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Is there room for liberal Zionists in an anti-Zionist movement?

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The Likud party’s unsurprising success in last month’s poll reinforced the essential argument (reality) that the two-state outcome is not viable. The question of whether that’s been the case for a week or twenty years is basically irrelevant at this point – one state exists, and it’s an ugly state.

Analysts have written that sixty percent of the Jewish public in Israel voted for apartheid, but in reality the number was much higher. Both Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog are risk-averse center-right leaders; a vote for their bloc amounted to a vote for the status quo as it existed on January 19, 2009. The sum of these two groups of voters can comfortably be called The 94%.

But it would be wrong to characterize the “liberal Zionist” bloc as fundamentally undifferentiated from their slightly more hawkish Jewish-Israeli counterparts. Many have made the argument, myself included, that “liberal” and other Zionists are practically the same, yet this may be the juncture when that word – practically – ceases to be useful or analytically appropriate. Phil Weiss wrote trenchantly that the time for an open discussion between anti-Zionists and liberal Zionists has arrived. The basis for his claim is the view that the liberal Zionist choice – the competition between their liberalism and exclusive Jewish nationalism – has never been more painfully stressed than now. The end of the era of self-deception has arrived and the anti-Zionist argument has the potential to resonate more widely than ever before. It’s a good argument, but not one that is easily embraced.

For a long time the shibboleth of the Zionist “left” has been “dialogue.” It was the best way to do nothing but feel good – a basic extension of consumer culture in the 1990s. For those of us who were coming of age at that time the environment was saturated with slick materials peddled by greasy Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis. We were instructed, pleaded with, to be friends and plant the “Seeds of Peace.” Many of us developed an aversion to their program – ultimately turned off by their pornographer’s zeal and breathless salesmanship. Here were people who stood for nothing and had the resources to get there. Today, their best analogue exists in the OneVoice organization; JStreet’s intent focus on “the internal Jewish conversation” differentiates it from what existed back then. In time the intellectual argument against “dialogue” developed, but only in consequence of its emotional counterpart.

That context helps explain why Phil’s argument is difficult to accept. “Dialogue” of the kind that liberal Zionists have pursued so diligently has always been simultaneously hollow and limitless. It acts as a dangerous sink, sapping energy from the aggrieved party as a kind of maintenance fee for the regime. Without energy there can be no action, the most direct catalyst for change. For Palestinians “dialogue” carried with it only the promise of animated non-existence in formaldehyde. It’s a fact that the Oslo generation were aware of but I suspect they went along with the farce out of a profound sense of fatigue. The inertia after the crescendo carried them, like so much flotsam, for twenty years at least.

Then there is the relevant political critique. Liberal Zionists sought to “dialogue” with Palestinians as part of their greater consolidation plan. The “wilderness” was won and the natives mostly scattered or pacified – but total victory only comes with acceptance and the legitimacy it confers. “Dialogue” around “two-states” built upon two legitimate “narratives” – for what? The preservation of racial dominance and “normal” social development, mainly. Never mind that “normal” could never have existed in a paranoid Ashkenazi cage.

That word, “normal,” is important for understanding the political purpose of an effort by an apartheid-top society to seek acceptance. Normal is at the heart of the Zionist campaign – the human, misguided desire for Jewish parking attendants, queer activists and their antagonists, writers, left and right-wing television presenters, artisans, and famously, “garbage men.” The normal right of a people to elect a populist neoconservative and the normal right to repudiate that same scaremongering, race-baiting leader . . . only it didn’t work out that way. And for good reason: An apartheid society is sick. Its hazy middle and histrionic elite are sick.

Yet, the Netanyahu Election – a raging victory, like Churchill – marks a meaningful erosion in the structural environment for liberal Zionists, and for anti-Zionists too. The undeniable failure of two-states has thrown the whole precarious psychic architecture of liberal Zionism into a slow-motion state of ontological collapse. Liberal Zionism, a paradox held together by a nuclear bond forged in the Holocaust trauma, has decayed beyond its point of minimum viability. I’m reminded of the Replicants’ tragic end in Ridley Scott’s terrific film, Blade Runner; sympathetic characters ultimately, but only as they expire.

