The Crisis of Liberal Zionism
For as long as the word has been used to describe a type of political theory and practice, philosophers have been quibbling over precisely what liberalism is. As one would expect after more than two hundred years, suggestions abound. However there is general agreement on at least one point: its core doctrines are universalistic; they apply to human beings generally.
Liberal practice has often fallen short of that ideal – relegating some individuals to subordinate positions according to their gender, race, ethnicity, social or economic class, and so on.
Those who try to reconcile liberal theory and practice have therefore always had their work cut out for them. Sometimes they managed to square the circle; at least for a while. But, in the end, systemic exceptions to universalistic principles cannot be sustained. It can take many decades, but, in the end, if the principles are maintained, the offending practices generally give way.
“Zionism” designates the Jewish national and cultural movement that was born in Europe late in the nineteenth century and that evolved and flourished subsequently. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a decisive moment in that movement’s trajectory.
Does a commitment to Zionism entail support for a Jewish state? Must that state be in Palestine? Must Zionists support a revival of the Hebrew language? How committed must they be to distinctive cultural forms and ways of life established by Jews in Palestine and, later, Israel? What is Zionism’s relation to the Jewish religion?
After Israel became an established fact, these questions were effectively settled. However, this wasn’t always so.
In its early years, Zionism, like liberalism, was a contested ideal. And, as within the liberal fold, there was ample quibbling over what it involved. But, at the doctrinal level, there was always a crucial difference. Liberalism is universalistic, Zionism is not; its ideals pertain to Jews only, not to people generally.
There is therefore something oxymoronic in the very idea of liberal Zionism.
Nevertheless, the term aptly describes a political orientation that functions as a pole of attraction for many American Jews – along with Jews in Israel and the rest of the world. Many non-Jewish fellow travellers are also drawn into its ambit.
A liberal Zionist is committed to the idea that Israel should be a Jewish state, and also to the idea that is should support the basic rights and liberties that define liberal politics. However much these commitments are at odds, liberal Zionists are confident that they can be reconciled — that the circle can be squared and remain squared indefinitely.
The Apartheid system Israeli authorities established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of the occupation regime that began after the 1967 Six Day War is therefore an embarrassment for liberal Zionists.
Some of them saw the problem coming; many did not. Since 1967, attitudes have varied, with anti-occupation sentiments waxing and waning, partly in response to changing perceptions of the occupation’s Palestinian victims. Liberal Zionists also sometimes worry about the occupation’s moral and cultural effects on Israelis and on Israeli society.
They understand that one people cannot keep another in subjugation without making a mockery of liberal principles. But they have also come to realize that there is no way to hold on to the occupied territories without keeping its population subjugated.
Zionists, including liberal Zionists, consider the occupied territories – not so much Gaza or the Golan Heights, but what they call Judea and Samaria — the heart of the Biblical Land of Israel. They are loath to give up any part of it.
How then can liberal Zionists be both liberal and Zionist? It is a dilemma. But its resolution is obvious.
If they won’t give up on Zionism and if they are determined to remain true to liberalism as well, then, in view of demographic realities that are morally and politically impossible to change, there is no choice but to accede to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories currently under occupation.
This entails ratcheting down the dream of incorporating Judea and Samaria into the state of Israel. But something has to give; and, from a liberal Zionist point of view, this is the best (least bad) choice.
Considerations of justice lead to the same conclusion. If, as most Zionists, liberal or not, believe, justice required the establishment of the state of Israel, then, in just the same way, it requires the establishment of a state for Palestinians.
Of course, some Zionists will say that God is on their side, but there is no reasoning with people like that. Plainly, such views are not worth taking seriously.
Neither is the view that the Holocaust gives Zionists carte blanche to do what they please in Palestine.
The fact that some six million European Jews were put to death under Nazi rule between 1942 and 1945 did give a certain urgency to Zionist demands in the immediate post-War period.
Needless to say, the case would be stronger had not Zionists worked so diligently to see to it that the survivors had nowhere other than Palestine to go, and had they not gotten so much help in this regard from the American government.
But with the European countries from which they had come in no condition to repatriate them, and with opportunities for immigrating to North America and Australia largely closed off, there were indeed issues of practical necessity compelling Jewish immigration to Palestine. At the time, this was everywhere understood to boost the case for statehood – if not immediately, then in short order, once Palestinian resistance was quelled.
However, it is or ought to be plain that Judeocide in Europe it in no way mitigates the justice of Palestinian claims – not then and not now, seven decades later.
By now, most Zionists acknowledge this – at least officially.
Since 1993, when the Oslo accords were signed, Israel has claimed to be in favor of a “two state solution.” But, at least since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, they have quite blatantly done all they could to keep it from happening.
