Israel's future and the nation-state

Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent and Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His books include Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice, and Arguing About War and Politics and Passion: Towards a More Egalitarian Liberalism

By Alan Johnson, February 14, 2012

Alan Johnson: Can Israel be both a "national homeland for the Jewish people" and a "state for all its citizens"?

Michael Walzer: "Homeland" has been an ambiguous phrase ever since the Balfour Declaration. Israel is not the state of the Jewish people; Jews outside Israel don't vote in its elections and non-Jews inside Israel do vote in its elections. The Jewish people are not sovereign in Israel; the citizens of Israel are sovereign there.

I think there is a sense in which Israel - green line Israel - is right now politically a state of all its citizens. The real difficulties are not political, they are cultural, and they arise in every nation state. Minority groups do not find themselves present in, or supported, by the state-supported culture. That is a problem in every nation state that has national minorities. I don't think that Israel has dealt with it badly considering the circumstances in which it has had to deal with it - the circumstances that Alexander Yakobson describes in his piece on the BICOM website, of continual conflict with its Arab neighbours. Compare, say, the treatment of German-Americans during the First World War or of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, and you would have to say that Israel has actually done pretty well - despite continuing patterns of discrimination.

But this issue of minority rights needs more discussion. Talking about it, I always like to use the relatively innocuous example of Norway, which seceded from Sweden in the very early 20th century in order to defend its "Norwegianness". The Norwegian state is a little engine for the reproduction of "Norwegianness", and a minority group like the Lapps in the North do not find themselves included in or supported by that state project. I don't think there is any remedy for that except full political equality - and then the minority groups can organise their own associations and support themselves. I don't think that is oppressive. I don't think the nation-state is a political formation that we need to transcend. We need to defend political equality within it, but the notion that the Greeks or the Finns or the French don't have the right to create a state that sustains and celebrates and promotes their history and culture - I think that is a mistaken view. And if the Greeks, the Finns and the French have that right, then so do the Jews.

Johnson: Some people would say there is a tension between the Jewish character of the state and the aspiration to be "a state for all its citizens". They point to the desire to retain a Jewish majority and suggest that is part of the explanation of, for example, the recent rejection by the Israeli Supreme Court of the appeal against the Citizenship Law. So we end up with a situation in which Israeli Arabs who marry a Palestinian from the West Bank can't bring their spouse to Israel, the spouse can't become an Israeli citizen, and so the couple can't have a family life in Israel. Some say this is the result of the desire to be a "Jewish homeland" and preserve a Jewish majority cuts across what we would think of as equal citizenship rights. What do you say to this?

My hope is some combination of the politics of social justice and a Jewish anti-clericalism

Walzer: Yes, that's a bad law and I think that liberal and left forces in Israel will oppose it and one day repeal it. But the desire to sustain a majority is, again, characteristic of every nation-state. Look, one of the most extraordinary features of American political history is that the Anglo-Americans, the English settlers here, who certainly thought they were creating an English nation-state, allowed themselves, with some resistance and resentment, to become a minority in what they thought was their own country. This is one of the uncelebrated but most distinctive features of American history. But it could only happen in an immigrant society that wasn't a homeland. The French are not going to allow themselves to become a minority in France, or the Danes in Denmark. And if their majority status is ever threatened, they will respond with measures that will be illiberal. Unless you want to abolish the nation-state, you have to live with majorities and minorities and work hard to ensure that political equality, and I would add economic equality, are features of these societies.

Johnson: Many perceive serious challenges to that kind of political equality in Israel society now. They worry about attacks on citizenship rights, women's position in society, racism against minorities, attacks on media independence and the independence of the Judiciary. Why are these developments happening now?

Walzer: First of all, we have to recognise that Israel has the most right-wing government it has ever had. Now why is this so? One reason is the virtual collapse of the left - I mean chiefly the security left, the peace movement. That left was undermined by the Gaza withdrawal, the Hamas takeover and the rocket attacks. All this made it enormously difficult to sustain a commitment to the two-state solution and to a withdrawal from the West Bank.

