Michael Walzer, political philosopher

Three recent events have brought an onslaught of hurling the term “anti-Semite” toward a number of people who certainly do not warrant such an epithet:

1)  The October 5th, 2012 letter by fifteen leading Christian clerics to the U.S. Senate, requesting the latter body investigate the legality of U.S. military aid to Israel.

2)  Objections from an array of people in U.S. public life to the mid-November 2012 bombardment of the Gaza concentration camp by Israeli forces.

3) The possible nomination by president Obama of former GOP U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.

The last of these three instances has evoked an almost shocking level of vitriol directed toward a public figure who has been what most regard as a voice of sanity in the midst of crazed rhetoric toward Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or the Palestinian people themselves, by uber Zionists.  Perhaps the best known example of this malevolence was in an article by Daniel Halper in the Weekly Standard on December 13th (emphases added):

In response to reports that Barack Obama is likely to choose Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, a top Republican Senate aide emails, “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.

When asked to elaborate, the aide writes, “Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy. This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”

I wrote about this at Firedoglake on December 15th, in a somewhat humorous piece, but the anonymous quote cited by Halper is just one of many hits against Hagel that went beyond careless or irresponsible, and into libel territory.  The list of his detractors is long, and getting longer by the hour.  Yet the list of his supporters seems to be lengthening even more rapidly.

Beyond my concern for the sliming of Hagel by use of the anti-Semite libel is a tangential concern that came to my attention from an exchange in the on-line journal Dissent Magazine, between University of California sociologist James B. Rule and Princeton University political philosopher Michael Walzer.  The Dissent article is behind a paywall, but the blog Mondoweiss carried a synopsis of it on December 17th that revealed claims of anti-Semitism by Walzer toward the July 6th vote at the Presbyterian General Assembly, to boycott products from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Walzer’s protest shows careless and irresponsible accusations toward an entire Christian denomination, which, in my mind, is an egregious fault for such a noted academic and scholar (emphasis added):

Now, I have been reading recently about the effort, narrowly defeated, to get American Presbyterians to divest from companies doing business in Israel. The debate about divestment was fierce…. I couldn’t find a single item describing Presbyterian engagement with any other contemporary state or society. I Googled “Presbyterians and China,” looking for some protest against the settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet, a project on a far larger scale and much more effective than anything the Israeli Right has been able to do on the West Bank. I could not find a single item. Not a word. Jim Rule probably doesn’t find this “jarring.” But I do; I was uncomfortable reading the Presbyterian debates, while I am, most of the time, at ease in a synagogue.

Philip Weiss, who published the Mondoweiss synopsis editorialized on Walzer’s statement:

So he is saying that the Presbyterians went after Israel because they don’t like Jews, and that scares him.

The utter carelessness of Walzer’s claim was easily revealed by commenters at the post.  Here is part of a comment by Hostage:

My reply to Waltzer re “I Googled “Presbyterians and China,” looking for some protest against the settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet.” . . . . & etc.

Much more to the point:
1) You need to turn off Google search history personalization, or else the results will simply reflect your own selection bias and interests; link to support.google.com

2) You need to see if the website in question uses a robots.txt file to restrict access to directories by Google’s automatic indexing program. The robot.txt file at www.pcusa.org/robots.txt does exactly that.

3) The site search feature at the Presbyterian Church USA returns 65 items about Tibet. Many of the results happen to be news and announcements that address the annexation of Tibet by China and persecution of the ethnic Tibetan population or Tibetan refugees:
link to pcusa.org

4) The Presbyterians appear to be at work, together with the World Council of Churches and the China Christian Council, on the subjects of equal rights and human rights in China. There are 434 results for articles about China.

I noted in a comment at the Mondoweiss synopsis:

My reply to Waltzer re “I Googled “Presbyterians and China,” looking for some protest against the settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet.”

Jesus didn’t get baptized in the Yangtze River. It was the Jordan.

