Can one be a liberal and a Zionist without being a liberal Zionist?

An alternative understanding of Zionism sees no contradiction between liberalism and Zionism, and makes possible various political arrangements, which do not place the national aspirations of Jews ahead of those of Palestinians.

By Jerry Haber

Can one be a liberal (or: progressive) and a Zionist? The debate has been going on for some time now, and recent entries in the debate on +972 by Joseph Dana, Larry Derfner, and Abir Kopty, are worth reading.

What’s interesting is that both the advocates and detractors of liberal Zionism agree that there is an inherent contradiction between being liberal and being Zionist. Derfner considers himself a liberal, one who believes, for example, in civic equality, but there are times when his allegiance to the statist self-determination of the Jewish people trumps his liberalism. There is nothing wrong or inconsistent with attaching different weight to competing values.  

I don’t agree with the premise that there is an inherent contradiction between being liberal and being Zionist.  But that’s because of how I understand those terms.

Zionism for me involves a cluster of beliefs and attitudes that contain the following:

a) I am conscious of being part of a Jewish people, and that consciousness provides something meaningful within my life;

b) As a member of this people, I am conscious of a religious/historical connection to the land of Israel/Palestine;

c) The growth of Hebrew culture in Israel/Palestine, that began in the twentieth century, has been, on the whole, positive for the Jewish people, and compatible with the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestine Arabs;

d) The legitimate self-determination of the Jewish people requires nothing more than the ability for the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, within  the limits of a liberal, civic framework;

I find these views compatible with various political arrangements in Israel/Palestine. They are certainly compatible with a one state, binational framework, and arguably compatible with a national Jewish minority status within a Palestinian state, with rights guaranteed by a constitution.

Still, these principles return us to the arguments within the Zionist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, before the Zionist movement made the (wrong, in my opinion) turn towards ethnic statism in the early 1940s. They are controversial, certainly from a Palestinian standpoint. Particularly problematic is c) which rests on Jewish immigration  – although, it is important to point out that most of the key institutions of the revival of Hebrew culture predated the Jewish state, and were not opposed by the Palestinian leadership.

In any event, we are not in the 1930s. There are now around five and a half million Jews in Israel/Palestine.  The overwhelming majority of Palestinians and Arabs, including the Hamas party, accept the physical presence of Jews within Palestine; their problems are more with a Jewish ethnic state.

I do not accept other principles, which may now be dogmas, of Zionism.  I certainly don’t accept the view that the self-determination of the Jewish people trumps the self-determination of the Palestinian people, or that it justified immigration against the wishes of the Palestinian population, much less the formation of an ethnic exclusivist state with quasi-racist laws and provisions that are unparalleled in liberal, decent societies.

Of course, there will be many whose view of Zionism is such that they won’t consider me to be a Zionist.  They will say that my Zionism is so attenuated as not to be worthy of the name.  And they may be right; the fact that there is historical precedent for my brand of Zionism may not cut the mustard for them.

Whatever. At least folks will know why this blog is called the Magnes Zionist.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US. This article was published on Jerry’s blog, The Magnes Zionist. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.

Related posts on +972:
The Zionism debate: When colonialism is embedded in liberalism
Response to Joseph Dana: A case for liberal Zionism
A sad commentary on the state of liberal Zionist discourse
+972 readers weigh in on Zionism debate