Batya Ungar-Sargon and the delusions of Liberal Zionism

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This weekend, mainstream Israel lobby organizations condemned the far-right Jewish Power party, which Prime Minister Netanyahu helped secure a place in a future coalition. This included AIPAC, who affirmed that “AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party”.

For Forward editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, this meant a revitalizing of her “Liberal Zionist dream”, and she spoke on behalf of the “American Jewish imagination”:

In the American Jewish imagination, Zionism is the promise that Jewish safety can coexist with Jewish values like justice, welcoming the stranger, and equality. And if the State of Israel hasn’t been able to completely live up to that perhaps dialectical standard, for American Jews, this was not because of something inherent in its character, as the anti-Zionists would have it, but rather due to tragic circumstances, circumstances that surely will end soon enough. That is the liberal Zionist dream. And in betraying it so severely and so explicitly, Netanyahu just revitalized it. By destroying the illusion that his Israel could be their Israel, Netanyahu reminded American Jews of what their Israel is supposed to be — and what it’s not and never will be under his leadership.

Notice how Ungar-Sargon finds it centrally important to mention anti-Zionism? She sees this moment as discrediting anti-Zionists because pro-Israeli lobbies criticized Israel, which shows that Zionists are complex and not a monolith.

This is very similar in feeling to New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who was also over the moon about this, tweeting:

This is Jewish leadership. And it exposes the strawman erected by anti-Zionists: That legitimate criticism of Israel is smeared as anti-Semitic. This is criticism of Israel. No one mistakes it for something else.

But all this only demonstrates how desperate these pundits truly are. It’s a very cheap train to ride, this one. Even Education Minister Naftali Bennett is calling Jewish Power’s people “not fit to be in Knesset”. Yes, that’s the Bennett who says there’s no problem with “killing many Arabs”, and who calls Palestinians “shrapnel in the butt” and who calls for unilateral annexation of most of the occupied West Bank (just not areas with “many Arabs”…).

So it’s not very difficult to condemn Jewish Power. And it also serves a certain political agenda in relation to the U.S. – because these people are the disciples of Meir Kahane, who was a convicted terrorist involved in domestic terrorism in the U.S. under the Jewish Defense League in 1970’s; his Kach party was barred from running for Knesset in 1988 because of racism, and was outlawed altogether in Israel 1994 – so there’s a nexus of terror here that doesn’t play well at all in the U.S. AIPAC needed to take a stance now, publicly, in order to secure its credibility and moral standing in lobbying for Israel. Yaakov Katz writes in his analysis in Jerusalem Post:

[AIPAC] needed publicity, because the next time it goes to meet a senator or congressman to lobby for additional funding for Israeli missile-defense projects, it might be asked about Otzma [Jewish Power]. It needed to take a moral stand now.

Notably, AIPAC did not condemn Netanyahu on this, it only called out Jewish Power. AIPAC was piggy-backing on an American Jewish Committee tweet calling the views of Jewish Power “reprehensible” and saying that “they do not reflect the core values that are at the very foundation of the state of Israel”. A day after that retweet, AIPAC mailed its constituency to officially announce the honor of having Netanyahu over for the AIPAC annual conference.

That’s political exigency. This is not some huge condemnation of Netanyahu. Likewise, Netanayhu’s move to include Jewish Power was based on political calculations of survival – he didn’t want to lose their votes under the 3.25 pct. electoral threshold, that’s why he lobbied to have them merge with the Jewish Home party.

(Cartoon: Carlos Latuff)

It didn’t start with Kahane

The excellent Natasha Roth notes in +972, notes this as the first time in over 30 years that a proper Kahanist party could be entering the Knesset, yet asks:

But is the rise of a party that advocates for Jewish supremacy, theocracy, and ‘total war’ as unprecedented as the outcry has suggested?

