On the American Left, renowned political philosopher Michael Walzer holds old-fashioned views. He is a Zionist when many younger leftists question the legitimacy of a Jewish state, a believer in military humanitarian intervention abroad when much of the left is anti-militarist and anti-imperialist, and an opponent of the BDS movement to boycott Israel — although he has supported a targeted boycott of settlement products.
On June 13, Walzer, 84, who is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, delivered the M.G. Levin Annual Public Lecture in Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University.
During the lecture, he argued, on moral and Jewish ethical grounds, that Israel ought to take in more non-Jewish refugees and that it should not deport Israeli-born children of foreign workers. Walzer also spoke separately with The Times of Israel about what it is like to be a leftist and Zionist in the age of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Walzer told the audience that he is by no means an advocate of open borders but that he believes that the United States, and Israel too, should be taking in more refugees than they do today.
Walzer pointed out, by way of example, how amazingly generous the United States has been toward newcomers.
The original settlers of what became the United States were English and Scottish, he said, but “in the course of the 19th century these settlers, with considerable reluctance and sporadic resistance, allowed themselves to become a minority in what they thought was their country.”
He contrasted this American openness with statements by a Polish politician who recently objected to letting in several thousand Syrians “because he said he didn’t want the Poles to become a minority in Poland.”
Walzer called this a “nasty” argument, although he understands, in principle, the desire of nations to preserve their culture.
“People have a right to be at home in their homeland, where they have created a language, shared a history, shaped a landscape and established a calendar with holidays and ceremonies. They have a right to hope that their grandchildren will grow up in that place, nourished by its traditions.”
But Walzer argued that good homelands have the capacity to absorb and integrate a limited number of immigrants.
“This should be a matter of pride. We can make large numbers of foreigners into home folks. The French, for example, did exactly that over much of the 20th century.”
Walzer argued that states have an obligation to take in three types of immigrants: ethnic and ideological kin, asylum seekers fleeing political persecution, and refugees fleeing war or natural disasters. This issue will become pertinent in the coming decades, he said, as tens of millions of desperate climate refugees are expected to migrate en masse to more hospitable parts of the earth.
“You also have a question about how you treat the people you’ve already taken in, he added. “This morning there was an article in Ha’aretz about 100 Filipino mothers who are about to be deported with their children who were born in Israel. These are children whose first language is Hebrew, who grew up here. And I think it would be an indecent act and a dishonor to the state of Israel to deport these people.”
Many of the audience members strongly disagreed with Walzer and the decorous lecture was followed by a heated question and answer session. One attendee walked out of the lecture hall in anger over remarks he considered to be too right-wing.
“I think you understate the challenges for nation states by saying to bring a small number of people,” one questioner said. “Look at what’s happening in Europe where these immigrant groups have dramatically disparate reproductive family and growth rates. And a lot of these groups have no interest whatsoever in integration into the absorbing culture. Some of them are antagonistic to it.”
Another man said that African migrants to Israel had high crime rates, something which can be experienced if you live in south Tel Aviv, he said.
Another suggested that African migrants to Israel are not in fact refugees: “You haven’t addressed the question of economic migrants and certainly the people that came from Africa initially may have been proper refugees, political refugees fleeing oppression, but what it grew into was a pipeline for people from poor countries to migrate to rich countries. It’s happening in the United States as well. There are actually organizations that facilitate migration. These aren’t refugees.”
The Left and Zionism at odds
On the sidelines of the lecture, the Times of Israel asked Walzer whether he has experienced anti-Semitism on the American left.
“There is a problem but I think in the United States it is much less serious than in Europe, especially in Britain,” he said. “I lectured on this subject at the Begin Center two nights ago and someone from Britain pointed out that in Britain it is criticism of the state of Israel and opposition to the existence of the state of Israel that opened the way for anti-Semitism.”
“It wasn’t the other way around. We think that anti-Semitism produces anti-Zionism but he was arguing that anti-Zionism in, say, the Labour Party made anti-Semitism legitimate.”
Walzer said he doesn’t see the same pattern in the United States and that, in fact, a great deal of anti-Zionism in the United States begins with young Jews.
