In February 2003, a Gallup Poll found that 59 percent of Americans were in favor of invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Such public sentiment reflected support for the looming war not only within the White House and among conservative pundits, but by ostensibly liberal or moderate publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish.
In despair, liberal critics of the war simply threw in the towel. When they bothered to write at all, they described their disillusionment with the American idea, the end of liberalism, and the victory of the “anti-democratic forces that are setting America’s political agenda.” Many quit their jobs in journalism and public affairs and opened cupcake and frozen yogurt shops.
If that’s not how you remember it, that’s because it didn’t happen. Critics of the war in Iraq remained engaged and vocal, staging demonstrations, exposing the administration, and supporting the lawmakers and think tanks that opposed the war. In a few years, many of these critics would be vindicated, as public opinion turned against the war, historians judged it harshly, and a Democrat was elected president in part based on his opposition to the war as far back as 2002.
The analogy is not exact, but the mythical critics I described remind me of the authors of a number of recent “obituaries” for liberal Zionism. Seeing widespread Israeli support for a war they detest, frustrated by the moribund peace process, and appalled by anti-democratic trends in Israel, they have thrown up their hands. Zionism is over, they tell us, at least in the sense of creating a democratic Jewish state. Intolerance has won out, and Israel has become a religio-nationalist state whose raison d’etre is to exploit the Arabs whose freedom they will not grant. Or as British-Jewish author Antony Lerman wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, “The romantic Zionist ideal, to which Jewish liberals — and I was one, once — subscribed for so many decades, has been tarnished by the reality of modern Israel.”
The “reality of modern Israel” is noticeably absent from Lerman’s lengthy screed. For one thing, many of his claims about anti-democratic trends in Israel are overblown. True, right-wing lawmakers have tried to silence Israel’s robust NGO sector, and attacks on Arabs are a troubling sign of intolerance. But Lerman barely mentions the Israelis who have successfully defended free speech, or who denounce racism and support the rights of Israeli Arabs. He sees the demise of Israel’s Left as irreversible, when history reminds us that Israeli opinion will swing dramatically in response to Arab leaders willing to make bold moves in favor of coexistence.
Also missing from his description of “modern Israel” is, well, Israelis. The subjects of his analysis are nearly all Diaspora institutions and individuals: pro-Israel outfits like AIPAC, J Street, and the Anti-Defamation League, and pundits like Peter Beinart and Thomas L. Friedman. Israel emerges not as a country of seven million souls but a debating point for us Diaspora Jews.
By failing to acknowledge the forces that have pushed Israelis to the right, or even acknowledging how it is Israelis who will endure the consequences of their decisions, articles like Lerman’s seem to suggest that Israel’s purpose is to make Diaspora Jews feel good about themselves. And in dwelling on the authors’ own disaffection, they ignore the political movements and individuals in Israel itself who are trying to counter the ascendant Right.
Among those are the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that tirelessly promotes religious tolerance and democratic values. This month, IDI convened dozens of Jewish and Arab thought leaders, who issued an emergency statement calling on authorities to act forcefully “against racist acts and racist incitement.” Most recently IDI called for an independent and transparent Israeli commission to investigate alleged violations of the international laws of war — to get at the truth and to forestall an international investigation that could put Israeli sovereignty and security at risk.
The New Israel Fund is based in the United States but exists to support Israeli NGOs that promote civil and human rights, religious pluralism, and social and economic justice. During the war its grantees include organizations that help Israelis living under threat of rocket attacks, that work to ease tensions between Jews and Arabs, and that protect free speech or monitor behavior of the police or the military.
Jewish federations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, regularly promote religious pluralism in Israel, either by helping to establish Reform or Conservative congregations, funding pluralistic schools, or meeting with politicians to promote equitable treatment of religious denominations.
The list goes on: Rabbis for Human Rights, Givat Haviva’s Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, Seeds of Peace, Shalom Hartman Institute, the Masorti and Reform movements….
A number of these organizations are struggling of late, or have been attacked as either too critical of Israel or too “liberal” for Israeli society. But all represent a “romantic Zionist ideal” that places Israel comfortably within the traditions of — and often miles ahead of — other Western democracies.
Liberal Zionists need to stop whining about how they feel about Israel, and, assuming they really care, work to assist the indigenous institutions fighting for their values. Otherwise, they’re not Zionists — they’re quitters.