Despair Won’t Advance Liberal Zionists’ Agenda

The laments for liberal Zionism, and the sharp attacks on the viability and legitimacy of their positions, reflect an unhealthily romanticized vision of Zionism and Israel that never existed in reality.

Brent Sasley
Brent Sasley
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Revelers handle a giant Israeli flag as they march up Fifth Avenue during the Celebrate Israel Parade, Sunday, June 1, 2014, in New York.
Revelers handle a giant Israeli flag as they march up Fifth Avenue during the Celebrate Israel Parade, Sunday, June 1, 2014, in New York. Credit: AP
Brent Sasley
Brent Sasley

The last few years have seen a growing urgency in discussions around the fate of liberal Zionism and the need for liberal Zionists to wrestle with the (alleged) contradictions inherent in their position. The orientation point for such laments are prominent male commentators in prominent American publications—Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, Roger Cohen, Thomas Friedman, Jonathan Freedland—which ends up ignoring the arguments of many others, men and women, writing elsewhere.

All of these writers raise important questions. Take the most recent of these, Antony Lerman’s piece in the New York Times’ Sunday Review. Lerman’s arguments are representative of most of the others, namely that liberal Zionists cannot be both—liberal and Zionist. That is, in order for Israel to be truly liberal, it cannot be a Jewish state, since that privileges one identity over all others, with material effects for the minority identities. This, Lerman claims, is a new concern: “The romantic Zionist ideal, to which Jewish liberals…subscribed for so many decades, has been tarnished by the reality of modern Israel.”

The biggest, but not only, problem with the claims presented by Lerman and the others is that they rely for their argument on a snapshot view of the Israeli experience, defining the totality of Israel as the Benjamin Netanyahu governments and the Gaza war. These misconceptions leave room for only certain answers to the questions they raise—namely, that liberal Zionism is not a viable position.

To begin with, the concept of liberal Zionism really is a recent phenomenon, and speaking of it as anything else suggests an unhealthily romanticized vision of Zionism and of Israel that never existed in reality. Liberal Zionism is a creation used primarily by Jews and others outside of Israel. For most Israelis, and probably for many diaspora Jews outside of the English-speaking world, there is simply Zionism, and the politics of Israel determines how Zionist political culture and identity will be expressed within the country—often conceived in terms of left, right, and religious. Still, it can be a useful term to refer to those who promote a specific vision of Zionism today: A Jewish-majority Israeli state alongside a Palestinian state with full communal rights for the Arab population in Israel and individual freedoms for all Israeli citizens.

Yet Israel before the 1980s was not liberal in the rights-based sense—it was heavily collectivist and socialist, and under the influence of eastern European nationalism, individual rights were frowned upon as an excess and damaging to the state’s ability to thrive and survive under conditions of constant threat. Left-wing Zionism, associated in diaspora minds with the liberal end of the spectrum, was always far more hard-headed, and hardline, than commonly assumed today. It was the leftist Mapai, the predecessor of Labor, which struck first in the wars of 1956 and 1967, and engaged in violent retaliatory raids against Palestinian guerilla/terrorist groups throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, the primary promoters of individual rights in the western European sense were the Revisionist Zionists under Ze’ev Jabotinsky—the ancestor of today’s Likud. They were too marginalized to control the debate in Zionist circles, until Likud under Menachem Begin won the 1977 election. But by then Begin and his followers had jettisoned the liberalism of Jabotinsky in favor of a tribal version of Israeli society that, they felt, should be oriented toward the Jewish majority.

The shift from a socialist to a free-market economy beginning in the 1980s, but particularly in the 1990s under Netanyahu as Finance Minister, brought more consumer goods to an increasingly wealthy Israeli society. By this time the Labor Party’s collectivist vision was no longer viewed as an appealing or viable alternative. Under these conditions, Israelis lost interest in the notion of individual sacrifice for the good of the state.

