Liberal Zionists are at a crossroads. The original tradition of combining Zionism and liberalism — which meant ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, supporting a Palestinian state as well as a Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority, and standing behind Israel when it was threatened — was well intentioned. But everything liberal Zionists stand for is now in doubt.
The decision of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to launch a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza has cost the lives, to date, of 64 soldiers and three civilians on the Israeli side, and nearly 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians.
“Never do liberal Zionists feel more torn than when Israel is at war,” wrote Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian’s opinion editor and a leading British liberal Zionist, for The New York Review of Books last month. He’s not alone. Columnists like Jonathan Chait, Roger Cohen and Thomas L. Friedman have all riffed in recent weeks on the theme that what Israel is doing can’t be reconciled with their humanism.
But it’s not just Gaza, and the latest episode of “shock and awe” militarism. The romantic Zionist ideal, to which Jewish liberals — and I was one, once — subscribed for so many decades, has been tarnished by the reality of modern Israel. The attacks on freedom of speech and human rights organizations in Israel, the land-grabbing settler movement, a growing strain of anti-Arab and anti-immigrant racism, extremist politics, and a powerful, intolerant religious right — this mixture has pushed liberal Zionism to the brink.
In the United States, trenchant and incisive criticism of Israeli policies by commentators like Peter Beinart, one of liberal Zionism’s most articulate and prolific voices, is now common. But the critics go only so far — not least to avoid giving succor to anti-Semites, who use the crisis as cover for openly expressing hatred of Jews.
In the past, liberal Zionists in the Diaspora found natural allies among the left-wing and secular-liberal parties in Israel, like Labor, Meretz and Shinui. But Israel’s political left is now comatose. Beaten by Menachem Begin in the 1977 national elections, it briefly revived with Yitzhak Rabin and the hopes engendered by the 1993 Oslo Accords. But having clung to the Oslo process long past its sell-by date, the parliamentary left in Israel has become insignificant.
Diaspora Jewish politics has also changed. In the 1960s, when I was an enthusiastic young Zionist in England planning to settle on a kibbutz in Israel, some organizations had names virtually identical to Israeli political parties. This identification lasted only as long as the institutions that prevailed in Israel seemed to Diaspora Jews to reflect a liberal Zionist viewpoint.
Today, the dominant Diaspora organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as a raft of largely self-appointed community leaders, have swung to the right, making unquestioning solidarity with Israel the touchstone of Jewish identity — even though majority Jewish opinion is by no means hawkish.
Though squeezed by a more vociferous and entrenched right, liberal Zionists have not given up without a fight. They found ways of pushing back, insisting that their two-state Zionism held out the only hope for an end to the conflict and setting up organizations to promote their outlook. J Street in America and Yachad in Britain, founded in 2008 and 2011 respectively, describe themselves as “pro-Israel and pro-peace” and have attracted significant numbers of people who seek a more critical engagement with Israel.
I became an Israeli citizen in 1970, and I am still one today. I worked in the Jewish community in research and philanthropic capacities for 30 years, serving the interests of Jews worldwide. But in the 1980s, I began to rethink my relationship with Israel and Zionism. As recently as 2007, while directing the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, an independent think tank, I still thought that liberal Zionism had a role to play. I believed that by encouraging Diaspora Jews to express reservations about Israeli policy in public, liberal Zionism could influence the Israeli government to change its policies toward the Palestinians.
I still understood its dream of Israel as a moral and just cause, but I judged it anachronistic. The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism. It is carrying out an open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.
This mind-set blocks any chance Israel might have to become a full-fledged liberal-democratic state, and offers the Palestinians no path to national self-determination, no justice for their expulsion in 1948, nor for the occupation and the denial of their rights. I came to see the notion that liberal Zionism might reverse, or even just restrain, this nationalist juggernaut as fanciful.
I used my position at the think tank to raise questions about Israel’s political path and to initiate a community-wide debate about these issues. Naïve? Probably. I was vilified by the right-wing Jewish establishment, labeled a “self-hating Jew” and faced public calls for me to be sacked. This just confirmed what I already knew about the myopia of Jewish leadership and the intolerance of many British Zionist activists.
Today, neither the destruction wreaked in Gaza nor the disgraceful antics of the anti-democratic forces that are setting Israel’s political agenda have produced a decisive shift in Jewish Diaspora opinion. Beleaguered liberal Zionists still struggle to reconcile their liberalism with their Zionism, but they are increasingly under pressure from Jewish dissenters on the left, like Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices.
Along with many experts, most dissenting groups have long thought that the two-state solution was dead. The collapse of the peace talks being brokered by the American secretary of state, John Kerry, came as no surprise. Then, on July 11, Mr. Netanyahu definitively rejected any possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state. The Gaza conflict meant, he said, that “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan” (meaning the West Bank).
Liberal Zionists must now face the reality that the dissenters have recognized for years: A de facto single state already exists; in it, rights for Jews are guaranteed while rights for Palestinians are curtailed. Since liberal Zionists can’t countenance anything but two states, this situation leaves them high and dry.
Liberal Zionists believe that Jewish criticism of Israeli policies is unacceptable without love of Israel. They embrace Israel as the Jewish state. For it to remain so, they insist it must have a Jewish majority in perpetuity. Yet to achieve this inevitably implies policies of exclusion and discrimination.
They’re convinced that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, but they fail to explain how to reconcile God’s supreme authority with the sovereign power of the people. Meanwhile, the self-appointed arbiters of what’s Jewish in the Jewish state — the extreme religious Zionists and the strictly Orthodox, aided and abetted by Jewish racists in the Knesset like Ayelet Shaked, a Jewish Home Party member who recently called for the mothers of Palestinian “snakes” to be killed — are trashing democracy more and more each day. Particularly shocking are the mass arrests — nearly 500 since the beginning of July — of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel for peacefully protesting, and the sanctions against Arab students at universities for posting pro-Gaza messages on social media.
Pushed to the political margins in Israel and increasingly irrelevant in the Diaspora, liberal Zionism not only lacks agency; worse, it provides cover for the supremacist Zionism dominant in Israel today. Liberal Zionists have become an obstacle to the emergence of a Diaspora Jewish movement that could actually be an agent of change.
The dissenting left doesn’t have all the answers, but it has the principles upon which solutions must be based. Both liberal Zionism and the left accept the established historical record: Jews forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes to make way for the establishment of a Jewish state. But the liberals have concluded that it was an acceptable price others had to pay for the state. The left accepts that an egregious injustice was done. The indivisibility of human, civil and political rights has to take precedence over the dictates of religion and political ideology, in order not to deny either Palestinians or Jews the right to national self-determination. The result, otherwise, will be perpetual conflict.
In the repressive one-state reality of today’s Israel, which Mr. Netanyahu clearly wishes to make permanent, we need a joint Israeli-Palestinian movement to attain those rights and the full equality they imply. Only such a movement can lay the groundwork for the necessary compromises that will allow the two peoples’ national cultures to flourish.
This aspiration is incompatible with liberal Zionism, and some liberal Zionists appear close to this conclusion, too. As Mr. Freedland put it, liberal Zionists “will have to decide which of their political identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a Zionist.”
They should know that Israel is not Judaism. Jewish history did not culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.
Regrettably, there is a dearth of Jewish leaders telling Diaspora Jews these truths. The liberal Zionist intelligentsia should embrace this challenge, acknowledge the demise of their brand and use their formidable explanatory skills to build support for a movement to achieve equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.
Antony Lerman, a former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, is the author of The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist.