04/23/2012 07:22 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

The Future Of Israel: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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

Is liberal Zionism an oxymoron? These days, it's easy to think it is. Many people on the left have, reluctantly, accepted that right-wing extremists are today's true Zionists, and have, therefore, dropped away from Zionism, or have styled themselves "post-Zionists," or have come to regard Israel as irrevocably tainted by its Zionist identity.

But: Liberal Zionism, authentic heir to classic pragmatic Zionism, though overshadowed by Israel's pro-settler right wing camp, is alive and -- as we set out here to demonstrate over the next few days -- kicking.

In the essays that will that will be published over the next few days, liberal Zionists from both Israel and the United States explain their commitment. Almost all explicitly express their disappointment with Israel's current direction, yet make clear that that direction, in which exclusion and expansion are central themes, is not at all what Zionism implies.

Some of the statements that follow are highly personal; others are more analytical, some -- most, I think -- combine the personal and the analytical. Each adds its own twist to the conversation.

I have long since learned (the hard way) not to put words into the mouths of others. Yet I am confident that all the participants in this endeavor would agree to the following three paragraphs:

According to Israel's pro-settler right-wing camp, there is no moral difference between post-1967 settlement in and control over the West Bank territory on the one hand, and the pre-1948 settlement of the territory that has become the sovereign State of Israel, on the other. Both are equally valid expressions of Zionist determination.

Alas, that argument cuts both ways: While right-wingers think its logic irrefutable and its conclusion -- a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River -- perfectly obvious, they fail to note that the very same logic can be used to derive precisely the opposite conclusion. As Hagit Ofran points out in her essay below, "by invoking Zionism in support of the settlements and the occupation, the right wing is joining the biggest opponents of Israel, who argue that if, as they believe, Israel's occupation of the Palestinian people in the territories is illegitimate, then, by logical extension, so is the entire Zionist enterprise." Goodbye Tel Aviv, farewell Haifa, adieu Israel.

The right-wing "solution" to the chronic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is no solution at all. It violates Israel's stated determination (and classic Zionism's resolve) to be both Jewish and democratic; it ensures that the more than 2.6 million West Bank Palestinians (that does not include the Palestinians of the Gaza District or of the Golan Heights) are either left stateless, or, as some Israelis have suggested, penned into a series of unconnected Bantustans (apartheid) or "encouraged" to leave (ethnically cleansed). The alternative -- keeping the territories and giving the residents therein citizenship in Israel -- means, in the foreseeable future, an end to the Jewish majority in Israel, which almost surely means an end to the Jewish State.

The question, then, insistently comes back to the moral logic of the Jewish State. One might be excused for asserting that in the second decade of the 21st century, with more than 60 years of independence behind it, Israel's legitimacy should no longer be at issue. Moral logic? Israel is home to nearly 8 million people; 95 member states of the United Nations have smaller populations. Why should the determined enmity of others place a question mark after the word "Israel"?

Perhaps it shouldn't, but in the current political and intellectual climate, it does. So there is reason to go back to the beginning, to restate the beliefs and assumptions that gave rise to the national liberation movement called "Zionism." And here they are: Theodore Herzl and his colleagues, founders of modern political Zionism back in 1897, had given up on Europe. They were persuaded that Europe would never absorb its 9 million Jews -- and, as history would show a scant 40 years later, they were not wrong.

If you couldn't take the anti-Semitism out of Europe, then best take the Jews out of Europe. So the Zionists, though they were coming late to nationalism, sought a national home for the Jews. Why, after all, should there be no place where the Jews would be free to chart their own path?

And if the Jews were entitled to a national home, how could it be elsewhere than in what was then called Palestine, the historic homeland of the Jewish people?

That is not a rhetorical question, for Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, was in 1900 home to nearly 600,000 Arabs. (Palestine's Arabs did not view themselves as Palestinians until some decades later.) To the degree to which the early Zionists thought about the matter -- and many of them tried to avoid thinking about it -- they assumed that there was sufficient land to accommodate both Jews and Arabs.

As, indeed, there was -- and is.

History can be a cruel trickster. No one foresaw either the depth or the durability of the conflict. It's conventional, these days, to talk about the "competing narratives" that inform the ongoing debate, but the problem is neither choosing the "right" narrative nor, for that matter, reconciling the two. The Palestinians narrative is right. The Israeli narrative is right. History plays differently for the two peoples, now both stuck in a status quo that satisfies no one. Right against right; a recipe for tragedy.

No, the problem is how to grab hold of history and turn it in a direction that offers both peoples life, security, hope -- an end to the debilitating animosity, an end to the bloodshed, a new day.
That day will not dawn with the Israelis saying, "Oops, we made a mistake, give us a week to pack and we will leave quietly." Nor will the Palestinians say, "Well, Bantustans are better than nothing, we'll settle for that." No, the new day will dawn if and only if a viable Palestinian state is created next door to the Israeli state -- that is, only if the hoary principle of partitioning the land is, at last, implemented.

Let there be no mistake: Two states for two peoples is not an easy solution. It is fraught with complexity. Where, exactly, shall the borders be, and what, exactly, will be the regulations covering access from one of the two states to the other, and what about Jerusalem, and what about security, and what happens if and as the opponents of partition, from whichever side, act out, seek to subvert the arrangement?

But the search for such an arrangement (and its implementation) is exactly what we mean), here and now, by liberal Zionism. That, and a Jewish state that more honorably addresses its own Palestinian population, that more effectively reforms its educational system, that more energetically pursues social justice and that more urgently addresses the vexing relationship between religion and state. All that and more is part of the Zionist endeavor, the Zionist challenge.

Welcome to the conversation.

Huffingtonpost Religion will publish 18 essays leading up to Israel Independence Day on the subject of Liberal Zionism.

Leonard Fein, whose first trip to Israel was for a nine-month stint in 1953, is a veteran Zionist, a writer, teacher and social activist. He was the founding editor/publisher of Moment magazine, which he served for 12 years and he is the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Fein, who lives in Boston, is editor of this series of essays, working together with Steven M. Cohen and Steven J. Zipperstein.