One of the advantages of being a liberal Zionist is that you never have to take responsibility for what Zionism does. You can blame Palestinians for their own demise, maintain a sense of righteousness while people die, and defend Israel no matter what it does. And you can state emphatically that you know what Palestinians need to do, though you’ve never considered their experience. They exist, for you, only in a theoretical sense.
“Just what are we going to do about the Palestinians,” you and your liberal Zionist friends can ask over lattes and chai teas at coffee shops. And when you write about them, you can consider the Palestinian people only as a theory–something abstract to be grappled with–rather than human beings who deserve the dignity and freedom that you have. You don’t ever have to acknowledge Palestinian history or experience.
Take, for example, Thomas Friedman’s May 23, 2018, opinion piece in The New York Times, “Hamas, Netanyahu and Mother Nature.” Friedman’s critique–which shakes its finger at the Palestinians who have screwed up again–is yet another liberal Zionist apology for Israel’s recent massacre of 62 people at the Gaza border. “If Hamas had chosen to recognize Israel and build a Palestinian state in Gaza modeled on Singapore,” Friedman writes, “the world would have showered it with aid and it would have served as a positive test case for the West Bank.” Using an “If-X-then-Y” equation, Friedman knows what’s best for what ails Palestinians. If they just behaved better, he declares, Israel’s treatment of them would improve.
Like many other Zionist apologists, Friedman blames Hamas for using the Great Return March as a coverup for not providing Gazans a decent life. Hamas facilitated “the tragic and wasted deaths of roughly 60 Gazans by encouraging their march,” he writes. His claim falls in line with liberal Zionist thinking that dictates what Palestinians should do. The Gazans should have marched to the border together, and, recognizing Israel, declared their desire for peace:
What if all two million Palestinians of Gaza marched to the Israeli border fence with an olive branch in one hand and a sign in Hebrew and Arabic in the other, saying, ‘Two states for two peoples: We, the Palestinian people of Gaza, want to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish people–a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed adjustments.’
If they had just done it my way, then the end result would have been different, Friedman asserts. The Gazans should have held olive branches while being shot at, and they should have worked on their community-organizing skills, too.
If they had followed Friedman’s suggestion–“one that almost certainly would lead to an improved life for Gazans”–then they would have elicited a positive response from Israel and the rest of the world, too:
“That would have stimulated a huge debate within Israel and worldwide pressure–especially if Hamas invited youth delegations from around the Arab world to launch their own marches, carrying the Arab Peace Initiative. That kind of Palestinian movement would make Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure, which is the key to moving the Israeli silent majority. Hamas chose instead to make Israelis feel strategically insecure and therefore morally secure in killing scores of Hamas followers who tried to breach the border fence.”
Friedman’s liberal Zionist thinking puts all the responsibility on Hamas and none on Israel. The bully Hamas made the victim Israel feel insecure–follow Friedman’s italicized wordplay–and the intellectual banter proves, for him, that it’s never Israel’s fault.
Friedman is so convinced he knows what the Palestinians need to do, he links to a piece he wrote in 2011, “Lessons From Tahrir Sq.,” proposing almost exactly the same solution:
May I suggest a Tahrir Square alternative? Announce that every Friday from today forward will be ‘Peace Day,’ and have thousands of West Bank Palestinians march nonviolently to Jerusalem, carrying two things–an olive branch in one hand and a sign in Hebrew and Arabic in the other. The sign should say: ‘Two states for two peoples. We, the Palestinian people, offer the Jewish people a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders–with mutually agreed adjustments –including Jerusalem, where the Arabs will control their neighborhoods and the Jews theirs.’
Here, too, the onus is all on the Palestinians, as Friedman links their plight to the grass-roots activism they’ve failed to initiate. But the two articles reveal the limitations of liberal Zionist discourse: you never have to shift your thinking, even over an eight-year period of Palestinian misery. Despite worsening conditions in Gaza, and the global implications of the recent U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem–not mentioned once in his latest– Thomas Friedman quotes Thomas Friedman almost verbatim. Liberal Zionists remain stagnant; you can dig your heels into the dirt–and brag about it with a hyperlink, without ever putting yourself in Palestinian shoes.
Were Friedman to acknowledge the collective punishment of Palestinians, he might remember that good behavior doesn’t work for Palestinians. Israel still punishes them. Friedman could recall 2008, when Israel refused to grant permission to several Palestinians who had won Fulbright awards to leave Gaza. Of course, Palestinians shouldn’t have to win a Fulbright to be able to study, but Israel denying them travel shows that Israel doesn’t reward “good” and “civilized” behavior. Like the U.S. which prohibited slaves from learning to read and write, Israel uses a similar systemic tactic to try to keep Palestinians down. Because an educated people becomes a threat to the system that is oppressing them.
