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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”.

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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17 Responses

  1. Ira Glunts on February 27, 2019, 1:05 pm

    Good post, Jonathan

    אני מסכים לגמרי

    • Misterioso on February 28, 2019, 11:34 am

      Breaking news:

      “Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel PM faces corruption charges”

      “Israel’s attorney general intends to indict PM Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, Israeli media say.”

      “Avichai Mandelblit is reported to have informed Mr. Netanyahu’s lawyers that he will face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three cases, pending a final hearing.

      “The prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more favourable press coverage.

      “Mr. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.

      “He has said he is the victim of a left-wing ‘witch-hunt’ intended to topple him ahead of an election on 9 April.

      “The prime minister will have an opportunity to make his case against the indictments at the final hearing, which is likely to take place after the election.

      “If their arguments are rejected, it will be the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting prime minister has faced criminal charges.

      “Opposition parties have said there is no way Mr. Netanyahu should carry on as prime minister if that happens.

      “Mr Mandelblit has said the Supreme Court will determine whether he must resign.”

      • amigo on February 28, 2019, 2:07 pm

        ““Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel PM faces corruption charges”misterioso

        Looks as if his partner in (war) crimes the dishonourable Donald J Trump may be joining him some time in the not so distant future.

        Is there a dedicated prison for criminal leaders –sort of putting all these bad eggs in one basket.Imagine the stench emanating from such a location.

        I wonder if nutandyahoo will have a 127,000 dollar bed installed and to create a romantic ambience , 1000 pounds sterling worth of scented Candles .No need for conjugal visits as Mrs Nutandyahu will be close by.Those two are going to be Israel,s fattest fat cats when they are released. All that Pistachio Ice cream and lashings of coca cola.Ugh.

        With a bit of luck , this time he will be using the bed for a decade or two.

      • just on February 28, 2019, 2:41 pm

        Oh no, sez Dershowitz (Epstein’s lawyer and more) who always inserts himself in all things Israel, but condemns all others who have an opinion that he does not share:

        “Voters, Not the Police or the Courts, Should Decide Netanyahu’s Future

        Criminalizing the nuanced and messy relationship between the media and politics is a slippery slope that endangers Israel’s democracy and freedom of the press …

        Netanyahu is confronting these and more recent challenges – including domestic political ones – with his characteristic toughness, shrewdness and overriding concern for Israel’s security. Whether or not one agrees with Netanyahu’s politics, it is hard not to admire his efforts and results. …

        … Voters and readers have the right, perhaps the power, to promote more visibility and accountability from those for whom they vote and whose news they read or view. But police and prosecutors should not intrude on this complex, messy and nuanced relationship between politics and the media, except in cases of clear and unambiguous financial corruption well beyond what is alleged in the current cases.

        So, let Netanyahu continue his important work. If Israelis don’t like what he is doing, they can vote against him. If they don’t like how particular newspapers or news sites are reporting, they can subscribe to different media. But to criminalize these political differences is to endanger democracy and freedom of the press.”

        (The commenters are not impressed… there’s a couple of the usual zealots, but not many at this point.)

  2. eljay on February 27, 2019, 1:08 pm

    … 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 State” supremacism in as much as possible of Palestine and the “necessary evil” required to sustain it.

    So while justice and equality may be Jewish (and non-Jewish) values, when it comes to I-P they are not Zionist values.

    • JWalters on February 27, 2019, 6:51 pm

      Ungar-Sargon and Bari Weiss are paid actors. It’s not believable that they are as massively ignorant and illogical as they act. They are obviously following the same absurd script, obviously obtained from the same director. Along with their paychecks.

  3. Maximus Decimus Meridius on February 27, 2019, 3:02 pm

    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 just about possible some of their ancestors might have lived their 2000 years ago?

    If not, why should the Palestinians have to endure what you would never tolerate?

    I asked this question of a poster who argued in favour of ‘liberal Zionism’ here quite recently. I didn’t get a reply.

    • jeff_davis on March 3, 2019, 12:50 pm

      The Bad Cop needs the Good Cop for cover. It doesn’t matter a whit if the Good Cop has persuaded him/herself to believe in his/her own embattled ethical righteousness — mythological — in concert with some also mythological Zionist righteousness. They are ***both*** ‘bad’ cops. instruments of unjust, corrupt, criminal Zionism.

      Of this you can be sure: force answers only to force. The palaver will continue unabated until force decides the issue.

      Reality’s a bitch.

  4. JWalters on February 27, 2019, 6:38 pm

    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 a sieve. The developing situation strains their capacity to feign ignorance about the Zionists’ massive devastation of the Palestinians – decades of terrorism, murders, and robberies. And it calls upon them to valiantly climb to new heights of illogical self-contradictions while keeping an indignant face.

