Two reasons the “I can’t be a Zionist because I’m a liberal” meme is false

August 22

Another day, another essay by a “former liberal Zionist”, this time Antony Lerman in the New York Timesdecrying the fact that while it used to be okay to be a liberal Zionist, nowadays Israel politics is so right-wing that being a liberal Zionist is a contradiction in terms. Regrettably, the author sighs, he decided to choose liberalism.

This is silly (and pernicious). First, in practice today being a “Zionist” means that you support Israel’s right to continue to exist as a sovereign, Jewish state.  One could be a liberal Zionist, who wants Israel to withdraw from the territories and achieve full equality for its Arab citizens, or one can be an illiberal Zionist, and support a vision of “Greater Israel” with a suppressed Arab minority. One can be a secular Zionist, or a religious Zionist. There are Christian Zionists, and even a few Muslim Zionists.

But the only feasible alternatives to Zionism are themselves illiberal–have a majority Arab state in which Jews are, at best, a suppressed minority, or force all six million Jews living in Israel to flee to whatever countries (if any) will accept them, or some combination of the two.  The idea that giving up on “Zionism” makes you a “liberal” is false, unless creating yet another Arab dictatorship in what is now Israel at the cost of six million Jews’ lives and liberty, and of by far the most liberal state in their region, is somehow a “liberal” option.

Second, it’s entirely false that Israeli politics have taken a sudden swing to the right.  The main issue, of course, is territorial compromise with the Palestinians.  Israel has already withdrawn from Gaza (and also left Lebanon fourteen years ago), and also has given the Palestinian Authority control of parts of the West Bank, so it’s already more “left-wing” in that sense than it was in, say, 1988, when it was still supposedly okay to be a liberal Zionist.

Speaking of 1988, of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, in that year’s elections 52 were won by parties absolutely opposed to a Palestinian state or giving up any of the West Bank: Likud (40); National Religious (5); Tehiya (3); Tzomet (2); Moledet (2).  Today, by contrast, the only party opposed to territorial compromise with the Palestinians is the Jewish Home party, with 12 seats.  Even if you assume that almost half of Likud/Yisrael Beitanu’s MKs are against territorial compromise despite their parties’ positions to the contrary, that still leaves only 27 MKs opposed to further territorial compromise, compared to the 52  in 1988 who were against the territorial compromises that have since occurred, much less anything more.

While the right-wing has declined, so, post-Oslo, has the left.  The (Jewish) left in 1988 had 39 Alignment seats, 5 “Ratz” seats, 2 Mapam seats, and 2 Shinui seats, for a total of 48 MKs.  Today, by contrast, the left has 15 Labor seats, and 6 Meretz seats, for a total of 21.

The obvious conclusion, one shared by most Israeli political analysts, is that since Oslo Israel had become a much more centrist country, with the electorate rejecting both what they see as naive peaceniks who brought the Oslo disaster upon Israel, and the right-wing vision of Greater Israel that sought to hold on to the West Bank forever not out of necessity (the absence of a peace agreement), but as a matter of principle.  The center of the Israeli electorate both wants an agreement that includes territorial compromise, and doesn’t think that such an agreement is feasible, given that past withdrawals have only led to more violence.

To many leftists, though, anything that’s not left-wing is right-wing.  But the fact is, if someone was a proud Zionist in 1988, it’s ridiculous to claim that that he changed his mind because Israeli politics is now dominated by the right-wing. Netanyahu’s  current government is practically pacifist compared to the Shamir government of the late 1980s.

There’s a much simpler reason why so many “liberal” (read: left-wing) Zionists are abandoning Israel, which is that the Western left, and in particular the American left, has broadly turned against Israel–in part precisely because Israel is now more centrist, which means its far left has declined, in part because the international left needs a vulnerable Westernized bogeyman to harass, and Israel is well-suited to playing that role, and in part because the far left has, crazily enough, decided that it should ally with Islamic radicalism, Israel’s sworn enemy.

Being hostile to Israel has, in fact, become virtually a litmus test for one’s political correctness.  So left-wing Zionists have to decide: do they want to be a member of the leftist club, or do they want to face barbs for being “PEP” (Progressive except Palestine), or, if they are Jewish, being PEP for “tribal” reasons?

It’s not surprising that many left-wing intellectuals are choosing the former.  That’s where their social and intellectual circle wants them to be, and that’s where the employment opportunities are.  What left-wing journals or organizations want to  hire pro-Israel individuals these days? Or consider John Judis’s book on Truman and Israel; he has no prior expertise on the subject matter, and what’s good in that book isn’t original, and what’s original isn’t good. The book wouldn’t have received anywhere near the attention it got had it been friendly to Zionism.  Further left, if Max Blumenthal and Phillip Weiss weren’t obsessively hostile to Israel, would anyone care what they had to say?

No one’s obligated to defend Israel from its enemies, intellectual and otherwise, or to consider himself a “Zionist.”  But let’s be frank.  If someone is claiming that are abandoning “liberal Zionism” because Israel’s political culture has shifted drastically to the far right, they are either lying or ignorant.

 

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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