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Maybe American liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving

Daniel Luban
June 03, 2010
(Photoillistration by Tablet Magazine; boats by Uriel Sinai/AFP/Getty Images; flags by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.)
(Photoillistration by Tablet Magazine; boats by Uriel Sinai/AFP/Getty Images; flags by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.)

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.

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.

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.”

But I won’t talk about these things, not because they are untrue, but because they are irrelevant. One of the least attractive features of the debate as it has been conducted in the Jewish community is the constant insistence on changing the subject from the concrete political issues at stake to issues of Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding. It is the worst kind of narcissism to insist on talking endlessly about our feelings rather than the political realities that stare us in the face. So I will not dwell on my “feelings” about Judaism, my “relationship” with Jewish identity, because these are simply distractions. Either the Gaza blockade is just, or it is not, either the Lebanon war was wise; or it was not; either the U.S. should bomb Iran, or it should not; either the two-state solution remains viable, or it does not. To reply to these questions with invocations of Judaism or anti-Semitism or the Holocaust is sheer non sequitur, and when someone does so it is generally a sign that they have no good answers. As for the charge of self-hatred, it may once have had bite, but today it has lost its sting. It comes off as desperate, even silly, and I can’t find it in me to muster an answer to it.

You may argue that I am an aberration, that I speak only for myself. Indeed, in recent weeks many of Israel’s defenders have vigorously disputed the notion that anything has changed. They argue either that there is no real drop of support among the young, or that the phenomenon is restricted to a few left-wing elites, or that the U.S.-Israel relationship can get by just fine without liberal Jews anyway. I personally think they’re deluding themselves, both in imagining that the attitudes of American Jews are the same as they’ve always been and that the special relationship can be preserved without the support of mainstream liberal Jewry. But ultimately all I can say to those who dispute the facts of the shift is: We’ll see in due course who is right.

It is also worth noting, in this regard, that I came to political consciousness at a time when events—superficially at least—seemed to ratify the broad Israeli narrative; I first became aware of the conflict through Oslo, the suicide bombings of the 1990s, Camp David, the second intifada. Those who are a decade younger than me are coming to consciousness with the assaults on Lebanon and Gaza as their earliest memories. Thus there is every reason to expect that, if anything, they will follow the same path that I traveled far more rapidly than I did.

But if this is the case, if I am more representative than defenders of the status quo would like to admit, then it is naive to think that the old post-1967 liberal Zionism can be revived simply by speaking out more forcefully against Avigdor Lieberman and the settlers. It is likely that American liberal Zionism was always destined to founder eventually on its own intellectual contradictions and political compromises, and those who are nostalgic for it should consider the possibility that at this point we simply can’t go home again. The way forward can only come if we shed the pathologies that have stunted thinking to this point, and take a hard and pragmatic look at what concrete steps could lead to a better future.

Daniel Luban is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago.

Daniel Luban is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago.

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