In Pursuit of Liberal Zionism

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May 22, 2010

{Author’s Note: This will be my last article for Zeek Magazine. I want to thank the many readers out there who have been following my articles every week. I hope you will continue to follow my work at my blog, Realistic Peace In Israel-Palestine. The blog will continue to be updated on a very regular basis and will also inform you of postings in other venues. I hope you’ll continue to follow my work. Keep in touch.}

Peter Beinart’s essay for the New York Review of Books, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, has caused caused a serious a stir. Mourning the death of liberal Zionism, the ex-New Republic editor ponders how American Jewry might work to revive it. I don’t want to add to all the commentary on Beinart’s piece, as much as consider why the controversy is itself significant.

Let’s start with the exchange between Beinart and Jeffrey Goldberg that followed the publication of Beinart’s article. During their discussion, they briefly touched on Israel’s raison d’etre. Beinart was the one who, at least initially, stressed the need for a place for Jews to flee to in case of persecution (an under-appreciated aspect of the Shoah was the fact that, after so many episodes of persecution and flight by Jews over the centuries, a great many of Europe’s Jews had nowhere to run to from the Nazis.) Goldberg emphasized Israel as a homeland and center of national expression for Jews.

These two notions were both symbiotic and a source of tension for most of Zionist history before the creation of the State of Israel. There is obviously overlap between them, particularly when it comes to building a strong, independent, Jewish society, which was Zionism’s ultimate goal. But there is also tension.

Theodor Herzl, as is well known, was inspired by anti-Semitic events, notably the Dreyfus Affair, to develop his vision of political Zionism. But Herzl didn’t envision a state whose pride and identity were wrapped up in its military might, but in its wisdom and enlightenment.

This question has largely disappeared from the landscape. In the pre-state years, Zionism, whatever else it may have been, was a liberation movement with a revolutionary discourse. It could be whatever it wanted to be, and as such was wide open to all sorts of ideological, even utopian, thinking. The establishment of the state changed Zionist discourse from a significantly theoretical one – “what kind of state shall we build?” – to a more practical one – “how does our government deal with the current and future situation?”

Israel held on to a liberal model of ideological thinking for a long time after that shift, but, in combination with a permanent state of conflict, the ethnic nature of that conflict, the Occupation and a significant rightward drift over the past 35 years, Israel became a state of refuge for its Jewish supporters in the Diaspora, and its citizens were cemented into a bunker mentality.

There’s a lot more to that process, of course; one could easily write a book about it, and in one way or another, many have. But the fact is that even someone like Beinart, a Zionist who is not afraid to be critical of the Israeli government, sees Israel as a place of last resort for threatened Jews. His attachment to it, which he does go on to describe to Goldberg, is what leads him to criticize some of Israel’s policies and to speak out against a Jewish establishment which will not follow suit.

We come back to the politics of fear, then. If Israel is in place primarily to act as a refuge against another time when Jews are faced with extermination and the countries of the world are refusing to shelter them, then it is not hard to fathom that the Jewish response to Israeli misbehavior would be to defend the state anyway.

But even those early Zionist thinkers who were responding mostly to anti-Semitism did not envision a state that was nothing more than an escape hatch.

Consider Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, and the ideological patriarch of the Israeli right. Jabotinsky was clear in his view that the only way a Jewish state would be established would be by crushing the Arabs. However, he also drafted a constitution that would have given Arab citizens of Israel full equal rights, partnership in government and the same requirement for military service as Jews. He even envisioned the possibility of Arab heads of the government and saw no problem with that. Try to imagine such a thought today.

This was no leftwing, utopian dreamer, but a hard-willed Jewish nationalist who believed that the Jews of Palestine could only liberate themselves at the expense of the Arabs and thus should do so without qualms. But he believed in a state of Israel that would, once the fighting was over, treat all its citizens equally and become a part of the community of nations to the fullest. As much as I find many of Jabotinksy’s views objectionable and even offensive, he is rolling over in his relocated Jerusalem grave at what Israel has become.

Whether from a left or right wing Zionist tradition, the dividing line between the bunker mentality and the goal of making Israel a truly democratic society (something it has been much closer to being in the past) is what determines whether one will support Israel’s current suicidal course, or work to steer it back toward the vision of its founders.

Despite Peter Beinart’s inclination toward the bunker mentality, it is the attachment he describes in his essay that leads him to criticize. He starts by saying, “I’m a Zionist. I’m close enough to people who still have their bags packed [in case they need to flee persecution].” But then he goes on to say, “My love of Israel isn’t about the land; it’s my endless wonder at a society in which Jews from around the world were thrown together, a museum of the dazzling variety of world Jewry, in which people separated for millennia forged, and reforged, the bonds of peoplehood. That’s what chokes me up about Israel–that and what those Jews have built.”

It is from this sentiment that Beinart’s motivation for criticism comes. The crucial point, consistently overlooked by his Jewish critics, is that Beinart starts from a place of deep feeling for Israel, something that is increasingly disappearing among world Jewry. For all the discussion and debate, there’s little mystery as to why this is the case.

Most Jews are liberal. They are uncomfortable with the Jewish state holding millions of Palestinian Arabs under occupation, without giving them the rights of citizenship. They are uncomfortable with the Jewish state holding a million and a half more under siege. They are uncomfortable with the devastation Israel wreaked on that same population a year and a half ago. They are uncomfortable with the Jewish state saying it is helpless to stop settlement expansion. They are uncomfortable with valuing East Jerusalem (aside from the Western Wall area) over peace.

Most Jews in the West have not personally experienced anti-Semitism. What little they may have experienced has not been threatening enough to make them consider leaving their home countries. They know that Jews fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union twenty, thirty, or forty years ago often came to the United States or England, France, Australia or Canada. The same was true for Jews fleeing Iran in 1979. They do not live in fear of a next Holocaust as their parents did. If it does threaten to come about, Diaspora Jews don’t believe Israel is going to be their only place of refuge, either.

Israel’s insistence that it simply needs better public relations campaigns is a dead-end. The fact is, more and more Jews who would otherwise support Israel whole-heartedly are alienated by Israel’s behavior, and by the increasingly boorish tactics of Diaspora Jewish leadership in defending Israeli policies. It’s not only AIPAC; with each new generation, more and more young Jews look at Alan Dershowitz, Abe Foxman, and other Jewish leaders who are liberal on so many other issues, as hypocritical in their approach to Israel. That is not a lead they want to follow.

These “new Jews” are not stepping up to the plate, and assuming the mantle of leadership, because those who they would replace, like Foxman, like Dershowitz, have made the idea of supporting the Jewish state unattractive. Israel cannot be a “Jewish state” if world Jewry can’t identify with it. Under such circumstances, expecting young Jews to take the lead, and carry on the struggle, will only exacerbate their alienation.

Beinart’s identification of Israel as a refuge is giving way to the more powerful desire to see Israel be a state that reflects the ideals and views of the overwhelming majority of Jews all over the world. That’s the central message to take away from Peter Beinart’s essay. It is an triumphant expression of an increasingly held desire to reconnect Zionism and liberalism.

It’s high time that both the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewish leadership stopped trying to force Jews to choose between liberal ideals and support for Israel, and start working to find ways to ideologically, not just rhetorically, facilitate this realignment. This begins with ending the Occupation, and ends with an Israeli constitution that actually determines the nature of the state.

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