A Liberal’s Support for Zionism (but not Bibi)

The following is a selection from the Jan. 3rd issue of the weekly newsletter by Steven Sheffey, “Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update“: 

The U.S.-Israel relationship is grounded in shared foreign policy interests and shared values. “Shared” does not mean identical, which is why every administration, from Truman to Trump, has at times publicly disagreed with Israel. The U.S.-Israel bond is, as President Obama often said, “unbreakable,”not because the two nations always agree, but because our bonds are stronger than the inevitable disagreements between leaders and governments of allies. Pro-Israel means supporting the values and interests that bind the U.S. and Israel and speaking out when either country weakens those foundations.

Pro-Israel is not necessarily pro-Bibi, nor is the most hawkish or right-wing view necessarily the pro-Israel view. In his farewell column last week, Chemi Shalev wrote that “American Jews who still care about Israel might rethink whether their top priority is to blindly back the policies of whatever government is in power there or to make sure their cherished values aren’t snuffed out in Israel as well.”

Zionism expresses “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” Zionism does not require the rejection of the Palestinian national identity, nor does it require Jewish control of the entire Jewish homeland: Israel accepted U.N. Resolution 181, which established an Arab state in what is now called the West Bank and put Jerusalem under international administration. The Arabs, not the Zionists, rejected partition, and Zionism needs partition (two states) today for the same reason Zionism needed it then.

Former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, wrote in My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel Searching for Peace that the ultimate aim of Zionism was “not to secure every inch of the Land of Israel: it was to redeem, reinvigorate, and rededicate themselves to the People of Israel.” Those who support, or would turn a blind eye toward, unilateral or creeping annexation forget this lesson.

When asked in 1998 how his life might have turned out if he had been born a Palestinian, Barak replied “At some stage, I would have entered into one of the terror organizations and fought from there.” Imagine if a Democrat said that.

Barak was clear that he abhors terrorism, but he “simply answered as honestly as I could, trying to imagine I’d been one of the Palestinian babies in Wadi Khaweret, yet with the same mind and approach to life that had defined me as an Israeli.” That’s called empathy, and that explains why there is no contradiction between sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians while still supporting Israel’s safety and security.

Barak cited Moshe Dayan’s famous 1956 eulogy for Roi Rotberg, who was murdered by Arab terrorists. Dayan said that “For eight years, [the Palestinians] have been sitting in the refugee camps of Gaza, while before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and villages where their fathers dwelt.” Sounds like something you’d expect a naive lefty to say, but this is Moshe Dayan speaking in 1956, quoted by Ehud Barak in 2018.

Zionism means rejecting galut mentality. “Galut” is the Hebrew word for diaspora (exile). Barak writes that Netanyahu’s refusal to take risks to disentangle Israel from Palestinians on the West Bank is “living proof of the old saying that it’s easier to take Jews out of the galut, than take the galut out of the Jews.” He could have been writing about certain Americans who move to Israel and use their fluency in English and their status as Israelis to validate the right-wing politics they took with them from America.

Barak believes that as long as the occupation is an interim arrangement with the ultimate goal of a political resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, treating Jewish settlers differently from Palestinians in the West Bank, legally and politically, is defensible. “But under a one-state vision, it will become harder and harder to rebut comparisons made with the old South Africa.”

Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert, and Yitzhak Rabin(who compared settlements to cancer) have also warned that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state (their words) if it does not achieve a two-state solution. Yet some Republicans blame Black American leaders for seeing what Barak, Olmert, and Rabin saw and speaking out for the values shared by the U.S. and Israel–even in the breach, and even while continuing to support the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Some pro-Israel groups seem infatuated with an Israel that never was, except perhaps on the pages of Leon Uris’s Exodus, and they want Israel portrayed as they imagine it, not as it is. They are doing more harm than they realize–as Chemi Shalev wrote, “One of the main reasons for the growing disillusionment of American Jews, especially the younger generation, is the unbearable discrepancy between the idyllic Israel they were sold and their realization of reality on the ground.”

The section of President Obama’s memoir on Israel is a powerful statement of support for Israel in part because it shows how we can support Israel without ignoring unpleasant facts.

Effective pro-Israel [support] requires a mature understanding and love for the real Israel, wonders, flaws, and all, grounded in shared values, not right-wing talking points, and we should support candidates who share and model that understanding.