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A Jewish Athens, Not Sparta: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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

First of all, I am a Zionist because my parents were. Zionism was a pillar of our family religion. Both my parents were teachers of Hebrew in Brooklyn. When they retired in the late 1970s, they made aliyah. I followed suit, at age 40, a decade later. One day in Jerusalem, when my father was very old, I asked him when he first became a Zionist. "I was seven," he immediately said. "Not six or eight?" I teased. Seven, he insisted, when he was a boy in Latvia. It was 1919, and under the Treaty of Versailles "everyone around me was getting a country of their own. The Latvians, the Estonians, the Finns. I wanted one too."

For me as an Israeli, this simple manifesto is incontrovertible: For powerful historical and moral reasons, the Jews need and deserve a state of their own. At the same time, as a product of the antiwar '60s, I am intellectually sympathetic to postmodern and post-colonial critiques of Zionism. I will not deny that Israel is shot through with racism and regularly betrays the liberal principles for which it stands. I am outraged by the occupation, and by the sprouting weeds of Israeli McCarthyism. (Though I am wary of historical analogizing on both sides of the aisle.)

Indeed I can make the case for post-Zionism, but I am a Zionist in my marrow. The fact of my living here is a Zionist act, of which I remain proud. Moreover, I am not naïve about terrorism or anti-Semitism. I defend Israel's right and duty to defend itself. The moral price of our self-defense, of course, is the heart of the matter.

I'm not prone to apologetics. I'm willing to concede that the concept of a Jewish democratic state may be an oxymoron. But as a Liberal Zionist, I believe that Israelis must do as much as possible to minimize that oxymoron and afford equal rights to all citizens in all spheres. Plus, of course, get out of the West Bank pronto. (With appropriate land swaps.) I believe, as a Liberal Zionist, that the Law of Return should remain in force, at least for the time being, in our parlous world. But I also contend that refuge and citizenship are two different things, and that in order to vote, a new immigrant must pass a test in democracy, not just DNA.

What about "Hatikvah," our national anthem? When an Arab Israeli Supreme Court Justice stood silently as "Hatikvah" was sung at a recent state ceremony, the Prime Minister and other luminaries gave him a patronizing pass, as it surely could not be expected of him, nor of Arab citizens in general, to sing of the yearnings of the Jewish soul. As a Liberal Zionist, I'd like to see a creative, egalitarian rewrite, so long as the heart-stirring melody is left intact. I wish Naphtali Herz Imber, the boozy bohemian poet who penned the words, were around to revise them. For he would be no less disenchanted with today's Israel than most of us Liberal Zionists, had he not died in New York in 1909.

"I am the origin of the Zionistic movement," Imber told the American journalist Hutchins Hapgood, who described their encounter in his classic book about the Lower East Side, "The Spirit of the Ghetto."

"What I did in my Hebrew verses was to do away with lamentations. We have had enough of lamentations. I introduced the spirit of love and wine, the pagan spirit. My theme, indeed, is Zion. I am an individualist. It is the only ist I believe in, and I want my nation to be individual, too. I want them to be joyously themselves, and so I am a Zionist."

Now there's a definition I like. Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people enables Jews anywhere to feel proudly, joyously themselves. That, I believe, is what Theodor Herzl had in mind. The Liberal Zionism that I profess draws its energies from the utopian universalism of Herzl's novel "Altneuland," along with the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha'am, who got it right in 1891: "We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment."

But of course, nowadays, the commissars of pro-Israel correctness would decree that Liberal Zionism is oxymoronic at best, treasonous at worst. And to them, I can do no better than read out a few lines from a letter that Judah Magnes -- disciple of Ahad Ha'am, California-born oleh, immigrant to Israel, founding chancellor of the Hebrew University, tireless peacenik -- wrote in 1929 to Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization:

"I think that the time has come when the Jewish policy as to Palestine must be very clear, and that now only one of two policies is possible ... The one policy may be termed that of militarist, imperialist, political Zionism; the other that of pacific, international, spiritual Zionism; and if some authorities [italics added] will not choose to call the latter idea Zionism, then let it be called the Love of Zion, or the Return to Zion, or any other name you will."

Today, that flat dichotomy remains in force for many on the left who would reject the progressive credentials of a Liberal Zionist. But this is not 1929, and political Zionism is a fait accompli, and Israel is a sovereign state. For my part, I continue to yearn for a Jewish Athens and not a Jewish Sparta, and this is the daily struggle. So for the Love of Zion, call me whatever you will, it won't change what I am. Liberals like me, walking and talking like Zionists, are Zionists. That's a truth the "authorities" cannot duck.

Stuart Schoffman is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. From 1990 to 2007, he was a columnist for the Jerusalem Report, and he now writes about politics and culture for a variety of Jewish publications in the United States. His translations of Hebrew literature include books by the Israeli authors A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev. Before moving to Israel in 1988, he worked as a writer for Time magazine and as a Hollywood screenwriter.