The Unrequited Love Affair Between Liberal Jews and an Illiberal Israel

We have the right to voice our displeasure about what other Jews - Israeli or not - do, as much as the Americans and French can dislike some of their fellow countrymen.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Antiwar protesters at a rally in Tel Aviv, August 16. 2014.
Antiwar protesters at a rally in Tel Aviv, August 16. 2014.Credit: AP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

For a number of days Antony Lerman’s op-ed, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” has been on the New York Times’ “most emailed” list, and even topped it a few days ago. What can we learn from this? First, that the Jewish readership of the NYT is substantial – but this is not exactly surprising. Second, that the current Gaza war has created another moment of deep identity crisis for liberal Jews around the world, as The Guardian’s Opinions editor, Jonathan Freedland, has argued in two insightful pieces in the New York Review of Books: the first, a reflection on Ari Shavit’s successful book “My Promised Land,” published just before the onset of the Gaza war; the second a follow-up blog written when the war was well underway.

These and many other recent publications show that Jewish liberals, more than ever, are in a very difficult predicament. Much of the current debate about whether liberal Zionism is still possible is about down-to-earth, concrete issues. Primarily, about whether a Palestinian state can still arise alongside Israel, and whether Israel can retain its Jewish character by democratic means.

But underlying this debate is a profoundly painful process that many liberal Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are undergoing: They feel like let-down lovers. They wonder, what place can they give in their emotional lives and their identity to an Israel that does not correspond to their core values of universal human rights? Can they remain attached to a country that violates these principles, primarily through an occupation that has now lasted for two-thirds of Israel’s history?

Lerman’s thesis is clear-cut and simple – liberal Zionism is at the end of its rope, and his argument is as follows: Liberal Zionists believe in the necessity and justness of a homeland for the Jews, and they also believe that this homeland must be a liberal democracy in the fullest sense.

The latter goal, he claims, has become obsolete because the deepening of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has made the two-state solution virtually impossible.

But Lerman goes a step further. He feels that even inside the pre-1967 borders Israel has never been a genuinely egalitarian state, and is far removed from the ideal society that it strove to be in its early decades.

Therefore, he argues, liberal Jews should drop the idea of the Jewish homeland. They should accept that there will be only one state west of the Jordan, and invest their energy toward making sure that individual political and human rights of all inhabitants of this area (primarily Palestinians, of course, whose rights are being trampled) be respected.

Lerman’s thesis is by no means new, nor is the tone in which he writes. His most prominent predecessor was the late British-American historian Tony Judt, who wrote two articles – “Israel: The Alternative” (2003) and “The Country that Wouldn’t Grow Up” (2006). These turned him from a respected historian known in academic circles to a widely known intellectual celebrity and bête noire of traditional Zionists, who began to torpedo his lectures and attack him as another version of their beloved category of self-hating Jews and Israel bashers.

Liberal Zionists of Judt and Lerman’s generation once deeply loved Israel not just because it was Jewish, but because they saw it as a potential light for the nations, an unprecedented experiment in social and political justice.

When it became clear that the occupation was not a passing episode, but had become a feature of most of Israel’s history, their perception shifted radically. They began to see Israel as a racist, colonial enterprise that simply didn’t behave along the moral lines of the Free World. It still thought in terms of annexation and ethnic cleansing – notions that had become anathema in the Free World that had evolved after World War II.

Add to this that a number of Israel’s leading right-wing politicians are profoundly detestable to most liberal Jews. Benjamin Netanyahu comes across as an unreliable political trickster who gives moral lectures to the world while double-crossing Israel’s friends in the West with his policies.

Avigdor Lieberman has upped the ante of the impossible: Most liberal Jews are simply ashamed of this man who has turned boorishness, lack of tact and diplomacy, and a Putinesque love for brute power-politics into his trademark.

Naftali Bennett, seemingly suave, simply outshouts his interviewers and dialogue partners, and often leaves his interlocutors and audiences speechless with his total lack of civility.

To liberal Jews, Likud’s rising stars – Danny Danon, Miri Regev and Zeev Elkin – seem to belong to a parody of banana republics, reminiscent more of Sacha Baron Cohen’s parody of Kazakhstan in the film “Borat” than of the country Jewish liberals dreamt of as representing the Jewish heritage.

How on earth, many liberal Jews ask, can you love a country led by such outlandish personalities, propounding policies that nobody in the civilized world can accept, and that are the total opposite of the open-minded Jewish liberal that has come to be typical of a large percentage of the Jewish Diaspora?

