Exile and the Prophetic: Michael Walzer, repeat intimidator

on 12 Comments

This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

The current issue of Dissent features an exchange between Berkeley sociologist, James Rule, and political theorist, Michael Walzer.  You have to purchase the exchange online which I plan to do.  But reading this website’s take on their exchange, Walzer’s argument is already familiar.  I’ve heard it all before – in Jerusalem of all places – and from Walzer himself – twenty-five years ago.

As Weiss reports their exchange, Rule calls out freedom lovers who apply a lenient double standard to Israel.  This allows Israel to get by without the trenchant criticism – and activism against its policies – it deserves.  Walzer claims the double standard works the other way. Israel receives undue criticism while other human rights offenders get off scot-free.

While Rule worries that the double standard allows Israel to remain unaccountable for its actions, Walzer moves the discussion to another arena.  Walzer implies that undue focus on Israel may have to do with anti-Semitism on the Left.  Jewish self-hate can’t be far behind.

When I encountered Walzer in Jerusalem in 1987, I was speaking on my soon to be published book, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.  Walzer was one of my respondents.

Respond he did, using the same arguments he uses with Rule. As with Rule, Walzer was less interested in explicitly defending Israel’s actions.  His more important task was to make suspect anyone critical of Israel. 

Walzer is a quintessential Progressive Jew.  When he can’t argue the positives of Israel, he accentuates the negatives of those who criticize it.

In Jerusalem, I was Walzer’s exemplar of his imagined Jewish Left.  Walzer ‘knew’ I was alienated from Jewish life and that I singled out Israel inappropriately because I skirted the boundaries of anti-Semitism and self-hate.  Walzer had never met me and, if he had read anything I had written, his take was certainly his own. Nonetheless, Walzer had my ‘type’ on his radar screen. 

Walzer made his career with these kinds of calculated and malicious arguments.  His disappointment with Israel was already present when he responded to me.  What he writes in Dissent – ‘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’ – he spoke in more or less the same words twenty-five years ago.

Walzer has been a pessimist about Israel for decades.  Then and now he sees glimmers of hope. Israel can embrace them if she has the political will. In the meantime, Walzer believes that no one outside his self-defined circle can sound the alarm. 

This is how it goes:  Walzer allows himself and his friends a studied pessimism.  A call to action is anti-Semitism.

Another charge against Rule is similarly familiar from my previous encounter with Walzer.  This is when Walzer charges Rule with a false universalism, that is, Rule’s claim to be as critical of any other country that carries out Israel-like policies.  Walzer dismisses Rule’s claim as disingenuous:  ‘But the truth is that this kind of criticism is radically particularist.  Israel is its only target; everything else is camouflage.’ In Jerusalem, Walzer hurled the same charge against me.

My response to Walzer’s charge of singling out Israel then is the same response I have today: I don’t pretend to be a universalist when it comes to my Jewishness and Israel.  I am more interested in and more critical of Israel precisely because I am Jewish. It’s not about holding Israel to a higher standard. I hold Israel to the primary standard I am required to – a Jewish standard of ethical action.

If other people want to make Israel a universal case, so be it.  In the final analysis, it may or may not matter to them how Israel stacks up against other ethnic cleansers and occupiers.  As well, what matters to the universalists may or may not be important to the future of Jewishness and Israel.  I see these universalist critiques as levers to force Israel back to its senses.  I support universalist critiques of Israel not because I know where they’re coming from deep down inside but because Israel needs to be stopped.

Yes, sometimes such criticisms are ‘camouflage.’  Often they are not.  Does it matter when an entire Palestinian people is suffering under Israel’s boot?

What fascinates me about Walzer is that he hasn’t changed a bit in the last twenty-five years.  He’s made his career as a Jewish ethicist primarily by telling others to back off of the critique that was obviously needed in 1987.  How much more it is needed in 2012 is obvious.

