No Direction Home
Maybe American liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving
On the morning of May 31, Americans woke up to a flood of media reports about a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla, and Israel’s liberal supporters in the United States immediately found themselves in a familiar bind. On one hand, pro-Israel hardliners called on liberal Zionists to take a firm stand in support of Israel’s actions, warning—as one neoconservative critic put it—that to do otherwise would mark them as “at best, fair-weather friends and, at worst, little different from open anti-Zionists who implicitly support [Hamas]’s goal of eliminating the Jewish state.” On the other hand, critics of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza called on these liberals to denounce not merely the tactical wisdom of the raid but the morality of the blockade itself. Most liberal Zionists proved characteristically unwilling to get behind either alternative. While a few spoke out against the siege of Gaza, the majority restricted themselves to familiar admonitions that the raid was “unwise” and “counterproductive” even if the intentions behind it were blameless.
It was a classic illustration of the liberal Zionist predicament. In recent weeks this predicament has received an increased amount of attention, due in large part to a bracing and much-discussed essay by Peter Beinart—a former editor of The New Republic, the very citadel of American pro-Israel orthodoxy—in which he sounded the alarm on the plummeting levels of support for Israel among younger American Jews. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” Beinart wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” Similar concerns led to the formation in 2008 of J Street, a lobby group that aims to represent the views of liberal Jews and serve as a counterweight to traditionally right-leaning groups like AIPAC. If current trends continue, American Jewish attitudes toward Israel may ultimately be transformed in a way unseen since the bulk of the community first got on board with Zionism, in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War.
How can liberal Zionism be saved? For those aiming to revive the form of American liberal Zionism that marked the generation that came of age after the 1967 war, it is tempting to blame its decline on a betrayal by outside forces. On this logic the collapse of support has been caused by Israel’s own shift to the right in recent years—epitomized by the rise of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—a shift aided and abetted by a right-leaning institutional leadership of the American Jewish community that refuses to criticize Israel under any circumstances. Resuscitating liberal Zionism, this argument goes, will thereby involve siding with Israeli moderates while speaking out against settlers abroad and neoconservatives at home.
But can liberal Zionism, at least in the form that has dominated American Jewish life for decades, be saved at all? And should it be? These are harder questions but may ultimately be more important ones. It may be emotionally satisfying to posit a blameless liberal Zionism betrayed by outside forces, or to suppose that younger Jews are reacting only against the right and not liberal Zionism itself, but it is not clear that either claim is true. For one thing, Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman undoubtedly make good villains, but the aspects of Israeli politics that have alienated U.S. liberals go deeper than the current right-wing government. (To take only the most recent example, it was not the nefarious Netanyahu or the loathsome Lieberman who brought us the attack on Gaza, but rather the supposed “good guys”: Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni.)
More generally, the apparently impending collapse of mainstream liberal Zionism in the United States is no accident. Some of the phenomenon may be attributed to the simple passage of time—to a generation growing up farther removed from the looming presence of the Holocaust and without memories of the 1967 and 1973 wars. But we cannot adequately understand this collapse without understanding the compromises and contradictions that liberal Zionism became involved in over a period of decades.
Let me drop the pretense of disinterestedness for a moment. I am a member of the “younger generation” whose attitudes have become the subject of so much discussion, and in many ways I am typical of it. When the last decade began I considered myself to be, broadly speaking, a fairly standard young liberal Zionist—at least insofar as I thought about these things, which was not often. In the years since, my views have shifted to the point that I would not consider myself a Zionist at all. I make no claim to “speak for my generation,” whatever that would mean, and one should never trust anyone who claims that they can. But I have reason to think that my experience was far from atypical, and it might therefore be worthwhile to examine it more closely.
It’s always tempting, when writing a conversion narrative, to exaggerate the magnitude of the shift for dramatic effect. But I can’t honestly claim that I was ever a neoconservative or a hardliner (aside from a brief Likudnik episode in my childhood). Rather, I held a set of views fairly typical of American liberal Zionism. I was largely uninformed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I was against the occupation and the settlements, and I considered myself sympathetic to Palestinian suffering. Still, I did not really question the basic Israeli narrative of the conflict (“we want peace, but they only want to annihilate us”); I believed that everything would be better if only the Palestinians could find their King or Gandhi; I was convinced that the shrill-sounding activists who constantly harped on Israel’s sins were hysterical at best and anti-Semitic at worst. I was a “serious” and “responsible” liberal, I told myself, and much of this identity hinged on differentiating myself from them.
Coach Red Holzman led the Knicks to their only championships and an auspicious 613 wins