Is Liberal Zionism Impossible?

A couple of Sundays ago, the Times published an opinion piece by Antony Lerman that seemed calculated to prompt a moment of truth. Lerman writes that “liberal Zionists,” or “liberal Zionism,” or “Jewish liberals” in the diaspora (he never quite narrows this down) are, thanks to the latest Gaza war, facing an unprecedented crisis. The time has come to choose between Jewish loyalties, which tend to boil down to “Zionism,” and human rights. Lerman comes by this moment honestly. He’s worked for British Jewish organizations for thirty years; he’s come to believe that it’s futile to try to persuade most diaspora Jews—who are often liberal in spirit, but who have made “unquestioning solidarity with Israel the touchstone of Jewish identity”—to press for fairness to Palestinians and democratic reform in Israel. Conspicuous American Jewish liberals, such as Peter Beinart, Roger Cohen (who, like Lerman, is originally from England), and the leaders of J Street, the advocacy group set up as a counterbalance to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lament that “what Israel is doing can’t be reconciled with their humanism.” Yet, he says, they fail that humanism by remaining “Zionists,” by which he means remaining supporters of “the two-state solution,” where one state is Israel.

Lerman believes that serial Israeli governments have made that two-state vision impossible. Benjamin Netanyahu effectively rejected it; the Israeli left is “comatose.” “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary,” he writes, and it is carrying out an “open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.” Indeed—and here is Lerman’s real point—Zionism has always forced Jews to decide between “the dictates of religion and political ideology” and liberal principles. The Jewish state was founded on injury to Palestinians, Lerman writes. “Liberal Zionists” have, with hypocritical regret, justified this historic injustice as necessary. But Gaza is so grotesque that they have now been pushed “to the brink”—or should be. The brink of what? Lerman is not entirely clear. He wants the threads of his argument to braid into a case for a new movement: a partnership with Palestinians “to achieve equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.” At the same time, he insists, liberal Jews should feel free to rethink whether they need to be committed to the existence of any Jewish state at all: “Jewish history did not culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.”

One could pick at Lerman’s threads. Is anything but a two-state solution, complemented by ordinary confederal arrangements, really conceivable? Is the Israeli peace camp really composed only of exhausted leftists—is the country’s business community not getting mobilized? Yet the most striking thing about Lerman’s argument, with its focus on whether the Zionist idea can be reconciled to the liberal imagination, is how provisional he takes Israel to be. He seems consumed with historic Zionism’s veiled essence, yet he’s oblivious to its obvious achievement: namely, a home for Israelis that has a reality other than as a cause for diaspora Jews...

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