The Agony of Liberal Zionism

Yakov Rabkin

Among my Israeli friends there used to be many liberal Zionists. They sought social justice, supported peace initiatives with the Palestinians, and otherwise believed in Israel’s progressive roots. Indeed, in its pioneer years, Zionism, while engaged in colonization of Palestine, was associated with ideas of collective endeavour and equality. Early Israeli elites often came from the kibbutz and were vocal in their allegiance to socialism. This, in turn, brought them admiration and support from socialists around the world. They recognized Zionists as the vanguard of world Jewry even though the Zionist movement before World War II represented a minority of European and American Jews and a miniscule part (0.38%) of Jews in Muslim-majority countries. At the same time, many Jews, from the Orthodox to the Reform and the less religious, opposed Zionism as a travesty of Judaism.

Progressive Forms

Labour constituted the dominant stream of the Zionist movement in Palestine, which contained an entire gamut of political orientations. What united these disparate groups was the belief in “the historic right of the Jewish people to settle in Palestine” – the basic postulate of Zionism. Labour Zionists declared themselves partners “in the social revolutionary movement, which seeks to end exploitation, national servitude, the rule of man over man, and people over people”. Some of them struggled to reconcile their lofty principles with the reality of settler colonialism, but most were enthusiastically building a separate Zionist society oblivious of the Palestinians. This made the late Zeev Sternhell, an authority on the political history of Zionism, invent the term “Socialist Nationalism” to distinguish it from the better-known National Socialism. He argued that socialism was no more than a useful tool in the hands of Ben Gurion and his comrades animated by an exclusive ethnic nationalism. As early as 1922, Ben Gurion admitted as much:

“It is not by looking for a way of ordering our lives through the harmonious principles of a perfect system of socioeconomic production that we can decide on our line of action. The one great concern that should govern our thought and work is the conquest of the land and building it up through extensive immigration. All the rest is mere words and phraseology…”

Labour Zionists who held power in Israel for decades refused to let Palestinians displaced by war return to their homes, developed methods of dispossession of Palestinians and kept them under military rule for eighteen years. But they were adept at using “words and phraseology” to camouflage the reality of their actions.

Radical Zionism and Its Discontents

Prior to joining the Netanyahu government, hard-liners did not hide their intentions, spelled out their demands and made sure these would be carried out. The current Minister of National Security was previously convicted in Israel for support for Zionist terrorism. The Israeli documentary “The Prophet”, shows how Meir Kahane’s movement considered extreme and consequently banned as terrorist had become mainstream well before the recent Israeli election.

While their initiatives reinforcing oppression of the Palestinians elicit a tacit consensus, their electoral promise to weaken the Supreme Court and therefore judicial control over the executive branch provokes mass protests. Most important of these protests happen in Tel Aviv, the world’s most expensive city, which is considered the citadel of Israeli liberals. The demonstrations attract a variety of protesters, including prominent Israelis who accuse the new government of discrediting Zionism and betraying Israel’s foundational principles.

Unswerving Zionists in Western countries share this concern and admit that the new government has brought about a crisis for them too. They even mobilize political figures such as Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron to warn Israel against carrying out this judicial reform. Inveterate Zionists such as Alan Dershowitz are worried that “it will be far more difficult for Israel’s defenders abroad to defend Israel.”

Indeed, the new government may destroy the last of the two illusions dear to liberal Zionists and instrumental in maintaining Western support for Israel. Over half a million settlers on the territories Israel conquered in 1967 killed the prospect of a two-state solution. It has been confirmed dead and buried, even though Western governments continue to pay it lip service. The current Israeli government is casting a death blow to the second one, that of a “Jewish democratic state”. These two illusions have long been hiding the reality of Zionist supremacy over the Palestinians. Unlike the Tel Aviv protesters who decry the dangers to democracy, Palestinians have long known that Israel’s democracy is, in fact, an ethnocracy used to oppress them. Ethnic supremacy is basic to the Zionist project. It was enshrined legislatively in 2018 when the Knesset adopted a basic law (basic laws serve as surrogates for a constitution that Israel does not have) proclaiming that Israel is the Nation State of the Jewish people, rather than a state belonging to the people, who inhabit it. This law offers legal protection to the well-established practice of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute about one fifth of the country’s population. Respectable human rights organizations in Israel and elsewhere have concluded that Israel practices a form of apartheid.

