The Mensch

One night last fall, eating my dinner somewhat hastily between an afternoon meeting and an evening meeting, I picked up the latest issue of Dissent (Winter 2013), opened it at random, and began reading. Immediately my feeling of being rushed and fragmented by administrative trivia fell away, and I was in a lovely world of real thought. I had happened upon Chelsea Szendi Schieder’s “Baby Bust in Japan,” and in just a short time I learned to appreciate the contours of a problem that I vaguely knew about, but didn’t know how to think about. The writing was vivid, but respectful of the reader rather than assaultive or sensationalistic. The argument was clear, showing where one might dig in further, or disagree. And the empirical information, while lightly worn, was certainly helpful to someone like me, who rarely goes to Japan and lacks a context in which to view its women’s movement. I was so happy I had picked up that issue.

This is what, again and again, Michael Walzer has done for our public culture. Dissent provokes, informs, structures an internal debate. It also comforts, as it comforted me, because it is comforting, in a world where so little argument is either respectful or rational, to find the real article. And yes, it also entertains, by good-quality prose and deftly chosen examples. Although the authors, of course, deserve much of the credit for all of this, I know, as an author edited by Michael, how much of the credit Michael deserves—for finding authors and material, and for editing it splendidly.

Creating and sustaining a journal is hugely demanding work. In Michael’s case, because he is one of this culture’s premier political thinkers, it is a real mitzvah, an act of enormous intellectual generosity. Michael has written some of the most enduring and provocative books in political theory in the past fifty years. I discover new depths in Spheres of Justice every time I teach or reread it. Unlike most “communitarian” works, this subtle book stands the test of time, offering a nuanced account of the nested set of relationships in which real people are embedded in a liberal society. And Walzer has always been extremely attentive to the need to protect equal liberty while at the same time honoring the claims of community.

Just and Unjust Wars is still the best thing on its topic. It has a historical depth and reach that most works on this topic lack, and at the same time an exemplary precision of argument. There is no other place to begin, when teaching this subject, or thinking about it.

From those early works to the recent magisterial work on Jewish ethical and political thought, which astonish for their range, their philosophical clarity, and their depth of engagement, there is an unbroken line of distinguished contributions, still ongoing.

So how did it happen that someone with all this to give has also given us .subscribe_box_outer { vertical-align: top; width: 300px; background:url(''); padding:12px; padding-bottom:24px;} .subscribe_box_inner { background:url(; padding:10px;} .subscribe_button a{ color: white; background-color: black; border: 2px solid black; padding: 6px; text-decoration: none; } a:hover { text-decoration: underline; } .padding {padding-bottom: 24px;}

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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.