Reflections on a Debate Between a Liberal and an anti-Zionist

Both liberal Zionists and anti-Zionists agree that the occupation is morally untenable. The question we liberals are stuck with is: will we be able to tell when Israel crosses the point of no return?

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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The Israeli flag flying near the Western Wall in front of the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.
The Israeli flag flying near the Western Wall in front of the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: Reuters
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

In my previous blog post, I discussed what appears to be an increasing chill factor in our Jewish communities. By way of example, I mentioned an upcoming debate on the topic of whether Israel is, or can be, a Jewish and democratic state, between prominent anti-Zionist author and journalist Max Blumenthal, and me, a liberal Zionist. Given the event sponsors (Independent Jewish Voices), many in the audience were already primed for Blumenthal's points - a scenario that makes Israel supporters uneasy.

But unlike a “hasbarah” activist, or a right-winger, or even a centrist, we liberal Zionists tend to be both emotionally connected to Israel and critical of Israeli policies. So on the heels of that event, here are some reflections on what happens when a liberal Zionist debates an anti-Zionist.

When it comes to Israeli democracy, liberal Zionists focus on what is possible. From the government actions of the day, anti-Zionists infer absolute limits.

There were times in the debate where after I had addressed the central question, namely whether Israel’s Jewish and democratic character are mutually exclusive, Blumenthal would imply that we need to move away from pie-in-the-sky ideals and toward how things actually are. But as with any experiment in nation-building, I see Israel’s democracy as a work in progress.

The contradictions need to be seen for what they are: temporary challenges to democracy, and requiring key legal reforms that Israel’s supporters and concerned citizens must continue to push for.

Which brings me to my next point.

Liberal Zionists don’t shy away from identifying areas of legislated Israeli discrimination. But the legal record is more nuanced than anti-Zionists paint it.

There are around 50 laws cited in speeches by anti-Zionists as being “discriminatory." Indeed, this is the number that the Israeli civil rights group Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel posts on its website.

In preparation for the debate, I took a closer look at the list. Consider these three: one refers to the use of the Menorah on the Israeli stamp; another mentions the use of the Hebrew date in government correspondence; and a third cites the Star of David on Israel’s flag. By this reasoning, the flags of Denmark, Sweden and Iceland are “discriminatory” against non-Christians, and I, as a Canadian Jew, should feel “discriminated against” when the Gregorian calendar is used by my government.

The larger point here is that many of these laws may feel discriminatory in effect (including laws granting economic privileges to IDF veterans, and laws that make child allowances dependent on vaccinations — thus potentially disadvantaging Bedouins who may have reduced access to regional clinics) but aren’t necessarily discriminatory in intent. And in light of countries often being in the business of promoting national cultures, some are utterly benign.

Whether a Jewish and democratic state requires a Jewish majority to sustain itself is a question requiring much more thought.

The one time I felt stumped during the debate was over a question I had expected: “How many non-Jewish citizens would you consider ‘too many?’”

On one hand, I understand that the “demographic concerns” Israeli Jews often tout - which fall with a thud on those who hear it as racist - are legitimate. How can Jewish and Hebrew culture be maintained if a majority of citizens don’t share that heritage, and may even actively reject it? On the other hand, I see how successful established states can be at maintaining their language, theatre, literature, and even religious symbols, whether or not a critical mass of their citizens share that heritage innately.

The key here, I think, is the active promotion of a robust multiculturalism such that respective cultures are seen as intrinsic to the national fabric rather than as stray threads in an interethnic conflict. And in fact, in stressing the promotion of Hebrew language, Zionist ideals, and the protection of Arabic language broadcasting, the 1965 Broadcast Law, which is also included on Adalah’s list, actually echoes this very sentiment.

Asking whether Israel might “eventually” become an apartheid state if it holds the occupied territories “indefinitely” is a question which is ultimately unanswerable.

We both agreed - as liberal Zionists and anti-Zionists tend to - that the occupation is morally and legally untenable. Our debate therefore mostly hinged on judging Israel’s democratic character from treatment of its own citizens.

But I’m often left haunted by the “conditional tense” pronouncements such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s — that Israel could become an “apartheid” state if it holds the occupied territories indefinitely. But liberal Zionists still need to ask themselves this: when will we know when “indefinitely” has come?

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