What’s troubling about Walzer is his acceptance – and elevation – in the academic study of Jewish ethics.  If your main contribution to Jewish ethics is creating a firewall against criticism of Israel, being, in a sense, Israel’s gatekeeper in the academy, what does that say about the practitioners of Jewish ethics who lionize him?

Those who lionize Walzer are, like him, repeat defenders.  They are also repeat intimidators – or at least try to be.

In Jerusalem, Walzer’s response to me was angry and accusatory.  Walzer wanted to frighten me into silence.  After all, I was in my early thirties. I had my academic career ahead of me.

After Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation appeared and the Palestinian Uprising began, I realized that Walzer’s attempt to intimidate me was just the beginning.  Throughout the Uprising, Progressive Jews used the same tactic of fear and intimidation.  Walzer was their leader.  He was not alone.

Most Progressive Jews have gone silent.  They work behind in the scenes.  Even that work has become more difficult as the situation in Israel/Palestine continues to decline.

Walzer remains as steadfast an enabler as ever.  Twenty-five years later, I – with many other Jews of Conscience – remain unafraid. 

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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12 Responses

  1. Mooser
    December 19, 2012, 2:48 pm

    “I’ve heard it all before – in Jerusalem of all places – and from Walzer himself – twenty-five years ago.”

    Well, you know what they say about consistency.

  2. Mooser
    December 19, 2012, 2:53 pm

    “This is how it goes: Walzer allows himself and his friends a studied pessimism. A call to action is anti-Semitism.”

    Not-a-Zionism in a nutshell. They should make him President of the Not-a-Zionist National Fund or something.

  3. Castellio
    December 19, 2012, 3:10 pm

    “This is how it goes: Walzer allows himself and his friends a studied pessimism. A call to action is anti-Semitism.”

    I can’t think of a more accurate portrayal of the general situation.

  4. Mooser
    December 19, 2012, 3:10 pm

    “I hold Israel to the primary standard I am required to – a Jewish standard of ethical action.”

    Like the ones that got us Zionism, and Israel? Like the ones governing the “Jewish leaders” in Europe at the time of the Nazis, and for generations earlier?

    Like the ones that starved Zionism of resources, but made sure Judaism had all the assets it needed in perpetuity? (as perpetuated as anything can be in this life with all the perpetrators, of course.)

    Of course a “standard of ethical action” to me implies 1) that is has been explicated understandably, and almost universally within the group 2) they are willing to sanction (in some way) those who deviate from it. And have a structure and a mechanism to do so, because it matters to them. You don’t get to put the word “Jewish” on something without at least as much scrutiny as if you wanted to use the word “Kosher” And a little evidence such a standard (along with the assets devoted to show it mattered) ever existed, and was practised would go a long way.

    Now, if you like ‘some nice and heartwarming stories I’ve read or heard about nice Jewish people’ as a standard for “a Jewish standard of ethical action”, well, that pretty much shoots my argument in the head, but I’m used to that.

    • Mooser
      December 19, 2012, 3:22 pm

      “I hold Israel to the primary standard I am required to – a Jewish standard of ethical action.”

      Has anybody ever considered the fact that Judaism might be owed a fantastic amount of overtime pay? Time-and-a-half! You can’t tell me that Judaism did all the work of getting the Zionists into Palestine, and is now called on to lead anti-Zionism, too, in a forty-hour week! Has anybody thought of, (okay, call me a socialist, a union agitator) of maybe giving the old girl a little time off? But no, she’s on 24/7 call, any time of the day or night. People collapse from that, you know.

  5. pabelmont
    December 19, 2012, 5:52 pm

    “Those who lionize Walzer are, like him, repeat defenders. They are also repeat intimidators – or at least try to be.” They are are also repeat pretend-ethicists. They are pure politicians, pushing people around as hard as they can to get a particular POLITICLA result. Ethics aren’t in it. Jewish isn’t in it except that (for some reason) Israel and its pals pretend that Israel is ABOUT Jewish themes, is FOR Jewish people, etc. I don’t see it.

