Michael Walzer Responds

Click here to read James B. Rule’s reply to Michael Walzer (and here for Rule’s initial essay, “Israel: The Great Disconnect.”)

Jim Rule has provided us with a useful example of a critique of Israel that is fairly common in some leftist circles—and that it is important to understand and reject. The common critique begins with the claim that all ethnic nationalisms and all nation-states are at least potentially unjust and oppressive, but Israel is an actual and particularly horrendous example. Well, there are, in fact, as Rule says, worse examples (he lists a few), but Israel’s injustice is also ours, because of the financial aid and diplomatic support that the United States provides. And in any case, Israel is especially liable to criticism because it is a latecomer to the world of nation-states. “It arrived too late,” as Tony Judt once wrote—that is, after the idea that nations need states of their own had lost its appeal to intellectuals like Judt. Today, all nation-states are anachronisms, but Israel is one nation-state too many.

The claim to universalism is crucial to the argument, and so Rule refers to many other countries that he is prepared to criticize. But the truth is that this kind of criticism is radically particularist. Israel is its only target; everything else is camouflage. We can all imagine a sustained and consistently universalist critique of the nation-state, but that’s not what is going on here. I will defend this claim with reference to Rule’s work, but my argument is meant to be impersonal; it’s not an internal Dissent squabble; Rule is a representative man.

Consider his sentence about Egypt’s Copts—more gentle than anything he says about Israel, but nonetheless meant to prove his impartiality: “Egypt’s populist agitation has triggered violence against that country’s Christians—some 10 percent of the population, long treated as second-class citizens.” Long treated, indeed. In the 1980s, the Copts made up 16 percent of Egypt’s population. They are probably now below 10 percent, in part because of lower birth-rates than Egypt’s Muslims but also because of a long-term exodus produced by intermittent violence and constant harassment and discrimination. Egypt is officially an Arab and Muslim state; the Copts are “the wrong kind of people.” But this has never before been a pressing issue for Jim Rule. In some thirty years of arguing about politics, he never wrote an article protesting the massive American aid (not so much less than what we give Israel) to ethno-national and ethno-religious Egypt. By contrast, he has written about Israel again and again.

Or consider his brief passage about Kosovo. On the one hand, he appears to have supported the creation of the new state “to forestall immediate dangers of mayhem against the ethnic Kosovars.” On the other hand, he worries that in an ethno-national Kosovo, the minority...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.