Liberal Zionism: It Can't Be Dead Because It Never Existed

Antony Lerman in a New York Times piece titled 'The End of Liberal Zionism' says the 'romantic Zionist ideal' has become 'tarnished by the reality of modern Israel.' Is he correct?

Dan Keinan

For weeks, war has been raging in esteemed publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, and Slate. No bullets were fired, but big things were at stake: the identity and fate of Israel as a Jewish-democratic nation, the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and the ability of American Jewry to help the sides lay down their arms. But at heart, the issue boiled down to the question: is Liberal Zionism dead?

Yes, says Antony Lerman in a New York Times piece titled “The End of Liberal Zionism.” The "romantic Zionist ideal" has become "tarnished by the reality of modern Israel," he writes.

Lerman’s argument that Zionism is not compatible with liberalism anymore, seeing as Israel has descended into fascist-haven mode, is seconded by an essay Jonathan Freedland published in the New York Review of Books a month ago. After Gaza, he writes, liberal Zionists have to decide “which of their political identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a Zionist.” David Bernstein on the other hand feels that this distinction is silly (and, he adds, pernicious): “The only feasible alternatives to Zionism," he claims in the Washington Post, “are themselves illiberal."

Despair seems to have become the lot of liberal Zionists nowadays. Debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become toxic but "a special poison is reserved for the liberal Zionist,” writes Freedland in an earlier essay, written before the outbreak of Protective Edge but published after fighting began. “The liberal Zionist is branded either a hypocrite or an apologist or both," he moans.

Supporting Israel versus humanism?

More and more voices, it seems, argue that supporting Israel is no longer compatible with humanist values, given Israel’s hawkish policies Vis-à-vis Gaza and the West Bank. That the term itself, liberal Zionism, is an oxymoron.

But “liberal Zionism” isn't an oxymoron. It's a yearning for a humanist, righteous, pure Zion that frankly never existed, while reluctantly putting up with the actions of its real-er, less-righteous counterpart.

Liberal Zionism never did have much influence on the grim reality of the Middle East. But as a narrative, it served as a powerfully convenient fiction, both for liberal diaspora Jews who wanted to be Zionists without some of the moral dilemmas involved, and for pro-Israeli lobbyists who tried to enlist the liberal intelligentsia in their fight to legitimize Israel.

The dream, that liberal-humanist values can truly be compatible with the reality of the desert, has been innocently perpetuated by generations of liberal Jews who tried to find a balance between their sense of obligation to defend Israel, and their own personal values, oftentimes at odds with what Israel did.

The possibility of being both liberal and Zionist, born when Israel’s image had yet to be tarnished by near-40 years of military occupation, captivated many a young Jew. The romantic image of Israel has never been accurate – as are all romantic ideals, - but the strength of that image continues to capture the hearts and minds of these diaspora Jews, not so young anymore, to this very day.

But history made a sad fiction of liberal Zionists: they exist alright, but the ideal they believe in?

For what is a “liberal Zionist” anyway? Lerman defines it: “ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, supporting a Palestinian state as well as a Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority, and standing behind Israel when it was threatened."

Essentially, it means supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but supporting a two-state solution in which Israel withdraws from the occupied territories and treats its Jewish and Arab citizens equally. As an elusive idea, it revolved around the notion that diaspora Jewry particularly American Jews, is - in Freedland’s words - “better placed than most to move Zionist, including Israeli, opinion”.

Over the years, of course, this stance has become more and more complicated. What with the death of the peace process and sharp right turn of Israeli politics, liberal Zionists find it harder and harder to reconcile the conflicting sides of their political identity: are they more liberal, or Zionist? Can Israel be both right, and also terribly wrong?

The Zionist's clothes

Some, represented by Lerman, choose to shed their Zionist clothes and go back to being just liberals when they realize they have no influence on Israeli public opinion. Others choose to defend the notion that Zionism and humanism can co-exist peacefully within the same person, regardless of what Israel does or does not do.

The truth is, it really doesn’t matter. “Liberal Zionism” has been a vague-but-pleasant fantasy all along. If it were real, surely it would have some bearing on reality. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t.

So, is liberal Zionism dead, as many these days claim? Well, if it is, we know whodunnit. Liberal Zionists did. The murder weapon: their own solipsism.

Where were these people in the last 50 days, when the region descended, once again, into pointless violence? 2,000 people died while liberal Zionists argued over political abstractions. What political alternative did they offer millions of Israelis under attack, and 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza? What did they contribute to the conversation, other than to repeat the true-but-nevertheless-irrelevant cliche that “violence is tragic, but Israel has a right to defend itself”?

In recent years, “liberal Zionism” has come to one thing, and one thing only: reluctantly supporting Israel, whatever happens, whilst criticizing it in soft tones. And then they wonder why Israel doesn't get the message.

Israel today is more nationalistic, more bigoted, more separatist than ever, despite the best efforts of those identifying themselves as “liberal Zionists”. Liberal Zionists, meanwhile, mourn the “romantic Zionist ideal that has been tarnished by the reality of modern Israel”.

And that, really, is the whole story: all along, “liberal Zionism” was nothing more than a silly romantic notion.

But the Middle East has never been a good place for romantics. The last one who tried to get romantic around here ended up getting crucified.