Kicked around by the Right and disdained by the Left, Liberal Zionists are having their comeback moment.
You can thank Peter Beinart. The former New Republic editor wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” that sent everyone with an opinion on Israel racing for their word processors.
According to Beinart, Liberal Zionism represents “human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise” and “challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens.”
By contrast, the American- Jewish establishment has embraced “uncritical Zionism” in support of Israel’s hawkish government. By asking young Jews “to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” leaders have driven them away from Zionism.
There’s a lot to debate in Beinart’s essay, from his notion that disaffection with Israel is a function of communal politics, to how little attention he pays to the ways Palestinian rejectionism has undermined Israel’s efforts at peace-making. If you hate his politics, you’ll reject his essay outright. He adds urgency, but no breakthroughs, to the case for compromise.
But the essay is welcome not necessarily for the “Liberal” part but for the “Zionist” part. Unlike a number of contributors to NYRB, Beinart expresses a genuine attachment to Israel and a concern for its survival. That’s no small thing in the world of liberal punditry. As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic pointed out in response to Beinart, the pro-Israel Right and the non-Zionist Left have a shared self-interest in pretending you can’t be a Liberal and a Zionist.
The Right points to the usual suspects on the Left — Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Naomi Klein — to demonstrate that liberal politics necessarily leads to anti-Israel policies. John Mearsheimer calls these folks “righteous Jews,” which is enough to prove the Right’s point.
Leftist critics of Israel, meanwhile, insist Zionism itself is illiberal — that the very idea of Jewish self-determination in historic Palestine is racist, colonial, and anachronistic.
But there is a Liberal Zionism, which I’ll define for simplicity’s sake as unabashedly committed to Israel’s survival and insistent on the two-state solution.
Yet even its public proponents worry that they are a rare breed. “Who else is still out there arguing that you can be liberal and Zionist at the same time, meaning pro-Israel and anti-occupation?” asks The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who includes himself among their number. His short list includes Beinart and Chait, Leon Wieseltier and Thomas Friedman. Among public intellectuals (as opposed to Jewish professionals and full-time pro-Israel activists), I’d add The New Yorker’s David Remnick and, on most days, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post.
As for the Jewish professionals, Beinart’s essay coincided with a petition effort by a sizable group of important doves, each impeccably credentialed in the Jewish world. Their petition, “For the Sake of Zion,” endorses the “American government’s vigorous encouragement of the parties to make the concessions necessary” toward a two-state solution.
Its organizing committee includes Steven M. Cohen (the sociologist), Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Prof.Hasia Diner, Rabbi Irwin Kula, and Princeton scholar Michael Walzer. All seem to take Israel’s security needs as seriously as they do Palestinian human rights.
Indeed, the petition seems to be an unmistakable effort to wrest the “Liberal Zionism” mantle out of the hands of the upstart J Street, which has been pegged by its critics, unfairly or not, as decidedly more Liberal than Zionist. The “For the Sake of Zion” petition, for example, literally puts Israel’s security first, its opening paragraph declaring that “Israel faces existential threats, both from without and from within.” It quotes Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and points out that the organizers have lived and worked in Israel or visited “many times.” And while calling for Israel to compromise on territory and cease construction in the “disputed territories” (itself a carefully Zionistic term), the petition also condemns terrorism and demands that the Palestinians give up on the “right of return.”
J Street may be able to claim that it has called for all of these things, but its own early missteps and questionable calls, combined with a fierce establishment backlash, have hurt its credibility among Jewish “insiders,” even those inclined to share its politics. The Liberal Zionists want their turf back.
This may sound like bad news to the Right, which benefits from a discredited Left. But it’s good news for Israel and the pro-Israel community as a whole — if you accept the idea that a community is strongest when all its voices are heard.
A reinvigorated Liberal Zionism may not reverse the wider trend toward apathy, but it will provide a home for young Liberal Jews who are more inclined to engage with an Israel with which they can identify. The Jewish Agency has recognized this and created “Makom,” a sort of social-networking site for those who want a full-throated debate on Zionism’s future.
Liberal Zionism takes the fight for Israel to the Left’s home field, by insisting that Jewish nationalism is every bit as legitimate as the other national liberation movements “progressives” so eagerly embrace.
Finally, Liberal Zionism provides the sort of counterweight that is vital to Jewish conversation and community-building. More than ever, Israel is suspended between political extremes. Democracy dies without a loyal opposition.
The “For the Sake of Zion” petition will be successful if, like Beinart’s essay, it manages to annoy the Left and the Right. I think there’s enough there to do both, and the debate over Israel’s future will be all the richer for it.