    • jeff_davis on March 3, 2019, 12:53 pm

      The curtain is pulled back. “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”

      • JWalters on March 3, 2019, 5:30 pm


  5. Keith on February 27, 2019, 7:20 pm

    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.

  6. Keith on February 27, 2019, 7:40 pm

    BATYA UNGAR-SARGON- “…Zionism is the promise that Jewish safety can coexist with Jewish values like justice, welcoming the stranger, and equality.”

    If Jewish safety was a prime consideration of Zionism, then the Zionists would have tried to get as many Jewish refugees as possible into the US and the UK. According to Haaretz, “Lethal attacks on U.S. Jews in their homeland have been very rare, with Saturday’s mass shooting in Pittsburgh more than doubling the total number of fatalities” If the Pittsburgh shooting more than doubled the total number of lethal attacks on US Jews, that means that the total number of lethal attacks on US Jews was less than 22 over several centuries. Seems low to me relative to virtually any other group, ongoing fulminations about anti-Semitism notwithstanding.

  7. just on February 28, 2019, 6:48 am

    Thanks for this excellent article/exposé, Jonathan.

    Here’s Gideon Levy:

    “Kahanists Make It Easy to Ignore Everyone Else’s Racism …

    Kahanism is bad for racism. It gives racism a bad name, which it doesn’t have in Israel. It shakes Israeli racism out of its tranquility and correctness, exposes it and generates opposition to it. On the other hand, this opposition is good for respectable racists, allowing people who aren’t all that less racist to be portrayed as moderate and moral — downright champions of human rights.

    The influence of the Kahanists on public debate should not be underestimated. Because of them, one can live comfortably in the settlement of Shilo and dare to talk about principles; to be Naftali Bennett and Bezalel Smotrich and still be portrayed as moderates; to be in the Labor Party and believe that you are enlightened, and to vote for Kahol Lavan and think you’re a liberal. After all, you’re against Itamar Ben Gvir. It’s the undeclared racists versus the professed ones. Just as the “illegal” outposts have legitimized the “legal” settlements, Kahanism legitimizes this other racism.

    Kahanism allows the rest of the racists to feel good; we are not like them, we’re not Ben Gvir; we even walk out of a panel he is on, in protest. What courage, what a role model, what morality. Let us fight Kahanism and our camp will be pure. We will condemn Benzi Gopstein, turn our backs on Michael Ben Ari, and be ethical.

    The Kahanists are the cleaners of the national conscience. They cleanse the conscience of the settlers, who, as we know, are determined opponents of apartheid and of granting rights to Jews only; they cleanse the conscience of the Labor Party, the founding father of the occupation, which continues to be a partner to the shameful silence about the siege on the Gaza Strip. They even cleanse the conscience of AIPAC, the ultranationalist organization that forgives Israel everything, but was shocked by the deal …

    These Israeli neo-Nazis are genuinely repulsive and despicable. There aren’t enough words to describe the disgust they evoke. Anyone who says, “If there were an Arab waiter here, he wouldn’t be serving food but looking for the nearest hospital” is scum. These are violent racists of the lowest kind, rednecks, the white trash of Israel, and they must be ostracized.

    But contaminating the debate isn’t the worst damage they wreak. They conceal the other racism, institutionalized and accepted racism, which causes more harm to its victims. To live in a country that imprisons 2 million people and to be shocked by Ben Ari is outrageous. To be part of a society that abuses an additional 2 million people while clicking one’s tongue over a threat to an Arab waiter is arrogance.

    Most of the Zionist parties are full partners in the Israeli race project; some even have founding shares. They are partners to the crime — from the ethnic cleansing in 1948, through the military government in the Little Triangle and the Galilee, to the days of military tyranny in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They have no moral right to condemn the Kahanists, because sometimes the Kahanists are only saying what the others are thinking.

    When Likud, Kahol-Lavan and Labor compete over who can distance themselves from the leprous Arab parties more, how dare they condemn other racists? When these parties liken Otzma Yehudit to the Arab party Balad, even though the difference between them is vast, with one preaching violence and expulsion and the other equality, they have no right to be portrayed as fighting racism.

    Of course there are degrees of evil and of racism. Ben Gvir is preferable to Gopstein; perhaps Smotrich is preferable to both. But is this meaningful? Does it render any of them kosher? When Europe boycotts its extreme right — which is, by the way, more moderate than Israel’s non-extreme right — it’s relatively enlightened leaders who are doing so. Here, it’s respectable racists boycotting disreputable racists.

