future support be based on meaningful movement toward universalistic policies and practices for all sectors of Israeli society—in short, toward ending second-class citizenship in that country. And—it should go without saying—they should reject any American support to any regime, in any part of the world, engaged in colonization of territories beyond its borders.

Something else liberals should do is to begin thinking about democracy for all the people inside Israel and Palestine’s borders. Because the two state solution is “problematic;” it has been sacrificed to unending military occupation.

Walzer’s response is angry and accusatory. He says that Rule is emblematic of “leftist circles,” where Israel is singled out for criticism from a large pool of states that grant special status to ethnic and religious communities. And why does Rule single Israel out? Walzer can only imagine. But he hints at anti-Semitism:

The claim to universalism is crucial to the argument, and so Rule refers to many other countries that he is prepared to criticize. But the truth is that this kind of criticism is radically particularist. Israel is its only target; everything else is camouflage.

Rule has been writing about Israel for a long time, Walzer says, but has shown no interest in ethnic discrimination in Egypt or Kosovo or Finland or Norway.

Nor has Rule given any evidence of interest in the dominance of ethnic Chinese in Singapore or in “the state-sanctioned cruelties experienced by Muslims in some parts of officially secular India” or in “pressure” against Tamils in Sri Lanka or against Russians in the new Baltic states. I can only guess at the reason for this disinterest (until now) in all these examples of ethno-national injustice.

Rule seems to believe that when it comes to other states that deny people rights on a communal basis, they can be fixed. That Tibet or Egypt or Finland can be reformed, for instance. But in Israel’s case, its “essence” is corrupted, it cannot be saved. Walzer hints again at anti-Semitism.

But the Jewish state of Israel, so he seems to believe, cannot deliver its Arab citizens from oppression and discrimination without ceasing to be a Jewish state.

There are lots of Israelis who are fighting this discrimination, Walzer says. But

they don’t believe that the policies they oppose are intrinsic to a Jewish state.

Walzer admits that the government of Israel is today the very worst it has ever had:

Israel is a country in need of radical criticism; it currently has the worst government in its history, perhaps the worst government among Western democracies.

But he says it is the duty of liberals to support liberal Zionists in Israel, the old Labor Zionists, so that Israel can be preserved as a communal Jewish state.  And as for the bigoted, chauvinist right and the ultra-orthodox

all this can be overcome, can be defeated, within the Jewish state, by its citizens. I don’t know if they will win in the end; their prospects have looked pretty good at times in the past; they look pretty dismal right now. Still, I am certain that these are the people who should be, who are, our comrades.

Note that Walzer supports “radical criticism,” but heaven forfend that anyone should sanction, divest or boycott Israel. He concludes his rebuttal with his fear over the divestment measure weighed by the Presbyterians, and goes after Rule for feeling discomfort in the Park Avenue synagogue: 

he finds it difficult to imagine being made similarly uneasy among the more familiar Presbyterians. Now, I have been reading recently about the effort, narrowly defeated, to get American Presbyterians to divest from companies doing business in Israel. The debate about divestment was fierce…. I couldn’t find a single item describing Presbyterian engagement with any other contemporary state or society. I Googled “Presbyterians and China,” looking for some protest against the settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet, a project on a far larger scale and much more effective than anything the Israeli Right has been able to do on the West Bank. I could not find a single item. Not a word. Jim Rule probably doesn’t find this “jarring.” But I do; I was uncomfortable reading the Presbyterian debates, while I am, most of the time, at ease in a synagogue.

So he is saying that the Presbyterians went after Israel because they don’t like Jews, and that scares him.

Rule’s response is angry on just this score:

Michael Walzer is a desperate man. When people this smart start making arguments this bad, you know that their worldview is failing, but that they can’t bear to admit it…. Walzer claims a clairvoyant access to my inner motives and attitudes that would be the envy of any psychoanalyst or fortune teller. What he discerns there is so dark that I don’t even want to think about it…my “radically particularist” attitude—meaning, I think, that I criticize Israel not because of its principles and policies, but because of some unstated animus felt only toward that country

He says that Walzer is deluded about what Israel is:

Walzer has made it his mission to promote a vision of a kinder, gentler Israel—egalitarian, tolerant, and peaceful. Despite his best efforts, that Israel increasingly exists only in his imagination.

Politically, this is the heart of the disagreement. Walzer has the liberal Zionist’s belief that Israel was a great and necessary invention, and so despite all the bad stuff going on, let’s not abandon the dream, let’s support the good guys there.

Rule says that dream has been vitiated by discrimination inside Israel and “forceful, militarized expansion.. [and] aggression.” Though he concedes that Israel is better than a lot of other places on earth, he states that this oppression is ours, it is being done in our name. Note that his parallels are to American abuses that liberals have opposed, segregation, Vietnam, the Iraq War.

[M]ore than any other major country, Israel’s conduct and directions depend utterly on American support. We always have the most immediate and urgent responsibilities to challenge destructive actions and policies carried out in our name, with our own resources, by our own government. For historic parallels, consider federal enforcement of segregation, the Vietnam War, American exploitation of the nuclear arms race, the Iraq War, and other American misadventures. Where Israel is concerned, we Americans are implicated in some shockingly bad behavior that could never continue without our support—most urgently, its colonization of neighboring territories. And the public rationale for this invasion-in-slow-motion is—that’s right—a classic manifestation of communal supremacy gone amok. Where else in the world would Washington support forceful, militarized expansion of any country’s boundaries and population into neighboring lands?

Again he returns to the liberal’s duty. He reminds Walzer that one of the Israelis from the camp that he purports to revere, Avraham Burg, in August published a piece in the New York Times describing Israel’s “fading democracy” and looking for ways out that include equal rights for all:

Burg favors “two neighboring states for two peoples,” but failing that, ”the same fair and equal principles should be applied to one state for both peoples.”

Rule then accepts Walzer’s challenge and seeks to imagine ways that Israel might be reformed to be more egalitarian. Here are his “far-reaching changes” that liberals ought to support:

Something like affirmative action would be necessary for groups now saddled with second-class citizenship. Seized properties would have to be restored. “Rights of return” could no longer be restricted to the majority group. Symbols and observances of minority populations would have to enjoy their own place in public life. Constitutional restrictions against political activity by Arab and secular interests would have to be reversed. And all concerned would have to acknowledge that, over time, today’s Jewish majority might not hold that status forever.

In the last line of the dialogue, Rule says that he doesn’t think Walzer would accept a state in which Jews became a minority.

A great debate. Let’s hope it or ones like it are staged at campuses across the country, and that it leads to gloves-off debates about Zionism inside Jewish life.

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