Does Zionism Have Room for Minorities?

Many argue that Zionism and liberalism contradict each other. Can a humanistic, peace-loving, human-rights-affirming 'Zionist' camp actually exist?

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A new campaign aims to promote Israel as the bastion of freedom, liberty and pluralism. “Which side are you on?” the video asks. The side that believes in open debate; the side that strives for gender equality; the side that protects its young people; the side that goes out of its way to avoid harming innocent people, and the side that takes pride in its diverse society? It asks. “I know which side I’m on,” a series of individuals — men, women, black, white, declare: “I am for Israel.”

So why, in a recent column here in Haaretz, does Israeli-Arab author Sayed Kashua despair over his place in the ongoing Israeli project? “Sometimes I watch the news from Israel and find it hard to believe,” Kashua writes while on sabbatical in America. “I see election ads featuring Naftali Bennett dressed up as a reader of Haaretz, who thinks it’s perfectly okay to plunder homes, land, freedom and life. And I see Danny Danon in a sheriff’s outfit, ready to fight the Arabs.And saddest of all is when I read about the Herzog-Livni 'Zionist Camp' and no longer know what is preferable.”

In a series of columns over the last few months, Kashua has been waxing eloquent about his time in the United States, far from “that existential background noise of a relentless political threat around you[and] farther from racism than we’ve ever been in our lives.”

From an electioneering perspective, it’s easy to see why the joint Labor-Hatnua ticket, led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, would dub themselves the “Zionist Camp.” Hoping to unseat Netanyahu — he who has become synonymous with Israeli leadership in the eyes of many — Livni and Herzog need to position themselves as the “real” Israel. And so far, it may be working: Recent polls reveal that the Herzog-Livni alliance is leading.

But if even the liberal-leaning Herzog-Hatnua ticket reduces the thoughtful and nuanced Kashua to scowls, we must ask whether a humanistic, peace-loving, pluralism-touting, human-rights-affirming “Zionist” camp can actually exist.

In an idealized sense, the “Zionist Camp” label could be read as an attempt not only to gird Israelis for necessary change, but also to fulfill the aims of Israel’s declaration of independence. Ditto whatever necessary concessions must be made at the negotiating table with the Palestinians — something that the early Zionists sadly did not sufficiently conceptualize — and Herzog and Livni will require backing from a strong Zionist base. (Israeli governments have historically excluded the parties on the left-most end of the political spectrum, meaning the so-called “Arab parties,” and thus it’s the Jewish electorate which prime-ministerial-hopefuls depend on.)

But an anti-Zionist, or even a non-Zionist, would argue that the idea of liberalism and Zionism is a contradiction in terms. While growing up at Hebrew summer camps and Zionist youth movements, the “Z-word” was uttered to us to impart at once a collective thrill and a sense of duty. But to Kashua’s ears — and those of many of his fellow Palestinian citizens of Israel — the term stings.

Can Palestinian-Israeli citizens, those for whom security at their national airport is that much more taxing than for Jewish citizens, for whom choosing where to live in that much more restrictive than for Jewish citizens, and who face a regular menu of casual racism , ever feel at home under the Zionist shadow?

I have argued before in these pages that Zionism and liberalism need not be a contradiction in terms. But writers and thinkers and activists aren’t the only ones who should be trying to convince the wounded, the jaded, and the skeptical. It is today’s campaigners and tomorrow’s lawmakers who need to deliver on the promise of democratic Zionism. While promising a better tomorrow to their (Jewish) base, these politicians should find some way — acrobatic as it may seem — to reassure the most marginalized.

And as for the messaging of videos like the one I quoted above, sadly campaigns like those are so busy burnishing Israel’s image at the expense of its enemies (“whose side are you on?”) that there is no air left in the room with which to breathe in the oxygen of social critique and political change. In democratic societies, it’s long been the writers and satirists who have tried to do that. But as Kashua’s columns reveal, Israel may be losing some of the best — if not physically, then in spirit — as we speak.