Which is to say that the opportunity that Phil wrote about is a real one. Inevitably, some “liberal Zionists” will choose their Zionism over whatever gaunt liberalism they ever could lay claim to, like Alan Dershowitz. And others, after much thought and pained reflection, will transition to true liberalism – the kind that’s unwedded to chauvinist nationalism. They will be, perhaps sometime before the twilight of the conflict, valuable allies in the fight to abolish Zionism. Indeed, it will never be too late for them to join the BDS movement, the best and most moral tool for combating apartheid.

Whether by constitution or life experience some in the anti-Zionist camp are better equipped to act as conduits for the transition than others. I admire Haneen Zoabi and regard her as one of the most inspiring and courageous Palestinian leaders today. Her strength and unrelenting commitment to justice in Palestine, in the face of acerbic racism and venom, are unequalled. Given the opportunity, I would cast a vote for Zoabi.

At the same time, I watched the Left media embrace Ayman Odeh, a man whose statements about Herzog made me deeply uncomfortable. For me, much of what Odeh said about cooperation and joint marches among Israelis recollected the cloying stickiness of the nineties. It took some time to realize that there are meaningful differences here, however. First, his comments were issued from a position of power – would he play King-maker or not? That’s the kind of question Mahmoud Abbas has never had to contend with. Whether the newly-empowered Palestinian-Israelis raise their voices or not remains to be seen, but their having the option to do so is an important new development.

I’ve written before that centripetalism may present the best option for a political resolution of the apartheid regime. The political theory is predicated upon the existence of people like Odeh – politicians who may not appeal to the hardline within their own camp, but who offer sufficient inducement to marginal voters in other groups. In other words, a politician who has the potential to engage in “dialogue” with a fractured and deflated constituency – not so much to meet them half way, but rather to act as their bridge.

We’re still a long way from the realization of democracy in Palestine/Israel. But the fracturing liberal Zionist base, combined with the end of the two-state argument may present a real opportunity to grow our political movement. It may also present an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a single, democratic state. While I’m personally uncomfortable with outreach to liberal Zionists, the time may be right for others – like Ayman Odeh – to begin to bridge the difference. To act as a life raft for a people without a raft.

Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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21 Responses

  1. MHughes976 on April 27, 2015, 2:59 pm

    A raging victory, like Chuchill? Churchill, having led the nation to victory, suffered a raging defeat in 1945, He won in 51 but not in very raging style – he led the Conservatives into acceptance, lasting until Thatcher, of the socialist reforms of the postwar years. Just saying.

  2. hophmi on April 27, 2015, 3:51 pm

    “For a long time the shibboleth of the Zionist “left” has been “dialogue.””

    You know, this is so tendentious. The people deeply involved in J Street do a lot more than participate in dialogue. Many of them have been on the ground working with Palestinian communities in Israel and working on civil rights issues in Israel. It’s more than “dialogue.” The New Israel Fund doesn’t grant money to Adalah or ACRI for dialogue. It does it so that Adalah and ACRI can advocate on behalf of Palestinians for a more inclusive Israel. Encounter sends groups of American and Israeli Jews into the West Bank to learn about what Palestinians are experiencing there. That’s a lot more than dialogue.

    “Many of us developed an aversion to their program – ultimately turned off by their pornographer’s zeal and breathless salesmanship. Here were people who stood for nothing and had the resources to get there. ”

    Stood for nothing? Wow… You know, you spend I don’t know how long bringing Palestinian and Israeli kids together to meet each other to maybe make peace more of a reality on the ground when there were ongoing negotiations, and this “stands for nothing.” Just wow. It just sums up everything that’s bad about the BDS movement. You’re all about making sure people turn against one another so that there’s more hate.

    • Donald on April 28, 2015, 7:45 am

      Some of the people organizing these dialogue sessions may have good intentions–I once thought they were a great idea, but after decades of this it’s clear that they also function as a gesture to make some self-described liberal Zionists feel good about themselves while continuing to support actions such as the bombing of Gaza. So long as the U.S. Government supports Israel at the UN and keeps up the supply of weapons, Israel can keep building settlements and bomb Gaza and shoot Palestinian civilians during ceasefires and there will be no consequences. If the people urging dialogue between children spent most of their time urging the U.S. to stop enabling Israel’s worst behavior, then the dialogue would make sense as part of a larger strategy.

