Israel: The Great Disconnect

Click here to read Michael Walzer’s response to this essay, and here to read a reply by James B. Rule.

I was attending a friend’s wedding at the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. Before starting the ceremony, the rabbi was running through a list of announcements. Amid notices of committee meetings and other events came an injunction that took me off guard—a reminder of the obligation of unstinting support for Israel. The Jewish state, we were reminded, needed always to maximize the strength required to confront its enemies, both immediate and potential.

The nods and murmurs around me suggested that this appeal was entirely familiar in context. For me, it was jarring.

I was trying to imagine my own reaction—in a Presbyterian ceremony like those I grew up attending—to an exhortation from the pulpit to support Calvinist supremacy in Northern Ireland, against demands for equality from Roman Catholics. Surely using a wedding as a springboard for such a message would have gone against the grain. I would have felt like walking out.

In this case I did nothing of the kind, and the happy occasion proceeded without further geopoliticlal intrusions. But the moment stuck in my mind. It pointed to the stunning disconnect between the attitudes of many American liberals toward Israel versus our thinking about other political regimes, including our own.

Communities and Universalism

Western liberalism grew up largely as a challenge to communal states—those based on identifications of religion, ethnicity, language, and other supposedly primordial ties. In the liberal model, obligations between states and citizens have nothing to do with the latters’ communal identifications. Liberal governments protect communities, just as they also protect citizens from communities. Free-thinkers, apostates, members of minorities, and other square pegs in majority communities are at home in liberal states, so long as they meet their obligations as citizens. In this universalistic vision, one may lose one’s rights of citizenship by renouncing them or by being convicted of a crime. But states recognize no favored communities, and hence designate no groups as wrong kinds of people for full citizenship.

Such visions have slowly gained ground over the last two centuries—notwithstanding constant setbacks and reactions. Current waves of Islamism reflect yet another surge of yearnings for a state that will serve as a Procrustean bed, with room for only the right kind of people. The results have been predictably dire not only for non-Muslims in those states, but also for groups deemed not Muslim enough for full citizenship—Sufis, Ahmadis, Shiites under Sunni regimes, and others. And we see similar pressures against the Tamils under the Buddhist Sinhalese regime in Sri Lanka; against non-Russian and non-Orthodox minorities in Russia; and, indee...

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