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Liberal Zionism: Not a Dead End

By TTN Blog

The war in Gaza has been met with an expected slew of  “Liberal Zionism is dead/dying” articles detailing the increasing inability for those on the left who view themselves as both liberal and Zionists. They are questioned, once again, on their ability (or in this case, inability) to reconcile these two seemingly warring facets of their worldview, with a warning that such reconciliation is coming to a decisive end in the near future. Of those published, Antony Lerman, a British-Israeli activist and former director for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, comes across as the most strident of these critics, and certainly the most pessimistic. Lerman’s general premise is easy to understand and sympathize with: as right-wing elements in Israel become more ascendant and more entrenched, it moves further and further away from its social democratic beginnings and towards a thuggish, fascistic ethnocracy, exhibiting the very qualities that its detractors have been warning of for years.


Lerman’s final prescription is for liberal Zionists to face reality, drop the unrealistic pretense of two states, and embrace the notion of a theoretical one state solution with equal rights for all.  His suggestions are optimistic but vague; how will this utopian society come into being? How can liberal Zionists try and convince the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to give up their dreams of national self-determination? Upon abolishment of the two-state solution, how can we reconcile the nationalist tendencies of two peoples who have often defined themselves in such binary terms?


It is clear that Lerman is driven by a genuine concern for Palestinian human rights and perhaps by a depressing sense of fatigue, rather than any ill will towards Israel and the concept of Jewish national self-determination. The past few years, and this summer in particular, have been trying times for those of us who have exerted every bit of our energy to help Israeli and Palestinian society move towards a comprehensive peace. It is no small wonder, that after years and years of disappointing returns and pointless wars, one’s optimism might reach a breaking point. Yet his argument in favor of abandoning the accepted two state paradigm is so lacking in substance in certain areas that it becomes difficult to take seriously at face value.


In Lerman’s narrative, there is no Palestinian actor, no outside forces that have contributed to the terrible state of affairs; there is simply a slow, almost natural, descent into Israeli fascism. While the Israeli public has been far too lax in recent years regarding the undemocratic or blatantly anti-democratic tendencies that have cropped up, it would be unwise to assume that outside forces played no part in helping shape this reality. Indeed, Hamas’ MO isn’t truly the destruction of Israel-the organization knows that it is simply too weak to achieve such an ambitious aim. Rather, it is the creation of a low-intensity conflict that will convince Israelis that peace is a four letter word, and drive them into the waiting arms of hawks and right-wing extremists all too happy to exploit their fear and anger.


And in this regard they have largely succeeded, time and time again: the defeat of Shimon Peres in 1996 after a rash of suicide bombings, Netanyahu’s ascent once again in 2009 following Cast Lead, and, the ugly waves of anti-Arab racism generated by Protective Edge. This is not to absolve Israel of it’s own sins, but rather to make clear that the terror generated by groups like Hamas are instrumental in silencing liberal and moderate voices opposed to the occupation, rather than strengthening them. Worse still, the help generate a self-fulfilling prophecy amongst radically right-wing Israelis, reasoning that if the state is truly guilty of unspeakable crimes, it should at the very least, be truly guilty.


Thus, without meaning to, Lerman subscribes to the questioning of Israel’s legitimacy based on the actions it takes during times of war and the make up of its government, a standard applied to no one, save for the Jewish state. By this criteria we would expect that those Americans appalled by the US’ many wars around the world over the course of many decades would have, by now, relinquished their passports and swiftly emigrated to Canada. Numerous European nations over the course of the last half-century, like Spain, Portugal, and Greece endured military regimes; one would be hard pressed to find, for example, many liberal Greek-Americans who, angered at the Greek junta’s actions in the 60’s or the rise of Neo-Nazism in the country today would denounce it as a failed experiment in Greek self-determination.


Critics of such a view might argue that few of these countries are openly occupying and colonizing an area meant to act as the territory of a nascent state-but Lerman, like many in the past effectively asks that we throw out the baby with the bathwater. Israel needs to remove the cancer that is the settlements enterprise; what Lerman suggests instead is a lobotomy. But neither Israel’s existence, nor the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination is contingent on its government’s makeup or its behavior, just as Palestinian statehood cannot be wished away because of the actions of some of its more zealous subscribers, such as Hamas.


Most disappointing is Lerman’s dejected attitude that leads him to believe that a Jewish nation-state has become a moral dead end, and therefore not worthy of survival. Shmuel Rosner recently wrote in the New York Times about his own disappointment with Israel’s fair-weather friends, Jews who he defines as distancing themselves from Israel when they do not approve of its policies. Rosner misses the point. Such individuals do exist, but their sin is not in their opposition to Israeli policies, rather their tendency to flee the scene when the ‘going gets tough’.


What Israel needs are not uncritical supporters who refuse to see its flaws, nor detractors that see it as an irredeemable evil. It needs friends who are ready to stick with it through its most trying times, not allowing themselves to be undeterred in meting out uncomfortable criticism, even when they are accused, unfairly, of being ‘anti-Israel’. History has shown that those who have had the greatest effect on Israeli behavior are those ‘insiders’ who have learned to balance their support with constructive, but sometimes harsh criticism.   Lerman, in his decision to wash his hands of Liberal Zionism risk becoming an outsider looking in, whose denunciations will simply be branded as a lack of understanding, or worse, manifestations of self-hatred, by skeptical Israelis who are tired of being lectured. Lerman would do best to see through his disillusionment and understand that if he is to be truly effective in bringing about change,  his most powerful vehicle is that of Liberal Zionism.


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