When will liberal Zionists give up on their dream?

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Stuart Levey was for many years the Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, responsible for pushing sanctions against Iran, and because he had a long history of supporting Israel, the Institute for Research into Middle East Policy not long ago obtained and posted Levey’s senior thesis at Harvard in 1985. Levey is now at the Council on Foreign Relations— of course!– but the thesis, which concerns the danger to the “Zionist dream” posed by Meir Kahane, the rightwing Jewish extremist, is important for two reasons:

1, It shows just how deeply committed to Zionism was a political appointee who held one of the most important policy positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations—indeed Obama kept Levey over for 2 years in a nod to the Israel lobby. 2, More importantly, it is a statement of American liberal Zionist goals, aimed at preserving Israel’s “shared values” with the US against a threat to US support posed by Kahane’s open racism. As today’s elections in Israel are sure to demonstrate, that rightwing threat has continued to flourish and grow nearly 30 years on– so the thesis raises questions about liberal Zionism’s willful blindness.


Written under the tutelage of Martin Peretz  in 1985, the thesis reveals Levey’s ardor about Zionism in countless ways, chiefly in his repeated invocation of the “Zionist dream” that engendered a “morally exemplary state.” He wrote:

“Zionism is the modern quest to realize the 2000 year old Jewish dream to return to the Holy Land and re-establish Jewish sovereignty…. All Zionist groups dreamed of settling Israel and creating a Jewish state by ingathering the scattered exiles of the Diaspora. They all stressed the ultimate unity of the Jewish people and their potential to create a state that would be a light unto other nations.”

A young Jew who had spent considerable time in Israel partly at the behest of Harvard professor Nadav Safran (who lost a job the next year for taking money from the CIA), Levey assured his reader that Jews would be “vigilant” against any discrimination against minorities in Israel because of “egalitarian, democratic ideals” nurtured in Europe.

“Israel’s record is virtually devoid of organized anti-Arab extremism in the political realm,” he claimed. But there is scarcely a word of respect for Palestinians in the thesis. Zionism was “an ideology shared… by nearly every Israeli,” Levey wrote, leaving out the 15-20 percent who were Palestinian. Arabs are “regarded by the majority of Jews as aliens.” And even Israeli Palestinians are “members of the hostile Arab nation surrounding Israel.”

Beautifully organized and sturdily-written (the thesis should be a study for anyone who aspires to enter the establishment or wants to understand how it works), the thesis had a serious purpose: to protect Israel from Kahane. Because Kahane (who was killed in New York in 1990) did not believe that Israel could be both a Jewish state and a democracy– it should only be a Jewish state, and it should expel Palestinians to become that more fully—he had exposed fundamental fault lines in the conception of Israel that Israel had never resolved. He forced Israelis “to confront the inescapable question of whether Israel can be both democratic and Jewish.” And if he continued to expose these faultlines, Levey warned, Arabs who feel no loyalty to the Jewish state were likely to rise up, and Jewish Mizrahi extremists (without that European experience of democracy) were likely to respond.

Israel had been lucky to experience very little extremism in its history, but that tradition could end with Kahane’s rise, and with it, Israel could become alienated from western pluralism, and thereby lose its most precious relationship, the support of the United States, Levey concluded.

So a young man whose most important intellectual work was seeking to ensure that the United States not abandon Israel ultimately had the government portfolio for punishing Israel’s putative enemies.

Of course we have seen many other ardent Zionists in high political position. William Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Rahm Emanuel, Dennis Ross, Stuart Eizenstat and Joe Biden come to mind. But you can safely assume that Levey was never asked about these matters when he came before Congress—the Congress that is raising serious questions about Chuck Hagel’s orientation because he has stated that he was not a senator from Israel.


The thesis is more important in what it says about liberal Zionism. The 1985 author Stuart Levey believed deeply in Israeli democracy, and believed that its morality stemmed from its European origins, in a morally conscious people. He was genuinely appalled by Kahane’s “ethnic chauvinism:” by his desire to expel people who won’t swear a loyalty oath to the Jewish state, by statements comparing Arabs to cockroaches, by his threats of violence. Kahane was like Nazis in these attitudes, Levey wrote, and the Harvard student insisted that Israel had never experienced such racism before.

For Kahane had broken a taboo on a fundamental question: Kahane had carried “the idea of a Jewish state to its logical extreme…The potentially contradictory goals of the Israeli state to be both Jewish and democratic is a fault line along which major earthquakes can erupt.”

