Zionist, Yes; Progressive, maybe

When push comes to shove, many progressive Zionists will let their Zionism trump their progressiveness

by Jerry Haber

Zionist, Yes; Progressive, maybe
J street protesters outside the 2010 annual Hebron fund event in New York (photo: Vanissa W. Chan)

I have never accepted the view that “progressive Zionist” is an oxymoron (well, there goes half of my readership). For one thing, “progressive” or “liberal” (synonymous, for the purpose of this post) Zionists are generally progressive on other issues besides Israel. They may not be Noam Chomsky progressives or Ralph Nader progressives, but they are at least Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow progressives, and I am feeling expansive today. If they are even the least tad irked at Pres. Obama for Afghanistan or Guantanamo, that’s good enough for me. Also, progressive Zionists oppose the Occupation and the settlements. While their memories of settlements only go back to 1967, they are still to be preferred to the “chauvinist center” represented by Likud, Kadima (a weaker version of Likud), and Labor (a weak version of Kadima)

But when push comes to shove, many progressive Zionists I know will let their Zionism trump their progressiveness. As one pointed out to me, the State of Israel is the bedrock of their Jewish identity. So while they can conceive a tactical compromise on their progressive values, they cannot countenance any move by any third party that will have the slightest negative effect on Israel (such as the pain felt when a prominent pop singer cancels her appearance in Tel Aviv). They will support military aid to Israel but will oppose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, even though such military aid supports the Occupation, whereas the BDS movement is directly directed against the Occupation. They will sit in an Israel forum with people that advocate policies that have already destroyed the possibility of a two-state solution (like the Zionist Organization of America – the group that has done more harm to the interests of the State of Israel than a hundred Ahmadinejads). They will disagree strongly with that group and argue vociferously against it.

But why will they sit in coalitions with the likes of ZOA, but not with the likes of JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace)? It cannot be because the ZOA is less harmful to Israel’s true interests than, say, JVP. After all, ZOA supports Israel the way it is now, a “hafradah state” (as a Hebraist and a Zionist, I resent the use of a loan-word, Apartheid, when a perfectly good – and more accurate — Hebrew word will do.) So what the progressive Zionist groups are saying is that although they oppose a hafradah state, which is very much the reality today, they will not sit with groups that support self-determination of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, but have no official position on the political framework of that self-determination. And they will never sit with other groups that wish to End the Occupation who are not Jewish.

Of course, it is the right of any group not to join coalitions. It will say, “We support things that we can support, and on our terms. Fine – as I reported earlier, both JVP and J Street protested the Hebrew Fund annual dinner (Ameinu wasn’t there, as far as I know). It was not a joint protest.

But my point is that groups like J Street and Ameinu have to be open to new bedfellows when it comes to the struggle to end the Occupation, and at the very least, they have to support those groups, especially the Jewish ones, from deligitimation in the Jewish street.

Kenneth Bob, the President of Ameinu, thinks that JVP is beyond the pale (or cannot be taken seriously in Jewish communal discourse) because of some of their positions. He is entitled to that view, of course. I know people who say that Ameinu can’t be taken seriously in Jewish communal discourse because of its criticisms of Israel’s actions in the Gaza flotilla and the siege of Gaza. But rather than play the delegitimation game – which ZOA is a master of – wouldn’t it be better to affirm unequivocally, once and for all, that JVP is as legitimate a player on Israel as is ZOA? What is worse – calling for the US government to end its military aid to Israel, a call that is obviously symbolic in the present climate, or giving verbal support to the two-state idea while not allowing the US to employ *any* sticks in pursuit of that goal. The “call” may allow Zionist progressives to sleep more soundly at night (some people write blogs for that purpose). But if Ameinu is serious about the call, it should be view JVP as an ally in the struggle, albeit one whose positions and tactics are not always kosher in Ameinu’s eyes.

In Israel, progressive Zionist parties have been consistent in their defense of the rights of Arab non-Zionist parties. Is it too much to ask from progressive Zionists in the US to emulate their Israeli brothers and sisters and, at the very least, not diss JVP in public?

(I would ask that other groups in the End the Occupation coalition be shown similar respect. People sometimes write to me, “Jerry, you have gone on record as supporting a selective version of BDS (so does J Street, by the way; they don’t call it BDS, though; I do). Aren’t you worried about the motives of some of the groups who are in that coalition? “My answer to them is I am generally not. The point of a coalition is that groups and individuals get together for a common goal, despite their differences. Of course, I have my red lines; I wouldn’t join a coalition with Neo-Nazis Against the Occupation.

But Palestinian groups are different. It’s about time that progressive Zionists make their choice of coalitions, exchange one set of “strange bedfellows” for another, and get serious about salvaging the two-state solution, if it can indeed be salvaged.

Don’t diss them.

Re-posted from The Magnes Zionist with authors’ permission.