[Marxism] The End of Liberal Zionism
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Sun Aug 24 19:11:55 MDT 2014
NY Times Op-Ed, August 24 2014
The End of Liberal Zionism
Israel’s Move to the Right Challenges Diaspora Jews
By ANTONY LERMAN
LONDON — Liberal Zionists are at a crossroads. The original tradition of
combining Zionism and liberalism — which meant ending the occupation of
the West Bank and Gaza, supporting a Palestinian state as well as a
Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority, and standing behind
Israel when it was threatened — was well intentioned. But everything
liberal Zionists stand for is now in doubt.
The decision of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to launch a
military campaign against Hamas in Gaza has cost the lives, to date, of
64 soldiers and three civilians on the Israeli side, and nearly 2,000
Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians.
“Never do liberal Zionists feel more torn than when Israel is at war,”
wrote Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian’s opinion editor and a leading
British liberal Zionist, for The New York Review of Books last month.
He’s not alone. Columnists like Jonathan Chait, Roger Cohen and Thomas
L. Friedman have all riffed in recent weeks on the theme that what
Israel is doing can’t be reconciled with their huma
But it’s not just Gaza, and the latest episode of “shock and awe”
militarism. The romantic Zionist ideal, to which Jewish liberals — and I
was one, once — subscribed for so many decades, has been tarnished by
the reality of modern Israel. The attacks on freedom of speech and human
rights organizations in Israel, the land-grabbing settler movement, a
growing strain of anti-Arab and anti-immigrant racism, extremist
politics, and a powerful, intolerant religious right — this mixture has
pushed liberal Zionism to the brink.
In the United States, trenchant and incisive criticism of Israeli
policies by commentators like Peter Beinart, one of liberal Zionism’s
most articulate and prolific voices, is now common. But the critics go
only so far — not least to avoid giving succor to anti-Semites, who use
the crisis as cover for openly expressing hatred of Jews.
In the past, liberal Zionists in the Diaspora found natural allies among
the left-wing and secular-liberal parties in Israel, like Labor, Meretz
and Shinui. But Israel’s political left is now comatose. Beaten by
Menachem Begin in the 1977 national elections, it briefly revived with
Yitzhak Rabin and the hopes engendered by the 1993 Oslo Accords. But
having clung to the Oslo process long past its sell-by date, the
parliamentary left in Israel has become insignificant.
Diaspora Jewish politics has also changed. In the 1960s, when I was an
enthusiastic young Zionist in England planning to settle on a kibbutz in
Israel, some organizations had names virtually identical to Israeli
political parties. This identification lasted only as long as the
institutions that prevailed in Israel seemed to Diaspora Jews to reflect
a liberal Zionist viewpoint.
Today, the dominant Diaspora organizations, like the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the
Anti-Defamation League, as well as a raft of largely self-appointed
community leaders, have swung to the right, making unquestioning
solidarity with Israel the touchstone of Jewish identity — even though
majority Jewish opinion is by no means hawkish.
Though squeezed by a more vociferous and entrenched right, liberal
Zionists have not given up without a fight. They found ways of pushing
back, insisting that their two-state Zionism held out the only hope for
an end to the conflict and setting up organizations to promote their
outlook. J Street in America and Yachad in Britain, founded in 2008 and
2011 respectively, describe themselves as “pro-Israel and pro-peace” and
have attracted significant numbers of people who seek a more critical
engagement with Israel.
I became an Israeli citizen in 1970, and I am still one today. I worked
in the Jewish community in research and philanthropic capacities for 30
years, serving the interests of Jews worldwide. But in the 1980s, I
began to rethink my relationship with Israel and Zionism. As recently as
2007, while directing the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy
Research, an independent think tank, I still thought that liberal
Zionism had a role to play. I believed that by encouraging Diaspora Jews
to express reservations about Israeli policy in public, liberal Zionism
could influence the Israeli government to change its policies toward the
I still understood its dream of Israel as a moral and just cause, but I
judged it anachronistic. The only Zionism of any consequence today is
xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by
religious messianism. It is carrying out an open-ended project of
national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and
purification of the tribe.