    • Mooser on April 28, 2015, 12:33 pm

      “You know, you spend I don’t know how long bringing Palestinian and Israeli kids together to meet each other to maybe make peace more of a reality on the ground when there were ongoing negotiations”

      What a charming place Israel must be, a land run by children, administered by children, with children running its Army, Security services and Air Force.

      Gosh, i hope this kids don’t do anything, well, childish. You keep working on those kids, Hophmi. Never mind the grown-ups.

      • Mooser on April 28, 2015, 2:37 pm

        “You know, you spend I don’t know how long bringing Palestinian and Israeli kids together to meet each other “

        I once again owe you an apology, Hophmi. I assumed one thing about your efforts , and all while you are knocking yourself out to encourage Jewish-Palestinian meeting, dating and intermarriage. I apoplogize. That is a noble aim, and can lead to peace, and for that matter, lots of nachos. Glad to hear you are helping to achieve it. I bet you dance at every wedding which results.

    • Boo on April 28, 2015, 3:36 pm

      “It just sums up everything that’s bad about the BDS movement. You’re all about making sure people turn against one another so that there’s more hate”

      That first sentence is a total non sequitur, and the second doesn’t follow from the first — and is, in fact, a charge that’s unsupported by either the evidence or your argument.

    • Kris on April 28, 2015, 4:16 pm

      @hopmi: “You know, you spend I don’t know how long bringing Palestinian and Israeli kids together to meet each other to maybe make peace more of a reality on the ground when there were ongoing negotiations, and this “stands for nothing.”

      It is hard to imagine that bringing Palestinian and Israeli kids together would help to “make peace more of a reality on the ground” in a situation where the Israeli adults are busy stealing the land, resources, and futures of the Palestinians.

      The “mixed” (black and white kids from segregated churches) Sunday school picnics put on by some of the more “liberal” churches in Jim Crow Texas weren’t very useful, either. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as federal marshalls and the suffering of many martyrs, some white but mostly black, to get results.

  3. michelle on April 27, 2015, 7:11 pm

    if it’s not oppression
    if it is equal and just
    prove it
    trade places
    Iran treats their Christians and Jewish much better
    G-d Bless

  4. DaBakr on April 27, 2015, 7:22 pm

    the idea that somehow so-called ‘liberal zionists’ are going to wake up and join anti-Zionists in droves is preposterous. There may be isolated examples and increasingly shrill propaganda from outlets such as MW but the numbers are simply not there. It exists in the fringe only.

    • on April 28, 2015, 8:37 am

      Have to agree with DaBakr.

      A liberal Zionist is like a non-racistl KKK member. Really no such thing.

    • eljay on April 28, 2015, 8:44 am

      || DaBakr: the idea that somehow so-called ‘liberal zionists’ are going to wake up and join anti-Zionists in droves is preposterous. ||

      I agree. “Liberal Zionists” may be “kinder, gentler” supremacists, but they’re still supremacists.

      • Mooser on April 28, 2015, 2:57 pm

        “I agree. “Liberal Zionists” may be “kinder, gentler” supremacists, but they’re still supremacists.”

        Liberal Zionist are often people who have no real idea of how the Zionist project was accomplished. Their lives may have been such that the idea of thinking about being on the other side of the Jewish “homecoming” is simply not conceivable to them.
        Yet, they have a nice superficial veneer of victimology. Never thought of resolving the two.

    • pabelmont on April 28, 2015, 9:27 am

      I think someone may have a “therapy” idea here. Yes, a Zionist (and that includes almost any “liberal Zionist”) is a racial supremacist. Agreed.

      But some of them may be accessible by appeals to their better angels, if only various fears for Jewish safety can be overcome and fears of Jewish-grotesqueness (that is, racism, KKK-ism, etc.) increased.

      That’s, after all, the theory of beginning with I-feel-your-pain messages of, yes the holocaust was awful and we understand where your fears come from. We acknowledge that you and your feelings and fears are estimable and not to be derided.

