Time to Choose: Liberalism or Zionism?

How much longer can liberal Zionists uphold Jewish self-determination at the expense of Palestinian self-determination?

Dov Waxman
Dov Waxman
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IllustrationCredit: Ilya Melnikov
Dov Waxman
Dov Waxman

It’s not easy being a liberal Zionist. Denounced by right-wing Zionists for being insufficiently pro-Israel and disparaged by left-wing anti-Zionists for being insufficiently universalist, liberal Zionists have long been on the defensive. How can they square their commitment to Jewish statehood with their commitment to liberal democracy? How can they support Israel when it oppresses Palestinians? How can they criticize Israel when it is the victim of terrorism, rejectionism and anti-Semitism? How can they align themselves with Israel’s enemies?

Challenged with such questions from the left and right, liberal Zionists have defended Israel’s claim to be a Jewish and democratic state (often conveniently overlooking the fact that Arabs make up almost 20 percent of its citizens). They have also championed the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. For liberal Zionists, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only morally and strategically necessary for Israel, it is necessary for them. It is the only way to reconcile their Zionism and their liberalism; their support for Israel and their support for equality and human rights.

As long as the two-state solution is possible, liberal Zionism makes sense, at least to its adherents. This is why liberal Zionists have placed such high hopes on the U.S.-backed peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. While most Israelis and Palestinians — and many disinterested observers — long ago gave up their expectations for the peace process and now regard it with a mixture of skepticism and cynicism, liberal Zionists, especially those in the United States, still fervently believe in it. They have enthusiastically thrown their support behind American Jewish organizations like J Street that lobby for it. The peace process offers the tantalizing prospect of the realization of the liberal Zionists’ dream — two states for two peoples living peacefully side by side. As long as there’s a peace process, the dream lives on.

The failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative, therefore, is a bitter blow for liberal Zionists. Over the past nine months, they set aside their doubts and invested their hopes in the slim chance that Kerry would somehow be able to cajole, entice and pressure Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas into making the difficult decisions and compromises necessary for a peace agreement. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, liberal Zionists desperately tried to convince themselves that this time things would turn out differently. Although every previous U.S. administration that has tried to broker peace has failed, the Obama administration could succeed; although Bibi has never demonstrated bold leadership, now he would; although Abbas has already turned down a previous Israeli offer, this time he wouldn’t.

It is now brutally clear that the current peace process will not end the conflict. Even if peace talks continue, there is no real prospect that a comprehensive final-status agreement can be reached, let alone implemented. Without such an agreement, the two-state solution is impossible to achieve since it can only be accomplished through mutual consent, not unilateral actions (such as an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank or Palestinian membership in the United Nations).

The apparent demise of the peace process forces liberal Zionists to confront a painful question that many wish to avoid — if a two state solution is now impossible, should they support, however reluctantly, a one-state solution? Must they concede that the only way to end the occupation is to endorse the principle of equal rights for Jews and Palestinians in all of Israel/Palestine? While granting citizenship to Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the West Bank effectively spells the end of the Jewish state, how much longer can liberal Zionists uphold Jewish self-determination at the expense of Palestinian self-determination?

To be sure, a one-state solution may be just as impossible as a two-state solution, if not more so — civil war and even ethnic cleansing are more likely outcomes than peaceful coexistence. Perhaps this long, interminable conflict cannot be resolved, at least not for the foreseeable future. In that case, liberal Zionists much accept that there is no easy way for them to reconcile their liberalism and their Zionism. Instead, they must either abandon their liberalism or their Zionism, or just learn to live with the constant tension between them. Whatever they choose, it will only become harder to be a liberal Zionist.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York. He is also the co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development at Northeastern University. He is the co-author of "Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within" and the author of "The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation."

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