Opinion |

The Loneliness of the Long-distance Liberal Zionist

Arch-Zionists and anti-Zionists want to make us choose between the two pillars of our identity

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israeli forces in clashes with Palestinian protesters following a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 17, 2017.
Israeli forces in clashes with Palestinian protesters following a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 17, 2017.Credit: Reuters/ Ammar Awad
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

I’ve been thinking recently about dodo birds. You know, the fat, friendly and flightless bird first discovered on the island of Mauritius at the end of the 16th century, the one that was rendered extinct within less than a century by European hunters and the alien animals they brought with them. Then I look in the mirror and ask myself whether I, along with fellow liberal Zionists, will soon go the way of the dodo.

We may soon become an endangered species. Liberal Zionists are besieged on all sides by powerful forces that actively seek their demise, aided and abetted by everyone else's indifference. And they are fighting for survival at a time when they are leaderless, rudderless and spiritless, wracked by self-doubt and despondent about their chances of survival.

The election of Donald Trump was a tipping point. For the past eight years, liberal Zionists always had Barack Obama to fall back on. When they were dismayed by the right-wing shift in Israel, liberal Zionists could always console themselves with the knowledge that Obama was sitting in the White House. When it came to Israeli democracy and peace with the Palestinians, Obama’s heart was always in the right place, even if his achievements left a lot to be desired. The new U.S. president may yet confound his many skeptics and initiate a vigorous peace process, but until that time comes the world of liberal Zionists has turned dark, and cold. It’s open season and they are the prey.

Although the term liberal is certainly not synonymous with leftist, for the sake of convenience let’s assume that, in this context, it is. Liberal Zionists believe the occupation is unsustainable and immoral. They reject annexation and a one-state solution. They believe that Israel has veered off course and is now in danger of moving in a direction that will force them to confront an impossible choice between the two parts of their identity. They may not all acknowledge or talk about it yet, but many liberal Zionists dread the day, as I do, when they will have to concede that one can either be a liberal or a Zionist, but can no longer be both.

This is precisely the strategy of both the anti-Zionist left and the arch-Zionist right, on both sides of the ocean: to force liberal Zionists into a corner where they will be forced to choose. Not for the first time the two extremes are in a symbiotic relationship, feeding off of one another. When liberal Zionists succumb to pressures on the right to eradicate the liberal part of their Zionist identity, they fulfill the anti-Zionist stereotype about Zionism’s inherent anti-democratic nature. When leftist Zionists abandon their Zionism altogether, they corroborate the right’s allegation that the left is inherently anti-Zionist, if not anti-Semitic. The arch-Zionist right is creating an Israel that liberals can’t support. The non-Zionist left is abandoning Israel altogether.

In an era of increasing polarization, liberal Zionists are stuck in the middle at a time when the center is on the verge of collapse. It’s an era in which black and white rule supreme and grey is denigrated to the sidelines. Arch-Zionists on the right blame everything on Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims and absolve Jews of any responsibility for anything. Anti-Zionists think the Jews are guilty by definition and can’t find fault with anyone else. Both sides, by the way, have a point. It’s hard not to get exasperated by the culture of hatred, violence and refusal to compromise that is so prevalent among Palestinians. It’s difficult not to get despondent about the self-righteousness, the self-denial and, yes, the racism that is so rampant among the Jews.

Arch-Zionists can’t find any redeeming features among Palestinians and anti-Zionists can find none among Israelis. For arch-Zionists, Palestinians are terrorists. For anti-Zionists, Israelis are war criminals. Both sides view the liberal/leftist Zionist belief that Israelis and Palestinians can divide the land and live in peace as a naive and dangerous pipe dream. And they are increasingly strident in saying so.

The arch-Zionist right has always rejected the Palestinian right to self-determination on ideological and theological grounds, but now its more moderate wing has convinced itself that Palestinian violence and refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State somehow justify depriving them of equal rights for eternity. The anti-Zionist left, on the other hand, views the Israeli refusal to compromise as one more manifestation of Zionism’s original sin, which was the establishment of the State of Israel in the first place.

Both groups are growing increasingly intolerant, aggressive and repressive. The Israeli government is delegitimizing dissent, but only that which comes from the left. It has widened the definition of illegitimate protest to include the settlements, pushing their critics to reject Israel as a whole. Israel’s opponents, on the other hand, would rather boycott than conduct a dialogue. And both sides demonize anyone who doesn’t blindly follow their path.

Liberal Zionists have no credible leaders, and the leaders they do have want to distance themselves from their “leftness” in order to survive. In this context, a new video distributed this week by Zionist Union Member of Knesset Erel Margalit, who is vying for leadership of the party, provides a much needed breath of fresh air. “Proud to be a leftist” it declares, embracing a term that the arch-Zionist right has turned into an epithet.

I too am proud to be a leftist. I’m still proud to be a Zionist, but not as proud, I must confess, as I used to be. I believe in the right of Jews to settle in their Holy Land, and would advise those seeking to dismantle Israel because of its original colonialist sins to deal first with countries such as the United States and Australia, who were founded by European settlers on far flimsier grounds than the Bible and 3000 years of Jewish history, and who carried out far graver crimes against humanity in establishing their new homelands.

I am worried, on the other hand, that those same critics of Israel nonetheless have a point, that Zionism and true democracy are increasingly incompatible. A self-defined Jewish state was never going to be a perfect democracy, but at least it once pretended to be trying. Not only does that lofty goal no longer exist, it’s now reviled as liberal claptrap by many of Israel’s so-called leaders.

Forced to choose between a Jewish and democratic state I would reluctantly but inevitably choose the latter, unlike the majority of my fellow Israelis, at least according to the polls. I can contemplate living in a democratic state that isn’t Jewish as many Jews around the world do. I cannot see myself living in a non-democratic state, even if it was completely Jewish. I continue to support a two-state solution not because I necessarily see a pathway to its realization, but because in my view all the other formulas are unsustainable. Like other liberal Zionists, I am convinced they will end in disaster.

I haven’t given up hope. I am assuming, based on prayer more than on cold calculation, that reality will ultimately convince enough people that liberal Zionism and the two-state solution are the only way to save Israel. Sometimes I can even see a ray of hope light up the sky, but I have no guarantee or even an indication that it’s not an approaching asteroid that is closing in on me and my obsolescent breed.

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