Michael Walzer on Jewish Identity: Jewish Writers for Jewish Readers!

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I’m surprised that I’ve seen no coverage of political theorist Michael Walzer’€™s lecture at Yivo Institute last month on the issue of Jewish identity: “Are We a People?” Surprised because it was such a strong lecture, and such a disturbing one.

I’m going to summarize the lecture here, then comment on it.

Walzer answered the question at once: Yes. Jews are a people
in a way that no one else is a people. We are both religion and nationality. That identity comes from God’s covenant with our people as recorded in the Torah, and is at once a religious and political self-definition. We have obeyed the same laws for a long time, and this has made us a Jewish nation, irrespective of whatever I or any one else has to say about it. €œThere are many nations, but we are one among them. And we are also a religion: We inherit a religiously inspired culture.€

Being both a religion and a nationality makes us an anomaly.
We’re like the French but unlike the French we do not include
Muslims and Catholics. And we can be members of the French nation but not the same as other members of that nation.  €œJews are French, English and Russian with a difference.€ We have been a “nation”€ for a long time. Jews may be comfortable and prosperous in America, but: “€œwe are not simply at home.”€ Being full citizens in a stable democracy is a relatively new condition for Jews, and “€œwe can’€™t be entirely confident about its permanence, Jewish history is full of warnings.” Now the existence of a Jewish state, Israel, “€œmakes things even more complicated.”€ We are connected to Israel, “€œto another place, to another geographical place and a different history”; this makes us different from other Americans who do not have these connections.€

Our anomalous status might make the world uncomfortable, but the world should just get used to it, Walzer said. There will be accusations of parochialism and disloyalty. We shouldn’€™t try and deny the anomaly so as to be liked; we shouldn’€™t be critical of ourselves. We should embrace the anomalies. “We need not make excuses.. We have a simple position to defend. It isn’€™t that hard for our neighbors to live with our differences. We are what we are and we need to make a secure place for ourselves in the world.”€

Now to Israel. Israel is “€œthe political center of world Jewry”, Israel is the only place where Jews have a high politics, a politics of full self-determination, a politics of war and peace.  And Jews all over the world are radically focused on the news from Israel. This placement reinforces the sense of national identity, the state of Israel fosters
the sense of Jewish peoplehood.

Jewish identification is very different in Israel and America. In Israel, Jewish identity is nationalistic and largely irreligious. Zionism was an “€œanti-Jewish movement,”€ Walzer said, for it opposed the orthodox rabbis. And Israel was a secular state at first. But the big surprise was that secular democratic institutions are apparently not sufficient to base a society on; and it was this “€œthinness”€ of Jewish identification that explains the remarkable rise of the religious right in the political culture of the Jewish state in the last 30 years.

American Jewish identification is also surprising: it is religious,
Walzer said. The most remarkable fact of Jewish life in the U.S. is the religious revival of the last 15 years or so, which took social scientists by surprise. Despite all the concerns about assimilation and intermarriage, Jewish religious life is more vital than ever. There are Jewish day schools, a Jewish feminist movement. Novelists write Jewish novels and unlike Bellow and Malamud, they aim their work at a Jewish audience.

At the same time, the boundaries of Jewish life in the U.S. are not
closed. There is intermarriage. “€œThe gentile world is entirely open and appealing.”€
There are Jewish Buddhists–though Jews cease to be Jews by active conversion to, say, Islam or Christianity. But there have always been irreligious Jews; in Exodus, the community is constantly breaking the law.

A number of comments.

–Walzer gave a great lecture. The last time I went to a lecture at Yivo introduced by Marty Peretz, I felt ripped off. Last fall, Niall Ferguson gave a Scottish minstrel show about Jews and money, completely avoiding the core subject. This time Walzer delivered for my $15, a serious and honest description of how he defines Jewishness. A description you might quarrel with, but one based on great learning.

–At one level, the lecture left me feeling good. As an irreligious freethinking intermarried alienated Jew, Walzer was saying, there is a strong tradition for you too.

–The most uplifting part of the lecture was that he did not
talk about the Holocaust or antisemitsm AT ALL. It came up in the Q-and-A, and he said that this was the first question when he gave the talk in Israel: why no talk about antisemitism? He said that these were grim bases for Jewish identity, that these events ought to be folded into Jewish history, not offered as a way of identification. Hallelujah. The audience applauded.

