Is it possible to be progressive and pro-Israel?

“Pro-Israel” is a term that is too often linked to reflexive support for Israeli policies. People who are committed to Israel’s survival and security as well as human rights, social and economic justice and other progressive goals have a different definition of what it means to be pro-Israel.

To them, it is progressive and pro-Israel to help Israeli Jews and Palestinians who protest the occupation on the streets and in court, and to urge the U.S. to stop being an enabler of Israel’s settlement addiction. It is progressive and pro-Israel to support Israeli groups that protect and promote the rights of Arab Israelis, the LGBTQ community, women and African refugees.

Although it might be hard to believe, given Israel’s wretched reputation in the progressive community, there was a time when people on the left loved Israel. They sympathized with the suffering of Jewish Holocaust survivors and, especially during Israel’s first few decades, admired its brand of democratic socialism, its powerful trade union movement and its kibbutzim.

Israel has changed dramatically since then, clinging to occupied territories and lurching to the right in ways that sadden and dismay its left-leaning supporters abroad. But the idealistic spirit and concern for social welfare that once animated its mainstream institutions hasn’t vanished. It still exists in many Israeli grassroots groups and some politicians. Encouraging them, and trying to fix what is broken in Israel, is a vitally important task. 

Just one of many examples is Standing Together, Israeli Jews and Arabs who are trying to build a movement that unites the disparate groups that are fighting the occupation, advocating for the rights of Israeli Arabs, improving social services, addressing income inequality and other causes. Their goal is “a society that chooses a life of peace, justice and independence for Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. A society in which we can all enjoy real security: with adequate housing, quality education, good healthcare, a decent salary, and the ability to age with dignity.”

It is pro-Israel to stand with them.

What about Israel’s military actions and the behavior of its security services? 

Reconciling a commitment to human rights and social justice with a commitment to the personal safety of Israelis can be very difficult. Too often, Israel uses security concerns as a pretext for the outright oppression of Palestinian Arabs and when that happens, Israel should be held accountable for it. For example, Breaking the Silence conveys harrowing accounts by former Israeli soldiers of “cases of abuse” they witnessed or participated in while enforcing the occupation. Pro-Israel, progressive organizations in North America frequently provide platforms to enable them to tell their stories. 

Legitimate questions also can and should be raised about Israel’s military actions in the Gaza Strip and whether some of its responses to Palestinian violence have been disproportionate. But people on the left should be concerned about the safety of both Jews and Arabs in the region. It isn’t right wing propaganda that missiles from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon threaten Israeli lives, or that more than a thousand Israeli civilians were killed during the second Palestinian intifada.

Even if you believe Israelis are more to blame than Palestinians, it is important to remember that many Israelis who want to end the occupation are reluctant to cede territory for a Palestinian state without iron-clad security guarantees. Ignoring Israelis’ legitimate fears or dismissing their security concerns as overblown—as some on the left unfortunately do—is not just impractical; it is inhumane.

In the long run, there is clearly no military solution to this conflict. A negotiated agreement is necessary to end the occupation and ensure the security of both peoples. And steps by either party that make an agreement more difficult should be condemned by people who want peace and justice. The Third Narrative