They blame the Palestinians for the lack of progress, and Zionists around the world agree.
For the most part, liberal Zionists know better. But only the most courageous among them have so far dared to buck the Zionist consensus view.
The denial of full citizenship rights to Palestinians living in Israel proper is an even more glaring embarrassment for liberal Zionism.
But, as long as Israeli governments kept violations of Palestinians’ basic human rights in bounds, liberal Zionists seldom objected. If called to account, their rationalization would be that Israel’s departures from liberal norms are temporary expedients, necessitated by security considerations.
However, the circle can never really be squared. It can only seem to be – when the Jewish state remains within borders that are overwhelmingly Jewish and that are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
The 77% share of Mandate Palestine that falls within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries is mostly like that; it has been ethnically cleansed so thoroughly that its conquest by Zionist settlers, before and after the establishment of the state of Israel, is, by now, effectively irreversible.
A Palestinian state in the rest of Mandate Palestine is therefore just what the doctor ordered. This is why the liberal Zionist’s commitment to a “two state solution” is sincere; unlike, say, Benjamin Netanyahu’s. He is for it – or rather he says he is for it – only because he needs American and European support, and so he gives the Americans and Europeans what they want to hear.
As Zionists, liberal Zionists too would like Israel to incorporate all of Palestine. But since that is morally and politically impossible, and since, as liberals, they want liberal principles affirmed too, they moderate their Zionist ambitions. There is nothing else they can do.
They are loath, however, to concede territory, and therefore inclined to accept at least some of the settlements established since 1967 – if need be, in exchange for land within Israel’s pre-1967 borders that still have substantial Arab populations and that Zionists care about less.
The details were worked out a long time ago – in negotiations that began even before the handshake on the White House lawn marked the beginning of the Oslo period. Those negotiations continued throughout the nineties, culminating in meetings held in Camp David and in Saba in Egypt in the final days of the Clinton administration.
Predictably, the Israelis and the Americans blamed the Palestinians for the fact that no settlement was reached at the time. The reality, of course, is just the opposite. Slowly, but inevitably, this incontrovertible assessment is becoming accepted by informed observers, if not yet by the general public in Israel and abroad.
Arguably, a settlement could have been reached then. It is less clear that one can be reached now — after an additional decade and a half of settlement building and Israeli recalcitrance.
However, a settlement can always be imposed. America and, to a lesser extent, Europe hold nearly all the cards; all they need do is play them. This is why, for Zionists, public opinion in the United States and other Western countries matters so profoundly.
It bears mention that, before the state of Israel came into being, a form of liberal Zionism that was not oxymoronic was far less marginalized than it would subsequently become. Its Zionism was cultural. Inevitably, it was political too but the goal was never statehood per se. Indeed, many cultural Zionists found the idea of a bi-national state more appealing than the idea of a Jewish state or, worst of all, a state of the world’s Jews.
This way of thinking is, by now, politically defunct. But, as a moral ideal, humanistic and cultural versions of Jewish nationalism continue to resonate. In some still possible future, they might again play a positive role.
This is not as far-fetched as might appear because public opinion, even in the United States, is no longer securely on Israel’s side.
Most of the world’s peoples long ago recognized the gravity of the Palestinian situation, and the sheer injustice of it. The legitimacy of the Palestinian cause is widely acknowledged.
But what the rest of the world understood hardly registered in public opinion in the United States or in other Western countries. Over the years, the Israeli propaganda machine and its collaborators in the United States and elsewhere have served Israel well.
Now this is changing: the Palestinian cause is gaining respect; even American public opinion is coming around.
Right-wingers in Israel and the United States complain that the Obama administration has been insufficiently understanding of Israel’s needs – in other words, insufficiently servile — but the fact remains that the American government, under Barack Obama, is still very much in Israel’s pocket. In this way, as in so many others, Obama has brought continuity, not change.
The situation is preposterous on its face. Israel survives largely thanks to American sufferance but, no matter how provoked, American governments – with only a few short-lived exceptions – have faithfully done its bidding.
In recent decades, American governments have also tried to seem like they were also doing the right thing by the Palestinians. The reality has always been otherwise, however; and nobody has been fooled.
The Palestinians have not served their cause well in Western public opinion either, in part because their leadership is divided, weak and, by all accounts, corrupt. This is not about to change.
Of course, there have always been academics, non-mainstream journalists, and political activists, who have taken exception to the pro-Zionist consensus in the United States. Nowadays, there is more non- and anti-Zionist activity than there has ever been.
