Why I'm Still a Liberal Zionist, Despite It All

The best way to combat right-wing, militaristic Zionism is to offer a more humane, tolerant alternative.

Dov Waxman
Dov Waxman
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Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.Credit: AP
Dov Waxman
Dov Waxman

March was a bad month for liberal Zionists, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reelection and his public rejection of a Palestinian state dashed our hopes for a resumption of the peace process in the foreseeable future.

The fading prospects of reaching a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pose a serious challenge to liberal Zionists' core convictions. How can we support an Israel that occupies and oppresses Palestinians? How can we support a Jewish state whose democratic credentials (never as strong as many of us would like to believe) are increasingly in doubt? Must we abandon our Zionism for the sake of our liberalism?

These are painful questions to consider, but they must not be avoided. Evasion and denial will only rob liberal Zionists of the ability to address the issues of the day. To ensure our relevance and maintain our integrity, we liberal Zionists must confront the political, ideological and moral challenges that the situation in Israel and Palestine presents us with.

While some liberal Zionists may well respond to these challenges by forsaking either their liberalism or their Zionism (as many have no doubt already done), my own choice is to maintain my commitment to both liberalism and Zionism, while trying to minimize as much as possible the inherent and growing tension between them. This choice is driven in part by my belief that in the realm of politics, trade-offs between competing values are inevitable and unavoidable. As the late political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, himself a liberal Zionist, once wrote: “The simple point which I am concerned to make is that where ultimate values are irreconcilable, clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found.” For me, this entails a recognition that my values and beliefs — my Zionism and my liberalism (as well as nationalism and liberalism in general) — cannot be neatly reconciled and fully satisfied.

My unwillingness to abandon my Zionism or my liberalism is also driven by a principled refusal to allow Zionism to be defined and monopolized by those on the right, whether secular or religious. Benjamin Netanyahu may be prime minister of Israel, but that doesn’t make him the definitive spokesperson of Zionism. Historically, one of the great strengths of Zionism has been that it is a broad ideology, allowing for multiple interpretations and attitudes. The fact that revisionist Zionism is now dominant in Israel, and has been for some time, does not negate the legitimacy of other varieties of Zionism. Moreover, I remain convinced that the best way to combat rightwing, militaristic, chauvinistic Zionism is not to reject Zionism altogether but to offer a more humane, tolerant and liberal Zionist alternative.

I am well aware that in practice, Zionism has not been very humane, tolerant and liberal, especially when it comes to the Palestinians (both those within Israel’s borders and those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Historically and up to the present day, the implementation of Zionism — or more specifically a particular kind of Zionism — has entailed a great deal of violence (sometimes unavoidably) and the systematic denial of Palestinian rights. For a host of reasons, liberal Zionism has rarely, if ever, been ascendant in Israel, except perhaps during the tragically short-lived "golden years" of the Rabin government in the early 1990s.

But this only makes liberal Zionism more necessary, not less. Liberal Zionism, in this sense, is not a description of the Israeli past or present. It is not about whitewashing Israel’s history or ignoring its present behavior. Instead, liberal Zionism is a vision of Israel’s future. It is fundamentally aspirational, not empirical. It is about what Israel should become, not what it is.

This kind of liberal Zionism envisions an Israel that is a both a homeland for the Jewish people and a state for all its citizens. It aspires toward a state that does not discriminate between its citizens, or rule over non-citizens. A state that gives expression to Jewish values, culture, and identity, while recognizing and respecting the values, cultures, and identities of other groups within its midst. A state that does not allow the majority to trample over the rights of the minority, and that defends the rights of the individual against the demands of the group.

Liberal Zionism holds out the possibility that Israel can become such a state, however long and difficult this transition will be. As long as there is a possibility for Israel to change — to become more just and peaceful — liberal Zionism will remain relevant, albeit critical and conflicted.

Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs and Israel Studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center. He is the co-author of "Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within" (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of "The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending/Defining the Nation" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

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