[Marxism] The End of Liberal Zionism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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

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 
social media.

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 
to flourish.

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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