Angry Liberal Zionism Can Inspire a New Generation of Israelis

The ideology of Herzl can give young Israelis a way to express their Jewish identity and without being stifled by right-wing totalitarianism.

Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl

Zionism didnt begin as a unitary ideology. There was Herzls liberal Zionism; Ahad Haams and Yehuda Magnes cultural Zionism. Socialist Zionism was the first strand to carry the day, and dominated Israeli politics for the first three decades. In the mid-20th century, Revisionist Zionism took over, later fusing with Messianic Zionism - which gave religious significance to Land and none to human rights. Until a few decades ago, discussion between the various Zionist camps was still possible

Now, alas, self-appointed representatives of the Zionist cause, primarily from the right, make it seem that Zionism requires blind allegiance to Israel's governments: A Zionist must admire Jewish power, whatever form it takes; Zionism requires shutting off your critical faculties. They call all who disagree with them post-Zionists and accuse them of disloyalty.

Well, that makes both Herzl and Ahad Haam post-Zionists avant la lettre. Herzl thought that while the Jewish State should allow room for Jewish religion and Jewish clerics, they should be completely isolated from government and politics. He also had no place for theological notions that Jews had some God-given right to the land of Israel. He simply believed that they needed a state of their own. Ahad Haam would, today, be accused of being a self-hating post-Zionist, because he recoiled from some forms of Jewish power in the Yishuv, emphasizing cultural renewal over militarism.

Ben-Gurion - who believed in dialogue with other ideological positions, not in shutting them up - for decades debated with one of his fiercest ideological opponents: Shmuel-Hugo Bergman, rector of the Hebrew University and a member of Brit Shalom, a group that sought peaceful cooperation with Arabs.

As Peter Beinarts showed in his excellent article in the New York Review of Books, a younger generation of Israelis has been driven away by the party line of the traditional Jewish Establishment. They dont believe in unmitigated power-politics and are profoundly disaffected with the endless harping on Jewish victimhood. Many feel that if Zionism means backing the Israeli government's misguided Hasbara, supporting settlements in the West-Bank and dispossession Palestinians of property in Jerusalem, they are not Zionists. The same is true for many young people in Israel who recoil from the sad spectacle of Israeli politics. Many hardly care anymore, and, if they do, are at a loss as to how they can make a difference.

Beinart calls for an uncomfortable Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. This is an excellent definition of what is needed today. It neednt even be invented: we simply have to reconnect with the liberal Zionism of Herzl and Ahad Haam – something I have tried to show in a detailed proposal for a new Zionist vision, Knowledge-Nation Israel".

Liberal Zionism rejects the panicky call for a unified voice of all Jews and the frightened outcries about washing Israels dirty linen in front of the gentiles. It refuses to be lectured on what it means to be a good Jew or loyal to Israel. And it categorically rejects the demand that the policies of Israeli governments and the actions of Israeli government officials must be supported, even if they are destructive, inhuman and short-sighted.

Liberal Zionism is indeed angry at what Israel has become. It points out how Israels primary and secondary education system has deteriorated in the hands of party ideologues, indoctrinating children instead of teaching them to think critically. It protests at how the civil service has been filled with bureaucrats from the right who support eviction of Palestinians from their homes in places like Sheikh Jarrah. It highlights how Israels higher education system is being destroyed, while money goes to building yet more roads for settlers who have little use for democratic values and human rights, and who harass and degrade Palestinians.

Liberal Zionism will give the majority of the Jewish young generation, in Israel and the Diaspora, a way to express their Jewish identity and their love for what Israel can be without being stifled by right-wingers with totalitarian leanings. Liberal Zionism doesnt require relinquishing moral clarity and universalist humanism in the name of tribal allegiance. It will ensure that the state of the Jewish people remains democratic not only in name, but in essence.

Liberal Zionism celebrates some of the most authentic traits of the Jewish tradition: The desire incisive debate; the contrarian spirit of davka; refusal to bow to authoritarianism. It will harness the creative energy - the hallmark of the Jewish contribution to Western culture, found today in Israels high-tech industry, art-scene and academia - to unhinge the dogmas and inertia of Israeli politics and move towards a future we can be proud of.