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Walzer Says Jews Aren’t Good at Governing Others

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A few weeks back, I landed on Michael Walzer for his parochialism in a speech about Jewish identity at the Center for Jewish History. The speech was complacent: it celebrated the American Jewish religious revival and American Jews’ connection to Israel with only glancing reference to any problems, for instance when Walzer said (dismissively) that the left was alienated from Israel.

Well, Walzer subsequently spoke again at the Center; and this time gave more than lip service to the leftwing critics. And one comment of his was especially moving.   

In late March, Walzer was on a panel on N.Y. intellectuals put together by a Jewish students’ journalism organization called New Voices. His co-panelists were the sociologist Nathan Glazer and the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse. The students’ questions were (surprise) mostly about Israel. Wisse is a fervent Zionist, but Walzer and Glazer expressed concern about recent history.

Glazer noted that he had been in a Zionist youth organization back when, and said, with admirable detachment, that many of the problems that Israel now faces are problems of its own making, more difficult than the problems it encountered in the ’50s and ’60s, and that people (meaning Jews) can have varying responses to those "mistakes." One can wash one’s hands of the whole thing, and say, "I’m finished." Or say (as it seems he would), "We have to live with those mistakes and work within the framework."

That captures the politics of this blog. Myself, I don’t want to work within the framework of those mistakes; they seem to me too overwhelming in character, we’ve come to an ideological dead-end; and I think Israel should go back to the drawing board.

But I am getting to Walzer. Wisse said that Jews were very bad at politics–by which she meant, they have done a lousy job of persuading the world of their position–and then Walzer said that actually Jews are very good at politics. "We sustained a national existence for 2000 years without territory, sovereignty, and without coercive power… That is an extraordinary political achievement… one that has not been studied enough, or appreciated enough."

Then he said, "It may be that the talents honed by exile don’t fit the circumstances of statehood." Jews were trained in the circumstances of "kehal," he said (as I heard it), or their own legal/religious community. "We governed only ourselves, as best we could… Sometimes [we were] semi-autonomous… responsible only for ourselves. In the state of Israel, we have accepted responsibility for other people. That is something we have never had in all the years of exile, and we have not done terribly well."

I found this a beautiful statement, one that gave me a place to stand in Jewish history. It acknowledged that we critics of Zionism have a point, it acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinians. And humbly, it acknowledged the new phenomenon of Jewish power.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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