Now is supposedly crunch time for liberal Zionists. The latest diplomatic attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to have failed, and with it the two-state solution upon which liberal Zionism depends. As a result, political scientist Dov Waxman says liberal Zionists must confront a painful question: “if a two-state solution is now impossible, should they support, however reluctantly, a one-state solution?” If so, should they prioritize their Zionism in favour of a Jewish one-state, even if this means foregoing their liberalism? Or should they prioritize their liberalism in favour of a democratic one-state, even if this means forgoing their Zionism?
Whether to go right toward a Jewish one-state or go left toward a democratic one-state is a serious challenge for liberal Jews both inside and outside Israel, who are committed to liberal values such as equality and civil rights. It is also an important question for diplomats, as reflected in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent remarks that Israel could become an apartheid state.
On Israel’s 66th Independence Day, in the 47th year since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war brought large numbers of Palestinians under Israeli control, there has never been a more urgent time to ask – and more importantly, to answer - these questions. Yet, I would argue that these questions are neither new nor confined to the area beyond the "Green Line."
Historically, alongside a push for democracy, Zionism has also been driven by two illiberal forces: ethno-nationalism and settler colonialism. Zionism is premised on the belief that Jews constitute an ancient nation that requires self-determination in its historic homeland, Eretz Israel, in order to protect itself from ubiquitous and annihilationist anti-Semitism. Since Jews were dispersed across the globe and the area identified for Zionist settlement, Palestine, was already inhabited, Zionism could only be realized through a process of mass migration, territorial acquisition, population displacement, and the assertion of political control – a process known as settler colonialism.
In fusing nationalism with settler colonialism, Zionism was not unique. The Pilgrims to New England also saw themselves as fulfilling a prophetic mission and establishing a model society; settler colonists in Australia and South Africa were also predominantly white Europeans living amid a mass of relatively impoverished natives; and settlers to both Palestine and North America first worked through, and later threw off, their British imperial backers. This is partly why the historian, Derek Penslar, argues that “the Zionist project was historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial discourse and practice.”
The critical difference is that, unlike these other examples, which have at least formally dismantled the legal and institutional systems that privileged settler status, Israel’s settler colonial history is ongoing and intensifying, both within the "Green Line" and beyond it. The contradictions of liberal Zionism are particularly severe and stark in the West Bank, where prolonged military rule since 1967 means Palestinians there live without a right to vote for the government that controls the majority of their land and most aspects of their lives. But even describing the Palestinian Arab population that now remains within Israel’s recognized borders as a “minority” reflects and legitimizes facts on the ground. The dual message is this: If settlers arrive in sufficient numbers to become the majority in a part of the territory they control, they cease being colonizers, and once indigenous people become a minority in that territory they cease being colonized.
Some might respond by pointing to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” or by pointing out that those Palestinian Arabs who remained inside “Israel proper” after the 1948 war were granted Israeli citizenship and voting rights. There is also evidence that the efforts of some officials to promote equality have narrowed some material gaps between Arabs and Jews.
But these efforts, however worthwhile, gloss over a system whose structures give special privilege to Jews – not only Jewish citizens, but Jews all over the world. Jews have almost automatic and subsidized access to Israeli citizenship via the Law of Return combined with the Citizenship Law, while Palestinian Arab refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes in 1948 have been barred from returning and are regarded as a “demographic threat.” Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has documented more than 50 Israeli laws, and numerous others pending, that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Access to land stands out. Jews are given preferential access to land (including that of barred would-be returnees) via the Absentees’ Properties Law, Jewish National Fund Law, and Israel Land Administration Law. Administrative practices in areas like education, health and housing also reveal extensive and well-documented discrimination, both overt and covert.
Both this history and practice point toward a fundamental contradiction at the heart of liberal Zionism. Liberalism stands for equality and individual rights; Zionism, by contrast, aims to maintain Jewish sovereignty in an area populated predominantly by Palestinian Arabs. It is impossible to square this circle: granting exceptional privilege to one group on the basis of their historical experiences and membership in an ethnic, national or religious group is inherently at odds with a political philosophy premised on universal equality and individual rights. It is illogical to claim that everyone is equal, yet some are more equal. A state founded by and for the Jewish people, living both within and outside of its territory, cannot also be a democratic state for all its citizens within territorial limits.
These contradictions undermine the neat spatial and temporal delineations of liberal Zionists who characterize Israel as illiberal only beyond the "Green Line" and liberal within it. As the Israeli political geographer Oren Yiftachel asserts, portrayals of the existence of "Israel proper" within the "Green Line" as "Jewish and democratic" are both “analytically flawed and politically deceiving.” Instead, he argues that the whole entity, territorially and politically, ought to be characterized as an ethnocracy rather than a democracy. Israel’s High Court has rejected this argument, stating in 1988 that “Israel’s definition as the state of the Jewish people does not negate its democratic character, in the same way that the Frenchness of France does not negate its democratic character.” But, as Yiftachel points out, “This statement harbors a conceptual distortion: if France is French, Israel should be Israeli (and not Jewish) … the maintenance of a non-territorial (Jewish) form of self-determination structurally breaches central tenets of democracy. It constitutes, instead, the foundation of the Jewish ethnocracy.”
Others might respond by saying that self-preservation is more valuable than democracy; that maintaining a safe-haven for the sake of Jewish survival justifies the undemocratic means required to set-up and sustain it. Fair enough. But at least be honest about that trade-off. And if you do go right, and support a Jewish over a democratic state, ask yourself the following: Will anti-Semitism in particular, or racism in general, ever be truly resolved by perpetuating ethno-national difference?
My call is to those Jews who wish to salvage their liberalism. The most prominent American liberal Zionist, Peter Beinart, rightly says, “Denying people the basic rights necessary for a decent life because they are of a certain race, ethnicity or religion is wrong. Period.” Absolutely. But that same standard applies to the whole area under Israeli control, not just a part of it. So I say to liberal Jews who are genuinely committed to equality: Stop just hugging and wrestling. Recognize that assumptions about the possibility of a Jewish democracy have rested on sloppy or wishful thinking, with devastating consequences. Confront the logical impossibility of "liberal Zionism." Demand civil rights for all. Go left.
Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University, and a BBC New Generation Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel. She tweets @beccasteinfeld
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