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The Two Lefts: Debating Divestment at Princeton

By Michael Walzer

Remarks by Professor Michael Walzer at a panel discussion on April 16th addressing a divestment resolution pending at Princeton.  The resolution ultimately was defeated with 2,032 students voting, 52.5% against and 47.5% in favor.


I am on this panel because I live on the left–and quarrel with (some of) my neighbors, as I will do this afternoon. I am also old enough to remember arguing against the very first Israeli settlements on the West Bank, in Hebron and near Nablus. I didn’t win that argument or most of the others in the years since, but that’s an old story; losing arguments doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.

I will probably be more polemical today than my colleagues on this panel–that’s the style of the left. So I want to start by acknowledging that there are good people on all sides of this debate. My polemic is aimed at the politics, not the people, of the Divestment movement.

There are two lefts engaged today in what we might loosely call Middle Eastern politics. The first: the familiar left, is a left whose members are committed to defend people in trouble (wherever they live), to oppose oppression (wherever it occurs), to promote self-determination (for everybody), to fight for greater equality…and so on–you know the list.

The second is a single issue left, focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict and committed to criticize and delegitimize Israel–only Israel. This second left pretends to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but I want to argue that that’s not its primary commitment, indeed, it’s not a serious commitment at all.

But the resolution in front of us isn’t focused only on Israel; it condemns Egypt, too, and the Palestine Authority. It’s an odd resolution, since it invites the question: who should Israel negotiate with? to whom should Israel return the West Bank? The only political entity left standing in this resolution is Hamas, which is, in terms of brutality and oppression, the worst of all: its members are Islamist zealots, religious misogynists, and political terrorists.

The resolution, however, is camouflage, for if we look at the actual position paper on the Princeton Divestment website, “Why Divest?”, we won’t find any mention of the PA or of Egypt–the siege of Gaza is now called “the Israeli siege.” But it really is a joint effort, an Egyptian-Israeli siege; either side can end it at any moment; if Egypt opens its border with Gaza, there is no more siege. And at this moment, after the attacks on Egyptian soldiers and civilians in the Sinai, the Egyptian side of the siege is much harsher than the Israeli side.

So one would expect that if the Divestment activists had any serious interest in the wellbeing of the people of Gaza, they would be working to promote opposition to both sides of the siege, but as “Why Divest?” makes clear, they are interested, really interested, in only one side.

The same one-sidedness is apparent if we consider, now, the Syrian civil wars, in the course of which Yarmouk, the Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus, has been devastated. It may well be true that more Palestinian noncombatants have been killed in the last four years in Syria, chiefly by the Syrian army, than in the 48 years of the Israeli occupation. Not a word about this from the advocates of Divestment.

Just in time for this discussion, I found a blog on the Guardian website addressing the Yarmouk question. So listen now to the words of Mehdi Hasan, an Anglo-Indian, a Shi’ite Muslim, who writes regularly for Al-Jezeera and is a fierce critic of Israel–but a member of what I called the first left.

Anyone who tries to use the tragedy of Yarmouk to excuse or downplay Israel’s 48 year occupation of Palestine should be ashamed of themselves [OK: no excuses]. But what about the rest of us? Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF? Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable. Many of us who have raised our voices in support of the Palestinian cause have inexcusably turned a blind eye to the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed by fellow Arabs in recent decades….

Hasan is talking about the deep slumber and the blind eye of the second left, the Divestment left, which in fact takes no interest in Palestinian suffering unless the Israelis can be blamed for it. And he is right: that is a morally unsustainable position. But the word “unsustainable” is too optimistic, for here is an organization at Princeton University trying to sustain it.

Let’s imagine a divestment campaign sponsored by the first, the authentic, left. How would we recognize it? First, this wouldn’t be the only thing that this left was doing; Israel would not be the only country in the world, or (better) in the Middle East, that it was worrying about. And, second, any decent left would proclaim, from the beginning, its commitment to self-determination for both the Palestinian people and the Jewish people; it would defend the statehood of all the people in the world who need a state: Tibetans, Kurds, Palestinians–and, yes, the Jews, too.

That would be an authentic left politics, and if a divestment  program focused narrowly on the occupation were part of this politics, we would have to think very seriously about supporting it. We might argue about its possible effectiveness; there might be other things to do with a greater chance of making a difference; but this (imaginary) divestment campaign would have a kind of moral legitimacy that the current campaign does not have.

Please stay away from, please join the opposition to, the current campaign–it is morally unsustainable, so make sure that it isn’t sustained. And if you plan to live on the left, as I hope some of you do, then fight for the better left that we really need.

2 Responses to “The Two Lefts: Debating Divestment at Princeton”

  1. Rene Lichtman
    May 4, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    Thank you for an excellent explanation of one part of this complicated issue.
    I would like to hear more about the true ultimate goal of the BDS movement, which seems to be the end of the Jewish Democratic state of Israel. Please comment on the “one-state solution” and why both some right and left forces support it, and when does “apartheid” issue enter the picture?
    Rene Lichtman

  2. Stogumber
    May 22, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    I’m somewhat surprised by Prof. Walzer’s principle that all “peoples” ought to have a state of their own. It’s definitely not a “leftist” principle and I wouldn’t have thought that it is a Jewish principle.

    Perhaps Prof. Walzer really has formed a conclusion: If we want to secure the ethno-national state for our own people, it would be reasonable to grant this good thing to every other people, too? That would be real progress. He only has yet to spread this idea within the international Jewish community.

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