Michael Walzer, long-time fan of my work, has an exchange with a critic in a recent edition of Dissent Magazine about Walzer’s attitude to Israel. I’m not familiar enough with Walzer’s recent writings on Israel to judge the critic’s case, but I can’t help noticing that Walzer’s response is not very strong.
Walzer gets off to a bad start with his take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Perhaps the low point of this part of the discussion is when Walzer ties himself in knots trying to argue that Israel’s behaviour, “however much one criticizes the harshness” is “reactive.” Since Walzer sternly condemns the occupation, and the long, sordid history of illegal land-theft and collective punishment, the reader can only wonder how this is supposed to be a useful description of matters in the occupied territories, or indeed what exactly it would take, on Walzer’s view, for Palestinian violence to similarly qualify as “reactive.”
As it happens, I’m much more sympathetic to Walzer’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than I am to his reading of the Second Lebanon War of last summer. As in any war, the ambitions and intentions on both sides were fairly complex. But I think your head needs to have been pretty far up your ass last summer not to notice that one important aim of Israeli policy was to try to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon by inflicting a high level of suffering on Lebanese civilians.
Walzer admits that “[s]ome Israeli strategists certainly hoped that the punishment of the civilian population would have a good political effect,” adding that “others warned that it almost certainly would not.” But again, it certainly seemed at the time the civilian and military officials calling the shots were following the advice of the first group of strategists. I doubt that these strategists were right, but I’ll leave it better informed people to make the final call on that. Moral judgment, in this case, is a bit less complex: Inflicting massive suffering on Lebanese civilians in order to apply pressure indirectly on Hizbollah was wrong, for all the same reasons that blowing up civilians in pizza shops or crowded buses in order to effect changes in Israeli policy is wrong.
Walzer makes a few other points that are, to my mind, pretty weak. But don’t take it from me. You can read Walzer’s response yourself, and make up your own mind. My point here is just to report an impression: Walzer’s response bears a very strong resemblance to the lame “yes, but” style of apologetics for Palestinian terrorism that Walzer has little difficulty seeing through. I certainly don’t envy Israel its enemies, and I also think that sorting through the moral complexities of modern Middle Eastern politics is a demanding job for even the most fair-minded philosopher. But Walzer, it’s pretty clear, isn’t that philosopher.
Anyway, notice the moment of unintentional comedy at the end of Walzer’s response when Walzer complains about his critic’s attempt to distinguish him from his friend, Martin Peretz. If I were trying to establish my impartiality on the issue of Israel, I don’t think I would want to go out of my way to associate myself with Peretz, of all people.