Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent and Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His books include Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice, and Arguing About War and Politics and Passion: Towards a More Egalitarian Liberalism
Alan Johnson: Can Israel be both a “national homeland for the Jewish people” and a “state for all its citizens”?
Michael Walzer: ”Homeland” has been an ambiguous phrase ever since the Balfour Declaration. Israel is not the state of the Jewish people; Jews outside Israel don’t vote in its elections and non-Jews inside Israel do vote in its elections. The Jewish people are not sovereign in Israel; the citizens of Israel are sovereign there.
I think there is a sense in which Israel – green line Israel – is right now politically a state of all its citizens. The real difficulties are not political, they are cultural, and they arise in every nation state. Minority groups do not find themselves present in, or supported, by the state-supported culture. That is a problem in every nation state that has national minorities. I don’t think that Israel has dealt with it badly considering the circumstances in which it has had to deal with it – the circumstances that Alexander Yakobson describes in his piece on the BICOM website, of continual conflict with its Arab neighbours. Compare, say, the treatment of German-Americans during the First World War or of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, and you would have to say that Israel has actually done pretty well – despite continuing patterns of discrimination.
But this issue of minority rights needs more discussion. Talking about it, I always like to use the relatively innocuous example of Norway, which seceded from Sweden in the very early 20th century in order to defend its “Norwegianness”. The Norwegian state is a little engine for the reproduction of “Norwegianness”, and a minority group like the Lapps in the North do not find themselves included in or supported by that state project. I don’t think there is any remedy for that except full political equality – and then the minority groups can organise their own associations and support themselves. I don’t think that is oppressive. I don’t think the nation-state is a political formation that we need to transcend. We need to defend political equality within it, but the notion that the Greeks or the Finns or the French don’t have the right to create a state that sustains and celebrates and promotes their history and culture – I think that is a mistaken view. And if the Greeks, the Finns and the French have that right, then so do the Jews.