Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is Liberal Zionism an Option?

Sounds like a "yes or no" situation, right?-- until you realize that the answer to the title question of this post can only be, of course, that it depends on what you mean by "liberal," and on what you mean by "Zionism."  As in the case of the infuriating mystery-Protestant who, in response to the question "Do you believe in God?", asks us to define "God" and "believe" and "in," this is one of those times when the artful evasion is actually more honest than the so-called "straight answer."  You can't say whether or not the liberal Zionist position is coherent until you know what it is.

How to discover this? Well, no political ideology exists outside of the minds of the people who talk about it.  One can't look under a rock and find "anarcho-syndicalism" there.  The best means to a definition of "liberal Zionism," therefore, is to decide who the "liberal Zionists" are-- and to discern which beliefs they have in common.

In a recent treatment of the subject in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland gets us started in this endeavor by listing the names of the "lions of liberal Zionism." I must say: the roster does not inspire me with confidence.  Leon Wieseltier, Thomas Friedman, and Jeffrey Goldberg all make an appearance.  The most one can say for the first of the three is that there are brief moments in reading his articles when one almost thinks he is going to say something, before he elephantinely demurs; one catches, that is to say, a faint breeze of opinion amidst the desert gale of long-windedness.  As to the second... well, I have nothing clever to say, but I really don't like him.

Jeffrey Goldberg, meanwhile, is certainly a Zionist, but he has been stretching his "liberal" credentials very thin by his response so far to the war in Gaza, in which he has still failed to condemn with any seriousness the actions of Israel's military.  Goldberg complains unceasingly about the disproportionate media attention directed toward Israel's war crimes, and with some fairness; but he overlooks the fact that his own rantings are just about the only coverage The Atlantic has devoted to the conflict in Gaza since it began three weeks ago, as near as I can tell.  True, the media may be covering the atrocious loss of life in Gaza in more detail that it covers the even graver horror in Syria, yet Goldberg himself, after suggesting plenty of more sinister explanations as to why this might be the case, supplies the most simple, fair-minded, and plausible one: that is, "Israel is a Western-style democratic state and so reporters are more apt to be interested in its behavior, and judgmental about its behavior, than in the behavior of despotic regimes."

Moreover, there are quite a few details about the latest conflict that cast Israel in an even darker light, but which the Western media has largely failed to report.  I was following this conflict from the start, but I had to go to a newspaper in India, for instance, to learn about Israel's arrest or interrogation of 300 Palestinians in response to the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers.  I had to learn from an Israeli NGO and a half-sentence mention on NPR that Israel is proceeding to demolish the family homes of the two Palestinians eventually charged with these crimes-- driving thirteen family members (eight of them children) out onto the street.  By what standard of justice is an entire family punished for the actions of one of its members?

Such behavior on Israel's part does nothing to justify Hamas' rocket attacks, which always target and terrorize the innocent (to the extent we can make such distinctions-- who isn't innocent, really?  Are conscripted soldiers not innocent too?).  But the comparative media silence about this behavior suggests that the Israelis are not the only ones who suffer under an egregious double standard where the media is concerned.  So too, Goldberg's refusal to grant that the IDF is recklessly firing on civilian targets in Gaza, and not just accidentally killing children whom Hamas has used as human shields, reflects a double standard of his own.

I'm afraid I hold little hope for the ideological coherence of a group that includes these three-- Wieseltier, Friedman, and Goldberg.  Such "lions of liberal Zionism" may roar, but they do not reign.

But read on a bit further, I prithee-- for among the liberal Zionists, Freedland also includes such rather more impressive individuals as Amos Oz and Ari Shavit.  He might also have listed Avi Shlaim, one of the New Historians who, unlike Benny Morris, didn't have some sort of Neocon conversion experience after 9/11.  He might have also treated more extensively the work of historian and political scientist Zeev Sternhell, who is known in Israel for his criticism of the occupation, and who suffered a pipe-bomb attack on his home in 2008 from right-wing Zionists because of it.