    America seems “jez fine” to me, and supporting Israel for doing (much of) what a certain unnameable (European) power of 1930-1940s did // and behaving as another of them did in Algeria // seems to me just that little bit out-of-tune with the principal Jewish song. But, then, I aspire to be a musician.

  6. Keith
    December 19, 2012, 6:36 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “Walzer remains as steadfast an enabler as ever.”

    One would be remiss to mention Michael Walzer without also mentioning his writings on Just War Theory in which he provides ideological support for both the war mongering of Israel and empire. He long ago abandoned principle to the pursuit of power and privilege as a member of the liberal intelligentsia supporting the imperial doctrinal system.

  7. Miura
    December 20, 2012, 12:05 am

    Walzer’s rhetorical gymnastics stretch back 45 years:

    Certainly the peculiarity of Walzer’s position (about which, with a few
    exceptions, he has not been stridently polemical) is that is still advanced,
    and honored, as the Left position. It is at bottom a position retaining the
    vocabulary of the Left, yet scuttling both the theory and critical astringency
    that historically gave the Left its moral and intellectual power. For theory
    and critical astringency, Walzer has substituted an often implicit but always
    unexamined appeal to the concreteness and intimacy of shared ethnic and
    familial bonds, the realism, the ‘moral’ responsibility of insiders who have
    ‘made it’.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    December 20, 2012, 12:09 am

    RE: “My response to Walzer’s charge of singling out Israel then is the same response I have today: I don’t pretend to be a universalist when it comes to my Jewishness and Israel. I am more interested in and more critical of Israel precisely because I am Jewish.” ~ Marc Ellis


    I remember one particular Six Day War joke that was told by a classmate of mine (not one of my Jewish friends, who were much less chauvinistic) during my senior year of high school here in Atlanta (the year following the Six Day War). Actually, to be more accurate, I only remember the gist of the joke at this point.
    As I recall the joke (told by a female), there was a busload of Egyptian children somewhere in the Sinai. The punchline was that the mighty Israeli military virtually vaporized the entire bus full of Egyptian children. [Riotous laughter here, excepting me.] There wasn’t a single survivor! [“Ha, ha, ha” (excepting me) ! ! ! ]

    Another reason I began paying close attention the Israel/Palestine issue was because Israel’s actions/behavior seemed so very much unlike the actions/behavior of my Jewish friends. Consequently, I have spent decades trying to understand the incongruity.

    Lastly, since the U.S. unfortunately seems to emulate Israel in many ways (preemptive wars, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, for instance), I have come to be especially concerned about Israel’s behavior (because it might be adopted by our own government). I tend not to worry quite so much (though perhaps I should) that the U.S will emulate Rwanda, Uzbekistan, Belarus or Myanmar/Burma.
    This “monkey see, monkey do” phenomenon that seems to occur between the U.S. and Israel illustrates my fear that Likudnik Israel (specifically by virtue of its inordinate sway over the U.S.) with its Revisionist Zionism might very well be an “existential threat” to the values of The Enlightenment ! ! !

    • SEE: “How We Became Israel”, By Andrew J. Bacevich, The American Conservative, 9/10/12
    LINK – http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-we-became-israel/
    • AND SEE: ‘Israelis are helping write US laws, fund US campaigns, craft US war policy’, by Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 6/30/12
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2012/06/israelis-are-helping-write-us-laws-fund-us-campaigns-craft-us-war-policy.html
    • AND SEE: “America Adopts the Israel Paradigm”, by Philip Ghiraldi, Antiwar.com, 7/05/12
    LINK – http://original.antiwar.com/giraldi/2012/07/04/america-adopts-the-israel-paradigm/
    • AND SEE: “Report: Israeli model underlies militarization of U.S. police”, By Muriel Kane, Raw Story, 12/04/11
    LINK – http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/12/04/report-israeli-model-underlies-militarization-of-u-s-police/
    • AND SEE: “David Yerushalmi, Islam-Hating White Supremacist Inspires Anti-Sharia Bills Sweeping Tea Party Nation”, by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 3/02/11
    LINK – http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2011/03/02/david-yerushalmi-islam-hating-white-supremacist/
    • LASTLY SEE: “Boston airport security program rife with racial profiling has Israeli links”, by Alex Kane, Mondoweiss, 8/14/12
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2012/08/boston-airport-security-program-rife-with-racial-profiling-has-israeli-links.html