      But then you go on with saying that there will never be another holocaust, but Jews in America could easily lose their privileges if Jewish-Power (AIPAC) becomes perceived as a subversive movement to subject America to domination by Jews. The way to fight that perception is by a 1960’s civil rights effort (human rights effort) on behalf of Palestinians who want, after all, no more than what anybody wants, safety, decency, respect, dignity, a life. why should it be so important to American Jews to deny these things to Palestinians?

      Etc. therapy model. BTW, what are the Open Hillel folks saying, the ones who are not yet “on board” with BDS?

  5. pabelmont on April 27, 2015, 7:27 pm

    This article is, at many points, incomprehensible to me. Perhaps Moor uses shorthands and historic allusions that I don’t recognize.

    Putting that criticism to one side, let me say that looking to ultimate conversations, long-continuing dialogues, and unending shilly-shallying is not the only game in town, not the only crisis.

    There is a short-term crisis right here in the USA in the form of legislation nearing votes in both houses of congress seeking to establish punishments for EU (and perhaps other) countries which practice any sort of BDS efforts. This demands big efforts in the USA to turn around.

    It also presents a crisis to the EU countries. Although none of them has established red-blooded sanctions against WB-products and the like, there are halfhearted efforts to demand proper labelling of WB-products, and this feels (in Israel) like a tightening of the noose of BDS. The EU may not like being pushed around by our Congress which has already in so many ways shown itself corrupt, AIPAC-ridden, imperious toward the P5+1 process, etc. But I don’t think one can count on EU to thumb its nose at the USA’s Congress and laugh at a sanctions regime in the USA aimed at themselves. Businessmen always want to keep doing business after all.

    So, a near-term crisis to go along with long-lasting dialogues. Wonder what the “liberal Zionists” in the USA will have to say about the anti-BDS legislation.

  6. echinococcus on April 27, 2015, 7:40 pm

    Is there room for albino wolves in a sheep pen? Perhaps –as long as Palestinians are physically in control. There can be no comparing to Odeh and bunch. Their battlefront is electoral politics within the enemy camp and they cannot be held to the same principles as others (“engaging in dialogue” is far from being their main job –at least we hope so.)

  7. DaveS on April 28, 2015, 10:19 am

    Thanks for this very thoughtful essay. One of the problems in discussing “liberal Zionists” is the extraordinarily vast spectrum of individuals described by that term. Ahmed includes Dershowitz as an LZ, which I suppose is arguable because he would so describe himself – a Zionist who believes in the necessity and permanence of a Jewish State but also supports the two-state solution. But he also is a despicable liar who whitewashes the historical record and responds to any pressure Israel to end the occupation with hysterical, false smears of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, Uri Avnery is a liberal Zionist who has a long record of exposing Israeli crimes, ridiculing Israeli leaders, and even defying Israeli “law.” The differences could not be more stark. I would include Norman Finkelstein, Jerry Slater, Kathleen Peratis, even Peter Beinart among those honest liberal Zionists who either support the notion of a Jewish State or at least tolerate it but also offer honest appraisals of Israel’s history and genuinely support some degree of pressure for change.

    Another problem is the huge spectrum in what is meant by “engaging” with liberal Zionists, ranging from conferences and discussions over the extent to which Israeli Jews should rule over the non-Jewish population, to invitations to LZ’s to shed once and for all their “chauvinist nationalism” and opt for “true liberalism,” as Ahmed puts it. It makes perfect sense to reject the former while engaging in the latter. I think that expressions of contempt for all liberal Zionists is counter-productive, as sincere liberals can be a major source of potential converts to anti-Zionism.

    My own history bears this out. I collected “charity” for the JNF in little blue boxes as a child, became very gradually disenchanted with Israeli “excesses” that I considered over-reactions to actual provocations, but did not make the leap to re-thinking the entire Zionist enterprise until well into my 40’s. I think it entirely reasonable for those who saw the light at an earlier age to ask what took me so long, but it is not easy to discard ideologies that were instilled at an early age. Movement in the right direction is rarely immediate or even swift. I say this not in defense of my own slow-moving evolution but only to emphasize that I am not alone, and that if any insults were hurled my way back then, it only would have retarded my progress. It is one thing to refuse to compromise on the inviolability of the principle of equality, but another to repel those who are moving “too slowly” to embrace it.

