columnIsrael News

Liberal Zionism isn’t dead, but it needs to wake up to new realities

The only argument worth having now is between Zionists of all stripes—liberals as well as conservatives—and those who oppose the Jewish state’s existence.

Israeli Apartheid Week on the University of California, Irvine campus. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.
Israeli Apartheid Week on the University of California, Irvine campus. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Pity the poor liberal Zionist. American Jews who identify as both political liberals and supporters of Israel are speaking up lately about their difficult plight. They have been caught in the crossfire between leftist anti-Zionists and the Jewish right, and many are starting to feel like orphans of history. As historian Jarrod Tanny wrote recently in The Forward, those who share the antipathy of fellow liberals for U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but support Israel, are feeling very lonely. He argued nonetheless that those who claim this label must stick to their support for a two-state solution and a secure Jewish state while continuing to oppose the policies of the two governments.

Apartheid Week on the University of California, Irvine campus. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.

The sense of isolation he was feeling was heightened this week by the American Jewish Committee’s latest survey of American Jewish and Israeli opinion, which showed that the majority of Israelis approve of Trump while U.S. Jews are overwhelmingly opposed to him.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his consistent support for the Jewish state in the conflict with the Palestinians was demonstrated again this week, as the United States and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley waged a lonely and courageous fight against a biased condemnation of Israel at the United Nations over the violence along the border with Gaza. That has not only endeared him to most Israelis, but also to the minority of Jews who are either politically conservative or religiously Orthodox.

If, however, you believe, as many liberal Jews do, that Trump is not merely a man whose policies you oppose, but also an authoritarian whose behavior is beyond the pale, there is nothing—up to and including brokering peace with the Palestinians, persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or curing cancer—that he could possibly do to change your opinion.

But the problem here is not so much the level of “resistance” to Trump as the idea that those who think ill of him are beginning to view Israel and its people as the moral equivalent of a red state populated by a tribe of Jewish “deplorables.”

Part of the problem is that some critics of the Netanyahu government have adopted the same sort of rhetoric used by opponents of Trump. They don’t merely disagree with Netanyahu’s governing coalition about the peace process or even its friendly relationship with Trump. As two such critics who answered Tanny in The Forward asserted, they consider it to be a band of “fascists” threatening democracy and leading Israel towards “apartheid.”

Netanyahu is far from perfect, and his government is guilty of overkill in its attempts to deal with advocates of BDS; banning them from the country is both counterproductive and unnecessary. But his left-wing opponents seem to have a problem with democracy since they are unable to make their peace with the fact that he keeps beating them at the ballot box, and legal problems notwithstanding, retains the support of the majority of Israelis.

As for the standoff with the Palestinians, claims about the long-term damage to Israel of maintaining the anomalous situation in the West Bank have some merit. But as long as the Palestinian Authority subsidizes terror and spews anti-Semitism—and their Hamas rivals are Islamists who have been waging a violent assault on the border with Gaza in the name of the “right of return,” which is synonymous for Israel’s destruction—such arguments remain unpersuasive. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to comprehend why the majority of Israelis don’t see a rational alternative to Netanyahu’s policies and appreciate Trump’s willingness to be more supportive of Israel than his Democratic predecessor who the majority of American Jews supported.

That puts American liberals unalterably opposed to Trump and against Netanyahu in a tough spot. But the notion that liberal Zionism is dead is absurd. Support for the Jewish state and opposition to those who wish to deny the right of the Jewish people to a state or their right of self-defense doesn’t require one to back either leader or to give up on the idea of a two-state solution.

What is dead is the tired, right-left debate about settlements and borders that has divided liberal Zionists from conservatives. What both sides must understand is that their old arguments are obsolete.

When the day comes that a Palestinian leadership is willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, then the two camps can resume battling. But until then, Zionists of all stripes must wake up to the fact that they are on the same side in the only real debate going on today. The rise of anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups—like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow—hasn’t merely stolen the thunder from liberal Zionist organizations, they have recast the argument about Israel to one that is focused on the Jewish state’s legitimacy.

Our partisan differences in America and Israel—no matter how over-the-top our expressions of that divide—are insignificant when compared to that unsettling reality. Hard as it may be for many of us who are so deeply invested in disputes that have dominated Jewish life for a generation, they must come to realize that the debate has shifted. If you love Israel, the enemy isn’t the settlement movement or those who want “peace now,” but advocates of intersectional ideology that falsely casts Israel as an imperialist colony that is the moral equivalent to both apartheid and Jim Crow.

That means the Jewish right needs to stop demonizing anyone who disagrees with them about settlements as a self-hating Jews, and liberal Zionists need to resist the impulse to view anyone who supports Trump or Netanyahu as an accomplice to fascism. The defense of Zionism requires us to put aside our long-standing labels and take up the current struggle with the same passion we summoned in the past to oppose each other.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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