Delegitimation and Dissent – Prof. Michael Walzer

September 20, 2011 by

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Delivered by Professor Michael Walzer at the Global Jewish Forum – a Makōm seminar for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, Jerusalem, June 2011/Sivan 5771

Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the editor of Dissent magazine, author and editor of more than twenty books, including Just and Unjust Wars, The Company of Critics and the Jewish Political Tradition.

I have been asked to talk this morning about the assault on the legitimacy of the State of Israel and about the parameters of criticism and dissent within the Jewish community. One reason, perhaps, why I was invited and assigned this subject is that some of the most powerful efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state come from the left side of the political spectrum, which is where I live—so I know how dangerous these efforts are and how important it is to fight against them.

But delegitimation isn’t only the work of the left, it is also the work of the Islamic religious right, and the alliance of these two forces, Islamist and leftist, unholy from both sides, so that it’s hard to understand how either side can live with the other—this alliance is especially dangerous. It attracts support from the center also, from people who want to appear “advanced”—in one direction or the other—or just fashionable.

I think that I am also here today because I am a critic of many policies of this and other Israeli governments, and so I have had to worry a lot and often about the parameters of dissent. What I want to do today is to outline some of the key arguments used in the assault on Israel’s legitimacy, explain why they are themselves illegitimate, and then say something about the space that exists or should exist for criticism and dissent within the Jewish community—I say, should exist, since there has been a major effort in recent months (in the Knesset itself) to shut down this space. But I will begin by suggesting two principles with which we can test all the arguments and all the criticism.

The first principle comes from the biblical discussion of true and false prophets. Here is what the book of Deuteronomy says (18:20):

When the prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously.

True prophets speak the truth—or they speak what turns out to be the truth. But that’s a hard standard, since we may not know what the truth is at the moment when the prophet speaks. What we require from adversaries and critics has to be a modified version of this biblical rule: we require a manifest commitment to truth-telling, a conscientious rejection of all the lies that for centuries have floated around the Jewish people and that float today around the state of Israel.


And the second principle is that all the arguments and all the criticism have to be universalized, that is, applied in exactly the same way to Israel and to every other state in the society of states. The crucial test here is the rejection of a double standard. The Jewish people and the Jewish state have a right to be judged by the same standards that are used to judge everyone else. We can accept severe standards so long as the severity isn’t designed, as it often is, just for us.

Let me give you a quick illustration of how the double standard works—consider the leftist Americans or American Jews who refuse to visit Israel because, they say, of the occupation, but then eagerly seek out invitations to visit China, despite the fact that what the Chinese are doing in Tibet is far worse and far more successful than what Israel is doing on the West Bank.

Indeed, the phrase “double standard” is not always accurate; some of our critics have one standard for Israel and no standard for anyone else.

Let me now take up four different arguments used by the ideologues and the political militants who seek to delegitimize the state of Israel–leaving aside, until I come to the end of my talk, the question: Are these arguments really different?

So here are four characterizations of Israel, all negative, all ideologically developed in ways that seem to transcend mere prejudice, all of them rhetorically effective, at least in some places, among some political audiences.

1) I will start with the most obvious one, which we have seen in heightened form in the last couple of years, since the Gaza war: Israel is the bully of the Middle East—a regional great power, using “excessive and disproportionate” force against the oppressed Palestinians, sustaining an occupation that is designed to humiliate and degrade the occupied people.

Nationalist and religious zealotry among the Palestinians is then explained and, often, justified by this oppression and humiliation. It is worth noting that Israel’s delegitimizers are not friendly toward those pragmatic Palestinians who oppose their own zealots and aim at a state alongside Israel. The delegitimizers actually prefer the zealots. They justify or “explain” terrorism in much the same way: it is the last resort of people who are desperate after years of occupation. Some of this is familiar; I have been arguing against this defense of terrorism for almost 40 years—in truth, terrorism wasn’t the last resort, it was the first resort of the PLO.

But there is also a general problem here, which has taken shape only recently, and which the US and NATO face in roughly similar form in Afghanistan, though the similarities are rarely discussed: How do you fight against non-state organizations, whose militants, zealots, and terrorists hide among, or are sheltered by, the civilian population? How do you use modern, high tech armies against enemies like that, without imposing terrible costs on civilians? And without looking like murderers?

The 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths in Gaza suggests the problem, but it doesn’t arise only there; the ratio is less dramatic but of the same sort in Afghanistan, where the US and NATO are fighting the same kind of war as Israel fought in Lebanon and Gaza.

But notice that no-one is providing daily tallies of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, as many newspapers did during the Gaza war. The British press in those weeks was red with Palestinian blood, a friend there told me, though the same papers never carried, over many months, a single picture of a wounded Afghan child, where British soldiers might be responsible for the wounds.

There is no comparative perspective on Israel’s wars—and that is something that we should always insist on.