    Of course, it’s much easier for me to tolerate those who are making the same glacial journey that I once did than it might be for Palestinians who have been enduring rank racism for their entire lives. There may be a fine line between reasonable expressions of impatience and nasty ones of outright contempt, but I think it is worth recognizing that line and staying on the right side of it. A couple of years ago, I winced at the hit job on Norman Finkelstein authored by Steven Salaita and published by Ali Abunimah –, even though I had criticized in detail NF’s two-state plan the year before – and The Salaita essay directly draws an equivalence between Finkelstein and Dershowitz, saying they both envision the same end product. I think Finkelstein has acted rudely and wrongly himself in his criticism of those he sees to his left, but lumping him with Dershowitz is a fratricidal exercise that is more likely to fracture than strengthen the community of those who would like to hold Israel’s feet to the fire. Rejecting Finkelstein’s enormous contributions to the debate seems enormously ill-advised.

    There has been much progress in recent years in shifting the terms of the debate. What once was unmentionable in mainstream media – a vision of true democracy and equal rights for all – is now finding more and more exposure. But there has been no relief from the misery imposed on millions of Palestinians. More converts to the cause are required, and entreaties to liberal Zionists, without compromise but also without rancor, are likely to bear fruit. Distinguishing between people like Finkelstein and Dershowitz seems like a no-brainer as well.

    • Boo on April 28, 2015, 3:43 pm

      Agreed, lumping all LZs together for the purpose of demonizing one and all is nothing more than a strawman argument.

  8. tony greenstein on April 28, 2015, 11:37 am

    There is of course an easy answer to the question whether there’s room in an anti-Zionist movement for liberal Zionists. And that is ‘no’. By definition liberal Zionists are not anti-Zionists. Of course there’s room for them to cross over, we should be happy to debate them but their illusion, that it is possible to have a democratic and a Jewish state is a dangerous one which in practice has led to a reinforcement of a very undemocratic Jewish state.

    Of course in Israel it is different and there may be co-operation between anti-Zionists and Meretz. But even the Joint List, with Hadash in a minority, refused to have a vote sharing agreement which might have saved Meretz if it had fallen short of the 3.2% threshold for getting into the Knesset.

    But I’ve found on British campuses that it was the liberal Zionists who were most effective in whitewashing Israel and its war crimes.

    • Donald on April 28, 2015, 12:36 pm

      “But I’ve found on British campuses that it was the liberal Zionists who were most effective in whitewashing Israel and its war crimes.”

      That’s true everywhere, I suspect , though keeping in mind David Samel’s distinction between liberal Zionists like Jerry Slater, who is completely honest about Israel’s long record of atrocities, and liberal Zionists of the more common sort that you are describing, who are mostly whitewashers. We have some who comment here. They generally make noises about opposing settlements, but tend to get angry and dismissive if someone goes into more detail about Israeli atrocities, and they supported the slaughter in Gaza last summer. A self-described liberal Zionist is a better whitewasher than an openly arrogant and annoying person like Netanyahu. They can sigh and talk about their desire for peace and establish credibility with people who don’t pay close attention to the issue, and then defend Israel’s abuses.

      • Mooser on April 28, 2015, 2:30 pm

        A “liberal Zionist” is (and I would be happy to supply a quintessential example from Mondo archives) is somebody who threatens us with all the horrible “fascist” and “anti-democratic” people in Israel, if we don’t accept their liberal Zionist equivocations.

  9. watzal on April 29, 2015, 7:43 am

    The younger Palestinian activists should not fool themselves about the “liberalism” of Zionism

    “Liberal Zionism” is a misnomer. There is no such thing as a “liberal Zionist”. Is a “liberal Zionist” a little less racist and exclusivist than the “normal” Zionist? Forget about the so-called liberal Zionists and their mendacity. Their liberal rhetoric disguises their exclusivist views of “Eretz Israel” as a Jewish State. Palestinians, don’t let yourself be fooled by the rhetoric of liberal Zionists. Just read the book of Yitzhak Laor “The Myth of Liberal Zionism” and you would understand why there is no room for “liberal Zionist” in an anti-Zionist movement. Liberal Zionism and anti-Zionism are like fire and water.

    Dr. Ludwig Watzal

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