Here, then, is my suggestion. Jewish liberals – in Israel and the Diaspora – need to realize that the time has come to stop mourning Israel’s idealized image.

Israel is an impressive achievement in many ways, but it was never an ideal society. The historical circumstances in which Israel came into existence were brutal, tragic and characterized by vast population movements – nowadays called ethnic cleansing. These ranged from the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from their homes in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries after WWII, to the massive population transfers of millions when large parts of India became what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Israel, as Ari Shavit has argued powerfully in his excellent book “My Promised Land,” could only come into being because it expelled 750,000 Palestinians.

And Israel has certainly not turned into an ideal in recent times. After the Mavi Marmara debacle in May 2010, Michael Chabon wrote a memorable NYT op-ed entitled “Chosen, but Not Special,” in which he wrote that the Jewish people could now finally claim its full normalization: Israel was capable of no less stupidity, confusion and brutality than any other state.

Chabon’s point is important. Israel has become more, rather than less, like the rest of the world.

The world’s largest Jewish population today lives in the United States, and most of them identify with America. Do they love or respect all of the United States, its politicians and its population? Most Jewish liberals felt deeply alienated by the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney White House; they feel that they have little in common with conservatives in the Midwest, and even less with Evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt. They accept that there are media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and political leaders like Sarah Palin whom they simply loathe; they generally avoid them and instead associate with fellow liberals on the east and west coasts.

So how come we Jews have such problems with the fact that in Israel we have our own Limbaughs, Palins and Cheneys? How come we cannot accept that Israel is a multiethnic society that still hasn’t worked out a modus vivendi for people as different as Hasidim in Bnei Brak, completely secular immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, traditional families of Moroccan origin, and utterly cosmopolitan startup entrepreneurs and culinary celebrity chefs from Tel Aviv?

And how come we are offended that Israel is unlike Sweden, among others, because it went from crisis to crisis in a Middle East that has moved from rejecting Israel completely to the current chaos in which we can’t even know what states will comprise Israel’s neighborhood a few years from now?

All this is not meant as an apology for Israel’s many misdeeds. Like most Jewish liberals, I have had my share of harsh disappointments, periods of rage and periods of despair with Israel’s policies; many of its right-wing politicians repel me enormously, and I am profoundly worried about Israel’s political future because of the settlement policy.

But the time has come to realize that, as liberal Jews, we are as entitled to our loves and hatreds as anybody else. French liberals are not required to love Marine Le Pen to be good French citizens, any more than U.S. liberals are required to love Sarah Palin to be good Americans.

We liberal Jews are entitled to our visceral revulsion for the fundamentalist racism of Rabbi Dov Lior; Rabbi Elyakim Levanon’s suggestion that rabbi kings should rule Israel; for the Kahanist attitudes and beliefs of former MK Michael Ben Ari; and to our distaste for the political styles and views of Monsieurs Bennett, Lieberman, Danon, Elkin & Co.

We must let go of the shtetl mentality that Jews must stick together, and that a good Jew doesn’t say bad things about other Jews in the public sphere. We no longer live in the shtetl, whether in Israel or the Diaspora – even if some of us like to indulge in shtetl nostalgia via love for hazanut or klezmer music once in a while.

We have the right to voice our displeasure about what other Jews – Israeli or not – do, as much as the Americans and French can dislike some of their fellow countrymen.

Liberal Jews’ expectations about what Israel should be have been completely unrealistic. Enlightened as we thought we were, we never quite got rid of the notion that Jews are chosen, and that therefore our state must be a beacon of light unto the nations.

But Israel is unlikely to become the model state Jewish liberals would like it to be. The Arab world’s initial rejection of Israel’s existence, and the scars of war and the constant security threats from groups like Hamas, have left an indelible mark on Israel’s mentality, one that will take many decades to mitigate. The profound rifts between its ethnicities, its religious conflicts, its inability to integrate its Arab citizens, have shaped Israel’s political culture, and are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Nevertheless, there is much to love and admire about Israel for Jewish liberals, even if we profoundly dislike, and sometimes hate, other aspects of it. Israel certainly needs to mature, but so do we Jewish liberals: only adolescents demand ideal objects for their loves. But that doesn’t mean that will not continue to fight against policies and views we despise as long as we have the slightest chance to turn things around.

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