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It’s time for liberal Jews to admit that liberal Zionism is bankrupt

To be a freier is anathema to Israelis. The Yiddish word is translated loosely as “sucker”, which doesn’t really do justice to its broader and more significant connotations. “Don’t be a freier” is practically the 11th commandment in Israel and the fear of actually being one plays into every aspect of life. This includes politics, where such an accusation could damage a politician’s public image badly.

Benjamin Netanyahu beat the Labour Party’s Shimon Peres in the 1996 election largely because Peres was seen as a freier; a pushover, someone who cedes ground, plays by the rules and allows others to get the better of him. Netanyahu’s latest victory was also very much down to his own uncompromising image as a bit of a political brawler; someone who will never concede from a position of strength; someone who in the eyes of Israeli voters is not a sucker.

“Liberal Zionists” are freiers in the eyes of many Israelis because they want to end Israel’s occupation, an end to settlements and the emergence of a free and sovereign Palestinian state. Liberal Zionists are also “suckers” in another way; they have been deceived into thinking that Zionism and liberalism can be reconciled.

Their dream has been dashed. The extremely illiberal manner in which Netanyahu secured his latest election victory – which included calling on right-wing Israelis to get out and vote because Arab voters were coming out in droves – has prompted much soul-searching amongst liberal Jews.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian‘s executive editor and an ardent liberal Zionist, is disturbed that “Netanyahu sank into the moral gutter and there will be consequences“. J Street, an American liberal Jewish advocacy group, held a plenary session during its annual conference on the future of liberal Zionism. A visibly irritated prominent liberal Zionist, Peter Beinart, author of the “Crises of Zionism”, bleated over Netanyahu’s victory and declared his support for “any campaign” against Israel’s occupation that was “non-violent” but which must “recognise Israel’s right to exist”.

What unites liberal Zionists is the belief – or at least the hope – that Israel can reconcile and balance being a Jewish and a democratic state, serving both as the realisation of Jewish national self-determination and as a modern liberal state that guarantees equality to all citizens regardless of their religion or ethnic heritage. This liberal Zionist dream looks more like a fantasy than a realistic political aspiration for a number of reasons.

For a start, in what is supposed to be land earmarked for a Palestinian state, Israel presides over an apartheid system that has been the cause of much embarrassment to liberal Zionists like Beinart and Freedland. Within Israel itself there are more than 50 laws that discriminate against non-Jews in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation and access to land, education, state services and resources, and the criminal justice system.

Being a liberal Zionist was always going to be a tough act to pull off; now it has become near enough impossible. The intrinsic contradiction between wanting social justice and equity whilst simultaneously supporting a militaristic and apartheid state of Israel (and a “Jewish State” at that) produces what psychologists call cognitive dissonance; the discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time.

It was in many ways an odd synthesis to start off with purely because liberalism at its core is about inclusion and universal rights and principals. Zionism, on the other hand, has always been about exclusion and Jewish exceptionalism.

Nevertheless, it was in many ways a necessary synthesis no matter how oxymoronic it seems. For Diaspora Jews, the majority of whom are liberal and support Israel, it was an ideological construct that functioned as a bridging concept between two irreconcilable ideologies: Zionism and liberalism.

As such, it has enabled liberal Jews to operate as pillars of support for the state of Israel and as apologists for its inherent illiberalism. Their loyalty is in the name of an idealistic Israel; a mythical Israel; an Israel that never really existed; a Jewish democratic country that can balance its dual identities. It’s a position that has contributed to the kind of arrogance and chutzpah that makes Israeli politicians believe that they can get away with anything.

In persisting with their arguments that they support what is in the “best interests of Israel”, while also policing the boundaries of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” criticisms of their mythical Israel, liberal Zionists have placed themselves in an unsustainable contradictory position. Therein they are forced to compromise on the central principals of liberalism, such as human rights, the rule of law and justice.

To avoid having to confront this reality liberal Zionists cling to some central illusions. They have constructed an artificial dichotomy between the State of Israel and the illegal Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian territory; they pretend that the state and the settlements – which undermine their narrative of a democratic Israel – are somehow disconnected, or can be. Zionists like Peter Beinart typify this when they suggest renaming the West Bank “undemocratic Israel” to distinguish it from the territory occupied in 1948, which is “democratic” Israel.

In reality, one cannot, in any serious way, separate Israel from its settlement enterprise, simply because the colonial outposts are central to Israeli state policy and not some breach of international law orchestrated by feral Jewish settlers.

Liberal Zionists have also called the bluff of Israeli politicians who have been paying lip service to a two-state solution. Their faith in a future post-occupation, post-settlements and post-apartheid democratic Israel is nought but a utopian dream.

They talk about an always just around the corner, yet really non-existent, two-state solution, which has provided Israel with infinite flexibility to expand and, above all, given it an alibi for its core colonial policy to occupy as much Palestinian land as possible. If liberal Zionists fear the spectre of a future apartheid Israeli state if the two-state solution is killed off – which would explain their shrilling response to Netanyahu’s electoral promise not to permit the creation of a Palestinian state – they ought to challenge Israel for what it is now and not make apologies for it based on an illusory Utopian future.

It has become obvious that liberal Zionists shy away from talking about Israel’s original sin, when the founders of the state started an act of ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population which is ongoing to this day. Almost 750,000 Palestinians were killed or driven from their homes to make way for the foundation of the state of Israel which had to have a majority Jewish population. While over five million Palestinians are still refugees and stateless, liberal Zionists would rather close this embarrassing chapter of Israel’s bloody history and not face the difficult questions about the human rights being denied to Palestinians, including the refugees’ right to return to their land, which is guaranteed under international law.

Some liberal Zionists do admit that Israel’s past sins create a tolerable tension, but this does not reduce their support for the state, or call its existence into question. What concerns them most is Israel’s survival as a “Jewish democracy” no matter what the circumstances were around the state’s foundation.

In reconciling Israel’s past with their liberal principals they’ve resorted to all kinds of sophistry, including devising verbal crutches to prevent their liberal principals being overwhelmed by illiberal ethnic loyalty. For example, a vague notion of conflicting rights has been used to undermine Palestinian human rights, such as the legitimate right of Israel to be a Jewish state and the legitimate right of Palestinians to return and be compensated for their forceful expulsion.

Liberals who are normally devoted to the rule of law and human rights are quick to compromise this key tenet of liberalism when they put on a Zionist hat and make a spurious trade-off between the legitimate rights of Palestinian refugees and the desire of Israel to be a Jewish state. They forget, despite their liberalism, that Jewish self-determination cannot trump Palestinian human rights.

The “liberal” prefix for Zionism has been used to dilute the true essence of the latter as an ethno-religious colonial project. According to the French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson, the Zionist project began as, “A Colonial-Settler State, wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in the 20th century.” Born out of illiberal values and principals it could not “help but lead to a colonial-type situation and the development of a racist state of mind, and in the final analysis, to a military confrontation.” Liberal Zionism is, therefore, politically and morally bankrupt.

With no end in sight to Israel’s decades-long occupation, liberal Zionists need to consider the fact that it is – along with on-going land theft and ethnic cleansing – at odds with liberal principles as well as the essence of Zionism; occupation is not some reactionary by-product of a state under siege.

Far from being Utopian, Israel’s reality is that it is a state that treats international laws and conventions with contempt, whilst using Judaism and Jewish history for its own colonial objectives. Liberal Zionists need to decide which is more valuable, liberal democracy or a Jewish majority state. They can’t have both.

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