Where did the founders go wrong?

Political theorist Michael Walzer: The founders of Israel, India and Algeria believed religion would wither away. Photo by David Holzel
Political theorist Michael Walzer: The founders of Israel, India and Algeria believed religion would wither away.
Photo by David Holzel

These are difficult times for the pro-Israel left, according to political theorist Michael Walzer, himself a member of that troubled circle.

Walzer, whose books include Just and Unjust Wars, is a member of “a group of left-wing academics who are fighting BDS” — the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — “and at the same time we’re insisting that we are not supporters of the current Israeli government,” he told 110 people at Kol Shalom in Rockville on Feb. 3.

“I’m worried that the people who are urging boycotts are not friends,” he said. “So we have to fight a two-front battle.”

Walzer’s appearance was sponsored by the Washington-based Foundation for Jewish Studies. In his talk, based on his book The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, Walzer discussed how extreme reactions to anti-Israel activity represent a failure of Israel’s founding ideals.


Walzer, former coeditor of Dissent magazine, traced the similar trajectories of three countries that were founded by secular liberation movements: India, Algeria and Israel.

Less than a generation later, each country “was challenged by a religious revival,” he said.

“In India, Hindu nationalists are in power. In Algeria, after the civil war [of the 1990s], radical Islamists have been repressed, but not defeated,” Walzer said. Israel has experienced the rise of “messianic Zionists of the settler movement, and the ultra-Orthodox.” Neither group, he pointed out, shares founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s vision for the country.

The vision that Ben-Gurion and the founders of India and Algeria pursued included liberation from the colonial rulers as well as from religious authority, he said. They believed that religion would wither away.

“They accepted the theory of inevitable secularization. Ben-Gurion thought the haredim” — a small percent of newborn Israel’s population — “would be like the Amish or Mennonites and that Israel would be ruled by free-thinkers,” the term Ben-Gurion used to describe himself.

No less important to the founders was the liberation of women. In this, Israel succeeded more than India or Algeria. Walzer sees in the religious pushback in all three countries a reaction to the egalitarianism of the secular liberationists.

“All three religious revivals are driven by the fear of the liberated woman,” he said.

So why didn’t secular liberation take root? Partly because the revolution was so extreme, Walzer said. “The liberationists were at war with the people they wanted to liberate.”

In Israel, they also failed to implant a secular culture to replace the religious Jewish one. With their secularism, the Zionist pioneers tried to negate the exile and create a new Jew who was free of the subservience and passivity formed from living at the mercy of gentile rulers. “But the culture of liberation was too thin compared to the old religion,” he said.

“The old culture marks the life cycle,” with its rituals for joyful and sad occasions, he explained. “The secularists didn’t do well with this.” He recalled the discomfort of a secular Jewish funeral “where nobody knows what to say or when to weep.”

A product of secular liberationist Zionism, Walzer offered this prescription for responding to religious extremism: “We should side with the liberationists who naturalize Western, liberal values in the culture of their own people – and that means religious culture.”

One model for that vision is an alliance of secular and religious Muslim women that has spread from Algeria to India. Members “search for Islamic texts that can be interpreted in an egalitarian way,” he said. “This engagement may be the best way to respond to the extremists.”

There’s an irony in how differently Israel and its supporters view the outside world from the country’s founding generation.

“The story we are now hearing — all the world is against us — this is a return to the galut [Jewish exile]. This is the exilic mentality that the Zionist movement tried to eliminate. And it’s not true that all the world is against us,” he said. “It’s important to insist that we have both friends and enemies and we should cultivate our friends. If the Israeli government isn’t doing it, we [Americans] should be doing it as much as we can.”

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