Like so many pubescent boys, hormonal and not too studious, I got into politics because of a girl. I was 14, and she had a way of touching my shoulder when she talked, which had the same effect on me as the snake charmer’s flute does on a drowsy king cobra. And because she mostly wanted to talk about politics, I abandoned my obsession with dungeons, dragons, and the other childish distractions and started caring about the Real World.
It was a nice change of pace, especially as I soon followed my inamorata to a meeting of a youth movement, Noar Ratz, affiliated with what would eventually become Meretz, Israel’s leading progressive party, the liberal faction flanking Labor’s centrist bloc from the left. In a dusty room on the second floor of a building in a part of town I’d never visited before, a dozen of us gathered weekly to talk war, peace, and civil rights. It felt heady at first, particularly for someone like me, who had previously reserved the full force of his intellect for deciding who would win if the Hulk and the Thing happened to scuffle. But my love for politics, I soon learned, was real, far outlasting the fleeting romantic infatuation that had sparked my interest in the first place. And Meretz’s ideology made sense: Its core offering, captured in two simple and powerful words that anchored the party’s platform, was “humanistic Zionism.”
What did it mean? My newly kindled interest in political theory led me—could it have been any different?—to Hannah Arendt, who, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, advanced an idea I found profound. Nationalism, she argued, was a concept that contained multitudes: Just as the nation-state possessed the power to safeguard the rights of its citizens, it could, if poisoned by atavistic tribalism, descend into madness. And it was precisely this sort of primordial feeling, Arendt continued, that sparked imperialist movements like colonialism and, later, Nazism. In other words, universalism, unless supported by a nation’s commitment to steely laws that delivered specific protections, left us all vulnerable to tyranny. And nationalism, if allowed to spiral into madness, could metastasize into an insatiable appetite for empire. The key was to find a balance, a soulful sort of nationalism that was as compassionate as it was proud.
And Meretz, I believed in those early days, tried to do just that. Unlike Hadash, the modern-day Israeli Communist Party that saw any form of patriotism as an affront to the higher calling of class solidarity, Meretz was unabashedly Zionist. Sitting on the floor and munching on stale snacks, we, the party’s youthful vanguard, heatedly debated A.D. Gordon and Yosef Haim Brenner and Berl Katznelson as if Zionism’s founding fathers were contemporaries seeking our vote and not the ghosts haunting the national pantheon. The distinctions between their ideas mattered to us because we felt they had not yet been settled: Zion, to us, was still a work in progress, the perfect balance yet to be struck between our commitment to religion and peoplehood and our passion for universal justice. Even though I’m now nearly three decades removed from those balmy late afternoons, I can still hear these discussions reverberating in my mind. Was the land of Israel divinely sanctioned or just another stretch of real estate? Did we have the right to ask the state’s Arab citizens to stand up for an anthem that purred about the stirrings of a Jewish soul? And which of our civil rights were we willing to suspend, and under what terms, to meet Israel’s undeniable security challenges? We were young, sure, and not yet seared by life, but the questions we raised then still strike me as the right ones.
Sadly, these questions are no longer of real interest to Meretz. Late last month, news broke in Israel that the party had deleted any reference to Zionism from its platform, perhaps as early as 2009. Subsequent attempts by reporters to ascertain whether the party still considers itself Zionist—the very question would’ve seemed absurd to any of us young political animals in the early 1990s—revealed organizational and ideological chaos. The party’s head, Zehava Galon, said Meretz remained as committed as ever to Zionism. Her spokeswoman, May Ossi, said the exact opposite: “Meretz,” she told Haaretz, “is a non-Zionist Israeli political party, the party of all citizens because the very idea of Zionism necessarily erases an entire other people.” Mossi Raz, the party’s secretary-general, claimed that Meretz had never defined itself as a Zionist party, which any of us who studied its platform as eager and devoted teenagers can attest is simply false. And Ilan Gilon, who many believe will be a contender for the party’s leadership in the near future, thundered that the party’s motto “remains as it has always been: Zionism, socialism, and the brotherhood of peoples.”
As teenagers, my friends and I disagreed on plenty, but never on whether Zionism itself was a virtue we ought to preserve. Even the most left-leaning among us took the idea of Jewish sovereignty in our historical homeland to be the rock on which all other political structures were necessarily built. To entertain the notion that our commitment to protecting the rights of the state’s non-Jewish citizens somehow meant denouncing our own rights and aspirations, our historical achievements and our ideological affinities, our passion, and our pride, would’ve been unthinkable to us, even at 14 or 15.
Even though I’ve traveled a long way from my first political home, I was still pained to see Meretz stumble into muddle-minded political correctness and continue to lose its way as it’s been doing for at least a decade now. Once a vibrant keeper of the oppositional flame, Meretz these days is feeble and confused, no longer able to observe the tensions that made it so valuable in the political landscape for so long.
How did this happen? The question has dogged Israeli politicians and pundits for years now and will continue to bedevil future historians studying the collapse of the Israeli left. The Palestinian leadership’s continuing commitment to terrorism probably has a lot to do with it, as does Meretz’s failure to propose policies that address the daily existential concerns of most Israelis. But listen to the party’s bosses these days, and the picture that emerges is grimmer; judging by its leaders’ inability to agree on what, precisely, are its core values, Meretz’s demise seems intricately connected with its decision, not uncommon among leftist movements worldwide these days, to see nationalism as necessarily evil and reject the nation-state for an imagined cosmic brotherhood which, like all fantastic abstractions, needn’t be bothered by facts on the ground.
And that’s a real pity; somewhere in Israel, there are teenagers just waking up to the world who could use an honest argument.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.