Media Analysis

Engel’s defeat shows contradiction of liberalism and Zionism, Alterman bravely declares

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We took aim at a lot of the press coverage of Jamaal Bowman’s astonishing victory over House Foreign Affairs chairman Eliot Engel in the New York Democratic primary June 23 because it left Israel out of the story. So we want to celebrate the piece Eric Alterman wrote about the election for The Nation.

Not only did Alterman say that the left’s disaffection with Israel propelled Bowman’s win, but with real courage, Alterman announced that it is time for him to abandon an ideology that has motivated him all his life: liberal Zionism.

Alterman’s headlines were to the point. “In New York, Zionism and Liberalism Faced Off—and Liberalism Won. The Democratic primary between Eliot Engel and Jamaal Bowman signals a sea change for American Jews.”

On the facts, Alterman was concise in ways that The New York Times has been unable to inform anyone. Engel’s brand was devout support for Israel, and he lost in an apparent landslide (absentee ballots are still being counted). The Israel lobby group Democratic Majority for Israel (DMfI) spent $2 million to try to hold the seat and it was embarrassed. While Jews make up only 12 percent of the district, which is 60 percent black and Latino, “Engel could not even, it appears, carry the Jews.”

Eric Alterman speaking at CUNY Queensborogh Community College in 2008. (Image: YouTube)

It was a battle between Zionism and liberalism, Alterman writes, and the Zionism was out of step.

[Engel] lost because, given all the crises facing his constituents, Israel had lost its centrality. Engel stayed in Washington during the pandemic to keep his eye on the committee, especially no doubt its reaction to Netanyahu’s recent push to annex parts of the West Bank, rather than returning home to tend to the needs of his constituents, reeling under the threat of the pandemic and inspired by the politics of racial reawakening. Zionism and liberalism faced off, and liberalism won.

Alterman goes on to examine the long history of Jewish Zionism in the U.S. — and recognizes regretfully that the tension between liberalism and Zionism is now simply a contradiction. Without denying the Nakba, Alterman observes that Israel could plausibly be presented as a liberal cause in the U.S. for many years.

Whether drawn to socialism, communism, anarchism, or plain old liberalism, American Jews have always tended toward the left side of the political spectrum. And for many decades, the founding and defense of the state of Israel proved largely consistent with the social and economic liberal ethos upon which the American Jewish community eventually settled.

Liberal Zionists have had only 40 years now to wake up to Israel’s ethno nationalist reality!

Since [1982], as anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the question is well aware, Israel has become a conservative cause. Capitalism and creeping theocracy replaced socialism. The occupation became further entrenched and increasingly brutal. In foreign policy, Israel supported apartheid in South Africa and dictatorships in Latin America. In the United States, it became the pet cause of the most regressive elements: first neocon warmongers, then evangelical anti-Semites, and finally the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, and other avatars of American fascism . . .

Alterman says the lesson of Engel’s downfall is the end of the automatic victory of the rightwing Israel lobby (a lesson that David Harris is calling a nightmare he can wake up from).

The lesson here for Jews is that the days when AIPAC directives and [DMfI’s Mark] Mellman-like scare tactics on behalf of Israel could trump commitments to liberal principles are coming to an end. Bowman’s victory is one harbinger, and so was the strong support for Sanders and Warren, both of whom supported — with Bowman — conditioning US aid to Israel, a position that’s been anathema to the so-called “pro-Israel” community for nearly 60 years.

Finally, there is Alterman’s personal reflection. It takes a big person to say that the cause they’ve been devoted to has turned to clay.

As Israel grows increasingly illiberal — embracing not only annexation but also official racism, theocratic governance, and increasingly anti-democratic restrictions on the freedoms of its Arab minority — the choice for American Jews will grow increasingly stark. Liberal Zionism — a cause to which I have committed myself for my entire adult life — has come to look like a contradiction. The Jews of Israel, alas, appear to have made their choice. Bowman’s sweeping victory demonstrates that American Jews will now be making their own.

One of the merits of Alterman’s writing on Israel over the years is that he has been transparent about his attachment to Israel while insisting that it’s a liberal value. Now that same transparency compels him to reassess the attachment and judge it ill-advised. It’s an act of courage for a liberal Zionist to say flatly that liberal Zionism is an oxymoron. If other liberal Zionists were half so honest, the work on our side would be a lot easier.

P.S. FiveThirtyEight continues the press’s dereliction, leaves Israel out of a piece on Bowman and the differing camps in black politics. The piece says that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who endorsed Engel, is in contention to become Speaker of the House some day; and never points out that Jeffries has supported Israel to a fare-thee-well, declaring in the middle of Israel’s slaughter of 500 Palestinian children in 2014, “Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever.”

Thanks to Terry Weber.

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Let this shameless man Eliot Engel’s loss be an example to others, who keep doing Israel’s dirty work, and have made the US look like enablers around the world. When will they realize that our support, aid, and the weapons we give Israel, are not in our best interests, and it has given us a very bad reputation. Our association with Israel has brought us nothing but grief.

These developments sound a call to reach higher for the moral high ground. Abbas will advance Palestine’s fortunes even more by fertilizing the developing bond with liberal Jews by ending sympathies for increasingly infrequent political violence. Not doing so has had the opposite effect.

Liberal Jews are the most logical and powerful allies in achieving fair play. By demonstrating leadership, Abbas will bring hope to his people and gain respect around the world.

Well, Eric, if you’re reading through the comments to this post, maybe it’s time to re-read Max’s book, which you trashed so shallowly seven years ago.

Phil predicted that Peter Beinart would endorse the one state vision and it happened yesterday.