Exile and the Prophetic: Michael Walzer, repeat intimidator

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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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