It’s becoming more and more difficult for liberal Zionists to balance their support for human rights and global justice in Trump’s America with their support for Israel. But liberal Zionists in the U.S. still believe they can.
This tension is evident in Thomas Friedman’s June 19, 2018, opinion piece in the New York Times, “Trump to Dictators: Have a Nice Day.” Friedman compares Trump to dictators and defends human rights, but Israel is left out of the column, and it feels like a glaring evasion. “What’s terrifying about Trump is that he seems to prefer dictators to our democratic allies everywhere,” Friedman rightly suggests, and uses North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his examples. These dictators don’t just “crush their revolutionaries or terrorists but even their most mild dissenters,” Friedman writes. There’s no “space for even loyal opposition.” Friedman is correct, of course, that dissent is criminalized in these countries, and that Trump’s administration puts no limit on these dictators.
When looking at Friedman’s column with a non-Zionist lens, however, the alliance between Trump and Netanyahu seems simply too obvious to leave out. Netanyahu’s dictator-like behavior is clear. The recent murder of 135 Palestinians at the Gaza border (and the wounding of more than 14,000), the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem that Netanyahu pushed, Israel’s decision to ban 20 groups who support BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) from entering Israel, and the ongoing occupation and colonization of the Palestinian people that Israel has never taken responsibility for, are just a few indicators of Netanyahu’s desire for total control.
That Netanyahu is left out of this column speaks to this growing tension between a universal liberalism and liberal Zionism; to reconcile the two, Friedman is forced to avoid the topic altogether.
Similarly, Friedman can only sound as though he supports human rights if Israel is not mentioned. He cites Human Rights Watch to show the changes occurring in Egypt:
Take Egypt. On May 31, Human Rights Watch reported that the Egyptian police had ‘carried out a wave of arrests of critics of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in dawn raids since early May 2018.’ Those arrested included Hazem Abd al-Azim, a political activist; and Wael Abbas, a well-known journalist and rights defender; as well as Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon; Haitham Mohamadeen, a lawyer; Amal Fathy, an activist; and Shady Abu Zaid, a satirist.
Again, Friedman accurately warns of increased censorship among Egypt’s citizens. But a site like Human Rights Watch becomes a convenient and valid source for liberal Zionists as long as it is not used to criticize Israel. When it does, it is accused of perpetuating an anti-Israel bias, rather than being a source that has authority and shows human rights violations by Israel. But Friedman’s liberal Zionism prevents him from acknowledging that Israel might violate the very rights he insists all people should have. For liberal Zionists, however, the only way Zionism and human rights can coexist is to erase Palestinian history and give Israel a pass.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch–the same website Friedman uses to talk about Egypt– criticized the U.S. decision to pull out of the Council, underscoring the U.S. promise to protect Israel:
“The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy in which the US defends Israeli abuses from criticism above all else.”
John Sifton, an advocacy director also at Human Rights Watch, said pretty much the same thing:
“All this administration seems to care about when it comes to the council is defending Israel.”
Why is it so difficult for Friedman to make this connection? Why is he unwilling to use the higher-order skills of application and synthesis to draw obvious parallels?
I understand Friedman’s position because I used to be a liberal Zionist, but it just doesn’t work anymore. Liberal Zionism has become a mythology; Friedman is still operating as though it’s a reality. To shift requires a change in one’s worldview. When I was a teenager, Friedman articulated my love for Israel; I thought he had a keen sense of the country and its people, and he gave me permission to both love Israel and to believe that I could support peace with Palestinians. He made it sound possible that these two ideas were completely compatible. It seemed as though he was on the inside of the idea of Israel and Zionism–one that included Palestinians–and it spoke hugely to me.
But the truth is that Zionism and human rights are incompatible. And this evasion among liberal Zionists becomes dangerous because it stifles any attempt at a constructive discussion about Israel and Palestine. It perpetuates the status-quo by protecting Israel. It furthers the colonization and occupation of Palestine. And Friedman has the liberal Zionist orthodoxy–and the U.S. mainstream media–behind him to back him up.
