Strenger Than Fiction / Ya'alon's Style of Nationalism Is Driving Israel Further Into the Bunker

Vice Premier Ya'alon believes liberals have a 'distorted' vision of Zionism, but his own form is inflicting harm on Israel and pushing it into deeper isolation.

Vice Premier and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon recently gave a lecture at an event celebrating the 70th birthday of the Lehi, the pre-state underground militia.

He explained to the audience that Lehi founder Avraham Stern’s “words of eternal dedication and national Jewish pride have been contaminated in public discourse. They have been turned from words of national consensus to negative remarks seen as 'extreme' and 'uneducated’.”

Yaalon thinks that Stern’s nationalist vision should be used to educate Israel’s youngsters, and concluded by saying that recent events show that Israel cannot rely on anyone but itself.

But Ya'alon also has the diagnosis for Israel’s problems: It’s the left! It turns out that the left has a "distorted view of Zionism," and that of course is unhealthy. And Ya'alon’s diagnostic instincts have been intact for quite a while. Last year he branded Peace Now a "virus."

Moshe Ya'alon
Emil Salman

Clarification: I should mention that after some pressure from Netanyahu, Ya'alon kind of retracted his statement, saying that he recognized the importance of democratic discourse.

I am not sure that this semi-retraction was meant honestly, judging from Ya'alon’s record. He, for example, considers it an unfortunate habit that the courts call certain outposts illegal. How can the legal system do such a thing, when Ya'alon is telling us time and again that Jews should have the right to settle anywhere in the Greater Land of Israel?

Well, quite frankly, I’m not particularly hurt by Ya'alon’s view that liberal-minded Jews have distorted Zionist values, because I think the same of him. I suggested a while ago that the fake "respect" that political correctness prescribes for beliefs that you consider false, irrational or immoral should be replaced by what I call civilized disdain.

Given Ya'alon’s worldview, he obviously can have nothing but disdain for liberal positions – and this heartfelt disdain is mutual. But we should keep this disdain civilized, and I think that Ya'alon calling Peace Now a virus is uncivilized.

It is quite unfortunate that Ya'alon is unaware how deeply he is stuck in a 19th century conception that idealizes land and the connection of spirit and land. He doesn’t notice that he is committed to the one historical form of Zionism that is most remote from today’s reality. He seems to be even less aware that he is basically disqualifying not only Israel’s liberals as having a "distorted form of Zionism," but also throwing all non-revisionist, right-wing versions of Zionism into the dustbin. Nothing but fiery nationalist rhetoric seems Zionist to him.

Given that Ya'alon is minister of strategic affairs, I think that it is even more unfortunate that he thinks that Israel can and should rely only on itself. He might do well do read legal scholar and terrorism expert Philipp Bobbitt, who advised six U.S. presidents. In his brilliant Terror and Consent, rightly hailed as one of the deepest diagnoses of the relation between the liberal state and global terrorism, Bobbit shows that no nation state can fight global terrorism on its own. He might want to read Peter Beinart’s incisive analysis of American hubris in The Icarus Syndrome. This might wake him up to wonder whether Israel could not learn from the failures of the world’s only superpower about the limits of unilateralism.

Quite unfortunately, at this point in history, Ya'alon’s type of nationalist rhetoric is rather strong in Israel. But I have no doubt that the future of Israel hinges on liberal, open-minded and sophisticated versions of Zionism that Ya'alon seems to despise. We don’t have to invent liberal Zionism: it was held by early Zionists like Herzl and Ahad Ha’am (hence I would suggest that Ya'alon presses the minister of education to strike them from the curriculum; they might harm the values of youngsters who read them!)

Neither Herzl nor Ahad Ha’am believed in the sanctification of stones or the deification of land. Both thought that cultural and scientific creativity is the sign of health for a country. Both were liberal minded and believed that Jews and Arabs should live in full equality and respect. Herzl was against ethnocentrism, and he was a great believer in diplomacy.

Hence, as Dimitry Shumsky has pointed out, it would be a good idea if "Im Tirtzu" would stop using Herzl as the icon of its totally illiberal version of Zionism that Ya'alon endorses.

Meanwhile, I suggest that liberals continue developing forward-looking, humanistic versions of Zionism as I have been doing for quite some time. Only liberal Zionism is capable of moving Israel onto a sane political course and of nurturing Israel’s cultural, scientific and economic flourishing.

Liberal Zionism also has strategic implications, because it thinks in terms of creating alliances rather than aggravating the whole world. Along with liberal commentators like Akiva Eldar I am constantly amazed at Israel’s most blatant policy failure of the last decade: its unwillingness to engage with the peace initiative of the Arab League, which would bring Israel full recognition by 57 Islamic states.

Full acceptance of Israel by the Islamic world would have done more to either isolate Hamas or force it to change its policy than four years of useless and inhuman blockade. But thinking in such terms would require moving from Boogie-style nationalism to sophisticated Liberal Zionism. Until this happens, we can only hope that the Boogies will not inflict too much harm on Israel along the way, or push it into even deeper isolation.