Clearly, there is more than one way to be a liberal Zionist-- and the distinctions between members of this political camp have something to do with the emphasis they accord to the two sides of their ideological makeup.  Freedland suggests, in a follow-up piece, that the Liberal Zionists may someday "have to decide which of their political identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a Zionist." But is it fair to say, when looking at our two rosters, that we already have a sense of how these decisions would shake out?  That is, broadly speaking, there are some people who are liberals because they think it is compatible with Zionism, and some who are Zionists because they think it is compatible with liberalism.  My sympathies, you may have guessed, are all with the latter category, for the simple reason that the burden of proof falls more heavily on an ethnic nationalist ideology than it does on liberalism to demonstrate that it is compatible with morality and human rights.

However, the point of this post is to ask whether the choice Freedland describes is one people will actually have to make.  Can one be both a liberal and a Zionist, or is such a desire simply incoherent?  My sense, as already hinted, is that the answer to this question hinges on how one defines Zionism, on what one means when one speaks of a state having a "Jewish character," and so on.

James Luther Adams, the UU theologian, spoke of the "liberalism that is dead," and contrasted it with a liberalism that survives.  So too, there is a dead, zombie liberal Zionism that stalks the land, feeding on untenable mystifications.  But there is another, living one, that is still "slouching toward Bethlehem and waiting to be born," we might say, in more than one sense.


Using the methodology described above-- that of listing the liberal Zionists and discovering the positions common to most or all of them, we can offer a fairly non-controversial definition of their stance.  The following is a set of principles to which, allowances made for differences in emphasis and consistency of application, pretty much every liberal Zionist would ascribe:

1) Every people has an inherent "right to self-determination," and this includes both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.
2) Because of (1), the only just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to have two independent sovereign states representing the two peoples, one of which consists of Israel within its pre-1967 borders, the other of which includes the West Bank and Gaza under a Palestinian government.
3) In order to achieve this two-state solution, Israel must uproot all its settlements in the West Bank and move their inhabitants back to the other side of the Green Line, as it did with Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005.
4) Israel within its pre-1967 borders must preserve its democratic character, to the extent it has one, and strengthen that character where it is at present lacking.  It must extend to all its citizens, including its Palestinian, Christian, and otherwise non-Jewish citizens, full and equal protection of the laws, full participation in the democratic process, etc.
5) Israel should continue to define itself as the "state of the Jewish people."
6) Israel should retain its "Right of Return" policy for the Jewish diaspora, and the Palestinian state should have its own "Right of Return" within its borders for Palestinians expelled in 1948, but Israel should not extend a "Right of Return" to the Palestinians.
7) Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket fire and other incursions within its borders, but only to the extent that its defensive actions respect international law, inflict as little harm as possible on civilians, etc.

This no doubt sounds very reasonable.  In  addition to describing a consensus view of liberal Zionists, after all, these seven principles would probably satisfy the conscience of a great many American conservatives, moderate Palestinian nationalists, and other unlikely bedfellows.  Most of our contemporary disagreements about Israel-Palestine (at least in America) don't really have to do with whether or not there should be a "two-state solution," after all, or with what its contours, broadly, should be-- they have more to do with assigning blame for the failure of this solution to date.  Similarly, most people would agree that Israel should do everything it can to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza-- their disagreements center on how much it can do, or has done already, in this regard.

But in addition to being such a reasonable consensus view, shared by all the sane people who write about the conflict, it is also wrong.  It is the liberal Zionism that is dead.