The result is that pro-Zionist hegemony is weakening in intellectual circles. But there is probably no country in the developed world where dissident intellectuals and left-wing political activists have less influence. The Israel-Palestine question, so far at least, is no exception to the rule.
It has therefore fallen to the Israelis themselves to “delegitimize” the Israeli cause.
As it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that Israeli intransigence is the main obstacle in the way of a just and durable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as the Israeli government and some of its most conspicuous supporters in the United States have become increasingly aggressive in their support for right-wing, Israel-friendly American politicians, the liberal Zionist camp is becoming increasingly troubled by the tensions, and outright contradictions, that have always been at the core of its theory and practice.
It is too soon to tell what will come of it. But there is no doubt that a crisis is in the works.
It has not yet had much impact on American politics because liberal Zionists have little direct influence in Congress or in the White House.
The Israel lobby in the United States today is mainly a creature of aging, rightwing Jews. Their closest allies are evangelical Protestants who think that the end times are at hand.
It is a stupendously implausible alliance.
The evangelicals’ most fervent hope – and expectation – is that, when the end time comes – as it will, any day now — Jews who do not accept Jesus will face a future of eternal torment. Meanwhile, Jews, secular and religious alike, regard Christian Zionists and their beliefs with the contempt they deserve.
Yet the two need each other, and so their Unholy Alliance stands.
One reason they need each other is that the Israel lobby is losing support among American Jews. This is hardly surprising. Its leadership is self-appointed, and its political orientation has always been out of line with the views of the people it purports to represent. The gulf is becoming wider all the time.
The Christian side cannot be counted on to stay on board indefinitely either. Once the ringleaders and their parishioners realize, yet again, that Armageddon is not about to happen, they will likely lose interest. Without an immediate prospect of blood on the ground, their attention will flag.
As these pillars of support for Israel decline, the importance of liberal Zionism for the Zionist project is enhanced.
Indeed, liberal Zionism is fast becoming the Zionists’ last best hope for winning over the hearts and minds of American Jews. Its only rival is Judaism itself and, in today’s world, that is a slender reed indeed.
Most American Jews, like most Americans, assume that all Jewish anti-Zionists are leftists who uphold universalistic and secular values. In fact, the most intensely anti-Zionist Jews in America, and throughout the world, are the most traditionally and fanatically religious — the “ultra-orthodox.”
Their reasons are theological. The rabbis were clear: Jews may return to the Promised Land only when the Messiah leads them out of exile. A self-directed political movement whose goal is to establish Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land is inimical to their teaching.
Their opposition was to a political restoration; whether or not Jews actually live in Palestine was, for them, a matter of indifference.
And so, in their view, individual Jews who feel so moved can live near the sacred places or, as happened more frequently, go to the Holy Land to die and be buried. It is telling that, for nearly two millennia, Jews rarely chose to do so.
Today, outside extreme ultra-orthodox circles, Judaism and Zionism are fused. It was not always so, however; even within living memory, strains and tensions were rife.
Not long ago, the Reform movement was non-, if not overtly anti-, Zionist. It had to be since a core tenet of Reform Judaism is, or was, that Judaism is a religious denomination only – like, say, Lutheranism or Presbyterianism.
The turning point was the Six Day War. In retrospect, this makes sense. In an age where belief is on the wane and identity politics on the rise, Israeli military conquests were bound to strike a positive chord.
For the religiously inclined, that chord had a religious resonance. And so, by now, the old tensions are mostly forgotten.
There is even an ultra-orthodox messianic sect, the chabod-Lubavitchers that has taken a Zionist turn. Everyone has seen them: they are ubiquitous on college campuses and wherever else they think susceptible Jews can be proselytized. Needless to say, they are not interested in proselytizing anyone else; they are too racist for that.
Their aim, of course, is still to revive the old time religion; in other words, to return to pre-Enlightened ways of thinking and acting. It is therefore unclear whether their Zionism is opportunistic or heart-felt. One reason for thinking the latter is that some of them seem to believe that the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, dead since 1994, actually was the Messiah!
When it comes to squaring circles, the Lubavitchers plainly have liberal Zionists beat. Who would have thought that the Messiah would come and nobody outside their group would realize it. Or maybe being a Messiah isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
In Israel, the fusion of Judaism and Zionism extends beyond this one benighted sect.
Since the Six Day War, a national-religious movement, exploiting the ressentements of Jews brought to Israel from Arab countries, and taking full advantage of the human foibles that keep religious illusions alive, has grown from almost nothing into a major political force.
Naturally, this has contributed to a rise in national-religious sentiment within American Judaism too – in the Conservative and so–called New Orthodox movements especially. The chabod-Lubavitchers are not alone.