“Some of them are diaspora nationalists and what they believe is that Jews are too good for statehood. When you have a state, you have to be brutal, you have to be murderous at times, and that’s for the goyim. We are better than that. After two thousand years of statelessness, we have become a cosmopolitan people that has transcended the nation state.”
Walzer said this diaspora nationalist viewpoint was an “important current in American Jewish life.”
In addition, many young Jews in the United States fiercely oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as well as its current right-wing government, he noted.
“And then they get caught up in the BDS movement, whose leaders and ideologues are really committed to the elimination of the Jewish state. But a lot of the supporters of BDS are not. They don’t have that commitment. They think this is just a campaign against the occupation.”
Walzer argued that those leftists who say that there shouldn’t be a Jewish state but who are on record supporting every other national movement in the world probably deserve the label of anti-Semitic.
Walzer said he is a member of a group of liberal and leftist professors who fight the BDS movement on campuses and in professional associations.
“What we have discovered is that we can win battles on many campuses and in the professional associations if we push for the widest possible vote. The key example is the Association of Anthropologists, which for years has been identified as hostile to Israel. Every year at their annual convention they hold a business meeting that votes for a BDS resolution. This year some of the people in our organization insisted on a vote of the whole organization’s membership.”
The result, he said, was two-to-one against BDS.
Asked how many younger leftists there are who aren’t opposed to Zionism or nationalism, he replied, “There are young people who have my politics and there are young people who would have my politics if Israel hadn’t become so unattractive to them.”
There aren’t all that many countries that have sustained a democratic regime for 70 years. So there must be some kind of popular commitment and institutional organization that sustains it
“I think of myself as liberal in three different ways. There is liberal democracy, which means democracy with constraints on what majorities can do. I’m a liberal nationalist, which means that I believe in self-determination and the importance of statehood for all nations including other nations besides the Jews. And I am a liberal socialist. I believe that socialism has to be accompanied by liberal democracy. It can’t be a vanguardist politics. So liberalism is the adjective that describes the substantive positions that I hold.”
Walzer assesses that Israel still has substantial support in the Democratic party.
“On the left fringe of the Democratic party there begins to be an open critique of Israel which sometimes takes anti-Zionist forms. But sometimes it is explicitly two states and against the occupation. And that’s still the majority position.”
‘An old Mapainik’
Turning to Israeli politics, Walzer, who visits this country at least once a year, described himself as the “equivalent of an old Mapainik.”
“My friends here are mostly my age and they are also old Mapainiks [forerunner of Labor Party], and some of them are old Mapamniks [socialist Zionists].
“For them, and for me, the rightward turn in Israel’s politics is scary because this is not the old right. This is not even the right of Jabotinsky and Begin, because they were in some sense English liberals.”
Walzer said that Haredim, who used to be apolitical, have become a force that bolsters and enhances aggressive nationalist trends “that are hostile to any version of multiculturalism, that are hostile to non-Jews and that support a politics that claims to have religious reasons for wanting the whole [land of Israel].”
Likewise, the secular nationalism of the old Likud has been transformed, said Walzer.
“It seems to have become, in ways I don’t fully understand — and maybe it has a lot to do with Bibi Netanyahu — corrupt and increasingly extreme. It has become a kind of populist nationalism.”
He defined populism as the revolt of democracy against liberalism.
“It’s an argument that once there are majorities, the majorities can do anything they want. They shouldn’t be restrained by courts or by human rights legislation.”
“So that’s a politics that we see in eastern Europe in India. And it’s a very dangerous politics. What exactly are its sources? I suspect there are different sources in different countries. But there is a kind of fellow feeling, a kind of alliance. Bibi goes to Hungary and finds and gets the support of people in Hungary who are anti-Semites but who are very pro-Israel as long as Israel is in the hands of people like themselves.”
Walzer added “Hungary may be well on the way to a neo-fascist kind of politics. In Poland there’s still a very strong opposition. And I don’t give up on the United States.”
As for Israel, he said, “I certainly won’t give up on Israel. I think it’s very important to remember that Israel is a 70-year-old democracy. There aren’t all that many countries that have sustained a democratic regime for 70 years. So there must be some kind of popular commitment and institutional organization that sustains it. I really believe that there are very strong forces in Israel, not only on the left but well into the center and even the center-right, who will not allow the destruction of Israeli democracy.”