“The test of every nation is the nation that comes next,” Michael Walzer announced. Israel's test remains incomplete: how will it deal with the Palestinians and their own quest for statehood?That question was one of several that went entertained, if not quite answered, at a sold-out event Sunday afternoon at the JCC in Manhattan. The crowd was there for a conversation between Moshe Halbertal, the Israeli philosopher, and Walzer, the writer, political philosopher, and outgoing editor of Dissent. Their debate, moderated by Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, was to address, in Eisner's formulation, “whether or not we can hold Zionism and liberalism in the same place.”
That tenuous wording presaged what would be a rote affair, with the two philosophers maundering down the lane of liberal bromides while never straying into the other's path. For their hour-plus-long conversation, they seemed to agree on everything. And besides a couple typical remarks directed against the settlement enterprise or religious influence in Israeli government, they evinced little passion or righteous anger, either of which would have been welcome additions to a discourse that lately seems bogged down in sectarian political fighting (are you J Street or AIPAC?) and pale-eyed laments over the supposed death of the two-state solution.
Both men laid out a vision of Israel as a pluralistic home for the Jewish people, providing an opportunity for self-determination and the perpetuation of the Jewish nation and Jewish culture. “As a Jewish state, Israel has a particular responsibility to the Jewish people as a whole,” Halbertal said. It's this designation that—per the event's title—would seem to serve up some conflict, not least of the existential variety. Can this Jewishness be compatible with democratic government and just treatment of minorities?
Walzer addressed the issue by claiming that Israel is not a Jewish state in the sense of a “Presbyterian state” or an “Islamic state.” By this he seemed to mean that it's often religious in character and practice but not in nature (the lack of a written constitution may have something to do with that). “Israel should be a Jewish state in the same way Norway is a Norwegian state,” Walzer said.
Halbertal maintained a similar line, claiming that other states “have public symbols related to the culture of the majority,” but “that doesn't make them illegitimate”—unless, he qualified, they begin to undermine the rights of minorities. To that end, Halbertal supports Arabic as an official language of Israel and, like Walzer, emphasized the need for Israel to look out for the rights of all of its people.
It was here that Walzer made his remark about "the nation that comes next." It was a fine aphorism that deserved a little more unpacking, as it arguably represents the central problem for liberal Zionism in the post-'67 era. As examples, Walzer did cite Iraq and the Kurds, Algeria and the Berbers, and Israel and the Palestinians—all issues that remain largely unresolved.
Israel, he said, can't be a democratic Jewish state if it continues to rule over the West Bank. The “nation that comes next” is a useful idea, communicating that many nation-states exist in a kind of flux, contending with various liberation and self-determination movements, many of them with their own long histories. The unspoken subtext—and perhaps a complicating factor in Walzer's argument—is that these nations, the Palestinians included, “come next” only in the sense that they apparently must wait for their political aspirations to be addressed, by which time they are disempowered and disenfranchised.
Despite their remarks about Israel not being a religious state, both speakers expressed some concern about the influence of Orthodox Judaism and religious parties in Israeli society. Walzer lamented how many Jews feels compelled to go to Cyprus to get married, thereby dodging the strictures of the Orthodox rabbinate. Halbertal agreed, saying that Jews who leave to get married “opt out of the system, and that doesn't contribute to their Jewishness in any way.” “The last thing we want to do,” he said, “is for Jews to [have] less religious freedom in Israel than in Kiev.”
Eventually a few questions were solicited from the audience and those watching the livestream online. (I was one of the less than 20 members of the livestreaming crowd, and nearly all the remarks from this contingent were about the microphones' low volume.) “I'm surprised that neither one of you talked about extreme concentration of wealth in Israeli society or government control of media,” said Rabbi David Rosen of the New Israel Fund. “What is to be done?”
Walzer maintained that, while those issues matter, the biggest problem now is “the drift towards Greater Israel and one state,” which, he said, has to be solved within Israel.
Later, Halbertal offered what struck me as an important psychological and political insight. Discrimination can become a “self-fulfilling project,” he said. That is, Arab Israelis may be discriminated against for seeming different and disloyal; they're subsequently pushed away from state, and more discrimination follows against this other within.
Another audience member asked, in rather pointed language, when will Israel's treatment of Palestinians begin to undermine its democracy. Halbertal was modest in his reply. “I don't think we're there,” he said. He pointed out an apparent irony: that Israelis are more ready than they once were for a Palestinian state but are “less trusting of Palestinians.” He shifted to a slightly more optimistic register. “It's too early to say that, too early to declare that,” he said. “We have to fight for that because our future as a Jewish democratic state depends on it.”
Walzer was in agreement, invoking Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous (and rather tired) definition of obscenity: “We will know it when we see it, and we don't see it now.”
This ultimately is the line which many members of the Jewish left are not ready to cross. Israel may sometimes act undemocratically—even, as in the West Bank, as a matter of law and routine—but one isn't supposed to say that its democracy is anything but in tact. Strangely, members of this same political class often speak of the United States' democracy as imperiled, or at least in need of repair—a presidential election decided by the Supreme Court, an unchecked and growing security state, corporations with the rights of people, a broken congressional system, etc. To make a similar judgment of Israel is somehow unthinkable, perhaps an admission of failure of the Zionist experiment. But if Zionism and liberalism are truly compatible, then one is required to honestly state when the mix has too much of the former and too little of the latter. Sunday's event would have been much better served had its illustrious panel reckoned honestly with this question. The nation that should come next between the river and the sea is two: an independent Palestine, and an Israel that can better fulfill the democratic mandate on which it's founded, and in which its supporters have pledged so much hope.