February 5, 2012


In Defence of Little Israel: An Interview with Michael Walzer (Alan Johnson, 1/31/12, Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre)

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, I mean 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, of continual conflict with its Arab neighbours. Compare, say, the treatment of German-Americans during World War One or of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, 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 twentieth century in order to defend its 'Norweigenness'. The Norwegian state is a little engine for the reproduction of 'Norweigenness,' 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, last week's 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?

WALZER:  Yeah, 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's not going to happen anywhere else. It could only happen in an immigrant society that wasn't a homeland. It's not going to happen in France. The French are not going to allow themselves to become a minority in France, or the Danes in Denmark. It's not going to happen. And if their majority status is ever threatened, they will respond with measures that will be illiberal. 

How'd that work out for the Afrikaaners?
Posted by at February 5, 2012 12:04 AM

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