Even so, in the American context, “faith based” Zionism’s appeal is limited, and its effects on the broader Jewish community are slight. Were more traditional ultra orthodox groupings inclined to interact with Jews outside their hermetically sealed enclaves, they would more than cancel out their influence.
The plain and unavoidable fact is that most American Jews are secular; and most are indifferent to Israel.
There is now even some polling evidence to this effect, which is quite remarkable inasmuch as one would expect that the vast majority, if asked, especially in a leading way, would profess support for both God and that far-away country that purports to be theirs.
But how considered would such answers be? Most American Jews, like most Americans, are not particularly interested in politics or world-affairs. Their political opinions are therefore shaped mainly by the ambient political culture.
That anti-Zionism is more or less the same as anti-Semitism has been the view emanating from Zionist quarters since Day One, along with the idea that anti-Semitism is endemic in Gentile culture and can never be expunged. The lesson is plain: support Israel if for no other reason than self-defense.
Anyone who has ever gone to a Hebrew School or a Jewish Sunday School, much less a Jewish Day School, has had these ideas drummed into them. Some of it is bound to sink in. What is remarkable is how little actually has.
For this, thank logic – the identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is transparently fallacious. Also thank an abundance of contrary evidence: Israel today endangers Jews far more than it offers them a safe-haven; and anti-Semitism hardly exists anymore in Western countries — even anti-Semitic attitudes have dropped away.
This is increasingly true in Eastern Europe too, notwithstanding some backsliding in Ukraine, where, hoping to bring Russia down a notch, inept American and European diplomacy stirred the pot.
Insofar as Jews today really do have something still to fear from their neighbors, identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is plainly a reckless ploy. As reasons to oppose Israeli policies mount, then, if anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism, reasons mount to be anti-Semitic as well.
For the fact that anti-Semitism is on the wane – except perhaps within some marginalized immigrant communities in Western Europe – we have mainly indifference to thank.
Indifference is a wonderful thing. For doing religion in, it puts the reasoned arguments of levelheaded philosophers to shame.
If, in the future, the so-called world religions become as culturally and politically irrelevant as, say, the pagan religions of old now are, it will not be because atheism has won the day. It will be because the conversation has moved on; because people see no more need to argue for or against the existence of God than they do to argue for or against the claims of Greek or Roman mythology.
This is where support for Israel in American – and American Jewish – public opinion is heading too. We are not there yet – far from it. But the shape of things to come is already becoming clear.
Liberal Zionism has always played a crucial role in keeping American Jews in line. Just by being there, it provided assurance to a population that was and is overwhelmingly liberal by inclination that the Zionist project — and the state of Israel too, regardless of its policies – must be basically sound.
So long as that perception remains intact, Israel can count on the majority of American Jews remaining at least passively – and tepidly – pro-Zionist. With money from Jewish plutocrats flowing in, and with the Israel lobby still strong enough to inspire fear and awe in Congress and the White House, that might be enough to keep the American government in its traditionally subservient role.
No doubt, liberal Zionists understand this; and no doubt too, they are determined to continue exercising their historical function.
But there are times when reality overwhelms ideological commitments. Inasmuch as liberal Zionism is, at root, a contradictory configuration, it is especially vulnerable.
This is not to say that most liberal Zionists will give up on liberalism or Zionism. They are too invested in both for that.
Therefore, don’t count on many defections to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) side. It is a logical step, but irrational nationalism trumps logic most of the time.
Notwithstanding a crisis in liberal Zionist quarters, it is likely that liberal Zionist organizations like J-Street will become more, not less, prominent in the near future. A pro-Israel lobby that is not too much out of sync with public opinion is bound to seem increasingly attractive as the gap between what most American Jews think and what the mainstream Israel lobby promotes becomes increasingly prominent.
But unless Israel radically changes course – in other words, unless the United States forces Israel to change course – the contradictions liberal Zionists try to finesse will only become more disabling, diminishing the efficacy of their ideology.
It is no simple task to make what is essentially a colonial project seem palatable; not in a in a post-colonial age. What chance do liberal Zionists have as the contradictions inherent in their way of thinking become difficult to gloss over?
This is bad news for Israel, as Israel now conceives itself. The Zionist establishment knows this. Their desperation is palpable.
However it is good news for Palestine and for the world – at least potentially.
It would require fundamental rethinking on their part, but it could also be good news for Israeli Jews. So long as they remain in Palestine, it is their only chance for realizing at least one of the old Zionist objectives: that Jews, like other people, should be able to live normal lives.
But to get from here to there, Israeli Jews – and their American enablers — would first have to rid themselves of the burden of Zionism itself.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).