A mezuzah, the scroll containing Torah verses that is placed on the right doorjamb of the entrance of Jewish homes, marks the Manhattan apartment of philosopher Michael Walzer, 88. Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, he updated the Augustinian theory on the legitimacy of armed conflicts from a secular and leftist point of view in his book Just and Unjust Wars (1977). As a Jew, he aligns himself with Israel’s response to Hamas but not uncritically; he’s especially critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. From the imperative of responding to terrorism to the difficulty of waging asymmetric wars and Israel’s own vulnerability, Walzer addresses the moral dilemmas surrounding the conflict.
Question: What kind of war is this, a just or an unjust one?
Answer. Well, the war against terrorism is always just. In the 1970s, I started writing [my book] against the terrorism of the IRA [Irish Republican Army] in Ireland, the FLN [National Liberation Front] in Algeria, and the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] in Palestine. The deliberate killing of innocent civilians for some kind of political purpose is always unjust, so responses to that terrorism are justified. The quality of the [armed] response is another thing...
Q. Is Israel’s response proportional, as the rules of war require, or unlimited?
A. An asymmetric war is a war between a high-tech army and a low-tech insurgency. The insurgents hide behind or within the civilian population. From what I know about Hamas, they fire rockets from schoolyards and hospital parking lots and residential neighborhoods. This means they deliberately expose their own civilians, because the more civilians they kill, the more likely they are to win the war. By winning, I mean politically, even if the military cost is very high. That was the Americans’ problem in Vietnam; they failed. They didn’t solve the problem.
Q. Does the number of casualties matter if it justifies the narrative?
A. I’ll give you the example of Afghanistan. A U.S. colonel said in 2010, “The more civilians we kill, the more certain it is that we will lose the war.” So that’s the dilemma of asymmetric warfare and the [one the] Israelis [face]. How do you respond to a barrage of rockets fired at your territory from a schoolyard? That raises the [question]: how careful are you in your response? If it’s a schoolyard, do you respond at night? That’s all you can [do]: be careful. And I think the Israelis have been very careful sometimes and other times probably not.
Q. You wrote your book in the 1970s. How much have wars changed since then?
A. Well, if you look at the wars in the Middle East, they were in 1948 [after the founding of Israel] and 1967 [the Six-Day War]. And 1973 [the Yom Kippur War]. They were all quite conventional technical wars between armies. But since 1982 [in Lebanon], the wars have involved organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, which don’t have a state or conventional army behind them. And they fight in the way I just described. I think the political problems for Israel have multiplied with asymmetric warfare.
“There is no justification for a siege, so it was not right for Israel to cut off electricity, water, and food supplies to Gaza.”
Q. Another rule of war is not to target civilians. Two million people in Gaza are potential targets and are under siege.
A. That was one of the reasons for [U.S. President Joe] Biden’s trip [to Israel]. Yes, that’s very important. For one thing, there is no justification for a siege. So, it’s not right that Israel has cut off Gaza’s electricity, water [and] food supply... Because it’s the people who are suffering from it. And politically, that’s wonderful for Hamas. So, I think you have to open the crossings [the interview was conducted before the aid shipment began]. Obviously, you have to prevent military supplies from coming in and make sure that only food and medicine comes in. Also, Egypt does not want a flood of Palestinians entering the Sinai, because it sees Hamas as the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. It should be noted that the blockade of Gaza was a joint Israeli-Egyptian operation.
Q. In addition to being an asymmetric war between a state and a militia, is it also a regional war?
A. There are elements of [regional] proxy warfare. Hamas and Hezbollah are trained by Iran, but I think they have their own policy and their own objectives. Obviously, they can serve Iran’s purposes, but I think the crucial decisions are local. Because both groups have very strong motivations: from its founding charter, Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction. And that objective precedes any Iranian involvement.
“Israel is, on the one hand, very strong, and on the other hand, extremely vulnerable.”
Q. What about the states in the region?
A. It is possible that the Sunni Arab states would like Israel to crush Hamas, but, in any case, they are not going to help.