This mind-set blocks any chance Israel might have to become a
full-fledged liberal-democratic state, and offers the Palestinians no
path to national self-determination, no justice for their expulsion in
1948, nor for the occupation and the denial of their rights. I came to
see the notion that liberal Zionism might reverse, or even just
restrain, this nationalist juggernaut as fanciful.
I used my position at the think tank to raise questions about Israel’s
political path and to initiate a community-wide debate about these
issues. Naïve? Probably. I was vilified by the right-wing Jewish
establishment, labeled a “self-hating Jew” and faced public calls for me
to be sacked. This just confirmed what I already knew about the myopia
of Jewish leadership and the intolerance of many British Zionist activists.
Today, neither the destruction wreaked in Gaza nor the disgraceful
antics of the anti-democratic forces that are setting Israel’s political
agenda have produced a decisive shift in Jewish Diaspora opinion.
Beleaguered liberal Zionists still struggle to reconcile their
liberalism with their Zionism, but they are increasingly under pressure
from Jewish dissenters on the left, like Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews
for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices.
Along with many experts, most dissenting groups have long thought that
the two-state solution was dead. The collapse of the peace talks being
brokered by the American secretary of state, John Kerry, came as no
surprise. Then, on July 11, Mr. Netanyahu definitively rejected any
possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state. The Gaza
conflict meant, he said, that “there cannot be a situation, under any
agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west
of the River Jordan” (meaning the West Bank).
Liberal Zionists must now face the reality that the dissenters have
recognized for years: A de facto single state already exists; in it,
rights for Jews are guaranteed while rights for Palestinians are
curtailed. Since liberal Zionists can’t countenance anything but two
states, this situation leaves them high and dry.
Liberal Zionists believe that Jewish criticism of Israeli policies is
unacceptable without love of Israel. They embrace Israel as the Jewish
state. For it to remain so, they insist it must have a Jewish majority
in perpetuity. Yet to achieve this inevitably implies policies of
exclusion and discrimination.
They’re convinced that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, but
they fail to explain how to reconcile God’s supreme authority with the
sovereign power of the people. Meanwhile, the self-appointed arbiters of
what’s Jewish in the Jewish state — the extreme religious Zionists and
the strictly Orthodox, aided and abetted by Jewish racists in the
Knesset like Ayelet Shaked, a Jewish Home Party member who recently
called for the mothers of Palestinian “snakes” to be killed — are
trashing democracy more and more each day. Particularly shocking are the
mass arrests — nearly 500 since the beginning of July — of Palestinian
Arab citizens of Israel for peacefully protesting, and the sanctions
against Arab students at universities for posting pro-Gaza messages on
Pushed to the political margins in Israel and increasingly irrelevant in
the Diaspora, liberal Zionism not only lacks agency; worse, it provides
cover for the supremacist Zionism dominant in Israel today. Liberal
Zionists have become an obstacle to the emergence of a Diaspora Jewish
movement that could actually be an agent of change.
The dissenting left doesn’t have all the answers, but it has the
principles upon which solutions must be based. Both liberal Zionism and
the left accept the established historical record: Jews forced hundreds
of thousands of Palestinians from their homes to make way for the
establishment of a Jewish state. But the liberals have concluded that it
was an acceptable price others had to pay for the state. The left
accepts that an egregious injustice was done. The indivisibility of
human, civil and political rights has to take precedence over the
dictates of religion and political ideology, in order not to deny either
Palestinians or Jews the right to national self-determination. The
result, otherwise, will be perpetual conflict.
In the repressive one-state reality of today’s Israel, which Mr.
Netanyahu clearly wishes to make permanent, we need a joint
Israeli-Palestinian movement to attain those rights and the full
equality they imply. Only such a movement can lay the groundwork for the
necessary compromises that will allow the two peoples’ national cultures
This aspiration is incompatible with liberal Zionism, and some liberal
Zionists appear close to this conclusion, too. As Mr. Freedland put it,
liberal Zionists “will have to decide which of their political
identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a
They should know that Israel is not Judaism. Jewish history did not
culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.
Regrettably, there is a dearth of Jewish leaders telling Diaspora Jews
these truths. The liberal Zionist intelligentsia should embrace this
challenge, acknowledge the demise of their brand and use their
formidable explanatory skills to build support for a movement to achieve
equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.
Antony Lerman, a former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy
Research, is the author of “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist.”
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