There is also no adequate discussion of how Israel, or the NATO countries, should fight against non-state enemies. The great sin of the Goldstone report, worse than its specific allegations (some of which the IDF has acknowledged to be true), was its failure to recognize and seriously address the difficulties of asymmetric warfare. Those difficulties are the subject of intense debate in Israel, and in the US too–and almost nowhere else. In the debate here, there are sharp disagreements about how the Gaza war was fought and about how to fight in the future, disagreements particularly about the risks that soldiers must take to avoid killing civilians—and these are the sorts of controversies that we should recognize and value: they are controversies, as it is said, for the sake of heaven.

Israel’s position in the just/unjust war debates is unique: it sends signals like a canary in a coal mine: you only know something is wrong when the IDF does it. Consider the use of white phosphorous in Gaza (to light up battlefields)—it had been used “extensively” by American soldiers in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times, without anyone saying anything. But its use, Human Rights Watch claimed, was a war crime in Gaza (but if it was, it can’t have been a crime only there).

Similarly, proportionality took on a new meaning in Lebanon and Gaza. It was once a highly permissive formula, perhaps too permissive, holding that the death of some number of civilians, possibly a large number, was “not disproportionate” to the value of this or that military target. Now it is used to argue that any civilian deaths are disproportionate to—it’s not clear to what. Just disproportionate; the term, used without any reference, is itself pejorative. Hence the claim by the Secretary General of the UN in the early days of the Lebanon war in 2006 that the Israeli use of force was “disproportionate,” even before anyone knew how many civilians had been killed.

Proportionality implies a measure, but nothing was being measured in the Lebanon case. Or the measure was backward looking, as if this was a family feud in Kentucky between those famous families, the Hatfields and the McCoys: the Hatfields kill three McCoys, and so the McCoys are allowed to kill three Hatfields—anything more would be disproportionate. In fact, proportionality in war is always a forward-looking measure. Consider the example of a German tank factory in World War Two: bombing the factory is certain to kill or injure civilians living nearby, but some number of civilian deaths is “not disproportionate” to the value of keeping those tanks off the battlefield.

In the case of Gaza, the necessary question was: what is the value of stopping rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities? How many civilian deaths are “not disproportionate” to that achievement?

These are very hard questions, and, once again, it is possible to disagree in good faith about the answers. But you have to get the questions right, and then they have to be honestly addressed, and however they are answered, however proportionality is defined, it has to be defined in the same way for the IDF and for every army and for every insurgent force in the world.

2) Israel is a colonial and an apartheid state, surviving almost alone in a post-colonial world.

There is now a large historical and anthropological literature on “post-colonialism” (it is a small academic industry). Some of the work is intellectually useful and politically honorable: careful examinations of the impact of colonial rule on the successor states–a lot of the books and articles are about India and Pakistan.

But some of the work is highly ideological and not careful at all–it is a way of defending or apologizing for the awfulness of many of the successor states, blaming all the awfulness on the years of colonial rule, excusing the current rulers. In the Israeli case, Fatah and Hamas appear as the successors, who haven’t quite succeeded in reaching statehood. And all their sins are blamed on the Israeli colonizers and their apartheid regime. Hence, the brutality and corruption of Fatah and the brutality and religious zeal of Hamas are somehow not the responsibility of the leaders of those organizations. One day, those leaders will manage to create a state, a post-colonial state, whose failings will be blamed on Israel–if Israel continues to exist, for many of the delegitimizers believe that the colonial settlers, the Israeli Jews, like the pied noirs in Algeria, will have to go somewhere else or accept their own subordination.

Now, it is possible to argue, as I would argue, and here is another necessary controversy, that the post-1967 settlers, or many of them, will have to come home to green line Israel. But we have watched, especially in Europe, a steady extension of this argument backwards—to 1948 and perhaps farther back.

Delegitimation lies in that extension, which denies that there is any justice in the Zionist project and any Jewish claim to any part of the land of Israel.

But Israel, we should insist, is itself a post-colonial state, one of the first and one of the best, and it would be nicely symmetrical if some of the academic post-colonialists blamed the failings of this state on its former British rulers and on the exilic overlords to which the Jewish people were subject for so long—and excused Israel’s current leaders (I wouldn’t do that, but I would enjoy the symmetry).

3) There are two further ideological critiques, reflecting the dual nature of Jewish identity, which is so confusing to many people and which is, perhaps, as A. B. Yehoshua has argued, a reason (not the only reason) for the hostility of some of them. The Jews are a religious group, a “community of faith,” as Americans say, and at the same time a nation or a people–and so Israel as a Jewish state has a dual identity, each aspect of which is subject to criticism. The Israeli post-Zionists make both of these critiques, but we hear them also in the wider world.

