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The State of Righteousness: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

I have been a Zionist ever since the year of my bar mitzvah, 1948, when I sought out every possible piece of news (that was available in Johnstown, Pa.) about Israel's war of independence and covered my school notebooks with hand-drawn maps of the new state and its battlefields. But I never went to live in Israel. In 1957, right after we were married, my wife and I spent a summer there, thinking about aliyah, but we came back to the States for graduate school and soon had children and a life here in the U.S. We chose instead what Shlomo Avineri calls hatzi aliyah -- literally, "half-immigration" -- so that now, nearing the end of our lives, we have spent years in Israel, over some 40 visits and several sabbaticals, and we probably have more friends there than here. So what is this half-way Zionism?

It is first of all the emotion-laden belief of someone who grew up during World War Two that the Jews need a state, and that this need is so critical and so urgent that it overrides whatever injustices statehood has brought. We still have to oppose the injustices with all the resources we can muster, but we can't give up the State. So I participate vicariously in Israeli politics by supporting my social-democratic and peacenik friends. I want the state to be as good as it can be, but above all I want it to be.

My Zionism is also a universal statism. I think that everybody who needs a state should have one, not only the Jews but also the Armenians, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the South Sudanese -- and the Palestinians. The modern state is the only effective agency for physical protection, economic management and welfare provision. What the most oppressed and impoverished people in the world today most need is a state of their own, a decent state acting on their behalf. I feel some hostility, therefore, toward people who want to "transcend" the state -- and I am especially hostile toward those who insist that the transcendence has to begin with the Jews.

My Zionism is a secular nationalism. The Jewish people have a twofold character: We are a nation -- Am Yisrael, the people Israel -- and we are what Americans call a "community of faith." This is not a common combination; it is shaped by the peculiar history of the Jews. But statehood requires separation: the Jewish state should be an expression of the people, not of the faith (which many of our people don't share, at least not in its orthodox form). We know from our history that the world can get very nasty when religious faith and political power are joined. Zionism should empower citizens; it should deny power to all those who claim it on religious grounds; it should not empower zealots. State schools in Israel, it seems to me, can legitimately promote Jewishness -- in the same way that state schools in Norway promote Norwegianess -- but they can't promote Judaism. And of course minority groups, in Israel as in Norway, must have every opportunity to associate for the promotion of their own culture.

My hatzi aliyah obviously doesn't commit me to "the negation of the exile." Jewish history is too complicated to support the idea that it can have only one continuation in one place. There are many ways of being Jewish, and many places, given emancipation and democratic citizenship, where Jewish life can flourish. But we will flourish more securely, with greater self-respect, and with greater cultural depth, if we are connected not only to our diasporic states but also to a Jewish state. The Zionist project is central to Jewish life because it has led to the revival of the Hebrew language and the creation of a modern Hebrew culture -- novels, poems, plays and films of remarkable power -- and because it makes possible the enactment of what many of us have always imagined to be Jewish values: justice, above all.

This is a test that we shouldn't want to avoid: can this people, our people, stateless for almost 2,000 years, create a state that men and women around the world will look at and say, as in Deuteronomy 4:8, "And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous"?

Needless to say, we are not there yet, not even close. High ambition requires a long life, and Israel is a very young state.

Michael Walzer is a political philosopher and public intellectual. A professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, he is co-editor of Dissent, an intellectual magazine that he has been affiliated with since his years as an undergraduate at Brandeis University. He has written books and essays on a wide range of topics, including just and unjust wars, nationalism, ethnicity, economic justice, social criticism, radicalism, tolerance and political obligation, and is a contributing editor to the New Republic. To date, he has written 27 books and published more than 300 articles, essays and book reviews in Dissent, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harpers, and many philosophical and political science journals. His most recent book is "In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible" (Yale University Press).