An awakening among liberal Zionists has begun in recent weeks. Some influential voices in this camp, mainly overseas but also here, seem to have run out of patience with Israel and its occupation. They’ve started speaking out for the definitive liberal Zionist goal – the two-state solution – in ways that are generally considered radical.
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Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, joined the boycott movement. Quoting a recent Human Rights Watch report, he called for pressure on international businesses “to comply with their own human rights responsibilities by ceasing settlement-related activities.”
David Remnick, editor and star writer of The New Yorker magazine, did a profile of Joint Arab List chairman Ayman Odeh that was also an implicit political endorsement. “Odeh’s message is built around the rarest commodity in the desert after water: hope,” Remnick wrote. Even more notable was the author’s extremely unflattering depiction of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s view of Arabs. The article pointed up Herzog’s “breezy condescension” toward Odeh and his ugly remarks about Arabs in last year’s election campaign (such as that he understood “the Arab mentality” and, as a soldier, had seen Arabs through “the crosshairs” of a gun).
Amos Schocken, publisher of Haaretz, wrote an essay that marked quite a departure for an Israeli newspaper publisher, and whose title tells it all: “Only international pressure will end Israeli apartheid.”
And I would add to this list Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, who challenged the holy of holies of Israeli propaganda: that Palestinian terror, not Israeli conquest, is the root cause of the conflict. “As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation," Ban said, thereby linking the Palestinian cause to the anti-colonial movements of history.
I don’t know if this trend among liberal Zionists and friends of Israel will grow or peter out, but I’m convinced that the only way to end the occupation is for people who know that it’s wrong, that it’s immoral, to finally stop equivocating. I believe that if Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and countless other liberal politicians, diplomats and commentators said aloud what they really think of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians – and acted on those convictions – the occupation would be finished. Facing the threat of severe sanctions by the West, Israel would fold its hand in the West Bank and around Gaza.
It’s a long way off. If I was a bookie, I’d lay odds against it ever happening. But there have been much greater turnarounds in history; no one can say it can’t happen here, too.
What we can say, though, is that it won’t happen at the rate things are going. It won’t happen under the leadership of Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid; they’re going backward, offering the Palestinians continually less than they (justifiably) rejected in the past. Nor will it happen, or not soon, anyway, under the leadership of the United States, where threatening sanctions on Israel would be seen, by now, as tantamount to treason.
But to get Europe and much of the Democratic Party ready to sanction Israel, which is what it would take to force Israel’s hand, liberals have to start talking and acting more like radicals – not in their goals, but in their tactics.
In these desperate times, the next step for supporters of the two-state solution is not advocating the one-state solution, but speaking and acting on behalf of the two-state solution with appropriate desperation.
I don’t feel comfortable advocating a boycott of my own country, but a few years ago, after it became clear to me that neither the Israeli peace camp nor the White House was going to end the occupation, the choice came down to supporting the boycott or supporting the status quo forever, and I chose the former.
I am a liberal Zionist, I want Israel to remain a Jewish state, and I support the boycott of this country, in whatever form, because it is the only thing out there with the potential to gradually convince the world to force an end to the military dictatorship known as the occupation.
I have serious problems with the tenor of the BDS movement – but not nearly as serious as those I have with the occupation. Moreover, the BDS movement may want to dismantle the Jewish state, but the West merely wants to dismantle the occupation – and only the West, not the BDS movement, can force its will on Israel. Finally, the best way to change the hostile, anti-Israel tenor of the BDS movement is to flood it with liberal Zionists.
Yet there are other relatively radical options for liberals besides supporting the boycott. They can call on Israeli army reservists to refuse to serve in the West Bank. Meretz and Peace Now could charter a Gaza-bound flotilla filled with humanitarian supplies and flying Israeli flags. That would raise some consciousness.
But maybe the radicalization of liberal Zionists begins with the word, not the deed. These folks cannot go on being afraid to blame Israel and “take sides” with the Palestinians. They can’t keep saying “both sides are to blame.” Israel is a free country that denies millions of Palestinians their freedom at gunpoint, and has done so since 1967. There is no moral equivalence between the two sides in this conflict.
These folks also must stop pretending that the occupation is unsustainable, because after all this time, that’s obviously not true. Calling the occupation “unsustainable” is how liberals salve their consciences, how they excuse their timidity in the face of this historic injustice – by telling themselves it can’t last.
In doing so, they are helping it last. Meanwhile, some liberal Zionists are changing, becoming radicalized – becoming part of the solution, the only one we’ve got left.
Larry Derfner is an Israeli journalist and copy editor at Haaretz.