Zionism on the Edge: What I Saw at HaaretzQ

The occupation is not the singular beast gnawing away at the foundations of Israeli democracy. It is a byproduct of more fundamental issues embedded within the legacy of Zionism.

Miko Zeldes-Roth
Miko Zeldes-Roth
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A portrait of Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism, at the site of the declaration of Israel's independence.
A portrait of Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism, at the site of the declaration of Israel's independence.Credit: David Bachar
Miko Zeldes-Roth
Miko Zeldes-Roth

“So, why is it that you refuse to fly El Al?”

“I don’t like to be racially profiled.”

“I understand that. But I am asking you, how can you refuse to fly the national airline?”

This dialogue was not taken under duress from an interrogation room at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. Theoretically, the two individuals conversing were of equal standing and had freely entered into an exchange of views. Yet in reality, this was (approximately) the opening interchange at a panel discussing the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel during the recent HaaretzQ Conference in New York.

The interlocutor was a Jewish-Israeli columnist; she was grilling a Palestinian-Israeli activist. Not only did the columnist’s question come across as condescending (even if this was not her intention), it also seemed to miss the mark. In a reality in which people of color are routinely flagged for additional screening when flying El Al, it makes perfect sense that a Palestinian might choose to take his business to an airline that would be more respectful of his dignity. The idea that a prominent journalist would use someone’s airline preference (which was based on an understandable desire to avoid racial profiling) as a mechanism to confront their supposed duplicity against “their state” (Israel) falls below the standards of a peace conference in which Israelis and Palestinians are declared equals. Yet these types of interactions occurred with alarming frequency at HaaretzQ.

Indeed, they made the conference so complicated that it repeatedly verged on ideological collapse. It could not contain the myriad contradictions that exist within Liberal Zionism.

The interchange above regarding El Al was only one example of Israeli Jews asking loaded, condescending, and unfair questions to their Palestinian counterparts at the conference. These tones placed the Palestinian participants at HaaretzQ—coming from both Israel and the West Bank—in a position of relative inequality compared to their Jewish counterparts; the legitimacy of their views was constantly being challenged. While we can certainly fault individual speakers for fostering this atmosphere, I find this to be unproductive. Rather, I believe that this attitude—the inability to recognize Palestinians as rightful and fully equal participants in Israeli society—is a byproduct of the legacy of Zionism.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the HaaretzQ conference was the near total absence of a critical attitude towards Zionism. Throughout many (though not all) of the sessions I attended, politicians (Israeli President Rueven Rivlin, MK Tzipi Livni, MK Merav Michaeli), diplomats (Samantha Power, Robert Danin), and activists did not engage in a critical discussion of Zionism’s morally complex roots. Rather, the importance of supporting a “Jewish-democratic state” (without any conditions or qualifications) was consistently paraded around to considerable applause. More specifically, MK Michaeli repeatedly discussed how Israel had to return to its true Zionist roots, which “always made space for equality with Israeli Arabs” (a very questionable claim, given the long history of discrimination in Israel). And in general, the occupation was discussed as the central issue plaguing Israeli society. Solving it, we were told, was the silver bullet (or at the very least, the critical first step) to fixing all else that ails Israeli society.

I too have subscribed to this line of thinking at different points in my life. But I am increasingly convinced that it is not a helpful way of viewing the conflict. The occupation is not the central issue, that singular beast gnawing away at the foundations of Israeli democracy. Rather, it is a byproduct of more fundamental issues embedded within the legacy of Zionism. For like many other tribal-national movements, Zionism has never truly been able to accept the Other—in this case, the Palestinians. From the days of settling the Jezreel Valley at the turn of the twentieth century, to the Nakba, to the occupation, Zionism never developed a dialogue with Palestinians.

The Palestinians, to be fair, also share some of the blame. Palestinian hostility, violence, and incitement have been very real factors in stunting the development of coexistence in Israel/Palestine. But Zionism has been consistently unable to reconcile its aspirations for Jewish sovereignty with the presence of a Palestinian people. The failure to recognize the Palestinian people politically, the erasure of Palestinian villages (through JNF forests, demolitions, and national parks), and the refusal to grant Palestinian-Israelis national minority status are all indicative of this. It is no surprise, therefore, that a nation with this ideology has been unable to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. After all, it is very hard to stop occupying a people whose existence you have been educated to believe is illegitimate, or simply a fiction altogether.

Yet Liberal Zionism in particular carries an additional burden. HaaretzQ reinforced the notion that being left-wing in Israel is little more than a byword for being Ashkenazi and/or upper middle class. (This is a generalization, I know. But it is closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit.) Many at the conference spoke movingly of the need to broaden this ethnic base—to find a way to attract Mizrahi Jews who currently vote for the right-wing and religious parties. Tellingly, however, these individuals could not provide any specific methods of achieving this goal. Rather, they marveled at how Mizrahi Jews could so reliably vote against their (ostensible) self-interest. But if Liberal Zionism—the so called “Israeli left-wing”—ever hopes to expand its base of support, it must be willing to acknowledge the wrongs it committed in the early days of the state towards Mizrahi Jews.

So, where to now? If Liberal Zionism has proved itself wholeheartedly unwilling to confront its conflicted legacies, what is the alternative to the nationalism, militarism, and extremist Judaism now gaining widespread legitimacy in Israel?

Of all the speakers at Haaretz Q, it was MK Ayman Odeh (head of the Joint List) who provided the most honest vision forward. He did not dismiss the differences between Jews and Palestinians. And more importantly, he did not marginalize the painfully intertwined histories of these two peoples. Rather, he said that “recognizing our history and our pain will make our shared society stronger.” Only by facing our demons can we exorcise them. MK Odeh clearly understands that. And it is still possible, I believe, for Liberal Zionist leaders to confront the morally complex roots of their ideology, without renouncing it altogether. It is their continued failure to do so, therefore, that is the tragedy.

Miko Zeldes-Roth is studying Political Science at Carleton College, Minnesota. A graduate of Seeds of Peace and Face to Face/Faith to Faith, Miko has spent extensive time in the Middle East working on Israeli-Palestinian coexistence efforts. He serves on the board of the Carleton chapter of J Street U. Follow him on Twitter: @mikozr

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