Liberal Zionism

Liberal Zionism celebrates the most authentic traits of the Jewish tradition: the willingness for incisive debate and the refusal to bow to authoritarianism.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Zionism didn't begin as a unitary ideology. There was Theodor Herzl's liberal Zionism; Ahad Ha'am's and Judah Magnes' cultural Zionism. Socialist Zionism initially carried the day, dominating Israeli politics for the country's first three decades. In the remaining decades revisionist Zionism took over, fused with the messianic Zionism that gave religious significance to land and none to human rights.

Theodor Herzl, courtesy of Dr. Moti Friedman. The visionary was a post-Zionist avant la letre. Credit: Reproduction: Emil Salman

Until a few decades ago, discussion between the different streams of Zionism was still possible. Now, alas, the self-appointed representatives of the Zionist cause - primarily from the right - make it seem as if Zionism requires blind allegiance to Israeli governments; that a Zionist is someone who admires Jewish power, whatever form it takes; and that Zionism requires shutting off your critical faculties. They have made a habit of calling all those who disagree with them 'post-Zionists' and accusing them of disloyalty.

Well, that makes Herzl and Ahad Ha'am post-Zionists avant la lettre. Herzl believed that while the Jewish state should provide room for Jewish religion and Jewish clerics, these institutions should be completely isolated from the state and from politics. He also saw 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 Ha'am would, today, be accused of being a self-hating post-Zionist: He recoiled from certain manifestations of Jewish power in the Yishuv, and put emphasis on cultural renewal instead of militarism.

David Ben-Gurion maintained a decades-long intensive dialogue with one of his fiercest ideological opponents, Shmuel Hugo Bergman, former rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and member of Brit Shalom, which supported peaceful cooperation with Arabs. Ben-Gurion believed in conducting a dialogue with those holding other ideological positions, not in shutting them up.

Peter Beinart's excellent article in The New York Review of Books shows how the party line of the traditional Jewish establishment has driven away the younger generation: They don't believe in unmitigated power politics, they are unwilling to adhere to party lines and they are profoundly disaffected with the endless harping on Jewish victimhood. Many of them feel that if Zionism means following the precepts of the Israeli government with its misguided Hasbara initiatives, its support of settlements in the West Bank and the dispossession of Palestinian property in Jerusalem, they are not Zionists. The same holds true for many young people in Israel, who recoil from the sad spectacle that is Israeli politics. Many hardly care anymore and if they do, they 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 for what is needed today. It need not even be invented - we simply need to reconnect to the liberal Zionism of Herzl and Ahad Ha'am, as I have shown 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 not to wash Israel's 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 Israel's primary and secondary educational systems, in the hands of party ideologues, have deteriorated in quality and indoctrinate children, instead of teaching them to think critically. It shows unflaggingly how the civil service has been filled with bureaucrats from the right who support the eviction of Palestinians from their property in places like Sheikh Jarrah. It highlights how Israel's 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 young generation of Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, a way to express their identity and their love for what Israel could be without being stifled by right-wingers with totalitarian leanings. Liberal Zionism doesn't require relinquishing moral clarity and universalist humanism in the name of tribal allegiance: It will ensure that the state of the Jewish people will remain democratic not only in name, but in essence.

Liberal Zionism celebrates the most authentic traits of the Jewish tradition: the willingness for incisive debate; the contrarian spirit of davka; the refusal to bow to authoritarianism. It will harness the creative energy - which has been the hallmark of the Jewish contribution to Western culture - of Israel's high-tech industry, art scene and academia, to unhinge the dogmas and inertia of Israeli politics and move toward a future we can be proud of.



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