There is no coherent social democratic or liberal democratic opposition right now. So the right-wingers are 'feeling their oats'. They are in a stronger political position than they have ever been in, and it's possible that they are in a stronger demographic position too. The rate of reproduction of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population is much higher than the rate of reproduction of the secular Ashkenazi population.

Though some of my Israeli friends dispute this – the proportion of the population committed to the right is growing, and that means that far-right militants feel that they have a free hand at this moment.

Johnson: There has been a flurry of stories about some ultra-Orthodox expressing and imposing their religious values in the public square. Should progressives argue the ultra-Orthodox should keep their religious values strictly to the private sphere, or do they have the right to express their collective identity and collective life in public space? How do we reconcile that right with the rights of others not to be discriminated against?

Walzer: While I have already said that I thought the national majority in all nation states do have the right to express their history and culture in public spaces, there are restraints on that. What is expressive for one group can't be repressive for another. And that tension is visible in some of these incidents of ultra-Orthodox militancy.

I also think there are good reasons for the privatisation of religion in Western societies, which have to do with the extent of religious claims to regulate everyday behaviour and with the intensity of religious conflicts in European history. To curtail the expression of religious feelings in public space is probably a good thing to do, if you can do it in a way that permits free association. It's not that you are 'domesticating' religion. You are not confining it to the home. There are associations, synagogues and yeshivas – many public spaces are available to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox that do not constrain the lives of other people.

The ultra-Orthodox pose a different kind of issue. Israel is supporting a population in which a large proportion of whose members live on welfare, don't work, don't serve in the army, don't allow their children to be taught the meaning of democratic citizenship or the history of the country in which they live. It is extraordinary.

Johnson: Are there ultra-Orthodox who understand this and are searching for alternatives?

Walzer: Yes. Some are trying hard to push a much greater portion, especially of their young men, into the economy, to provide vocational training which they don't get when all they are studying is the Talmud. And there are secular Jews also trying to do that, partly because they want to cut the state's welfare expenditure.

Johnson: Is there a coherent political project on the right of Israeli politics?

Walzer: I don't think that the support of the two-state solution by people like the Prime Minister reflects a serious ideological transformation on the right. The settler population is growing. The militancy of the settler movement has intensified. And the prospect of a withdrawal enforced by the IDF grows more and more dim. The country is moving, maybe drifting is the right word, towards a one-state solution, and there are people on the right who have embraced that because they believe that they will be able to control this state. The dream of a Greater Israel with a Jewish majority depends in part on the exclusion of Gaza, which then postpones the moment when the Jewish majority will be threatened. I suspect many on the far-right believe that in a Greater Israel controlled by an assertive Jewish majority, many Palestinians will leave voluntarily or can be more or less gently pushed out. I think that is what is inside their heads. And I find that very worrying. One state either means the end of Israeli democracy or it means the end of the Zionist project – to which I remain committed.

I think there should be a Jewish state. And if this state is to be Jewish and democratic, it has to be Little Israel, because Greater Israel can't be both Jewish and democratic. I think many on the right do not care much or do not care enough about the values of democracy. In any case, they are deluded about what will be possible in a single state that will encompass an Arab minority of 40% from the beginning. I think of Lebanon and I think of Cyprus. This is a very bad idea! And, yes, the country could be drifting towards its realisation.

Johnson: What are the main signs of hope?

Walzer: I was in Israel this past summer during the social justice protests – a totally unexpected uprising with a very large social base. It has had difficulty – as have the protests in Spain and other places, in the US too – finding a political expression. The party system at this moment is not congenial. But the protests signalled that there is a base for a left-liberal or social democratic politics. And I also think that the settler militants, the so-called 'hill-top youth,' and the ultra-Orthodox militants, have overreached. I think, well, I hope, that there will be an anti-clerical reaction and a return to the old Zionist idea of the 'negation of the Galut,' which entails a rejection of the rule of the rabbis. I think or hope that there will be a return of secular politics. I am sure this would happen if there were peace. But it might manifest itself quite strongly even in current conditions. So that is my hope – some combination of the politics of social justice and a Jewish equivalent of the anti-clericalism we saw in Catholic Europe in the late nineteenth century.

Professor Alan Johnson is a Director and Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. This interview appeared on the BICOM website

Last updated: 11:16am, February 14 2012