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A Homeland for Justice: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

Am I a Zionist? I thought this was an easy question, but I have been working on my answer for hours.

When I joined the Jewish people a little over 20 years ago, a few people asked me if I believed in God but no one asked me if I was a Zionist. When the question was finally posed, the easiest answer was "yes," though I didn't know Magnes from Jabotinsky. I did know that the infuriating Israel I loved was the national homeland of the Jewish people, my people, and that was enough. But calling myself a Zionist, it turns out, is a lot easier than defining it.

I began going to Israel soon after I converted and in short order met the Israeli activists who were fighting occupation, racism, gender discrimination -- all the ills that plagued Israel then and still do. And I fell in love with them, their work and with Israel, a love affair that has only intensified oer the years with dozens of visits and scores of friends. Rebuking Israel for its bad conduct and believing in its brilliant future have always gone hand in hand for me. (A friend noted wryly that I became a Jew and a self-hating Jew simultaneously.)

I am an unlikely Zionist. I grew up in a Greek Orthodox working class family in Southern California. I don't have the experiences that my friends describe as fundamental to their Zionism -- deep Jewish roots, personal fear of anti-Semitism, exultation upon the founding of the State of Israel, Holocaust memories and family history. I also didn't go through the angst of rejecting one Zionism or another, or of feeling that my Zionism was being hijacked by anyone else's.

And I am all the more unlikely a Zionist because, ironically, I am exactly the kind of secular liberal activist who, had I been born Jewish, would probably be assiduously ignoring Israel. I came to Judaism through civil rights and activism, not the other way around, which is the more typical way for born Jews. Perhaps it is sloppy but the core values of my liberalism, my Judaism and my Zionism are the same -- justice, equality, feminism, dignity.

The national homeland of my Zionism is necessarily a place of justice, one that lives up to Israel's Declaration of Independence. In that sense, I am essentially an aspirational Zionist, my "aspiration" not as a distant messianic vision but as an urgently present agenda. The Zionist agenda is not separate from the security agenda. Quite the contrary is true: Israel's security these days is more threatened from within than from without, more by the anti-democratic and even racist political culture that has emerged in Israel as a result of the occupation, the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox and a society riddled with inequality than by potential nukes of Iran or rockets of Hezbollah or Hamas.

I am perfectly aware that my criticism of Israel makes some Jews uncomfortable and, for some, disqualifies me for the Zionist label, which is a pity. The Jewish future needs all of us. And anyway, the very last thing that suits me and my Zionism is being silenced.

Kathleen Peratis is a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP, practicing employment law. She is a founding board member of J Street, founding chair of the Women's Right Division of Human Rights Watch and occasional columnist for The Forward. Peratis was the second director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, succeeding Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She left the ACLU in 1979 to join a new law partnership which focused on civil rights and civil liberties and is now a partner in a 28-lawyer firm that limits its practice to the representation of individuals with employment related claims. Hers has been a particular focus on claims of discrimination, sexual abuse and hostile environment. She has been president of the New York Civil Liberties Union.