This version of liberal Zionism is dead for the simple reason that principle # 1, the premiss from which the entire argument proceeds, is not a tenable one.  A person has a right to self-determination, but a people does not.  This is not to say that there is never a situation in which one society or group of people is justified in seeking political independence from another.  When there is an exploitative or destructive relationship  between two groups of people, as obtains in most colonial situations, independence will often become the only plausible means of guaranteeing the rights of each.  But such independence is justified by the rights it will vouchsafe to the individual members of an exploited society-- by the extent, that is, to which it will enhance their capacity as individuals to exercise some influence over the forces affecting their destiny.  But to say that an entire group possesses a similar right requires us to posit some sort of factitious collective will that can only be expressed through having a government comprised of members of one's own ethnic group.

Principle #1 also requires us to believe, more fundamentally, that there are such things as "peoples"--  and that these correspond, more or less, to linguistic categories established by secular intellectuals in 19th century Europe.  Reliance on such concepts is what is fundamentally "anachronistic" about liberal Zionism as we have come to know it, in Tony Judt's assessment.  Yet it is astonishing how frequently one still hears such rhetoric.  It is strange to read a person like Zeev Sternhell, for instance, who is such a profound student of the contortions of ideology and of the dangers of what he calls "ethnic determinism," talking with sudden ingenuousness about the abstract rights of "peoples," when his subject is Israeli politics.

As Judt and many others have pointed out, there is a fundamental misalignment between Israel's liberal democratic aspirations and its insistence on being the nation-state of a particular "people."  Writes Judt in a 2003 article:
"The problem with Israel [...] is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European 'enclave' in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. [...] In one vital attribute, however, Israel is quite different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: it is a democracy. Hence its present dilemma."
In a response to Judt, Michael Walzer argued that this misalignment, if misalignment it be, is no greater in Israel than it is in France, say, which proclaims itself the state of the "French people."  Judt has a ready and incontrovertible reply to this, however: France -- at least officially -- is the nation of the citizens of France-- whether those citizens are ethnically Franco-European or not.  Israel is not, or not just, the nation of "Israeli citizens," but of the "Jewish people," and such a people does not by definition include non-Jews, even if the latter are citizens of Israel.  Writes Judt:
"[I]f someone is a citizen of, e.g., France, he or she is French and that is all there is to the matter, at least as far as the law is concerned. The categories become tautological: France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are…French. Israel, by contrast, is by its own account the 'state of all the Jews' (wherever they live and whether or not they seek the association), while containing non-Jewish (Arab) citizens who do not enjoy similar status and rights. There is no comparison."
The difficulty of being both a democratic state and a Jewish one arises first and most obviously from the fact that not every person within Israel's borders is Jewish.  Israel has attempted to resolve the paradox by extending some democratic rights to its non-Jewish citizens, such as the right to vote and participate in elections, while enforcing at the same time a highly discriminatory land policy that squeezes Arab communities past tolerance and limits their potential for population growth (I'm speaking about Arab people within Israel's pre-1967 borders, who, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, are ostensibly citizens of Israel).  This ugly "solution" to the paradox is not only inherently unjust and therefore unsustainable-- it will also certainly collapse on itself if non-Jewish citizens ever outnumber Jewish ones within the Green Line, due to natural population growth.  This is the so-called "demographic bomb" dreaded by Israeli politicians of both the right and the center.

There is something profoundly sick about a state that openly fears the expansion of some of its communities, simply because those communities are made up of a particular ethnic group.  Such an attitude is inherently racist-- there is just no other way to look at it.  The New Historian Ilan Pappé captures in a line from a recent book the essential outrageousness and inhumanity of it: "I wonder whether readers can imagine," he writes, "how it feels for the birth of your child to be perceived as a threat to the state of which you are a citizen."  Yet such racism is also the only logical attitude to maintain for those who are committed to Israel's current understanding of itself as both a majoritarian democracy, with liberal rights for its citizens, and a Jewish state.