Liberal Zionist thinking, however, doesn’t allow for institutional and systemic awareness. And it also demands that any criticism of Israel be under the guise of protecting Israel. Friedman condemns Israel, for example, only because of the threat the settlements pose to Israel’s Jewish democracy:
But I find it a travesty that a country with so much imagination in computing, medicine and agriculture shows so little imagination in searching for secure ways to separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank to preserve its Jewish democracy.
The “travesty,” for Friedman, is the possibility of not having a Jewish nation. He considers the West Bank in terms of what this means for Israel’s future. “If current birthrate trends continue,” Friedman warns, “the Jews will likely become a minority, with all of the negative governing consequences that will entail.” Palestinians only exist in liberal Zionist discourse as background, as an inconvenience, a nuisance, to Israel’s colonial project of ethnically cleansing Palestine.
A good liberal Zionist also tells Palestinians to “get over it” while attempting to sympathize. Friedman writes that he appreciates Gazans’ frustration, but come on, he says, it’s enough already:
I appreciate the Gazans’ sense of injustice. Why should they pay with their ancestral homes for Jewish refugees who lost theirs in Germany or Iraq? The only answer is that history is full of such injustices and of refugees who have reconciled with them and moved on–not passed on their refugee status to their kids and their kids’ kids. It’s why so few Arabs, so few Europeans, so few anybody, rose to Hamas’s defense. People are fed up with it.
Here again, Friedman blames Palestinians for being refugees. Shame on Palestinians, Friedman wails, for passing on their occupation to their children. The world is a cruel place, and these things just happen. Zionists were justified in taking Palestinians’ land, and liberal Zionists have moved on. The Palestinians should, too. It’s the only answer, he writes.
Ari Shavit, another good soldier of liberal Zionist discourse, wrote similarly in his 2013 My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. What happened to the Palestinians was terrible, he writes, but these things just happen. Palestinians exist, for Shavit, too, only to defend Israel’s actions:
I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live.
Like Friedman, Shavit doesn’t consider the Palestinian point of view of that “filthy work”. He attempts to sympathize with Palestinians, but then stops short. “But the Jewish State cannot let them return,” Shavit writes. “Israel has a right to live.”
Even while liberal Zionists describe horrific conditions in Gaza, it’s never from the perspective of those who actually live there. It’s the Gazans who are dumping raw sewage–100 million liters a day, Friedman writes–into the Mediterranean Sea. This sewage is flowing north to the Israeli city Ashkelon, and the desalination plant “has had to close several times to clean Gaza’s gunk out of its filters.” Friedman only mentions the humanitarian sewage crisis so he can defend Israel. Friedman backs up his position that Gaza’s existence is only a nuisance for Israel by quoting Gidon Bromberg, the director of EcoPeace Middle East, an organization that “promotes peace through environmental collaboration.” Bromberg, too, speaks about Gazans as an inconvenience, an obstacle to Israel’s survival. “‘So this idea that we can just get out of Gaza, throw away the key and forget about it is a total illusion,’” Bromberg said. It would behoove Israel to solve the problem of Gaza, for Bromberg, only because of the trouble it creates for Israel.
It’s possible for liberal Zionists to change, of course. They could write about the Palestinians without condescension. Even Friedman, if he could imagine what life is really like for those living in Gaza–if he could, for once, listen to what Palestinians are saying–he could write about the march without mocking it as a Hamas circus. He would stop himself from condescending lectures:
In a few years, the next protest from Gaza will not be organized by Hamas, but by mothers because typhoid and cholera will have spread through the fetid water and Gazans will all have had to stop drinking it.
Maybe, if Friedman stopped imposing his own standards on a life he can’t even imagine, he would stop blaming Hamas and begin holding Israel responsible.
Liberal Zionists can also visit villages in the West Bank and stand in Palestinians’ shoes and watch the shit flow down from Jewish settlements, for it does–I have seen it–and it doesn’t only flow northward into Jewish Israeli cities, as Friedman suggests. They can read about the march, too, and learn that young Palestinians are creating oral history projects and interviewing their families, and building models of the Palestinian villages that Israel destroyed. They could begin to question Israel’s motives, as Natalie Portman and others have, and develop a sense of empathy–a quality required if one wants to see the world from another’s perspective.
But liberal Zionist thinking needs to remain limited, finite, and constrained. And those who keep going down its path of control and restraint, like Friedman, will continue to completely erase Palestinian history and experience. They will not have to look at the Great Return March as anything except a failure of Hamas’s imagination. They will not, under any circumstances, pause to honor those who gave their lives to expose the fact that Israel has no desire to respond to Palestinian demands for freedom and sovereignty.
And The New York Times will keep publishing their op-ed pieces.