At the same time, that vague mass of Israeli voters—the center, or unaffiliated—began to show its strength. Today estimated at between 20 percent and one-third of Israeli voters, this electorate began seeking alternatives to Labor and to Likud. Their oft-commented-on turn to the right is more a sign that the left hasn’t offered a viable option and of the effects of the conflict with the Palestinians than an automatic and inherent rightist inclination. A succession of third parties appeared, almost all disappearing after a single election: The Third Way in 1996, the Center Party in 1999, Shinui in 2003, Kadima and the Pensioners Party in 2006 (Kadima remained in the 2009 and 2013 elections but is not expected to survive the next one), and Yesh Atid in 2013.

In the 2013 election, most of the parties that did best, including those that improved over their previous performance, were those that emphasized social justice. This included Labor, which went from 13 to 15 seats in the Knesset, Yesh Atid, which won 19 mandates in its first election, and Habayit Hayehudi, which rose from seven to 12 seats. Though we use the term social justice to refer to these discussions, the focus of Israelis’ concerns wasn’t on a redistribution of wealth, per se, but rather a concern over the high price of housing, food, and other goods—items which affected them as individuals, not as a society. For many, other issues, like the conflict, were secondary.

There certainly has been a trend toward illiberalism in Israel, pushed by two right-leaning governments in a row. But the conditions outlined above suggest not that liberal Zionism is at a crossroads, but rather that the search for a liberal version of Zionism has developed over time, and that contemporary conditions make it difficult to promote that agenda. That is not an argument that liberal Zionism is irrelevant, only that as a new conceptualization it requires sustained work to be translated into policy. This leads to the second misconception many lamenters hold: That there are few or no liberal Zionists left to push back.

In fact, there are, both in Israel and in the U.S. Jewish community. They simply get dismissed in the commentary. In Israel there are a host of civil societal organizations working to shore up individual and communal rights on a range of issues, such as the New Israel Fund, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah, Mossawa, and Sikkuy. There are also research institutions like the Israel Democracy Institute and MOLAD. On foreign policy there is Peace Now and the Council for Peace and Security. On Israeli behavior in the occupied West Bank, there is Yesh Gvul, B’Tselem, and Breaking the Silence. In religious affairs there is Hiddush and the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform Movements. For its part, the Supreme Court has in recent years put much greater emphasis on individual rights than it used to, though it remains to be seen how long the legacy of Chief Justice Aharon Barak - who championed those values - remains influential and how much impact it will continue to have on this trend.

Among American Jews, the activists of J Street are an under-emphasized group. More left than much of the national leadership, they are active among the youth, on campuses, and in synagogues. Many, though by no means all, of them believe in the tenets of liberal Zionism and work to strengthen the two-state solution as well as individual and group rights in Israel. Their grassroots work might well matter more in the end than the efforts by their leaders in the political arena, by putting these issues on the public agenda. Yet even here there are groups working to advance a liberal Zionist agenda, including not only J Street but the Israel Policy Forum, the Reform movement, and organizations associated with Israeli groups, such as American for Peace Now.

That conditions are difficult at the moment doesn’t mean there is a crossroads or that the trajectory is toward the end of what liberal Zionists stand for; it simply means they have their work cut out for them. If one believes that self-determination is a right of all peoples, then one must continue to fight for a strengthening of Israel as a Jewish state, a state, we must remember, that is a recognized and legitimate member of the international system. And if one also believes in individual and communal rights and freedoms, then one must push—and push harder—for these things, too. The beauty of liberal Zionism is that it can accommodate all three goals.

It is for liberal Zionists to work together to determine how to advance this agenda, in the face of opposition within Israel and in the diaspora. It obviously isn’t easy, but perhaps if liberal Zionists outside of Israel began working closely with the groups in Israel mentioned above, the work would go more smoothly. There would also develop a critical mass of hope, rather than the despair under these challenges that many of the commentators in the diaspora seem to prefer.

Brent E. Sasley is associate professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has finishing a co-authored textbook on Israeli politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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