Israel is a religious state, a theocracy, where orthodoxy is dominant and rabbis rule, at least symbolically–and more than symbolically: there is religious control of family law (but not only Jewish control); there are Sabbath laws; kashrut in government buildings and in the army; a national anthem that is also a hymn of religious longing. And, most famously, there is the law of return, which privileges Jews (though not, I should note, only Jews who are recognized as such by the rabbis—in fact, a lot of non-Jews come in under the law of return, which some of us think is good for the gene pool). Non-Jews suffer extensive social and economic discrimination; “by definition”(so it is said) they can’t be full and equal citizens–though, strangely, that is exactly their formal legal position, which was never true for blacks in apartheid South Africa. In any case, the claim is that Israel, insofar as it is a Jewish state in this religious sense, isn’t and can’t be a democratic state.

I don’t have to tell you that there are many other states in the world today, including democratic states, where religious symbolism and identification and even clerical power are as much in evidence as in Israel.

Once again, we have to insist on comparisons, where Israel will generally do well, and reject criticism that is focused only and exclusively on this state, as if it is the only state in the world in need of criticism. Indeed, Israel needs its secular critics, but I have a list of states where the need is greater…

Very recently, I’ve noticed a tendency on the European left, with some echoes in the US, to abandon the secular critique of politicized religion because it leads, so it is said, to Islamophobia—and so disrupts the leftist- Islamist alliance. In most Muslim states, after all, Islam has a special status; it is, as we say, an “established” religion, and in some places not only established but dominant and dominating. Some leftists want to excuse this sort of thing, though without abandoning the critique of “theocratic” Israel.

4) Israel is a nation-state, in a world that is, or should be, or is becoming post-national. And Israel is a nation-state in a world where state sovereignty is a relic of the past, where interdependence is the rule, and where international law more and more often trumps local law. As a nation and as a state, Israel is an odd anachronism.

But these assertions are radically inaccurate: since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, there are more nation-states in the world than ever before, and they are very jealous of their sovereignty. Moreover, there are still nations aspiring to statehood, like the Palestinians and the Kurds, who apparently haven’t heard that the state they want is obsolete.

If you read the literature on failed states, in Africa, for example, you will realize (what we Jews have known for a long time) how important it is to have a state, a decent state, a state that serves the interests of its citizens and protects them against predators of different sorts. But none of this seems to affect the critique of Israel, as if it were the last nationalist and statist holdout, everyone else having moved into some world beyond. In truth, no-one has moved; there is no world beyond, not, at least, until the messiah comes.

Now, there is some truth in each of these ideological critiques—otherwise they would have no persuasive force at all and we wouldn’t have to worry about them. So there are arguments that we have to join, and do join. Here is my own list—some of you will have different lists.

A Catholic theologian once remarked that it takes a lot of work to reach disagreement. For us, it’s easier.

I have already referred to the debate going on about the use of force in Israel’s most recent wars—these were just wars, I would argue, but at the same time wars that were not always fought justly.

Around each of these issues, there are ongoing arguments, and if we repress them, we would do great injury to ourselves. For centuries, in the galut (exile), we learned to be apologetic and defensive; we can, we should, unlearn those habits now. We can be honest among ourselves, and with the goyim (non-Jews) too—but it is especially important to be honest among ourselves. So long as truth is being told and there is no double standard, we can listen to each other’s claims and counter-claims and say, “These and these are the words of lovers of Israel.”

But the four characterizations of Israel that I have described today, in the versions that we hear again and again, are—let me use the language of the critics—not only in large part untrue but radically disproportionate to the actually existing wrongs. And the disproportion has a similar and familiar structure in all four (which is why I asked at the beginning whether they were really different): they are all designed to call into question the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and as a member of the international society of states. That design is increasingly apparent, increasingly, openly, avowed, and that is why the ideological situation at this historical moment is very dangerous.

There is one last issue that I want to address before I finish. When we consider the hostile forces that Israel faces, there is a temptation that we need to resist—and that is to fall back into the old exilic refrain (I have heard it too often in Israel on this visit), that all the world is against us. Nothing we can do will make any difference. It’s hard to be a Jew. That isn’t true (it’s not so hard).

Israel has many friends in the society of states and in the world generally—and I mean friends well beyond the US Congress and Christian fundamentalists (neither of whom take any responsibility for the way things go in the Middle East).

A quick story: some years ago, after his retirement as foreign minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer taught a course in Princeton, and we had lunch a couple of times. And he told me that one of the things that he was most proud of, as foreign minister, was that he had organized the delivery of nuclear submarines to Israel. Now, friends like that have earned the right to criticize the policies of Israeli governments (as Fischer has done in the past) and to try to help Israel deal with the difficulties that it faces—as German, French, and American leaders are right now trying to do.Their criticism doesn’t turn them into enemies; they may well be Israel’s best friends.

Israel is not alone, not beleaguered, not isolated. In fact, the Jewish state doesn’t only have friends; it also has strategic allies who are not quite friends, and sometime supporters who are not quite allies—like many other states. This is the achievement of Zionism, which we should proclaim to the world—but first of all to ourselves.

The years of fear and trembling are over. The future of the state of Israel is in the hands of the state of Israel. May its leaders have good hands.


Click here to download a printable version of this speech.

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