And she answers:

It would be easy — and for many, a cold comfort — to point to men like Kahane, Netanyahu, and the Jewish Power crowd as aberrations in Israel’s politics. Yet to take this stance is to suggest that Kahane’s ideas, and Netanyahu’s policies, are without precedent in Israel’s history. And when we take an honest look at the last 70 years, can we really say they are?

Expulsion was on the lips of Israel’s first prime minister, and was instrumental to the founding of the state. Intermarriage has never been possible in Israel, albeit without the threat of incarceration (a Conservative rabbi was briefly detained last year for officiating non-Orthodox weddings). Campaigns for a Greater Israel, backed by public figures from across the political spectrum, have been around since the occupation commenced, and even before. Legal status aside, Israel has been in the process of de facto annexing the West Bank for years, through a combination of demolitions, evictions, land expropriations, settlement-building, and “transfer” plans. Every discussion of the “demographic threat” that accompanies supposedly progressive two-state proposals invokes the specter of ethnic segregation.

For the past 20 years Israeli society has been shifting inexorably to the right, with the process accelerating since Netanyahu was elected in 2009. But neither Kahane nor Netanyahu is solely responsible for brutalizing Israeli society. The roots of what we are witnessing go back much further, and to something much more fundamental about the state. The fact is that Israel has not, for a single day since its founding, been a state for all its citizens. And in this lies the raw material for the havoc that we see today.”

In other words, it’s about Zionism.

And this is where we need to get back to Ungar-Sargon, who would like to imagine that Zionism embodies “Jewish values like justice, welcoming the stranger, and equality”. But actually, Zionism has made Palestinians strangers in their own land. Zionists do not want to rectify the injustice of expelling Palestinians en masse (ethnic cleansing), because doing that will endanger their sacred goal of a Jewish majority. And equality, even with a Palestinian minority in ‘Israel proper’ today, is apparently anathema to Zionism, since it risks reducing Jewish supremacy. A state of equality, a state of all its citizens, is simply impossible under Zionism.

This is basic Zionism. People like Batya Ungar-Sargon and Bari Weiss can argue that this is not really their dream or their imagination, but it’s reality. As Natasha Roth notes, it’s been there from day one.

Ungar-Sargon is suggesting that while American Jews do not agree on what Zionism means, Netanayhu has just made it clearer for them, in terms of what it’s not:

In making the job of defending Israel that much harder, Netanyahu paradoxically helped American Jews clarify what the Jewish State means to them, and what their own Zionism means to them. And the answer was quite simple: Not that.

So what is the Jewish State then? Will Ungar-Sargon only apply the negative, instead of looking at what Israel really is and has been all these years? Will she continue to resort to the productions of her imagination and her dreams?

The last thing Ungar-Sargon would want is to acknowledge that Zionism is racism. That’s why she resorts to addressing that notion as “Soviet propaganda”. Because she certainly does not want to be known as a racist. And that’s why the Jewish Power story is such a gift for Liberal Zionists like her – because they can point out the racists, “over there”, and then say that they themselves are “not that”.

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Good post, Jonathan

אני מסכים לגמרי

… In the American Jewish imagination, Zionism is the promise that Jewish safety can coexist with Jewish values like justice, welcoming the stranger, and equality. … Whatever the “American Jewish imagination” might be about it, the in-your-face reality of Zionism has been and continues to be about Jewish / “Jewish… Read more »

To me, in a nutshell, it boils down to this: Would you want an ‘Israel’ to be built on YOUR land? In a land where YOU were the indigeneous people? Would you happily agree for people from another continent to take over YOUR country, at YOUR expense, simply because it’s… Read more »

AIPAC and its puppets Batya Ungar-Sargon and Bari Weiss are merely presenting the next act of the Zionist Theater production of “War Profiteer Story”. In this act they scramble to cover up the terrible truth about Zionism that is getting through their media blockade, which is beginning to leak like… Read more »

NATASHA ROTH- “The fact is that Israel has not, for a single day since its founding, been a state for all its citizens.”

Nor could it be given the nature of Zionism.