The problem with being a Jewish state that is also a liberal democracy, however, does not just stem from the fact, in Israel's case, that not all of its citizens are Jewish.  It is rooted in the very notion of ethnicity-- and hence, of the ethnic state.  One might suppose that a truly ethnically homogenous state could be both democratic and identified with a particular ethnic group-- that if there were only Jews in Israel, in other words, then the problem of the essential "misalignment" described above would never arise. But this is not true.  Ethnicity is a fiction, and like any other fiction, it is powered by the drama of conflict-- it only exists to the extent that it is used as a marker of difference, typically between some privileged stratum of society and another, less privileged one.  This is why it is always so dangerous to identify a state with a particular ethnic group-- someone is always left out.  If it hadn't been the Arab citizens in Israel's case, it would have been some other group that was deemed, for whatever reason, to be insufficiently Jewish.  This is the logic of ethnicity.  The only way for a society to circumvent its logic and achieve a modicum of fairness is to define citizenship without reference to ethnicity.


So far, it may sound as if the "liberal Zionism that is dead," as I have described it, is simply liberal Zionism itself.  Am I therefore just another anti-Zionist "one-stater," who thinks there should be a single country stretching from the West Bank to the Mediterranean and headed by a binational democratic government?  Not exactly.

My qualms about the one-state solution have partly to do with the conventional point about its apparent impracticability, at least within the near future.  As unlikely as it is that Israel will voluntarily uproot its settlements in the West Bank, that is, it is surely no more likely that it will accept a binational democratic state with an Arab majority.  More importantly, it is not certain that such a state, once it had assumed power, would remain either binational or democratic for long.  New democracies are like new restaurants-- not all of them are going to make it.  Israel, at least, has a civil society, an electoral system of government, and some framework of human rights for its citizens.  It seems to me that we are all best served by building on these institutions, and the liberal scaffolding they provide (however incompletely), rather than junking them.  The model of "democratization from scratch" has little track record to endorse it.

Proponents of the one-state solution might point to South Africa as a case in which a previously disenfranchised and ruthlessly exploited majority gained political power for the first time and established a new and (relatively) stable electoral regime.  The post-apartheid government has not always been perfect, but it never carried out atrocities against the white minority after assuming power, despite all the injustices that the country's black majority had borne for decades at the latter's hands, and it established a coherent and apparently lasting democratic framework.  Why should not a binational state with an Arab majority in Palestine/Israel have similar success?

Well, it might.  But then again, it might not.  Just how much do you want to throw those dice?  And before you do so, perhaps you should consider that South Africa might have been the exception rather than the rule.  The anti-apartheid movement, after all, was blessed by some unusually strong moral leadership in the form of Mandela, Tutu, and others.  The ANC also included in both its ranks and its leadership members of all South Africa's major ethnic and religious communities-- Jews, Christian whites and blacks, Muslims, etc.-- and this no doubt made its claim to be working toward a democratic, and not simply majoritarian, state more tenable.

Not all nascent democracies are so fortunate.  Amy Chua's book World on Fire reminds us of the many cases from recent history in which free elections yielded anything but a free result.  Does the name Robert Mugabe ring any bells in this regard?

Moreover, even in South Africa's case, majority rule ushered in a fairly stringent affirmative action program, as I understand it.  Such policies may have been justified in that case, but would we be prepared to tolerate something similar in Israel? Does anyone want to see people in that country turned away from jobs or schools, simply because they are Jewish?  Surely not.  History matters more than that.  The memory of the Nuremberg Laws matters more than that.

So-- am I saying just that the one-state solution, with a single government over Israel and Palestine that has no ethnic identification, would be desirable, but that it is unlikely to succeed in the world today?  There is only one consideration that prevents me from answering "yes" to this question.   That is to say, there is one, final sense in which I think Israel is justified in maintaining its character as a state that stands in a special relationship to the Jewish people-- and one sense in which I think any state that emerges from this conflict, whether it has an Arab majority or not, ought to retain this special relationship.  Defending it is also, finally, the task of the liberal Zionism that is not dead -- though perhaps it has yet to be born.

