Liberal Zionism - Possibly Israel's Last Hope

If you believe in Israel, what kind of Israel do you believe in? And if you have stopped believing in Israel, what would it take to get your Israel back?

Mira Sucharov.
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Mira Sucharov.

It’s tough to be a liberal Zionist these days. Believing in a Jewish and democratic state, while despairing over the ongoing occupation is a recipe for criticism from both the right and the left. Wednesday night’s much-hyped debate between Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis at Columbia University was the latest example of how a liberal Zionist can get called out publicly as to whether he is “loyal” enough to Israel and the Jewish people. And in the wake of the death of Benzion Netanyahu, Yossi Klein Halevi sums up the legacy of Revisionist Zionism: “Don’t be a fool.”

On the far left, critics like Palestinian-American writer Yousef Munayyer continue to challenge the very idea of liberal Zionism, calling it a “contradiction in terms.” Munayyer says, “Liberalism is by nature an inclusivist ideology; Zionism, by contrast is an exclusivist ideology....Zionism requires maintaining a Jewish majority over territory even at the expense of the non-Jewish native inhabitants of the land.”

Benzion NetanyahuCredit: Avi Ohayon

Perhaps because of the ongoing squeeze, a forum by liberal Zionism’s active proponents recently appeared in the Huffington Post. Political philosopher Michael Walzer declared that “My Zionism is...a universal statism. I think that everybody who needs a state should have one, not only the Jews but also the Armenians, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the South Sudanese -- and the Palestinians....”

Kenneth Bob, head of Ameinu, suggested that the existence of a Jewish state is not nearly enough.“While the Israel Defense Forces provides the security necessary to defend its citizens from attacks by enemies, the government of Israel does not make the commensurate effort to reach an agreement on a two-state solution with the Palestinians.”

And sociologist of American Jewry Steven M. Cohen describes how he is both a “hawk and a dove,” one who “sees Palestinians as threatening and antagonistic...but also sees Israel's territorial withdrawal and partition as the most promising route to national security....”

Avrum Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and former chairman of the Jewish Agency, would have been a fine and spokesperson for Liberal Zionism had he not appeared to have given up on Zionism altogether. Recently Burg wrote, “It is time to remove the Zionist scaffolding and live normal life, like normal people.” It’s a vague call to action; Burg decries the Zionism of Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai but doesn’t address the kind of Zionism that liberals are desperate to save: a Zionism that elevates the internal democratic character of Israel while expunging one its greatest liabilities: the occupation.

While liberal Zionism seems imperiled, leading to significant Jewish American voices trying to continue to articulate the vision, there also remain Israelis themselves who are struggling to make liberal Zionism work.

This week I spoke with Yariv Oppenheimer, Director-General of Peace Now in Israel, who was on a speaking tour in Canada. Yariv -- whose name means “opponent” and “he will fight,” is acutely attuned to how war-wearying the battle for Israeli-Palestinian peace can be. As a young soldier enjoying the first day of his vacation from service, Yariv attended  the 1995 peace rally where Rabin was assassinated. He was standing near the prime minister’s entourage of vehicles, before deciding to head home. Ten minutes later, he heard the news.

Dressed in a smart navy-blue blazer and sipping tea at my favourite neighbourhood cafe, Yariv reminded me of the peace visionaries who were helping run the government when Yariv and I both came of age. “The Blazers” was the nickname given to the Israeli architects of the Oslo agreement: Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and Foreign Ministry Director-General Uri Savir (though Savir favored thick cigars over tea).

Yariv was buoyed by Peace Now’s recent victory whereby the Supreme Court rejected the government’s request to delay the evacuation of Migron, a West Bank “illegal outpost”. And to protest last year’s Israeli boycott law, a law Peace Now sees as infringing on freedom of speech, the group launched the “Sue Me, I Boycott Settlement Products” campaign. Still, Yariv continues to meet with Israeli teens who “no longer know where the Green Line is.”

And while he is pleased that last summer’s tent protests signals a political awakening by society’s more progressive sectors, he is aware that in the minds of the public and of lawmakers, peace and democracy have taken a backseat to the more populist issues of rent, taxation, and the price of cottage cheese.

Given all this, Yariv is trying to carry the urgency of the peace message, the need for two-states and an end to the occupation, to Israelis and Diaspora communities alike. As he told our Ottawa audience, “I tell Israelis that the settlements are not Obama’s issue; they are your issue.”

If relative silence on morally indefensible Israeli policies like the settlements is indeed because liberal Zionism is becoming less popular, I hereby urge my fellow Diaspora Jews to come clean: if you believe in Israel, what kind of Israel do you believe in? And if you have stopped believing in Israel, what would it take to get your Israel back?

Jewish Israel has many supporters. So, sadly, does a post-Israel-scenario -- spearheaded by the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign which seeks to undo the modern experiment in Jewish sovereignty. But all the while, Jewish and democratic Israel is wounded. Though apparently on the defensive, liberal Zionism may be the only hope to staunch the bleeding.

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