No Direction Home
Maybe American liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving
I considered myself a Zionist, in the sense that I supported Israel’s “right to exist,” which I took to mean that I did not want the state to be violently destroyed and its inhabitants driven into the sea. Only later did I come to understand that this was not the meaning of Zionism at all, and equally that non-Zionism had nothing to do with wanting to drive the Jews into the sea; I then realized that I had probably never been a Zionist in any real sense at all. (I now suspect that this is a common phenomenon, and that many if not most American Jews who call themselves Zionists are not so in any strict ideological sense—a misunderstanding encouraged by a pro-Israel establishment that is eager to equate non-Zionism with anti-Semitism.)
Above all, I felt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was tragic and irrational and complicated. For those who have seen through the simple morality-play version of the conflict, in which a blameless Israel is constantly beset by bloodthirsty Arab hordes, it is a belief in the conflict’s endlessly “complicated” nature that keeps them in line and deters them from taking any firm stand. And of course, the conflict is complicated, with more than enough blame to go around. But all the talk of the complicated and tragic nature of the situation, I eventually came to believe, was partially designed to obscure certain stark realities that were, perhaps, not terribly complicated at all: in particular, the fact that for decades the lion’s share of power has been in the possession of one side, and the lion’s share of suffering has been borne by the other. Once again, however, this realization was a long time in coming.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when or how my views shifted. A great deal of the change can probably be explained simply by the fact that I started paying closer attention to the conflict and its history. I suspect the general disillusionment of the George W. Bush years also pushed me to the left on the Israel-Palestine issue, as it did to so many people on so many issues, and the Iraq war in particular (which I had opposed, but far from wholeheartedly) made me reconsider the merits of “serious liberalism” as an overall foreign policy stance. The fact that so many of Israel’s most vocal supporters were among the leading proponents of the Iraq debacle forced me, like many others, to confront exactly what support for Israel entailed.
But of course, blaming Bush and Iraq does not explain why one should reconsider Israel and Zionism; even blaming the neocons or the Likud does not explain why one should reconsider mainstream liberal Zionism. To do so, it is necessary to examine some features of the liberal debate over Israel as it has been conducted in recent years in the bastions of mainstream Jewish opinion—in the New York Times and on NPR, in campus Hillels and suburban synagogues. It was only after years of following this discussion that I became convinced that liberal Zionism, at least in the form that had reigned among the bulk of American Jewry for decades, was inherently unable to grapple with the problems at stake—that its basic suppositions had forced it into a role that made it marginal, self-indulgent, and ultimately irrelevant.
The first notable feature of the debate that became apparent was its heavily emotive and tribal character. Rather than taking a measured look at the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, at the concrete facts and issues in play, participants spent an inordinate amount of time fighting to claim the “pro-Israel” mantle and squabbling over who could be said to love Israel more. The basic contours will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time following the debate: Hardliners charge liberals with a lack of concern for Israel’s security in the midst of an allegedly annihilationist mass of Arab neighbors; liberals reply with familiar warnings that in the absence of a two-state solution Israel will have to choose between Zionism and democracy. Hardliners contend that a “true friend” would never criticize Israel publicly; liberals argue that a “true friend” must help Israel avoid becoming an international pariah.
It is not difficult to see, however, that the liberal Zionists in these debates will always be at an inherent disadvantage. After all, Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli political establishment are more than happy to weigh in on who they think their “true friends” are—and not surprisingly, it is the friends who are willing to hawk for war against Iran and turn a blind eye to West Bank settlements. Liberal Zionists will never really be able to convince the public that they know Israel’s long-term interests better than Israel itself, no matter if it is true, and therefore will always have trouble answering the charge that they are, as Sarah Palin put it, “second-guessing” Israel’s own decisions. Thus the competition over who can appear to love Israel more is one that, unjustly or not, the liberals will generally lose.
More to the point, by constantly reaffirming their undying love for Israel, by couching every argument in terms of Israeli needs and Israeli security, the liberals sacrifice the most effective advantage they have: their power to make moral arguments. Thus we hear frequently that a two-state solution would be “good for Israel” by solving the “demographic problem,” or that the Gaza assault was “bad for Israel” by harming the country’s international standing. Less frequently do we hear that the real value of the two-state solution would be in ending the misery and injustices of the occupation, or that the Gaza assault was bad, first and foremost, for the people of Gaza. Because they are afraid to make these arguments, because they are afraid to suggest that Israel’s actions might be not merely imprudent but also immoral, the liberals have no good answers when the hardliners reply that the two-state solution imposes intolerable risks to Israeli security, or that the Gaza incursion was a successful response to the rocket fire into southern Israel.
Similarly, the claim that Israel’s “security decisions” are Israel’s business alone invites an obvious answer: namely, that outsiders have every right to question these decisions because they affect millions of people who are not Israelis. But because mainstream liberal Zionists have refused to move beyond a myopic focus on Israeli interests, this is an answer that is foreclosed to them, and the charge of “second guessing” will always be devastating.
The second feature of the debate that became apparent to me was related to the first; it was the obsessive focus on the motives of Israel’s critics. On the one hand, there was the need to ensure that all criticism was restricted to “true friends” of Israel—always Jews, who must constantly reaffirm their Zionist credentials, who must pull their punches in public debate, who must take care not to criticize too stridently or to overstep the innumerable lines demarcating “acceptable” criticism of Israel. On the other hand, there were the unhinged (one might say disproportionate) attacks directed at any critics who were deemed to be “outsiders”—generally Gentiles (and if Jewish, easily tarred as “self-haters”), who failed to abide by the rules of acceptable debate and therefore had to be made examples of.
Coach Red Holzman led the Knicks to their only championships and an auspicious 613 wins