    • DICKERSON3870
      December 20, 2012, 12:17 am

      P.S. RE: “[S]ince the U.S. unfortunately seems to emulate Israel in many ways (preemptive wars, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, for instance), I have come to be especially concerned about Israel’s behavior (because it might be adopted by our own government).” – me (above)

      “Obama’s kill list policy compels US support for Israeli attacks on Gaza”, By Glenn Greenwald, guardian.co.uk, 11/15/12
      The US was once part of the international consensus against extra-judicial assassinations. Now it is a leader in that tactic.

      [EXCERPTS] Israel’s escalating air attacks on Gaza follow the depressingly familiar pattern that shapes this conflict. Overwhelming Israeli force slaughters innocent Palestinians . . .
      . . . Meanwhile, most US media outlets are petrified of straying too far from pro-Israel orthodoxies. . .
      . . . Obama had no choice but to support these attacks, which were designed, in part, to extra-judicially assassinate Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari as he was driving in his car. . .
      Extra-judicial assassination – accompanied by the wanton killing of whatever civilians happen to be near the target, often including children – is a staple of the Obama presidency. That lawless tactic is one of the US president’s favorite instruments for projecting force and killing whomever he decides should have their lives ended: all in total secrecy and with no due process or oversight. There is now a virtually complete convergence between US and Israeli aggression, making US criticism of Israel impossible not only for all the usual domestic political reasons, but also out of pure self-interest: for Obama to condemn Israel’s rogue behavior would be to condemn himself.
      It is vital to recognize that this is a new development. The position of the US government on extra-judicial assassinations long had been consistent with the consensus view of the international community: that it is a savage and lawless weapon to be condemned regardless of claims that it is directed at “terrorists”. From a 15 February 2001 Guardian article by Brian Whitaker on the targeted killing by Israel of one of Yasser Arafat’s bodyguards [emphasis added]:

      “International opprobrium was directed at Israel yesterday for its state-approved assassinations of suspected terrorists – a practice widely regarded as illegal. . .
      . . . “The United States, while also condemning Palestinian violence, made clear its disapproval of the assassinations. . .
      “State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: ‘The use of Israeli helicopter gunships, Palestinian attacks against settlements and motorists, the use of mortars by Palestinians and the targeted killings by the Israeli Defence Force … are producing a new cycle of action or reaction which can become impossible to control. . .

      . . . As the Council on Foreign Relations documented in April of this year:

      “The United States adopted targeted killing as an essential tactic to pursue those responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have employed the controversial practice with more frequency in recent years. . .

      In essence, what we find, yet again, is that the governments of the United States and Israel arrogate unto themselves the right to execute anyone they want, anywhere in the world, without any limitations, regardless of how many innocent civilians they kill in the process. . .

      ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/15/israel-gaza-obama-assassinations

  9. Rizla
    December 20, 2012, 2:25 am

    Mooser, you’re too much. Thanks for much-needed humor on this oft-depressing topic.

    Marc — isn’t it interesting how the Zionist thought police haven’t changed their tune in thirty years? I remember the Israeli guys (cultural exchange or something) that came to my high school in the 80’s as though it were yesterday. The first line: We’re a nation surrounded by… dramatic pause… people who want to kill us! Push us into the sea! They really need some new clichés, even bad comedians deserve new routines. I’m digging your series.

  10. Scott
    December 20, 2012, 7:26 pm

    Can’t someone find and repost the video of Walzer walking around with Marty Peretz trying to avoid Harvard demonstrators protesting the celebration of Marty day, or whatever it was. It’s funny.

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