The liberal Zionist predicament

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Consider this quote from a 1985 debate (beginning around 17:00):

We are faced with a problem, and that problem is the contradiction between Zionism, Judaism, on the one hand, and western democracy on the other. . . I think it is contempt for the Arab to state that a good Arab would accept living in the State of Israel. What Arab wants to live in a state which defines itself legally de jure as the Jewish State. . . What Arab citizen of Israel, stands up every morning and thinks of the fact that his national anthem, Hatikvah, speaks such words as nefesh yehudi homiyah, the soul of a Jew yearns. What Arab can sing those words? . . . I understand that no Israeli Arab on Independence Day runs out into the streets to celebrate his defeat. I understand that. I understand that when an Arab lives in a state that has a law of return which applies to Jews only, he isn’t happy about that. And I understand that if Israel would be a western democracy which allows Arabs and Jews to have equal rights, political rights, that some day they could become the majority, and then there will not be a Jewish State, for no Arab, no self-respecting Arab, and they are all self-respecting Arabs, they all have national pride, no Arab if he has a majority will ever agree to live in a state that calls itself the Jewish State. And there will be a law of return for Arabs, and rightly so, under democracy.

Who spoke with such clarity and empathy of the predicament faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel? Was it Mandela? Chomsky? No, it was Meir Kahane, Orthodox Rabbi and Member of Knesset, and unabashed racist thug who incited and applauded murderous violence against civilians and proposed forcible transfer of every last Arab from the land of Israel.

Let’s not fool ourselves. The above Kahane quote may seem refreshingly honest, but he arrived at this kernel of truth only because it served his ideology of expulsion. Elsewhere in this 1985 debate with Alan Dershowitz, Kahane dutifully recites the fabrications of history that have been the mainstay of Zionist mythology: “they” started each war, even 1956, and “we” only fought back, etc. But give the devil his due. In this passage, Kahane clearly articulates a conundrum that many “liberal Zionists,” far more decent people, refuse to even recognize. There is indeed an irreconcilable contradiction between Zionism and democracy. Kahane saw it and prescribed the morally reprehensible solution of complete ethnic cleansing. Anti-Zionists also see the contradiction and insist that equal rights triumph over ethno-religious preferences.

Liberal Zionists are caught in the middle. Their “liberal” side propels them toward equality, but their Zionist inclination makes preservation of the Jewish State the paramount concern. Some simply refuse to see any conflict between equality and the Jewish State at all. “Israel is both a Jewish State and a democracy that provides equal rights to both its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. Why is that so hard to understand?” Others acknowledge the problem but minimize it, assuming that non-Jewish Arabs must and will accept the inherently inferior status assigned to them in a Jewish State.

Adam and Austin Branion have expertly dissected Peter Beinart’s self-imposed blinders on questions of history and continuing discrimination against Palestinian citizens. Essentially, Beinart’s book briefly mentions the tension between “Zionism and liberal democracy” but then dismisses the problem with a shrug. In his op-ed in the NY Times, he acknowledges that Israel is a “flawed but genuine democracy,” but then insists that Israeli democracy be “vigorously embraced,” as if the “flaw” were a mere blemish on an otherwise beautiful face, and not the intractable problem described by Kahane.

Other liberal Zionists consider the existential dilemma of the “Arab Israeli” in varying degrees before deciding it is something they can live with. Jerome Slater acknowledges that Israel has broken its promises to Arab citizens for 64 years, but believes that the situation could be salvageable with a genuine commitment to equality, with the necessary exception of guaranteeing “return” for Jews but not Palestinians. Gershom Gorenberg’s book The Unmaking of Israel offers a vivid description of the nightmare scenario he foresees as the inevitable result of the one-state solution, but he is willing to sentence Palestinian citizens to a lifetime of outsider-hood to avoid this speculative catastrophe. Bradley Burston even adopts the embarrassing comparison of Israel and the US at age 64, judging 21st century Israel by mid-19th century standards, and implying that full equality is the genuine aspiration of the Jewish State but unfortunately such an advanced concept requires decades (or centuries?) of national maturity before it can be achieved. Imagine if one of the newer countries of the world, say a former “republic” of the USSR or Yugoslavia, enacted anti-Jewish legislation, and in response to world outrage, defended itself by saying that England took a millennium to provide equality to its citizens.

In an ironic and even perverse twist, Kahane, the diehard unapologetic racist criminal, knew that people like Beinart, Slater, Gorenberg, and Burston are refusing to recognize the obvious but uncomfortable truth. Unfortunately, Kahane’s clarity of vision was accompanied by a pathological disregard for the welfare and even lives of fellow human beings he saw as ethnically challenged. Liberal Zionists have much more generous souls and decent instincts, but their devotion to the Jewish State concept trumps all. Ironically, Beinart perfectly captures the source of his own blindness on page 7 of his book, saying that one of the reasons “Israel advocacy” is not persuading American Jewish youth is that “it is intellectually insulting to tell young Jews . . . that they should start with the assumption that Israeli policy is justified, and then work backward to figure out why.” Beinart & co. start with the assumption that the concept of a Jewish State is etched in stone, and then work backward to figure out why. If their starting point were that equality in the land of one’s birth truly is an inalienable right, they would arrive at a very different conclusion. You can say “Jewish and democratic state” 10, 100 or 1000 times fast, but Meir Kahane, of all people, knew an oxymoron when he heard one.