Not the End of Liberal Zionism

American liberal Zionists need to stop handwringing over internal Israeli politics and concentrate on lobbying the U.S. political system - where their influence is crucial and irreplaceable.

Michael L. Gross
Michael L. Gross
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J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.Credit: Bob Nesson
Michael L. Gross
Michael L. Gross

Recent handwringing by Diaspora Jews over the state of liberal Zionism forces us to confront an important but overlooked question: What standard of liberalism do liberal Diaspora Zionists propose to judge Israel anyway?

Do they mean a well-functioning public health care system, expansive reproductive rights, gun control, a ban on the death penalty or inexpensive higher education? Or, perhaps, they have in mind a fair system of conscription to fight democracy’s wars?
On these measures, American liberals know their own democracy falls short. Public health care faces crippling challenges from the right; abortion faces increasing restrictions; U.S. gun control rivals that in war-torn Congo; the death penalty is blatantly barbaric and higher education is accompanied by crushing debt. Is the burden of fighting the wars in which the U.S. is involved even remotely fair? Visiting American universities to talk about the ethics of war, I am constantly astonished by the fact that most American students have no idea who fights their wars or how much they cost. They have never met a veteran, greeted a wounded soldier or have any clue about what students their age do at Annapolis.

But wait. This is not what liberal Zionists really have in mind. Their concern is whether Israel meets the demands of liberal democracy vis-a-vis the conflict so that progress on social issues like those just mentioned do not really count. Here, the list is not as pretty. Yes, we in Israel are saddled with an irresponsible and feckless right-wing government content with the status quo and yes, economic, political and social discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is intolerable.

Truly, these are challenges for liberal Zionists and to meet these challenges I propose a division of labor. To Diaspora Zionists, I say - leave internal Israeli politics to us. Israel boasts a huge number of NGOs. Judicial activism for civil rights is alive and well, social welfare associations flourish, and the Knesset is not as dysfunctional as some others we know well. Much noted efforts to restrict the fund raising capabilities of human rights organizations and other illiberal measures, for example, have (for now) stalled or face stiff judicial challenges. Liberal Israelis press these issues vigorously while we at the universities take our job of inculcating a civic conscience seriously.

War exacerbates these challenges but tempers our response. Vocal opponents of the current war are harassed, Arab demonstrators are arrested and many close ranks uncomfortably. I cannot say that all this is entirely unjustified. Liberal democracies have debated the merits of civil disobedience during war since their very beginnings and Israel is no exception. No, the muses are not silent but they need to weigh their words and actions carefully. In a recent letter to my faculty members I urged them to remain uncowed by attempts to silence criticism during the latest Gaza war. After all, if university faculty cannot judiciously and soberly discuss these issues, then who can? But judicious and sober discourse is the key and leaves no room for incitement, racism or violence.

Liberal Zionists on the other side of the globe also have their work cut out for them. Apart from confronting their own democracy’s shortcomings, they cannot and should not ignore American hegemony. Like it or not, the two-state solution will never come to pass without the active support of the U.S. government. “Active” support means pressure, pressure that the U.S. government is reluctant to apply for reasons of its own politics. U.S. politics, however, is interest group sensitive and Jewish interest groups are firmly in the hands of older, wealthy, conservative Jews who still believe that Leon Uris wrote the definitive history of modern Israel.

It is here that our liberal Zionist supporters must make their stand. The dynamics of American interest group politics are well understood. American Jews, in fact, wrote the book about leveraging limited numbers to gain remarkable influence and it is time for liberal Zionists to read it. Their efforts are best spent accessing the American political system, taking control of their own interest groups and fundraising operations so they may help us realize the goals of liberal Zionism. Enough breast-beating.

I know liberal Israeli Zionists and, more impressively, I know their kids. These are the ones who combine a year of community service with a close study of liberal Judaism and then do their compulsory army service and then sign on for regular army or spend a summer at an American Jewish camp or take on short stints as emissaries abroad. As young adults they assume an active and enlightened role in Israeli society. It is not surprising that some of these kids are the children of immigrants from liberal democracies. A few are even the children of liberal Diaspora Zionists. So my advice is this: Keep them coming. In the meantime their parents would do well to jawbone less and strong-arm more.

Michael L. Gross is Head of the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa and author of the forthcoming The Ethics of Insurgency: A Critical Guide to Just Guerrilla Warfare.

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