The Political Right Admires Zionism

A variety of European ethnic nationalism, Zionism naturally appeals to the political right. As early as 1920, Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of the state of Israel, candidly argued that Britain should support Zionism because it distracts the politically active Jews from socialism. Winston Churchill was more than receptive to Weizmann’s argument:

“the International Jews.… this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing.… It becomes, therefore specially important to foster and develop any strongly-marked Jewish movement which leads directly away from these fatal associations. And it is here that Zionism has such a deep significance for the whole world at the present time…”

The antisemitic trope that begins this quotation is telling. Antisemites have favoured Zionism throughout its history, and Weizmann simply used this affinity. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, had remarked well before him that the antisemites would be the Zionists’ “friends and allies”. This like-mindedness also manifested itself when Zionist organizations in Germany welcomed the ascent of Hitler to power. In 1934 Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), a prominent Zionist activist in Germany (and later in the United States), extolled “the end of liberalism” in his book titled Wir Jüden (We Jews) published in 1934. SS officials were guests of the Zionist leadership in Palestine and returned to Germany with admiration, which they shared in Nazi periodicals. A commemorative medal with the swastika on one side and the Zionist star of David on the other was minted in honour of that visit. This episode is now widely known thanks to the Israeli documentary, The Flat.

The state of Israel, despite its youthful flirting with socialism, manifests many central features of globalized capitalism, including the habitual reliance on force. While certainly not the most right-wing regime in existence, Israel has nonetheless become a beacon for right-wing movements around the world thanks to a gamut of ideological, political, economic and military values inherent in political Zionism. This is why the right and the extreme right, including millions of Christian Zionists around the world, have come to constitute the backbone of Israel’s international support.

Socialism Discarded

By the late 20th century Israel’s industry and agriculture no longer had to rely on collectivist forms of colonial settlement. They had fulfilled their purpose of occupying and developing the country and could be discarded: kibbutz land came to be used for shopping centres while the trade unions’ federation was divested of the factories and companies it used to own and manage. Israel’s economic policies took a sharp turn to the right. While the socialist Zionist movements withered within Israel, its poverty rate became the highest among the OECD nations, and the country came to share with the United States the record of socio-economic inequality.

The gap between Arab and non-Arab citizens of Israel is particularly pronounced, with the average income of the latter being three times higher than the former. Israel stands 22nd out of 177 on the U.N. Human Development Index, whereas that of its Palestinian population if calculated separately would occupy the 66th place. Israeli Arabs, while constituting twenty percent of the population, own three percent of the land. The gap between the two populations is perpetuated by a one-to-five gap in educational expenditures. A similar gap can be observed in the health care system. Infant mortality is twice as high among Arab children of under twelve months.

Extreme Goes Mainstream

Words like fascism and racism are no longer only used as insults hurled in the heat of political battles. Mainstream observers and politicians have expressed such concerns for years. Isaac Herzog, a future president of Israel warned a few years ago that “fascism is touching the margins of our society”. According to Sami Michael, prominent writer and president of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, his country has become “the most racist state in the developed world”.

Anti-Arab attitudes are fostered in the portrayal of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks. Textbooks in such disciplines as history, geography and civics approved by the Ministry of Education are full of simplistic “good guys vs. bad guys” accounts. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who did research on Israeli textbooks, concludes that “with such distorted pictures and skewed maps firmly fixed in their minds, Israeli Jewish students are drafted into the army, to carry our Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, whose life-world is unknown to them and whose very existence they have been taught to resent and fear”. Calls to expel all Palestinians from Israel and the territories it occupied in 1967 have become commonplace; these calls are now made conventionally by government ministers.

European history suggests that ethnic nationalism easily veers towards fascism. The current government spells out views that many liberals refuse to identify with Zionism. Those protesting in the streets of Tel Aviv are honestly concerned about “preserving Israel’s soul”, the country’s democratic institutions. What most of them ignore is the incompatibility of such institutions with exclusive ethnic nationalism. The extreme right finally in power in Israel reflects constitutive values of Zionism and is not shy to assert them. These values are at the root of the steady evolution of Israeli society from collectivism with socialist rhetoric to nationalism with references to religion. The current government exposes these roots and undercuts the illusion of liberal Zionism, a political oxymoron. No wonder there are no liberal Zionists left among my friends.

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The Agony of Liberal Zionism