Q. Do you think there is a real risk of an expansion of the conflict?
A. Yes, but I think there are good reasons why [neighboring countries] might not want to enter [the war]. Lebanon is extremely fragile; Hezbollah is another story... Many people talk about Israel as if it were a powerful military power, the most advanced in the Middle East. And yet, if Hezbollah were to go into action, with rockets from the north, and Hamas rockets from the south, over half of Israel would be uninhabitable. It is important for people to realize that Israel is, on the one hand, very strong and, on the other hand, extremely vulnerable. Even if Israel had atomic weapons, what good would they do? That is why the position of the left — including my own — defends the two-state solution, the hope for a withdrawal from the West Bank...
Q. Have the protests against the Israeli government’s judicial reform weakened Israel or do they show the strength of its civil society?
A. There is a terrible, right-wing, ultra-nationalist, religiously fanatic government. And there is a secular liberal uprising against that government, which was wonderful. All my friends were in the streets with their children and grandchildren. And week after week they were telling me wonderful stories about the protesters’ solidarity. But the atrocity of the Hamas attack has created, I don’t know about internal cohesion, but solidarity, at least temporarily. I’m sure there are Israelis who hope that there won’t be a ground invasion, and that the military will find some other way that doesn’t involve 100,000 troops. But the country is prepared for an all-out war. Hamas not only perpetrated these atrocities on October 7, but filmed them and showed them everywhere. Everyone in Israel has seen these horrific images. It is very rough. Many of my friends urge restraint, and I expect restraint from the authorities. But it is very difficult.
Q. Does Israel have an enemy at home? I mean, groups like Naturei Karta, which rejects the existence of the state and is anti-Zionist?
A. Israel is a pluralistic society. Naturei Karta is a very small group, but the ultra-Orthodox have certainly been anti-Zionist as well, convinced that there should not be a State until the coming of the Messiah. But I fear that the ultra-Orthodox in the present government are now more Zionist than anyone else, because they seem to have joined with the ultra-nationalists. In the beginning, Zionism was a secular socialist movement.
Q. That tension is being replicated in the U.S. Progressive Jewish groups have taken over the Capitol in defense of peace.
A. There has been an obscene response on the far left to support even Hamas atrocities. [It’s] a small, but very vocal group on American campuses. And this is a very old position on the left that oppressed peoples can do whatever they want; that didn’t even start with Israel. There are no moral limits, they say; we can’t judge what they do because it’s a product of their oppression. This all started with the Algerian war. In fact, one of my first articles was entitled The Obligations of Oppressed Minorities, arguing that even oppressed people have moral obligations or limits on what they can do. So, it’s very annoying to read the same old stuff, the same kind of justifications that were made for the Algerian terrorist who bombed a cafe, or IRA terrorists killing civilians. I’ve been opposed to that kind of leftism all my life. And then there are people who simply say that the violence must end, that an immediate ceasefire must be declared, but that’s very hard to say to Israelis after the mass atrocity by Hamas. I just hope that the punishment will target the perpetrators, the terrorists.
Q. Looking ahead, do you think a two-state solution is still possible?
A. It is increasingly difficult to imagine a two-state solution, and yet it must be fought for. I am involved in groups that support a modification of that idea, in a federation or confederation. These are, perhaps, more realistic proposals than the two-state solution. I’m sure King [Abdullah] of Jordan would not be happy about it, but a confederation of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, cooperating on ecological and other issues, including security issues, would be a wonderful solution.
Q. As an American, how do you feel about the U.S. veto of a U.N. resolution for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza?
A. Humanitarian reasons, as the text of the resolution said? I don’t know if it would make sense. Surely opening the borders to humanitarian aid makes sense? Before Hamas has been defeated? I think the Israelis think it’s too soon. And apparently, the U.S. administration agrees with them, which is why they voted against it. The extent of Washington’s commitment is really extraordinary. Biden’s own speech [in defense of Israel] — more Zionist than any Israeli — was extraordinary.
Q. If you had to write your book now, would you choose the same title?
A. Yes, yes. Look, I grew up during World War II, I was 10 years old, and that inoculated me against pacifism, because the war against the Nazis was the quintessential just war. Our task in wartime is to make judgments, and I think this is the right vocabulary, even if it is initially a Catholic vocabulary. My book is sort of a lay version, of course, but I do think it would be good enough for St. Augustine (laughs).
Q. Is a just war compatible with pacifism?
A. No. I respect people who say “I cannot kill” for religious reasons, but in the face of the atrocities of Hamas or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I firmly believe that the right thing to do is to strike back. In the face of aggression, in the face of brutality, yes, there must be opposition.
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