Levey overlooked a lot of other earthquakes in Israeli history. He had not a clue about the Nakba, which by then was being discovered by western and Jewish scholars, long after actual non-western, non-Jewish human beings had experienced it and written about it. He also overlooked the long history of Jewish extremism, including the murders of Chaim Arlosoroff, Lord Moyne, and Folke Bernadotte, as well as the terrorist branches, the Stern Gang and the Irgun, who as Arthur Koestler wrote, worked hand in glove with the regular Israeli forces to carry out the dirty work that could not bear an official Jewish signature in the war of independence. He did not seem troubled by the wanton militarism of the Lebanon invasion of 1982, which alienated many Americans. So there was ample evidence that young Levey overlooked of extremism.

And even if you cut young Levey slack on his blindness (as I do — he was 22, and I sure don’t want you reading my thesis) just think of the earthquakes that have come since! The butchery of Baruch Goldstein in 1994, the breaking hands of the First Intifada, the killing of a prime minister by a rightwing zealot, the brutal crackdown on the Second Intifada, the rise of Avigdor Lieberman with a Kahanist platform of expelling Palestinians and requiring loyalty oaths– and Lieberman is not a lowly member of the Knesset, but the Foreign Minister! And more: the deportation of African refugees and the rise in the latest election cycle of Naftali Bennett, with his declaration that there will never be a Palestinian state in the West Bank, that’s a Jewish state, and his friend Moshe Feiglin calling for ridding Palestine of Palestinians by paying them to leave and his friend Jeremy Gimpel fantasizing about blowing up the Dome of the Rock. And Feiglin and Gimpel could both become Knesset members today.

Liberal Zionists have been aware of the threats that ethnocracy poses to democracy for a very long time, certainly in Stuart Levey’s case since 1985. And now that those logical extremes have only been more fully explored, you must ask these liberal Zionists who have understood the problem for 30 years: at what point does the dream end? Stuart Levey was alarmed by one Knesset member’s danger to the blessed political culture—now Kahane’s ideas are all over the political culture, but I don’t believe Levey has spoken out against the trend. When does the Zionist dream of a Jewish state actually founder amid the increasing evidence of rightwing radicalization of that society in the name of Bennett’s goal of making Israel “more Jewish”? When is enough enough?

The answer is that liberal Zionism is a religious ideology of Jewish redemption, just as rightwing Zionism is, and its adherents are by and large religiously committed. They have kept their baby in the bathwater, even after the bathwater has turned into an open sewer. They are indisposed to face the truth out of core beliefs involving Jews and our destiny in western society. As Max Blumenthal jokes at public appearances, liberal Zionists deny there is apartheid in the West Bank when they warn that if we don’t act now it will be apartheid, but that is like saying, One day this table is going to be a table, when it’s a table right now.

I am actually hopeful. I believe that many liberal Zionists are going to get off the sinking ship. I think the ranks of Israeli critics will be swelled by former liberal Zionists, even ones of religious commitment, that their liberalism will win out and make the movement for Palestinian freedom stronger. As Joseph Dana told friends recently, it’s going to be a bad year for liberal Zionism, with the ascendancy of the radical right and its eventual insistence that Israel annex portions of the West Bank; and that transformation will be illusion shattering. David Remnick is evidence of this. He’s seen what Israel has become and he wants no part of it. Presumably he would support some thorough-going transformation of Israel if it could be done nonviolently. Or as Matthew Yglesias said at J Street four years ago, if he has to choose between justice and a Jewish state, ultimately he’s going to go with human rights. “I’m not going to be a Jewish fascist.”

Yet I suspect they’re in the minority. The evidence of Stuart Levey’s 1985 thesis is that liberal Zionists will peer at the desperate changes in Israeli society and wring their hands, then keep talking about preserving the Zionist dream.

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The “liberal Zionist” dream is based on racism….period. Displacement of indigenous people by whatever means. Obama keeping Levey on to do the work of the I lobby and Israel and squeeze Iran based on unsubstantiated claims was indeed a clear “nod” I don’t buy for one minute that Levey did not know about the Nakba. That is a bunch of hooey. Just chose to ignore and support Zionist crimes. Don’t buy this ignorance rap for… Read more »

Kahane’s “open racism.” “Liberal Zionism” not so hidden racism if you look at it honestly.

Phil: Supposing liberal Zionists were to throw in the towel, what do you propose they pick up instead? Shall they denounce Israel as racist and anti-democratic (and throw in apartheid as to West Bank as well)? And, if so, shall all this be mere words, or would there also be a POLICY RECOMMENDATION? Discontent by ex-LibZios is all very well, speaking out is better (even if only public hand-wringing), but a call to arms is… Read more »

Israeli “democracy” is two wolves (liberal Zionists/Zionists) and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

Phil, You continue to produce the best analysis of Mideast (and especially Israeli) politics that is available anywhere — New Republic denizens must be envious. If they want to start competing with you, here is my advice to them: start trying to tell the truth to best of your abilities — follow the facts wherever they may lead — and stop indulging in propagandistic rationalizations for anything. This Stuart Levey senior thesis is a major… Read more »