Jesus didn’t heal a blind man in Shanghai. It was in Bethsaida.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry in Tianjin. He began it in Capernaum.

Jesus didn’t raise the dead in Nanjing. He did it in Nain.

Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus in Beijing. He did it in Bethany.

Jesus wasn’t tried and crucified in Shanghai. It happened in Jerusalem.

Jesus didn’t have his transfiguration on Mt. Kailas. It happened on Mt. Tabor.

Why doesn’t Waltzer understand the centrality of this to the Presbyterian faith, or other Christian creeds?

Perhaps he is anti-Christian?

It has long struck me as troubling that people of Walzer’s ilk (his willful irresponsibility re the Presbyterians deserves at least that much approbation) feel they can get away with this level of intellectual dishonesty when it comes to what they see as the centrality of the geographic area now known as Israel to their faith, yet ignore its importance to others.  Can his anti-Christianity be equated to anti-Semitism?  And if so, can he be condemned at the same level Zionists seem to feel is appropriate for those they choose to label as anti-Semitic?

God only knows that many Christian leaders have bent over backwards again and again to accommodate sensitivities in this regard from Jews.  One striking, if little known example is the libretto of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Johannes-Passion.

The sacred masterpiece, based largely on the account of Christ’s passion from the Gospel of John, has been described as “anti-Semitic” based on the scene in which the blame for Jesus’ death is placed upon “the Jews.”  Since World War II, many performances of the work substitute “Leute” (people) for “Juden” (Jews) in the necessary sections.   Other versions of the St. John Passion have undergone similar editing or modification.  Essentially, what has been done here is that Christians, to placate another faith, have changed the words of their own gospel.

Although these moves to assuage religious sensitivities may be both ahistorical and unnecessary (some scholars argue that Bach’s setting of the scene in question “contain[s] fewer statements derogatory toward Jews than many other contemporary musical settings of the Passion. Bach [also] used words for the commenting arias and hymns that tended to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from “the Jews” to the congregation of Christians.”) they are real.  Walzer’s greater sin in respect to his comments on the Presbyterians in the Dissent synopsis isn’t his anti-Christian carelessness.  It is his comfort level with being able to do this without being held to some sort of standard of honesty.  Indeed, Baylor University Professor of Jewish Studies, Marc H. Ellis, notes, regarding Walzer’s serial dishonesty:

When I encountered Walzer in Jerusalem in 1987, I was speaking on my soon to be published book, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.  Walzer was one of my respondents.

Respond he did, using the same arguments he uses with Rule. As with Rule, Walzer was less interested in explicitly defending Israel’s actions.  His more important task was to make suspect anyone critical of Israel.

Walzer made his career with these kinds of calculated and malicious arguments.

On some levels, even more disturbing than all this dishonesty used to attack honest critics of one Israeli government after another, rather than against a creed, faith, culture or race, is its context in the midst of long-time and steadily growing apartheid.  Ellis on Walzer over the years:

What he writes in Dissent – ‘Israel is a country in need of radical criticism; it currently has the worst government in its history, perhaps the worst government among Western democracies’ – he spoke in more or less the same words twenty-five years ago.

Walzer has been a pessimist about Israel for decades.  Then and now he sees glimmers of hope. Israel can embrace them if she has the political will. In the meantime, Walzer believes that no one outside his self-defined circle can sound the alarm.

Giving Ellis’s thoughts on this resonance is New Yorker editor David Remnick’s very recent observation on Israeli politicians and governance:

[T]he Israeli political class is a full-blown train wreck.

Whenever the Walzers and so on fail to confront this, but instead attack honest people who would rather help, even if that help resembles intervention to stop an alcoholic or heroin addict, they only make all this worse.

Update – Sunday 10:05 am PST:  Michael Walzer has responded to my letter, posted at comment #61 below.  I’ve written back.  Should the exchange be productive, and he gives me permission, I’ll use it as part of a new post here.

Photo in the public domain.