Run don’t walk to read this article in the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs: “Lamenting the Decline of ‘Liberal Zionism’ Is Futile—Since It Never Really Existed.” In which Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism explains that the crisis liberal Zionists are experiencing today over anti-democratic trends in Israel is actually the collapse of their own illusions: these liberal Zionists should have recognized long ago that the ideology they embraced was illiberal at its core. The creation of the refugees is at the center of the Zionist experience in Palestine– thus the refugees photo atop the piece, which I repost here.
Those who believe that Israel is now in the process of abandoning its founding philosophy of “liberal Zionism” are engaged in a futile enterprise, for that “liberal” Zionism never existed—it is simply a convenient myth. They have not confronted a contrary thesis—one supported by history—that Zionism was flawed from the beginning, not only by ignoring the existing indigenous Palestinian population, but by rejecting the dominant spiritual history and essence of Judaism.
To understand the injustice which Zionism has inflicted upon the Palestinians, it is essential to consider the indifference of the early Zionists as well as of the British government, which issued the Balfour Declaration, to transfer ownership of a piece of land it had gained through war.
As the French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson notes in his book Israel: A Colonial-Settler State,“Wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in the 20th century could not help but lead to a colonial-type situation and the development of a racist state of mind, and in the final analysis, to a military confrontation.”
Such colonization seemed “perfectly natural” given the atmosphere of the time, Rodinson writes: “[Theodor] Herzl’s plan unquestionably fit into the great movement of European expansion of the 19th and 20th centuries, the great European imperialist groundswell.”
The immediate issue for the Zionists in the late 19th century was what they called “the Arab problem” in Palestine, an indigenous population 92 percent Arab.
And they came up with a simple solution to that problem: removal, transfer, what we call ethnic cleansing today.
There was a liberal tradition inside Zionism, chiefly cultural Zionists who did not want to deny Palestinian existence. But they were always a tiny minority, and pushed to the side.
The only “liberal” Zionism to be found in these early years was that of a handful of “cultural Zionists,” who sought to establish a Jewish cultural center in Palestine, not a sovereign and exclusively Jewish state.
Brownfeld honors dissident voices who refused the dirty business that lay ahead:
Yitzhak Epstein, a teacher who had migrated to Palestine, raised what he called the “hidden question.” He declared: “Among the difficult problems associated with the idea of the renewal of the life of our people in its land, there is one question that outweighs all the others, namely the question of our attitude to the Arabs. We have overlooked a rather ‘marginal’ fact—that in our beloved land lives an entire people that has been dwelling there for many centuries and has never considered leaving it.”
At the same time, early Zionist, Hillel Zeitlin, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, charged that Zionists “forget, mistakenly or maliciously, that Palestine belongs to others, and it is totally settled.”
These few dissident voices constitute the essence of the alleged “liberal Zionism” which existed as the expropriation of the land proceeded. As Moshe Sharett, a future Israeli prime minister, acknowledged, “We have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it…the land must be ours alone.”
Brownfeld hammers a theme well worth repeating, that the occupation was forged by Labor Zionists:
Those who look at Israel’s current policies, such as continued construction and settlement of the occupied territories, are wrong to blame the country’s right wing. Labor and Likud Israeli governments alike have advanced the occupation. Both right- and left-wing Israelis, apparently, are comfortable with the status quo. Those who lament what they think is the decline—or end—of “liberal Zionism” must seriously consider the possibility that Zionism, from the start, not only turned its back on the Jewish universal spiritual tradition but, by ignoring the rights of the indigenous population of Palestine, on Western principles of democracy and self-determination as well. “Liberal Zionism” is not dead or dying. The truth is that it never existed at all, except in the minds of those who could not confront what was happening at the hands of an enterprise they eagerly embraced from afar, ignoring its harsh reality.
And he concludes with a stern warning:
That reality has now become clear to all, hence the current shock and dismay. Yet, the organized American Jewish community, and the U.S. government, both of which continue to aid and abet these developments, continue to turn away from what is happening.
This piece touches on Nathan Thrall’s piece in the London Review of Books exploding Ari Shavit’s American celebration. Shavit was widely embraced by leading editors, liberal Zionist rabbis and the Jewish establishment as somehow revivifying Zionism. But Thrall shows that from defending the Gaza slaughter to opposing a withdrawal from the occupied territories, there is nothing liberal about his attitudes.