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Why I Am Not a Liberal Zionist: A Response to Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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In March 2001 I was interviewed on Israeli TV, on a prime-time talk show, which had the interviewer, Dov Elboim, talking leisurely and deeply with the interviewee for half-an-hour. Lots can be said in half-an-hour. Those were the early days of the second Intifada, a few months after the dismal failure of Camp David II, when Israelis of the Liberal Zionist badge retreated into their shells, went underground, or, most crudely, moved to the right. Those were the days when several mantras were established -- by Ehud Barak, among other manipulators of public opinion -- such as "we offered them generous concessions and they retorted with violence" or "there is no partner for peace." Only a few of us held our ground, insisting that the offers at Camp David had not been generous at all (as several reports subsequently attested) and that the Palestinians were equally justified in claiming they had no partner for peace. Those of us who refused to be swept into the general right-swing that, as we now know, demolished the Israeli left were labeled "radical left."

One of the first questions that Elboim posed, wanting to clear up the terms of debate, was, "What does it mean to be a radical leftist today in Israel?" I recall answering in three parts. First, I said, a real Israeli leftist believes that Israel is unequivocally in the wrong in holding on to any of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (the OPT) and must therefore vacate all those lands unilaterally. Secondly, a real Israeli leftist recognizes the Palestinian right of return. (Rights, as we know, can be realized in various ways; and when there is a clash between rights, solutions have to be worked out. But before any realizations and solutions can come about, the rights must be recognized.) And finally, a real Israeli leftist puts the democratic values that Israel purports to ascribe to before the Jewish values that it insists on ascribing to when these are in conflict.

Within the hour phone calls started streaming in -- to the TV station, to my home and to my mother, who is of that unique generation, the Palmach generation, credited with bringing the Jewish State into existence. The consensual attack was based on stupefaction: How could I deny Zionism? As a matter of fact, I do not remember having used the word Zionism, or, for that matter having talked about Zionism in the interview. This was an immediate inference made by listeners: one could not say what I had said and remain a Zionist. So unspeakable was my transgression that a few days later, at a family event, then Minister of Finance, Avraham (Baiga) Shochat, came up to me with a derisive smile and said: "Would you really want an Arab living next door to you?" The stupefaction was then -- and still is -- on my part. That a serving government minister could so bluntly voice such a racist comment is something that any person with democratic proclivities shudders at. That far more racist epitaphs are now regularly expressed by Israeli officials, and that the possibility of refusing Arab citizens residence in certain communities has now passed into law in Israel, is a sign of where we've come since then, and where we're headed.

*****

It's been over a decade since those opening, unsettling times of the second Intifada. It has been over a decade that those of us who are accused of being post-Zionist or, god forbid, anti-Zionist have been working out the implications of our deeply held democratic convictions. Things have become clearer (though they are muddied up viciously by those who equate either post- or anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism). Although many would like to redefine Zionism, there is no getting away from the fact that Zionism was and is the articulated project of creating and buttressing a Jewish state for the Jewish people. So contrary to what Michael Walzer claims, that this being a project based on Jewishness (peoplehood) rather than Judaism (religion) makes it different, the insistence on a Jewish state makes it impossible for those who are not of that people, not to mention that religion, to be equal citizens. Minority groups in Norway can be Norwegian; minority groups in England can be English; even minority groups in Israel can be Israeli, but they can't be Jewish! And if Jewishness is a matter of peoplehood rather than religion, then we are indeed saddled with a formal ethnocracy, not much better than a theocracy. (It is poignant to see that Walzer begins his thoughts by connecting to his Bar Mitzvah, an explicitly religious ceremony. Not for naught is this whole series taking place on the Religion page of the Huffington Post...)

More significantly, it seems that liberal Zionists will never forsake the Jewish majority as the essence of the State of Israel since precisely that majority is what -- they think - makes the state a democracy. But no democracy should determine or foretell the identity of its citizenry. What shall we do in a century or two from now if or when Israeli Arabs, i.e., Palestinian citizens of Israel, just naturally become a majority (through natural reproduction rates, or Jewish emigration, or any other unforeseeable vagary of history)? Shall we cast all Arab sons born into the sea?

So, beyond all the casuistic debates and long-winded conceptual to-and-fros, the impossibility of being a consistent liberal Zionist derives, as I realized in that interview long ago, from the dead-end one reaches with the conflict between values. If Zionism has been based on a set of values -- any values -- that "override whatever injustices statehood has brought" (Walzer), then it has taken us as far as one can get from the set of values that undergird liberal democracy. Holding on to those values means cherishing the option of a Palestinian living next door, and rejecting Jews who refuse the Palestinian next door. I would rather be righteous than self-righteous.