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Let's Have An Honest Debate: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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

There are several reasons why I identify as a Zionist, more specifically as a Zionist of the left, even though I do not live in Israel. Each reason, in its own way, is linked to history but also to the worrisome present. The first is perhaps best explained by recounting a conversation -- the kind that is easily recognizable to anyone who knows the long annals of Zionist argument.
On a chilly December day in 1976 I interviewed Menachem Begin, then leader of Israel's parliamentary opposition. His politics had been rejected time and again by Israeli voters; indeed, he had a perfect record since the birth of the Jewish state: eight defeats in eight national elections. Soon, however, everything would change and the ramifications would be profound: Begin would become the country's first right-wing prime minister.

It was evident from the beginning of our exchange that my sympathies were not his. I cited a claim by Begin's long-time (by then deceased) political foe, David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion's party (or an offspring) led the country in its founding decades, shaping it in its own ideological image. Mapai (later "Labor") was a social democratic party whose platform embraced Zionism, democracy and egalitarianism; its roots were in trade unions and kibbutzim. Its accomplishments won Israel friends around the world, particularly within the democratic left (there really was such a time).

The Ben-Gurion quote I presented to Begin dated to the 1930s, when Mapai fought fiercely with his mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, father of the Zionist right-wing. Jabotinsky was an apostle of "pure" nationalism; Zionism, he insisted, should not be distorted by mixing it with universalistic ideas like social democracy. Often swept up by his own rhetoric -- he frequently took it for reality -- his maximalism brooked no compromises, least of all when it came to the prospective borders of a Jewish state. There, the Bible was the mandate. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, declared that Zionism, like any national movement, could be good or bad, depending on the kind of society it created -- socialist, liberal, religious, authoritarian or even fascist. Ben-Gurion, who was no less attached to Jewish history than Jabotinsky, wanted to establish a democratic Jewish state; that led him to accept partition of what Jews call the land of Israel and what Arabs call Palestine. One reason why Ben-Gurion became Israel's first prime minister was that he knew when to bend and when not to bend so that the greater project would not break. He didn't equate politically intelligent compromise with betrayal.

Begin was gracious if firm in response to me: "Zionism is justified per se," he said. And he was implacable when it came to territorial concessions. There was no difference for him between religio-nationalist claims on territory and Israeli security; they always amounted to the same thing. He could hardly have known that he would eventually relinquish the Sinai and sign a peace treaty with Egypt, an historic move that ended decades of war and saved countless Israeli and Egyptian lives, a move endorsed by Israel's parliament only because the Labor party, then the parliamentary opposition to Begin, voted for it. The prime minister was unable to muster enough support in his own ruling Likud party for a majority. Its foes were his good pupils.

It is because Ben-Gurion was right -- and not Begin or his political descendant, Benjamin Netanyahu -- that I identify with Zionism. Or more specifically, with Labor Zionism, weak as it is these days (like, alas!, the idea of social democracy). Its birth at the turn of the 20th century was a challenge to traditional Jewish political leaders and part of a transformation of Jewish political culture in response to virulent anti-Semitism. Its adherents thought that the intelligent political response was national self-determination, dubbed by one historian a "new Jewish politics." It entailed the idea of democratic self-organization tied to a sense that Jews were citizens of a people. They had to take responsibility for themselves. This sense arose powerfully among Zionists (and among some non-Zionist groups, too).

Dismay at the failures of Jewish leaders came as well with wariness of -- rejection of and dependence on -- universalist panaceas. These were proffered sometimes in socialist and sometimes in liberal formulas: If only everyone were socially equal or if only everyone had individual rights, bigotry would be transcended everywhere. Equality and secure individual rights are, of course, vital notions; we cannot do without them. But by themselves, in real -- not to mention urgent -- historical circumstances, they seemed (and proved to be) too easy to endorse, endlessly challenging to achieve.

This brings me to a second reason why I still identify as a Zionist, or rather with that ancient species, the Labor Zionist. I reject the idea that all particular problems, including toxic ones, dissolve in universal history and thus only cosmopolitan prescriptions to them are of value. Hard though it may be, I think it is better to struggle constantly between particularism and universalism -- to struggle between the demands of actual, complex situations and circumstances and the horizons or principles that let us project better ones -- than to embrace imaginary, if comforting, designs that propose to solve all problems in the sweep of one idea.
Part of the left (not all of it) repeats what Begin said to me but from an opposed viewpoint. Anti-Zionism, it believes, is justified per se. "Per se" is, however, political and intellectual fudge. Its real meaning is that the existence of a Jewish state is illegitimate. This assertion is usually girded by slippery, often manipulative accounts of history combined with fancy but finally deceptive -- or self-deceptive -- theorizing (the latter often takes on "post-colonial" or "post-modern"). This part of the left seems to make hostility to a Jewish state central to its identity in an odd inversion of the Zionist belief that Israel ought to be central to Jews. And so I identify as a Zionist of the left in order to say "no" to this left-that-doesn't-learn, particularly from the experiences of the 20th century.

This brings me to a final reason why I identify as a Zionist of the left (and why I support Zionist doves and social democrats in the Jewish state). Just as today's anti-Zionist left insists that it alone defines Zionism, so, likewise, does the Zionist right-wing, comprised especially though not solely of the Likud. Conservative and neoconservative American friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, echo it loudly. Together, they have made concerted efforts over many years to tie distorted understandings of Israel's interests to the worst in American politics, to create an unholy alliance on behalf of ideas that are bad for both countries. The number of friends lost to Israel on account of this alliance has yet to be calculated. I identify as a Zionist and as a person of the left in opposition to this politics and those ideas.

Left-wing and right-wing clichés reinforce each other. For examples, boycotts of Israel bolster the Likud; confusion of Israel's security concerns -- which are very real -- with religious and ultra-nationalist mythologies buttress prejudices against the Jewish state. Here, then, let me offer two -- inseparable -- practical rules if you want to protest these mindsets in quarrels about Zionism:
  1. If someone suggests that anything done by Palestinians or in the name of Palestinians is "in effect" or "finally" or "in the last analysis" the fault of Zionist demons, assume that he or she is wrong. More: say so clearly.
  2. If someone implies that anything done in the name of Zionism or Israel is by definition right -- is right per se -- assume, likewise, that he or she is wrong. Say so clearly.
Peace may be unlikely in the foreseeable future, but one modest step toward it is to render terms of debate honest.

Mitchell Cohen co-edited Dissent Magazine from 1991-2009. A professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, his books include "Zion and State" (Columbia University Press), "The Wager of Lucien Goldmann" (Princeton University Press) and a forthcoming study of political ideas in opera. He has guest lectured at numerous European and American universities, was National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and a visiting professor at Stanford.