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Liberal Zionism, oxymoron

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The biggest flaw in Peter Beinart’s admittedly very important NYRB piece is his failure to recognize that Liberalism and Zionism are at root inconsistent. There are two reasons for this:

First, like all nationalisms, Zionism privileges the group over the individual. The rights and obligations of individuals derive ultimately from their membership in the collective. Liberalism, in contrast, is premised on the fundamental notions that rights and obligations exist primarily by virtue of the individual. 

Second, while all nationalisms tend to have religious roots, Zionism is particularly heavily shaped by its religious content both in terms of the focus of its nationalist aspirations (the biblical land of Israel) and its definition of who counts as a Jew (matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion).

Beinart is nostalgic for a golden age of Liberal Zionism, but like all mythic pasts, it is more complicated than his account suggests. True, the founding fathers of Israel were avowedly secular and talked a good game about equal rights for all in the new Jewish state. But the reality, as Israel’s New Historians have shown us, is that Ben Gurion and other early Liberal Zionists pursued a pretty aggressive nationalist agenda of conquest and ethnic cleansing and only begrudgingly respected the rights of non-Jews in the new state. Moreover, their secularism, while undeniable, hardly prevented them from conceding great power to religious authority from the get-go and did nothing to prevent the rise of messianic religious nationalism in Israel, particularly after 1967.

Given all of this, Beinart’s call for a reinvigoration of Liberal Zionism seems quixotic. I am not at all surprised that young Liberal Jews, both here and in Israel, are moving increasingly in the direction of some form of post-Zionism.

Michael Desch

Michael Desch is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008.

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