    Are Moshe Ya’alon and Benny Gantz, the warriors of Operation Protective Edge, more moderate and humane than Ben Gvir and Gopstein? They are no less brutal and have a lot more blood on their hands, although their language is much more pleasant. But they would never speak that way about an Arab waiter; after all, Gantz eats in Kafr Qasem. So just avoid Ben Gvir the Terrible.”

    I believe that this also applies to far too many outside Israel… including ‘liberal Zionists’. As you wrote, “Zionism is racism”.

  8. Jejasalo on February 28, 2019, 12:35 pm

    Day One

    “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”. —Natasha Roth

    “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.” —Jonathan Ofir

    Zionism ought to be examined within its European context because a failure to understand that will allow too many people to assume its racist program is inherently Jewish along with being a xenophobic response to its Middle Eastern environment.

    Zionism sprang out of the same illiberal ideas that created modern Romantic and organic, 19th and 20th century, nationalism; ideas whose roots may have begun with Enlightenment values but that ultimately shed their universalist teachings.

    Political legitimacy, by the end of the 18th century, came to be derived from a natural, popular unity in which the language, territory, and “blood” of its people transformed the state into a nation. “Liberal Nationalism” was the balance between enlightenment and Romantic ideals; ideals that would, by the mid-nineteenth century prove more and more incompatible. Zionism was born within the paradoxes of liberty and nation. A state was impossible without a nation.

    Democratic values gave way to the monolithic voice of a people. Herein lie the roots of modern fascism – a phenomenon that lifts the goals of a “pure” nation above those of a sovereign state.

    The logical ends of Zionism, like the supremacy of the German, French, or Russian/slavic people over their neighbors, was located in the “blood” that must remain pure and untainted by lesser peoples.

    The supremacy of a single people over another began to be determined by “race” as defined by the pseudo-science of eugenics. This, in part, accounts for the rise of Nazism, other variations of Fascism, and Zionism.

    This is NOT to say that Zionism began as extreme chauvinistic nationalism any more than German nationalism began as Nazism. Historical, economic, political, and social circumstances all combined to create the “end-product” – a product that was never inevitable.

    There is no “day one” of contemporary Zionism. Certain facets of it were detectable well before the Balfour Declaration, though they did not dominate the movement then.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that when the 1919 US-inspired King-Crane Commission set out to gauge popular opinion in the Middle East after WWI, there were more petitions against Zionism than for or against any other issue.

    Early Jewish settlers were, at one point, advised by Chaim Weizmann not to present their goals too zealously, because among these goals were the wishes of some that a Jewish homeland be free of Arabs.

    Add religion to the mix and the result is an explosive form of racial-nationalism whose legitimacy for some was derived from God. [It must nevertheless be noted that many of the early Zionist thinkers were profoundly secular, wanting no place for religion.]

    Religion was a component of early European nationalism as well— initially (or especially) based in Lutheran Pietism.

    In the United States, the notion of Manifest Destiny provides a common link between American and Jewish religious nationalism. It is also an element in certain variations of white supremacy and evangelical radicalism found in the US.

    Anti-Zionism, as it has come to mean, is the rejection of exclusivist nation-state doctrines; the belief that “outside” or “foreign” influences will pollute if not destroy the power and purity of a “Superior” people; a rejection of modern “chosen-ness.”

    The ingredients of this ideology are all in place today, ready to realize its full potential on the backs of an “inferior race” such as the PalestinianArabs.

    The disappearance of the latter either by displacement or incremental and torturous destruction is not just a desire but a requirement for ultimate success.

    Though complex, this history is inseparable from modern Zionism. That is why the only principled stance toward Israel today is an absolute rejection of what contemporary Zionism has become.

  9. Henry Norr on February 28, 2019, 7:47 pm

    Excellent response to Ms. Ungar-Sargon. She’s truly a creep – I’m not even sure she has any legitimate claim to call herself a **liberal** Zionist, for what that’s worth.

    Minor editorial quibble: the link that’s supposed to be to Natasha Roth is actually to a different article at +972, written by a different author and in 2016. It’s not hard to get from there to the Roth piece Jonathan quotes (“Israel’s fascist sideshow takes center stage”), but for the impatient, the direct link is this:

  10. jeff_davis on March 3, 2019, 1:06 pm

    The curtain is pulled back. ‘Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”

    [For the record, despite the name I’m a full-blooded Ashkenazi jew, born Jeffrey Fein. My mother remarried when I was three to a non-religious non-jew, and so I received a name change. While I self-identify as a jew, I nevertheless enjoy the advantage of never having suffered the mind-rape of religious/tribal indoctrination.]

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