Recent media reports and opinion pieces of liberal Zionists expressed concerns and discomfort with the rightward shift in Israeli government policies. Apparently, there is a desire for a change in the Israeli government in the hopes of restoring the spirit of 1993 – the Oslo period, or the times of Israel’s founding prime minister. Notably, a piece entitled “Can liberal Zionists count on Hillary Clinton?”, published in the New York Times Magazine (December 17, 2014), articulates the worries of liberal Zionists such as Rabbi Daniel Zemel, who are feeling compromised with respect to their Zionist connection to Israel in light of the Israeli government’s rightward turn. Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times (“The Israeli Election Matters”, December 16, 2014) describes the call of Amos Yadlin, Israel’s former chief of defense intelligence, for Israel’s center to run on the core values of its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. His piece ends by expressing a hope for a prime minister with the “attributes of Ben-Gurion to test and retest whether hope is possible”.
A common thread through these articles, and others like them, is the allusion to an utterly false belief that left-center-wing Israeli governments represent an agenda of peace, positive change, and liberalism. That false association is a red herring and its unexamined pursuit will continue to make peace elusive.
As much as it seems that a shift to the center-left would bring greater hope for a real change and better life for us all in Palestine/Israel, Palestinian experiences bring me to believe that the promise of liberal Zionism is illusory, if not outright deceptive. To start with, the first Israeli governments (1948-1977) were Labor Alignment (or Mapai, ‘the Laborers’ party of the Land of Israel’) governments, beginning with David Ben-Gurion and ending with Yitzhak Rabin as prime ministers. These were all considered firmly left-leaning governments. For me, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, these were the governments that ripped my father’s family apart, planted fear and despair, and turned my people into refugees, internally displaced persons, and second class citizens.
Under these governments, collective punishment, oppression and fear were an immutable part of the daily lives of each and every Palestinian who stayed in their homeland. These governments denied hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland rendering them stateless, confiscated lands and built Jewish-only towns and settlements (including kibbutzim) on the ruins of hundreds of destroyed Palestinian villages. These were the governments that ran a military rule until 1966, under which all Arabs were required to obtain permits for any travel, and political rights were severely restricted especially for political activists. All the histories of Palestinian families in Israel during the period of these supposedly “left-wing” governments would reveal a regime under which Palestinian liberty and equality were systematically eroded, contrary to any basic principles of liberalism. While Israel’s founding fathers like Ben Gurion paid lip service to democratic principles and equal rights for Arab citizens, they had established a system of oppression and institutional discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.
The later intermittent Labor “left” Israeli governments were between 1992-1996 (Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) and 1999-2001 (Prime Minister Ehud Barak). While these Labor-led governments were more committed to achieving civic equality between Arab and Jewish citizens, especially addressing the vast disparities in allocation of government resources to education and infrastructure, these steps were short-lived and were never intended to address the root causes of our second class citizenship – namely the contradiction between liberal democratic principles and the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
Moreover, the impetus behind the Oslo Accords, negotiated during the Labor-Meretz government, was to rid the Israeli government of the liability of ruling over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and to maintain control over 80% of the historic Palestinian homeland. The ultimate goal is to establish a solid Jewish majority that enjoys special privileges and protections including institutional, economic, political and cultural superiority. In other words, the goal of the “left-leaning” political parties in Israel, which are aligned with liberal Zionism, was and remains the protection of Israel’s ethno-religious status as a Jewish state that has a democratic character but not necessarily full commitment to liberal democratic principles such as equality for all and separation of religion and state.
Under this version of the State of Israel, people like Rabbi Daniel Zemel, Thomas Friedman and other self-proclaimed liberal Zionists will have the right as Jews under the Law of Return (1950) to make Aliya (the Zionist word for Jewish immigration to Israel) and gain full citizenship rights overnight simply by setting foot in Israel, while hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants are denied the right of return to their homeland.
For many liberal Zionists, the next election is about saving Israel from the right wing government that has made it more difficult to defend Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, in the face of increasingly discriminatory policies and apartheid-like laws enacted against the Palestinian minority – not to mention the perpetration of war crimes and other gross violations of international law against Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. For liberal Zionists like Zemel and Friedman, it might be a matter of feeling good about Zionism while turning a blind eye to ongoing injustices, especially the plight of Palestinian refugees and the second-class citizenship offered to Palestinian citizens.
So I wonder and ask: are these calls by liberal Zionists to “rekindle the spirit of 1993”, for a desired leader “with the attributes of Ben-Gurion to test and retest whether hope is possible”, solely calls for a presentable “liberal” Israeli government, no matter what its policies really are? Or are these calls merely an attempt by liberal Zionists to preserve connections with Israel while ignoring the consequences of its discriminatory nature, that limits liberalism to those who are selected, based on their religion, to connect with Israel as their home? Or perhaps all of these are fabrications of an illusion, that I might take part in as well, to perpetuate the hope that we hold and carry close, believing that these unbearable circumstances will somehow fade away and we will all live happily ever after, if only regional politics will take a more liberal turn?
Zionism by definition defies bedrock principles of liberalism. A philosophy that values and treats every citizen equally despite differences in ethnicity and religion, is fundamentally at odds with a “Jewish state” and therefore liberal Zionism is an oxymoron. If Zemel and Friedman are truly concerned about liberalism and the future of all in Israel, they would do better to address the inherent contradictions between their liberalism and their Zionism. This is the discussion that many progressive Jews (those who are supporting Palestinian human rights) are eager to have, and the American public deserves to engage in, rather than futile arguments about a prime minister who might manage the crisis and make liberal Zionists feel good while actually perpetuating injustice and creating more hate and oppression. It seems that establishing a clear understanding of liberalism and Zionism is absolutely crucial, even beyond fighting the inertia that leaves two contradicting terms entangled as one, if we are ever to begin to establish patterns of true liberalism in my homeland.