If only Peter Beinart had heeded my words on the death of liberal Zionism in 2015

Following the publication of Peter Beinart’s article in Jewish Currents, ‘Yavne: a Jewish case for equality in Israel-Palestine’, on 7 July, I was reminded of a panel discussion I participated in with him and Mira Sucharov at the University of Chicago, on 10 March 2015. It followed the publication of my op-ed in the New York Times, ‘The end of liberal Zionism’ in August 2014.

My opening presentation at the panel anticipated many of the arguments Peter shows he now accepts in his Jewish Currents article. I welcome his ‘conversion’ to ‘equality in Israel-Palestine’, while not agreeing with all he writes. Had he, and other prominent liberal Zionists heeded the arguments that I and many others were making for some years, perhaps the barriers to achieving equal rights would have been less elephantine than they are now. Then again, perhaps not.

What is certain is that the far right governing forces in Israel have made good use of the fig leaf liberal Zionism has been for the fundamental injustices inherent in Zionist ideology.

I publish my panel presentation here for the first time: for the historical record and to gently chide Peter for taking so long to see the truth.

10 March 2015

Opening presentation at panel discussion with Peter Beinart and Mira Sucharov

University of Chicago

Is Liberal Zionism Dead?

With the peace process at a standstill, no major party in the Israeli election ready even to mention the word ‘occupation’ and self-styled king of the Jews Bibi feted by Republicans as if he were a demi-god, I don’t think it can be much fun to be a liberal Zionist today. But, to be fair on liberal Zionists, they’re not in it for the fun. They intend their beliefs and proposals to be a Zionist politics of the Jewish diaspora that has serious agency and can influence political outcomes in Israel.

But it’s my contention that liberal Zionism has failed, and will continue to fail, to have any significant influence on Israeli government policies, for two fundamental reasons: first, because of its internal contradictions and second because its prescriptions simply don’t address the key problems and political realities in Israel-Palestine. Therefore, as an idea with political agency, liberal Zionism has no future. But having no future doesn’t mean that its present impact is neutral. On the contrary, by acting as a fig leaf for the only Zionism that does have political agency today—right-wing, messianic, ethnonationalist settler Zionism—it’s positively harmful. It acts as a barrier to a truly liberal and just resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict that brings peace and reconciliation.

This is not to say that liberal Zionism is dead. I think it was JFK who said: ‘Ideas have endurance without death.’ After all, there are still people who believe that the earth is flat. So I argue that it will continue to exist, but as a means for a shrinking number of diaspora Jews to relate to a nostalgic view of Israel. In other words, as a means of Jewish self-expression, a choice that gives cultural content to diasporic Jewish life for some, but that has nothing to do with influencing Israel’s political or ideological direction.

But where does this phenomenon come from? Contrary to the impression given by some of its promoters, liberal Zionism was never a stream of Zionist ideology. It’s a modern phenomenon that only emerged in the late 1990s when the Oslo Accords came increasingly under attack from right wing forces inside and outside Israel and therefore unlikely to result in a just and lasting peace settlement. Jews who clung to Oslo as the expression of their liberal principles—2 states for 2 peoples; land for peace—came to cluster around the liberal Zionist position. The last chance to defend their humanist, romantic, Zionist ideal.

There was always something anachronistic about this. ‘Zionist ideology today subsists largely only as a historical relic’, Zachary Braiterman writes. After the establishment of the state, determining the nature of Jewish nationalism became the prerogative of those who held political power. And let’s be clear: there was never anything particularly liberal about Zionism. It’s true that both Herzl and Jabotinsky espoused forms of liberal Zionism, but it wasn’t their liberalism that appealed to the Jewish masses. It was the passion of their Zionism. The political giant who shaped the Yishuv and the state in its first 3 decades—Ben Gurion—was a dirigiste socialist and an illiberal nationalist—not a liberal Zionist.

So, anachronistic, full of internal contradictions and failing to address illiberal political realities, it’s not surprising that everything that liberal Zionists stand for is in doubt and some of their leading commentators know it.