In a column in Haaretz, Zeev Sternhell offers two ways in which Israel, in his view, is justified in maintaining its distinctive relationship to the Jewish people.  As he puts it: "if Israel wishes to remain democratic, it can define itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people in only two senses: It is a state in which the Jews constitute a majority, and it is a state that was founded and that exists not only for those who live in it but also so as to assure a safe haven for Jews liable to need it sometime in the future."

For reasons already stated, I am skeptical of the first of Sternhell's two senses.  I'm not sure whether he intends it here as a description or as a normative statement, but if it becomes the latter, the state of Israel will be forever a racist state.  A country simply cannot aim at a specific ethnic composition without privileging some of its people at the expense of others.  For citizenship to mean anything at all, therefore, it must be blind to distinctions of race and religion.  Sternhell would agree with this understanding of citizenship, based on his many writings, but I'm not sure how he would resolve the challenge it poses to a prescriptive goal of maintaining a Jewish majority (or if he means to endorse any such goal).

But what of the second of Sternhell's two senses in which Israel should remain a "nation-state of the Jewish people"?-- the sense that Israel should be "a state that was founded and that exists not only for those who live in it but also so as to assure a safe haven for Jews liable to need it sometime in the future"?  Retaining this sense certainly would leave Israel a state that has a special relationship with the Jewish people (even if it were no longer the state of the Jewish people).  It appoints to Israel a distinctive task that is not precisely analogous to the tasks of other nation-states.  But it also does not in itself impart to the Israeli state an ethnic or majoritarian character that conflicts with its liberal aspirations.

This is the one sense in which the ideals of liberal Zionism are not dead, in my view.  There should be a state, somewhere in the world, that is committed to providing a permanent refuge from persecution to the Jewish people.  And in the world today, the only state that is likely to fulfill this mission is the state of Israel, in its pre-1967 borders, however unjustly those borders may have been drawn, and with however much cruelty to its original inhabitants that state may have been created.  This is the justification for that state's distinctive character.

We don't live in a world of abstractions or ideal conditions.  This means there are no such thing as "rights of peoples" but only of rights of persons.  It means something else too, however.  It means that we live in a world in which the Holocaust happened, and in which, even in the heart of liberal Europe, there are still anti-Semitic riots where people shout "Death to the Jews!"  Is it fair that a state should provide a refuge to Jews and not to others?  I don't know.  But I ask you this: is it fair that they need one?

1 comment:

  1. First, this is probably the most insightful piece on Israel/Palestine issues I've read since the latest round of violence started, so thanks again for another great post. But, as you might expect, this comment is mainly about my disagreement with one of your points :)

    Specifically, I don't think your opposition to the idea that Israel has to remain a majority-Jewish state can be reconciled with your support for the idea that Israel should continue to make providing Jews everywhere a haven from persecution part of its national mission. It seems like the view that Jews need such a haven in a way that other groups don't is premised on the (plausible) idea that the history of anti-Semitic persecution shows that anti-Semitism is uniquely ineradicable, so that Jews can't expect the rest of the world to ever be fully safe. However, if it's true that there's always some significant risk that any group of non-Jews will succumb to anti-Semitism, then Jews will always be in danger as long as they're under the political control of non-Jews, whether in a Jewish-minority state that's dedicated to providing them a safe haven or one that isn't. You probably know the history better than me, but my understanding is that the early Zionists were pretty explicit about holding this view, and it seems plausible that something like it is what motivates the liberal Zionists you criticize to support maintaining Israel's Jewish character.

    I don't really have a satisfactory solution to this problem, and I pretty much share the concerns that led you to the view you state here. I too am deeply disturbed by the thought that non-Arab Israelis should have to view their childbearing as a threat to their country. I think I may be a bit less convinced that anti-Semitism is the sort of ineradicable threat that makes a permanent haven for Jews necessary than you are, but I find this claim, too, plausible enough that I'd like to make room for it in my view of the issue. Unfortunately, though, it's hard for me to see how one can accommodate both.