In spite of Friedman’s commitment to perpetuating Zionist discourse, however, the contradictions of liberal Zionism are being made clearer under Trump’s America in other journalistic venues. Eric Levitz’s April 26, 2018, piece in New York Mag’s Daily Intelligencer, for example, “Natalie Portman and the Crisis of Liberal Zionism,” speaks about this growing friction:
There have always been tensions between liberal universalism and Jewish nationalism. But the rise of the Trumpist right has heightened such contradictions. To remain true to both AIPAC and progressivism, a liberal Zionist must now lament border walls in Texas but defend them in the West Bank; condemn Republicans who suggest that nonwhite babies pose a threat to American civilization as proto-Nazis and endorse Israel’s right to defend itself against the “demographic threat” that is Palestinian children; decry Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees and apologize for Israel’s imprisonment of African ones; abhor the president’s indifference to civilian casualties and ignore that Israel’s defense minister believes every man, woman, and child in the Gaza Strip is an enemy combatant.
Choosing when to be outraged and when to give Israel a pass is a lot to keep track of. Oh, it’s rather exhausting to be a liberal Zionist and to keep it all straight!
Others, in addition to Levitz, are also noticing the hypocrisy among U.S. liberal Zionists who say they support human rights but ignore the dehumanization of Palestinians. In her June 24, 2018 Haaretz piece, “So Easy for U.S. Jews to Disown Stephen Miller,” Amira Hass points out the contradictions between U.S. liberals’ positions on Trump and their positions on Israel. Jane Eisner, the editor in chief of The Forward, for example, criticized White House adviser Stephen Miller for promoting “dehumanizing policies that violate Jewish values,” referring to the U.S. immigration policy that has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents. Hass notes the inconsistency:
In Gaza, in Hebron, in Area C in the West Bank (60 percent of that territory) and in East Jerusalem, Israel separates families, expels people from their homes and lands, promotes a policy of white-Jewish supremacy and impoverishes others while dehumanizing them. Within Israel’s borders, non-Jews are discriminated against and persecuted…Thousands of Millers live in Israel, and they have thousands of willing and enthusiastic collaborators along with hundreds of thousands of passive collaborators–all of whom are violating Jewish values as Eisner understands them.
That Eisner and other American liberal Zionists don’t see this incompatibility pointed out by Hass and others, is a testament to the blind spots inherent in the liberal Zionist mythology. And the tension is growing under Trump’s America.
Sadly, Friedman’s New York Times piece is a perfect example of this incompatibility. Friedman has to selectively choose when to include and exclude Israel from his arguments so that he doesn’t have to face the predicament of reconciling these contradictions. Because of this, his argument does nothing more than maintain the status quo and help liberal Zionists feel good about this growing opposition that they don’t want to face, either.
Of course, Friedman could stop using the liberal Zionism template. He could give himself permission to experience a paradigm shift and change his understanding and perspective. Given that he’s devoted most of his career to writing about the Middle East, he could have far-reaching influence in changing the discourse of how we talk about Israel and Palestine. He could also stop writing about Palestinians as though they are an abstract theory in a graduate seminar, but are human beings with an entire history. Their history just hasn’t been given the air time that his has been given. And he could write about Netanyahu for what he is, too.
Friedman’s way of thinking became a template for how to understand Israel when I was young. I was on the inside of liberal Zionism, like I thought he was: I believed deeply that Israel could be a Jewish democracy and that it had been a desert and that Palestinians and Bedouins lived there and that somehow everyone got what they needed and everyone was equal. I believed in the Israeli leadership that there would be peace.
Over time, though, I found myself trapped in the dilemma of liberal Zionism. I realized that none of these things were true–that I hadn’t been living inside of anything but a mythology that made no sense and kept Palestinians down. I simply could not reconcile the hypocrisy that is so glaringly obvious–and ignored–in Friedman’s logic. He’s trying desperately to have it both ways. The mythology is unraveling and the reality is going to, ultimately, force Friedman and other liberal Zionists to choose. You just can’t keep wagging your finger at injustice without looking in the mirror first.