Central to how liberal Zionists see Israel’s future is the 2 state solution. They recognise that Palestinians have a right to self-determination in an independent Palestinian state; it’s restorative justice for dispossession; and they know the occupation must end before it can happen. But the entire edifice is flawed. The ‘2 states for 2 peoples’ recipe is based on notions of national homogeneity and demographic separation; while the truth is that, despite extreme separation measures—unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the security fence and wall, the absorption into Israel of huge settlement blocs in any peace deal—Palestinians and Israelis are living together in a reality of spatial and binational heterogeneity. There is no symmetry or justice in this reality, however. Almost all the power resides on one side. The liberal Zionist idea that equal entities negotiate over state-oriented partition is a fiction.

We have known for a long time now that, as a deliverable political option, the 2-state solution is practically dead—Bibi and the right reject it; the so-called ‘Israeli left’ offer no more than a Palestinian Bantustan; and no outside power has been able to deliver it. But more to the point—and I think liberal Zionists have a hard time acknowledging this—all theoretical talk of an ideal 2 states or 1 state arrangement, freely chosen, is moot: a de facto single, unequal and undemocratic state exists; one single sovereign entity, under Israeli political, military and economic dominion, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In it, rights for Jews are guaranteed, while rights for Palestinians are curtailed or virtually non-existent.

Liberal Zionists largely accept that Jews dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to make way for the establishment of a Jewish state, but believe that it was an acceptable price others had to pay to satisfy overriding Jewish needs. This means that securing Palestinian rights to national self-determination will always be subordinated to liberal Zionists’ insistence on prioritizing Jewish ethnoreligious preferences over full equality. So, no acceptance of the right of return as demanded in UN resolution 194; no full acceptance of responsibility for the Nakba; and no allowing Palestinians to commemorate the Nakba in the state of Israel. Palestinians are told to forget their history; Jews are told to remember theirs.

Liberal Zionists are convinced that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, but they fail to explain how the derivation of authority from God in Judaism can be reconciled with the sovereign power of the people in a democracy. A state founded on what it claims to be Jewish principles can have the trappings of democracy, but it can still have laws and practices that discriminate against non-Jewish minorities. And as we have seen, the power of inflexible, racist and narrow-minded orthodox religious authorities, supported by right-wing legislators, to determine what’s Jewish about the ‘Jewish state’ makes a nonsense of a Jewish and democratic symbiosis—and makes Israel an ethnocracy. (A state that privileges [Jewish] ethnicity over democracy.)

Such a conclusion is reinforced by liberal Zionists’ insistence that Israel must have a Jewish majority in perpetuity. Yet to achieve this inevitably implies policies of exclusion and discrimination, epitomised by the Law of Return—for Jews only. A belief that Israel will be a morally defensible democratic and Jewish majority state if it returns to the pre-67 borders is a false idealisation of pre-67 Israel. Discrimination against the Palestinian minority 20 per cent is endemic. Liberal Zionists may support Palestinian rights in a separate state; they don’t accept acknowledging Palestinian demands for national rights in Israel. (The Declaration of Independence promises equal ‘social and political rights’ for all, but not ‘national rights’.)

The impression liberal Zionists give of understanding Palestinian aspirations—as if liberal Zionism promises them what they want—is false. In my reading of Palestinian views and discussions with Palestinians, it’s clear they do not see liberal Zionism as a viable path to peace and reconciliation. Liberal Zionists may want something ostensibly liberal in the future, some Palestinians believe, but they never set a deadline—so all the while they accommodate themselves to the ongoing colonialist policies of the state. Effectively they are saying that ‘there is no Palestinian minimum (or Zionist maximum) they would not accept’ (Yousef Munayer).

Liberal Zionism is becoming increasingly isolated. It’s challenged ever more strongly from the diaspora Jewish left and it can’t distinguish itself sufficiently clearly from the Zionist extreme right. It may speak more softly about its commitment to Jewish ethno-religious preferences, but that commitment places it less distant from Zionist supremacism than it likes to think it is. So it ends up functioning as a fig leaf for the very form of Zionist colonial expansionism it seeks to oppose. But only this Zionism has political agency. And the degree to which liberal Zionists continue to want to occupy the Zionist space acts as a barrier against more widespread realization that this all that Zionism is really about today.

In short: liberalism is inclusivist; Zionism is exclusivist. Liberalism is about equal rights, human rights, regardless of ethnicity or creed; Zionism is about securing Jewish rights, at the expense of the non-Jewish native inhabitants of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

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