+972 readers weigh in on Zionism debate

A critique of an article by a noted liberal Zionist leads to an interesting debate about Zionism.

In the polarized world of debate about Israel/Palestine, certain terms have acquired such strong connotations that an honest and factual discussion of important issues is almost at a standstill. From the family dinner table to college campus throughout the world, terms like “BDS,” “anti-Zionist” and “liberal Zionist” have become virtual conversation stoppers – depending on the circle. Yesterday, I wrote a strongly worded critique of Bernard Avishai’s new piece on the Palestinian Right of Return (RoR), which appears in this month’s edition of Harper’s Magazine. I accused Avishai of sloppy reporting, given the paucity of critical Palestinian voices in his piece. I argued that Avisahi abandoned a broad factual discussion of this complex issue in favour of pushing a tired Israeli narrative, often used by liberal Zionist writers, which assumes symmetry between the players and downplays the crucial barriers to the resolution of the issues on the ground.

While pointed, the piece was part of a larger attempt to expose the working conditions which many liberal Zionist writers employ when analysing Israel/Palestine. A specific point which deserves larger treatment is the incredible contempt which these writers often demonstrate to their audience by adopting positions of authority while willingly ignoring voices on the ground that to do not confirm their own viewpoints. Naturally, this criticism can be applied to all writing on the conflict, but given the ideological inconsistency of liberal Zionism, special attention is required to understand how the ideology has been so successful, especially in the American Jewish context.

The piece engendered the beginnings of a rich debate about the nature of Zionism in general, and specifically the liberal Zionist discourse. It is my belief that this is not only a crucial debate for Israeli/Jewish society but one of absolute necessity for Israelis and Palestinians to have in a joint and respectful capacity.

The following are a number of comments, some of which have been shortened for clarity (the language has not been changed). You can view the full comments on the piece itself. Using the handle Henry Weinstein, one commenter asked why I choose to address Avishai’s piece while the Israeli right presents many more problems for those concerned with Israel or, at least, an Israel with some semblance of morality:

Meanwhile, Joseph Dana, Israeli Far Right is blossoming….What’s worth is it to hunt liberal Zionists, when Fascists are hunting you? Remember Weimar. Food for thought.

My (shortened) response:

I think that liberal Zionism, as used today, is a dangerous and, in some profound ways, dishonest system of thought. While the wave of Israeli far right nationalism is abhorrent, one can’t claim that Liebermann is a dishonest politician. It can be debated that Israeli far right nationalism is the purest form of Zionism due to the fact that zero explanation or apologia can be detected in its rhetoric. Let’s quickly note that it was the Labour Zionists who have had the better track record of building settlements and starting wars. The right, for all of its hot rhetoric, is often left with nothing more than hot rhetoric while the left, the liberal labour Zionists, are the ones that really do the dirty business of starting wars and building settlements.

I used to think that liberal Zionism was THE proper Israeli political posture for retaining ‘Jewish self-determination’ (an exact definition for this term still evades me despite the compelling arguments of many a liberal Zionist) and espousing liberal values similar to those I had grown up with in the United States. Then I moved to Israel and meet a number of Mertez voters, liberal Zionists par excellence, who harboured no reservation about serving in the army or sending their children to the army. I found that many ‘liberal Zionists’ I spoke with actually maintained an incredible level of racism toward Arabs. Instead of being an honest about the racism and moving forward, they seemed to wrestle with it. As if in a constant battle of suppression and cognitive dissonance, these liberal Zionist types embraced the liberal zionist mantra that “it is the settlers and the crazy right wingers fault.’

You can see that a narrative has emerged from this type of thinking. Blame the ‘crazies’ but do not change the system which the crazies are a product of. I believe that Noam Sheizaf has written on this website about the notion, popular among liberal Zionists, that there exists a ‘good Israel’ and a ‘bad Israel.’ At its heart, Israel is a good place full of well-intentioned individuals with a strong connection with Europe but it is the ‘bad Israel’ of extremists and strange immigrants that are polluting the project for everyone.

Following this comment were a number of thoughtful responses from Ayla, a commenter. These comments will be presented together.

I actually won’t use the term “Zionism” anymore; it means too many different things to too many different people so you never know what you’re talking about in dialogue. You, JD, live in Ramallah, not Israel, so you don’t have to wrestle with hypocrisy as I do by living in Israel. then again, I don’t actually see my life as hypocritical (as some do), because I don’t break things down in such a black and white way. I see my life here more as paradoxical than hypocritical, and I believe that paradox is inherent in everything. Like you, JD, I don’t believe in the all good or all bad (country or citizens), though there is certainly good and bad behavior; more and less educated, etc. The more I learn, the less I know.

It may work better not to suggest we forget Zionism, but rather that we move into a post-Zionist — complete with new terminology — way of supporting (fighting for) an Israel we can believe in, which for Liberals (possibly with old-fasioned, Zionist ideals) is simply not this Israel.

My response:

Ultimately I claim that the Zionist ideology in so far as it privileges one ethnic group over another is at odds with liberal values. Therefore, liberal Zionist, by definition, is convoluted. One can respect the Zionist dream or idea but understand that its application is a barrier to genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Gustav Landauer once said that socialism needs to be left, not destroyed but left. Perhaps the time has come in which Zionism needs to be left, not destroyed but replaced with something which prides itself on the idea of equality for all under Israeli rule. Is this an ‘anti-Zionist’ statement? Quite the contrary. Perhaps Zionism must be forgotten in order to achieve the Zionist dream of a state living in security and peace.

Finally, SH weighed in with the following:

For the same reasons as Ayla, I hardly dare use the term Zionist. To prove her point, growing up I saw Zionism as the certainty that we Jews belonged to the holy land and should have the right to live there, because coming from a religious, pacifist home that’s how it was put to me. Different to secular Zionism and even religious nationalist Zionism. My diaspora Jewish school had difficulty with Zionism but caved in to parental pressure concerning the Hatikva (national anthem of Israel) by changing the phrase “a free nation” into “a holy nation”. On immigrating to Israel as a teen, I found freedom of sorts for some, real holiness rarely and eventually concluded that Zionism must have been achieved upon independence. The bits of the declaration of independence that pleased me most confirmed that we were going for equality, which meant that when “they” came around to understanding that we were good people who didn’t want to harm them, they would learn to love us. Words turned out to be one thing and what was happening on the ground quite another, proof that Zionism had already been left. In truth, once the dream was realized, Zionism-on-life-support strait-jacketed Israel and its leaders into unimaginable contortions.
Again like Ayla, I would not forget Zionism; no more memory blanks please, we’ve more than enough of those already. But I dislike the term post-Zionism too. If we need another “ism” to motivate us – not sure we do – it should refer to how we want to move on, not to what we have left.

What is presented in these comments is a clear tension in Zionist ideology. I maintain my claim that Zionism is an exclusionary ideology privileging one ethnic group over another, and this presents a major barrier to lasting reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. The unease which these commenters, and many Jews throughout the world, have with Zionism signals a possible space which could be opened if “Zionism” was abandoned for a more equitable form of Jewish nationalism, which necessarily includes open discussion about the rights of all under Israeli rule, whether they are in Gaza City or Haifa. But this is not just about what I think. How do you approach these issues?

Lastly, I would like to take this opportunity to invite Mr. Avishai to a formal debate on Zionism and its discontents in the avenue of his choosing.