Is Liberal Zionism Dead? My response.

26 Aug

For “liberal” Zionists living here, the struggle for a more egalitarian and just Israel is not something we can afford to abandon. If I’m here, then my only choice is to try to change things if I want a better future for myself and my family. 

[I was asked for my response to “The End of Liberal Zionism” by Antony Lerman, from the New York Times Sunday Review. Here it is.]

I deeply relate to Lerman’s frustrations with the rise of the Israeli right, and I agree with much of what he wrote. Yet, as an Israeli, I cannot give up completely. Our differing conclusions stem from the fact that I live in Israel, and he does not; as such, his argument is most relevant for “liberal Zionists” in the Diaspora.

We in Israel are living in very dark times. In addition to the current war and the 47-year-old occupation which continues to drain our resources and plague our morality, we are experiencing real threats to freedom of expression and Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. Even with tonight’s cease-fire, the immediate future of this country looks grim.

Yet there is hope for a Zionist Left. We are small and mostly dormant, but we’re here.

Protesters wave an Israeli flag during an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, July 2014. The Left has started to reclaim the flag.

Protesters wave an Israeli flag during an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, July 2014. The Left has started to reclaim the flag.

It’s easy for Diaspora Jews to abandon hope because in a way they have nothing tangible to lose (not to undermine their commitment to Israel), but they are not raising kids in Israel, for example. If I’m here, I can either give in to the negative currents or try to change things. As I see it, I only have one choice  if I want a better future for myself and my family.

The Middle East is a volatile region, and things change very quickly. As such, I believe that an egalitarian, just Jewish state can exist. We need the right leadership, one that has a vision for the long-term future of this country and the values that will sustain it as a democracy. We need to end the Occupation. We need budget for affordable housing and education. When we get it, public education must focus on human rights and coexistence. Our leaders need to denounce racism and take real steps to empower the embattled Arab population. The government needs to ensure that Israel’s increasing wealth is spread among its increasingly destitute poor and middle classes.  Those are just a few things. It’s easier said than done, I know, but these actions are the only way to ensure Israel’s survival.

I sincerely believe that beneath our war-battered pessimism, beneath the racism and fear and belligerence, the majority of Israelis understand that two peoples will continue to live on this tiny piece of land. They understand that for our people to survive we need a fair solution for everyone.

The second aspect of the conundrum of “liberal” Zionism is the double standard Israel faces in global public opinion.  As a Canadian Jew who immigrated to Israel, I remain strongly affiliated with my home country as well as other countries where I have lived, their media, and family and friends there. Thus, for me this conflict – and Israel – exist in two realms:  within Israeli society and in the world.

Within Israel, I am a proactive, tax-paying member of society. This is where I work, vote, and live. Like any citizen of a democratic country, I hold my leaders fully accountable for their actions. The government’s decisions and values directly affect me, and I don’t want my kids to grow up to be occupiers, in a society seeped in fear and hatred.

Then there’s the world, which obsesses over my adopted country more than any other, scrutinizing it with a magnifying glass.

Lerman writes, “But the critics go only so far — not least to avoid giving succor to anti-Semites, who use the crisis as cover for openly expressing hatred of Jews.” I don’t take this statement lightly. As critical as I am of Israel’s actions in this war and in many other spheres, I am preoccupied by the constant double standard Israel faces, and the rise in genuine anti-Semitism cloaked as anti-Zionism.

In my previous job as the international spokesperson for Israel’s largest human rights organization, I dealt with this dilemma daily: explaining Israel’s many breaches of human rights in a truthful and accurate manner, without doling out erroneous, headline-enhancing catchphrases. It wasn’t easy. Then, the arguments were about “apartheid”. This time, it’s about “genocide”. Neither term accurately describes Israel’s actions, as illegal, discriminatory, and reprehensible as they may be.

To our critics abroad I say: it’s OK to denounce but learn the nuances and facts before make sweeping accusations. Even if we are more powerful, Israelis experience real threats, fears, and weaknesses which must be acknowledged.

As a Diaspora-Jew-turned-Israeli-Jew, I can understand Lerman’s decision to relinquish Zionism: the discourse on Israel is so polarized that it often feels as if you have to adopt one extreme viewpoint or the other.  However, because I live the nuances and shades of grey, I can still support this country and consider myself more Zionist than ever.

I’ll end with the most pressing challenge to liberal Zionists in Israel and abroad. We have to stop being afraid to talk about Israel’s ills to the world. It goes without saying that we have to be balanced, honest, and thorough and to distinguish our friends from our foes. For Israel to change, something dramatic has to happen, and it will only happen with pressure from the outside, as was the case with South Africa.

Unlike Lerman, however, I see this as a very Zionist act. Whether they call themselves Zionist or not, we will need people from abroad like Lerman to help make this change.




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