The American political philosopher Michael Walzer was a 33-year-old Harvard professor and anti-war activist giving speeches against US involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1967 when the Six Day War broke out.
Suddenly, as he wrote in 2017 in the Fathom Journal, “I was also speaking in defense of the Israeli preemptive strike against Egypt.”
He said that his audiences were often hostile, and that both pacifists and hawks demanded to know how he could reconcile fierce opposition to one war while supporting another.
“I had to explain the politics of distinction: wars are just and unjust,” he wrote. “That moment was the origin of my book Just and Unjust Wars, published 10 years later.”
That book, arguably the most important of some 27 books he has written, cemented the position of this professor – first at Princeton, then Harvard, then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – as a leading American intellectual. For 38 years he was also the editor of Dissent magazine, a periodical he began writing for in his days as an undergraduate at Brandeis University in the 1950s, and a journal that The New York Times called a “Lion of the Left” in a 2013 article celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Walzer, who was in Israel this week delivering the fourth annual Jerusalem Lecture in Moral Philosophy at the Hebrew University, is also an unapologetic Zionist.
Asked, during a pre-lecture interview with The Jerusalem Post, whether “living on the Left,” as he said he does, is an uncomfortable space in America for a Zionist to occupy, Walzer – rather surprisingly – said it is not.
“There are a lot of people who are Left and Zionist, probably not the far Left, the near Left. I don’t think it is uncomfortable.”
Walzer is active in a group of left-wing professors fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on campuses called The Third Narrative. While fiercely critical of the settlements and the “occupation,” this group actively pushes back against various BDS initiatives across the country.
Walzer rejected the notion that being Left and a Zionist is a dying breed in the US, and said that, “in an odd way, the Ukrainian war is going to help us.”
The Ukrainian fight against the Russians, he said, is the paragon of a “just war.”
The Ukrainians, he explained, “are fighting an unprovoked attack, defending themselves. There is a line from [military theorist Carl von] Clausewitz that says every invader would like to march unopposed into the other country; it is the people who resist the invasion who start the war. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin thought there would not be much resistance.”
The Ukrainians, he said, “proved that the Russian war was one of aggression by resisting it, by fighting, by risking their lives for their country’s freedom.”
So how does that help left-wing Zionists defending Israel on often hostile US campuses?
“Because Ukraine is the nation-state of the Ukrainian people, with a 20% [Russian] minority, and Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, with a 20% [Arab] minority inside the Green Line. They are very similar, and if you realize the importance of Ukrainian nationhood, I think it is much easier to realize the value of Jewish nationhood.”
Walzer said that while there are some on the Left who blame everything on NATO expansionism and American imperialism and apologize for the Russians, and others on the far Left who criticize the Ukrainians for not surrendering, because they feel that preventing the loss of life is more important than Ukrainian freedom, “there is an awful lot of people on the Left, the liberal Left, who are very strongly supporting Ukraine. And I think we should be making the point that if they support a nation-state like Ukraine, they should support a nation-state like Israel.”
But don’t hold your breath.
As Walzer himself wrote in a 2019 essay in Dissent called “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism,” the most common leftist version of anti-Zionism derives from a “strong opposition to nationalism and the nation-state.” Yet this opposition is selective, he noted, and when the second half of the 20th century witnessed the collapse of the British, French and Soviet empires, most on the Left “supported pretty much all the postimperial creations... except one.”
Walzer wrote that the Left supported the Vietnamese, Algerian, Burmese, Sudanese, Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian nationalist aspirations, but did not support those same aspirations of the Jews.
That being the case, is there any real reason to think that the Ukrainian example will alter the equation?
Regardless, he said, this is an argument well worth making.
IN GENERAL, Walzer said, American Jews need to respond in a “tough way” to efforts to deny Israel the right to exist, or to label it an apartheid state.
For example, Walzer – the longtime editor of a magazine that has been described as “one of the great incubators of socialist, leftist and even liberal ideas” – characterized the recent Amnesty International report of Israel as an apartheid state as “scandalous.”
“It is written as if Israel is the only actor in the Middle East, and everyone else is a victim. It is an appalling document,” he said.
“Anyone who knows Green Line Israel knows it is obviously not an apartheid state, it does not meet any of the features of apartheid. Greater Israel might one day become an apartheid state; that is something to worry about. Those of us opposed to the occupation do worry, but right now the charge is simply false, and we need to say that very clearly at the American universities where the next generations of America’s elite are being trained and growing up, and they are subject to a lot of hostile anti-Zionist propaganda.”
Asked to explain how Amnesty International could have issued such a report, he said that “if you read the way the Gaza war [last May] was reported, if you read the way the settlements are reported, and how the attacks by settler thugs on Palestinians are reported, it is very easy to come up with a hostile picture of Israel.”
As to what can be done to combat this, he replied: “A lot of the job is here in America. American Jews have to respond in a tough way, and not shout antisemitism – that doesn’t win on campus. You have to describe what Israel is like, and you have to do it in a forthright way, admitting blemishes and criticism.”
He said that groups like the one he is in, The Third Narrative, are best equipped to do this because they fight BDS from the Left, and because “we are both critical and supportive of Israel – I think that is the way to win on American campuses.”
Much has been written and discussed in recent years about how so many Jews on American campuses have grown distant from Israel. An American Jewish Committee survey released this week found that 54.5% of Jewish millennials (aged 25-40) considered that being connected to Israel is important to their Jewish identity, meaning that another 45.5% do not.
Asked to explain the phenomenon of those Jews for whom Israel is unimportant, Walzer replied: “Look, the US is the most hospitable Diaspora host that we’ve ever had. And so there is increasing assimilation, increasing intermarriage, and an increasing loss of a sense of peoplehood – the Jews have become a religious community, and there has been the loss of the sense of the nation; we have become like all other religious communities.
Yet, he said, it is not like all other religious communities. For instance, a lapsed Catholic who doesn’t believe in anything anymore ceases being a Catholic. “But a lapsed Jew is still a Jew, so there is a fact of peoplehood.”
Among American Jews, however, that sense of peoplehood is fading. Walzer said that while many Jewish students on campus don’t want to talk about Israel, they “still may be Jewishly involved, going to services at Hillel and celebrating the holidays. So a lot of them feel very Jewish, but they are Jewish in a nonnational way; they are Jewish in an American way.”
The AJC survey findings seem to bear this out, as a surprising 56% of millennials queried characterized themselves as very religious, moderately religious or traditional.
But how to recapture that sense of Jewish peoplehood? Walzer was asked.
“I think that Israel and Diaspora Jews are going to grow apart, but how far apart is something we can try and control, with more and better Jewish education here [in the US], and with a much greater effort from the US side to spend time in Israel.”
Walzer advocated what Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri once termed “half aliyah.”
“You should stop telling people to come to live in Israel,” Walzer advised. “Some will, a small number every year, but the real goal should be to get Americans to visit, establish business ties, professional ties, to send their kids.”
It is this moving back and forth, he argued, that will increase American Jewry’s sense of belonging to a people, and not to what the founders of the Reform movement and other assimilationists over the decades have referred to as a “faith community.”