–The parochialism left a sour, tyrannical feeling.  Walzer, having
appeared on the scene as a liberal, has late in life occupied more and more the life of Judaism. Some of this is to his great credit as a scholar. He learned Hebrew in his 50s. But the orientation is defiantly particularist. He is not interested in Judaism as a universalist religion, as the anti-Zionist rabbis and liberal theorists offered it to the world. He doesn’€™t really want to share. He presented it as a good thing that Jewish novelists are writing for Jews, unlike Bellow and Malamud. I repeat that statement because I find it so shocking. At a time when Jews are more prosperous and comfortable than ever in history, the community is  to be congratulated for turning inward. In celebrating this, Walzer seems essentially conservative.

–The talk was not very political. Walzer came off as a kind
of religious moral philosopher, with hints of Leo Strauss. He was interested chiefly in intellectual and religious movement, he doesn’€™t care if Jewish numbers are down; what matters is the spirit of the thing. Given his lack of politics, and interest in religion, Walzer can embrace the irreligious in Jewish life, but he doesn’€™t seem to have any place for the unnationalistic. He never used the word Palestine or Palestinians. He briefly mentioned the critics of Zionism in American academic life. He said they were hostile and alienated, and he thought this a bad thing.

–As I am part of that alienation, I felt there was a blindness on his part in the lecture to the contradictions in his nationalist definition. Those who feel it a moral crisis that Israel has created an apartheid state in part of Eretz Israel, as he continually referred to a territory for which I would have a political designation: Palestine.

He continually referred to Israel as a democracy, ignoring the status of millions of Arabs who do not feel enfranchised. He did not deal with Sara Roy, daughter of Holocaust survivors, seeing Nazis when she sees Israeli soldiers humiliating a Palestinian grandfather in front of his sobbing grandson, forcing the man to kiss his donkey’€™s behind (from the superb collection Wrestling With Zion). He did not deal with Breaking the Silence’€™s utter demoralization, as soldiers serving in the Occupied Territories and casually abusing Palestinians– all moral lines removed in the name of a security state. He did not mention the words occupation or Palestinian. No, he said at the outset he was describing Jewish identification, not criticizing it, and I can’€™t expect him to go fully into this. But meantime he is blinding himself to the Why’s of Jewish alienation, which is a trend in its own right. As it was, Walzer’€™s exaltation of our anomaly€ as American citizens seemed a little complacent and self-congratulatory, and blind to the anomalous status of other citizens with historical vectors of non-Americanness. Indians, say, or Mexican-Americans. No: our difference was being sanctified here…

–At one point, Martin Peretz teased Walzer about being in the prophetic tradition. Walzer said he is not prophetic. No: It seems to me he was more in the conservative rabbinical tradition, dedicated to the study of Jewish law. The prophetic tradition in this country is today epitomized by the left, by Tony Kushner, Sara Roy, David Zellnik. These Jews are trying to imagine a different way of being Jewish, seeing the moral questions before their eyes.

–More on parochialism. Is there an integrationist price people ought to pay in America, especially if they want success and position? If I had gotten a question, I would have done my best to rattle Marty Peretz, and to challenge Walzer’€™s political blinders, by saying: ‘€”Lately John Judis, your fellow contributor to the New Republic, spoke of the pressure on Jewish intellectuals in the U.S. to be loyal to Israel. He seems to find that uncomfortable and inappropriate. And many American Jews don’€™t feel that loyalty, given Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. When you say that we should be one nationality, and anomalous, isn’€™t this a formula for deep divisions in American political life, especially given the fact of Jewish participation in the Establishment? Specifically, the neoconservatives share your devotion to Israel; it seems to have motivated some of their foreign policy considerations, and even if you embrace the anomaly, they didn’€™t; they were not upfront about that devotion. This lack of straightforwardness has corrupted the American establishment in ways reminiscent of Vietnam’€™s corruption, and has  contributed to a great tragedy in Iraq.
How do you answer such urgent political concerns?”

But I didn’€™t get time to ask a question. I had to run. Though I will say I was filled with gratitude to Walzer for a generous performance, one I will be mulling for months and even years to come.

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