Zionism needs to recall the culture of the exile period

Political thinker Michael Walzer in conversation with Alan Johnson on 'The Jewish Political Tradition', the series he is co-editing at Yale University Press


By Alan Johnson, June 23, 2013
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Alan Johnson: What is the Jewish political tradition?

Michael Walzer: We mean simply the long history of Jewish reflection on the political experience of the Jews. It's a political reflection on the experience of ancient Israel, and then of exilic Jewry. It's not political writings by Jews but political writings about the Jewish political experience. The volumes are anthologies of texts from the Talmud to Zionist pamphlets and Israeli Supreme Court decisions, which are accompanied by commentaries by contemporary political theorists, moral philosophers and lawyers.

AJ: David Novak called it "one of the most ambitious Jewish intellectual efforts of recent years".Why devote so much of yourself to this project?

MW: I worry about what you might call the "cultural reproduction of the secular left", and quite specifically in the Jewish world and in Israel. One of the reasons we have had difficulties when it comes to cultural reproduction has been the refusal to engage with the political history of the Jews since the destruction of the Temple and of the second commonwealth. Zionist writers really believed that there was no political history when there was no state. In fact, the survival of the Jews in a condition of statelessness as a national group with a common law was an extraordinary political achievement, from which I think there is much to learn, and not only for Jews.

AJ: What have you found within the Jewish political tradition to respond to the argument that if Israel is "Jewish" then it can't be democratic?

MW: If a Jewish state is like a "Catholic state," a "Presbyterian state," an "Islamic state," then those charges would have some merit; "exclusionary" and "illiberal" would be right - we have experience of exclusionary and illiberal religious states. But it's a key feature of the Jewish political tradition that the Jews are a people, a nation, and not just what Americans call "a community of faith". So if you imagine a Jewish state to be a nation state, then it's like the Danes in Denmark, or like Bulgaria or any other nation state, which will have problems dealing with national minorities, but where the problems are not insurmountable. There are many examples of nation states that are liberal and democratic. Jewish autonomy in the pre-emancipation diaspora meant that Jews ruled, within a lot of constraints, only over themselves. So the Jews in Israel are doing something Jews could not do before 1948; they are ruling over and, I hope, ruling with a non-Jewish population. Clearly there are elements of exilic consciousness that survive in Israel, especially among some of the ultra-Orthodox. And there are resources in the tradition; it might take the form of an injunction: "Remember you were a pariah people. Remember that now that you are a majority." The line repeated in the Bible: "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt" needs a modern reiteration: "remember that you were a minority nation."

AJ: Why might it be "the exilic focus that most specifically defines Jewish political studies?"

MW: There are almost 2,000 years of being without a state, without a territory; mostly without coercive power, and yet they survived; sustained a national life. It's important in Israel for people to reflect on this and treat it as a genuine achievement. What is needed in the Zionist movement, and is still needed in Israel today, is a critical engagement with this experience and with the literature that it produced. In the Zionist case, the commitment was to negate the exile, and that didn't mean just to end the exile, it meant to reject the entire culture and history of the exile.

AJ: What was lost by negating the exile period?

MW: What was lost was a very rich culture. The movement produced a culture too thin to be sustained for more than a generation or two. The negation of the exile meant that the national liberation movement was a kind of war not only against the English but against the nation that was being liberated, against the everyday culture of those people. What was lost was a connection to the people that they were trying to liberate. Of course, there was much that had to be rejected in the culture of exile - deference, fearfulness, an acceptance of humiliation. But there was also much that was valuable. These people survived and there was strength in the exilic communities, which the Zionists couldn't see. If we engage with it, we could produce a culture that might be able to sustain itself across generations.

Alan Johnson is a senior research fellow at Bicom. See a longer version of this at www.fathomjournal.org

    Last updated: 10:45am, June 23 2013