No Direction Home
Maybe American liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving
Recent years have seen any number of examples, from Jimmy Carter to Tony Judt to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to, mostly recently, Richard Goldstone. In each case, much of the crime was to step outside the prescribed limits of “acceptable” criticism: to say not merely that the perpetuation of the occupation would be regrettable, but that would bring “apartheid” (Carter); not merely that the window for a two-state solution is closing, but that it has closed (Judt); not merely that the Israel lobby is bad for Israel, but that it is bad for the United States (Mearsheimer and Walt); not merely that Israel made unspecified “mistakes” in Gaza, but that it committed outright war crimes (Goldstone). But in each case, the problem was more with the messenger than the message. Thus both Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, for instance, have reiterated Carter’s “apartheid” rhetoric without arousing much visible outrage. Similarly, Beinart is only the latest in a line of mainstream liberal Zionists who have conceded the basic truth of the Mearsheimer/Walt thesis without acknowledging it by name. (I should disclose here that John Mearsheimer teaches in the political science department of the University of Chicago, in which I am a doctoral student, although we work in different fields.)
If the debate over Israel has shifted noticeably to the left over the last several years, this fact therefore owes almost nothing to the “responsible” liberal Zionists and almost everything to those whom the responsible liberal Zionists have tarred as anti-Semites. Yet the mainstreaming of once-taboo positions has not brought a respite in the tone or frequency of attacks; on the contrary, Israel’s defenders seem to have doubled down. It has gotten to the point that when Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz recently compared Goldstone to the Nazi vivisectionist Josef Mengele—an objectively shocking analogy—few observers so much as batted an eye.
This pattern of behavior has by now become so familiar that we rarely stop to ask the obvious question, why? Why focus so obsessively on delineating “acceptable” from “unacceptable” criticism and attempting to annihilate anyone who crosses the line?
Many of those responsible for enforcing ideological conformity on the issue were neoconservatives; their behavior could at least be read as a rational attempt to further their political goals. After all, they liked the status quo as it was—unwavering U.S. support for Israel, expanding settlements, frequent wars—and saw no need to change it. But many of the enforcers were liberals, or at least claimed to be. They professed their support for the two-state solution, their opposition to the settlements, their discomfort with (although never outright opposition to) the attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. Their professed goals actually differed little from those of many of their targets; after all, most of the hate figures mentioned above are fairly moderate proponents of a two-state solution, not one-staters or anti-Zionists. One might reasonably expect that if the liberal enforcers were serious about their “pro-peace” agenda, they would have found a way to make common cause with these critics rather than trying so fervently to destroy them. Instead, they followed a typical pattern: a few perfunctory words in favor of “peace” and against the settlements, followed by torrents of invective directed at anyone who was actually engaged in concrete action to further these goals. If these so-called liberals had devoted one-tenth the time they spent policing the bounds of the debate to actually ending the occupation, the entire situation might be very different today.
This is not to deprecate those liberal Zionists who genuinely acted on their moral convictions; they have performed admirable work against the occupation, often at serious personal cost. But they have always been the exception rather than the rule. When it counted—during the Gaza attack, for instance, or the current debate over confrontation with Iran—the bulk of the liberal Zionists could be counted on to fall into line. They expressed their hopes that Israel would choose, out of the goodness of its heart, to stop colonizing the West Bank or to show more restraint in its military actions. But by conceding beforehand that Israel would have their steadfast support even when it inevitably decided to ignore them, by working to ensure that Israel would face no consequences when it did so, by insisting that only the right people with the right ideologies were allowed to agree with them, they only ensured that nothing would ever change. It became hard to avoid the conclusion that their protestations were intended more to salve their own consciences than to accomplish anything substantive.
At some point, I simply got tired of these fratricidal and self-absorbed debates, tired of the endless rhetorical dance. I stopped caring much about the “pro-Israel” label, or whether others would consider me a true “friend of Israel,” or whether I was abiding by the strictures of “acceptable criticism.” In the face of so much evident misery and injustice, these considerations came to seem self-indulgent and irrelevant. I continue to believe that the policies I support would ultimately be in the best interest of the people of Israel, but I recognize that only a minority of Israelis agree with me, and I frankly have little interest in squabbling with the Likudniks and neoconservatives over the right to call myself “pro-Israel.”
I suppose at this point I should relate anecdotes about my bar mitzvah or travels to Israel, tell shtetl stories about my ancestors, proclaim my love of latkes and klezmer and Woody Allen and Philip Roth. I should talk about “Jewish values” and how my views on Israel-Palestine are an extension, not a renunciation, of these values. I should try to reassure you, in other words, that I am not a deracinated or, worse, “self-hating” Jew; that I am one of “us,” not one of “them.”
Coach Red Holzman led the Knicks to their only championships and an auspicious 613 wins