Michael Walzer
American political thinker Michael Walzer Photo by Nir Kafri
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Michael Walzer belongs to a vanishing breed of intellectuals active in the United States. He is one of the most esteemed political philosophers in the world and he does not neglect public activity. In recent years he has been at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey and has continued to write for magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, and to edit the social-democratic journal Dissent, a long-time platform for New York intellectuals from the anti-Communist left. His books, among them "Just and Unjust Wars," have won him international recognition. Walzer, 75, has been editing Dissent for more than three decades. "Social democracy is the success story of the 20th century," he says. "It was a terrible century, but social democracy produced in Central and Western Europe, Northern Europe especially, a series of decent societies, you might say the most decent societies in human history. I think it's right to look back to that politics and to defend it."

Walzer visited Israel last week, for a conference organized at the Bar-Ilan University law faculty under the heading "Religious Education in a Democratic State." Over the years, he says, "I've watched the development of a political system that looks more and more like other political systems, much less like a light unto the nations, Zionism aimed at normalcy." With respect to this aim, at least, in his opinion Israel is doing well.

He has frequently spoken out in Israel's defense. However, he does not try to blur the great distance between him and the everyday politics in Israel. "I didn't come from New Jersey to give advice," he clarifies. His current visit overlapped the Israel Defense Forces takeover of the flotilla to Gaza in which nine Turkish citizens were killed and dozens wounded.

"My sense this time, even before the flotilla incident, is that people are depressed. There is a sense of not being led, not having a competent government. Among my friends - and I do see a fairly limited section of the population - the overwhelming sense is that the political leadership of the country is nothing like what it used to be. You don't have imaginative, creative, flexible political leaders. The most imaginative and creative people in the country are doing something else: They are in the economy, in the academy but certainly not in politics ... I think that right now is not a good time for politically engaged people. They are just sad. I am not even talking about far left, but center, center-left people. It's not fierce anger, just sadness."

The takeover of the flotilla was a mistake, in his opinion. "From what I've been told - I have no inside information - Israel knew that there were no weapons usable by Hamas on the ships and so my inclination would have been to treat this flotilla the way [Ehud] Olmert treated one or more boats during his prime-ministership and just let them go. It would probably not have been noticed. The notion that letting them through would break the blockade seems false.

"Whenever, in the future, you have intelligence that ships are or might be carrying weapons you can stop them. I do think Israel has a legitimate interest in preventing the shipment, by sea or land, of weapons into the Gaza Strip, but in this case it seems to me that prudence dictates - on the assumption that you knew these boats weren't carrying weapons - just to look the other way."

Walzer repeatedly appeals to Israelis - both the citizen committed to a shared social project and the sovereign committed to high-level international politics. "I think the sense that people have been expressing in the last few days - that 'the whole the world is against us' - that is not the perception, not the standpoint of the citizens of a sovereign state," he says. "That is the galut (diaspora ) mentality and you don't need that. You have friends in the world. You have strategic allies that are not quite friends, like Egypt, and you have real friends like the United States, and you need to behave in a way that builds on that friendship."

He is also critical of the sea blockade of Gaza, as a matter of principle: "You have a very clear interest and a very clear right to stop the shipments of military supplies to Gaza, and that is a principle, which if you asserted it clearly enough, I think a lot of people in the United States and Europe would accept. How you do that and all of the stopping of non-military stuff, that is problematic and I think increasingly difficult to justify to the outside world. One American spokesman said that the siege was not sustainable. What that means is that you're not going to be able to justify it to world opinion, even to the part of the world opinion inclined to be sympathetic. But it is very important for you to stress to the world that this is not an Israeli siege but a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege and it has Palestinian support in Ramallah and any changes in the siege have to be negotiated with the Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority.

"Think of the American effort to embargo the regime of Saddam Hussein in 1991 to 2003. It was entirely justified and even originally had United Nations authorization, but over time the consequences of the blockade did affect the living standard of ordinary Iraqis partly because of the way the Iraqi government behaved but also partially because of the nature of the blockade. So at a certain point Colin Powell came forward with the idea of smart sanctions, which are designed to have the necessary military restraints without having these effects on the population or without having the same affects on the population. Now what you need are smart sanctions."

In the meantime, says Walzer, Israel's conduct is damaging its relations with the Jewish community in the United States: "The crucial problem for Zionists in America is the problem described very well by Peter Beinart in the New York Review [of Books] - that as Israeli politics has moved to the right, there has been an alienation of many liberal Reform and Conservative Jews and also unaffiliated Jews so that if you went to the Israel Day parade in New York just a week ago, you would have found that 70 percent of the people there were Orthodox and that comes from just 10 percent of the American Jewish population. So there is a process of alienation, which I think is dangerous for Israel and it does have something to do with the absence of institutions representing center and left Israeli politics in the United States. I think Beinart is right, that American Jewish leaders have fallen into a mode of defensiveness and apology that doesn't resonate with younger liberal Jews."

How can Israel get itself out of the pit it has dug itself into?

"I think that President Barack ) Obama, despite his current reputation in Israel, is a real friend and he wants not only a close relationship with Israel but a close strategic relationship. In his first months there was a vision of reestablishing the strategic partnership that really collapsed in 1991, when it was in the interest of the United States that Israel play no part in the coalition against Iraq. The interest of the United States was that you sit and let the rockets come and do nothing and that's what you did but that was the end of the notion that Israel was a strategic partner. I think the Obama people really wanted to reestablish that. They had a notion that they would create an alliance: the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Iran.

"But for that to happen there had to be a government here in Israel that was prepared to move forward on the Palestinian question and they didn't ask you to move very far, it seems to me. They didn't ask for unilateral withdrawals. They asked for a freeze on the settlements and no building in East Jerusalem. They asked for gestures, and I think the smart thing would have been, and still is, to cooperate and now it would look like you're in a position of weakness, just making concessions to the Americans but you should have done it on your own. The notion of a strategic alliance is still open."

An urgent need

Walzer sees "an increasingly urgent need to end the occupation before you are stuck with a one state solution." However, in his opinion the necessary political conditions for implementing this are not in place.

"For eight years,"he says, 'we had the farthest right government that ever ruled the U.S. in my lifetime. Eight years of it. So you are now living through something similar. In democracies sometimes you go through bad periods but somehow you want to get 70 to 80 percent of Americans supporting the two-state solution together with the 60 to 65 percent of Israelis who support the two-state solution. You want to make a shidduch (match ) between them. Somebody has to find the right institutional means of doing that."

With respect to Iran, Walzer thinks the comparison between its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler is spurious: "It doesn't make sense to cultivate this sense that all the world is against us, we are the helpless victims of everybody. You have a strong state and you need to use state power, but prudently and intelligently for your own security, and there are many opportunities to do that - opportunities that from a distance it doesn't seem that your government is seizing.

"In judging preemptive strikes you have to make judgments about what the threat is, what are the odds of success and what are the costs for the people. All of these require information that I don't have. But my current inclination, my sense of where things are, is that there is still a lot of room for diplomatic, economic, political activity before it is legitimate even to think seriously about a military strike."