The Liberal Zionist Dilemma

Several decades ago, liberal Jews and African-Americans were at the forefront for the U.S. fight for civil rights, but the demands from Israel for Jews to support Zionism to the detriment of Palestinian rights created a rift that grows wider even today, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

Liberalism, framed as a socio-political ideal, argues that human beings are good and social progress achievable. It is a “glass half-full” outlook.

Within this paradigm all individuals, not just members of a specific religion, race or nationality, should have political and civil rights. Here also neither the state nor the law is an end in itself. They are instruments for the creation and maintaining of an environment meant to promote freedom while minimizing social inequalities. Holding this ideal does not preclude identifying with a particular ethnic or religious group. It does, however, preclude any claim of exclusive rights for such groups to the detriment of others.

A section of the barrier -- erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians -- with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy's famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner." (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

A section of the barrier — erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians — with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

Within the Western environment many Jews held to this liberal ideal. They saw it as in their interest to work toward an environment of universally applied political and civil rights while minimizing social inequality.

For instance, by the mid-Twentieth Century in the United States, many Jewish organizations were allied with African-Americans in their struggle for civil rights and equality.  However, this proved to be a complex alliance and it ultimately broke down. Its demise marked a waning of organized American Jewish liberal activism. What had happened?

Part of the answer became apparent after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. At that time many civil rights leaders in the U.S. noticed that Israel was not, after all, a very liberal society. It was designed exclusively for one group and discriminated against those who were not members of that group. When this became a subject of concern and debate within the civil rights community, many Jewish organizations broke with the movement and its struggle.

How about Jewish liberal individuals? They were now confronted with one of three choices: (1) retain a principled adherence to the liberal ideal and cease their uncritical support of the Zionist state, (2) renounce the liberal ideal and continue their whole-hearted support for illiberal Israel, or (3) become quiet in public while fretting in private about the evolving racist nature of Israel. It seems many of them took the third option.

An Old Dilemma

Given this history it is simply wrong to think of the present dilemma faced by Jewish liberals over Israeli behavior as something new. So-called liberal Zionists such as Peter Beinart, Amos Oz, Ari Shavit and Jonathan Freedland have certainly known for decades that the notion of civil and political rights for Jews and non-Jews equally was not an aim of the Zionist movement and therefore stood little chance of shaping the behavior of the Israeli state.

Yet here we are, following three massive invasions of Gaza and its inhumane blockade, repeated massacres of Palestinian civilians going back at least as far as Israel’s “war of independence,” decades of continuous land theft and illegal settlement, and more than 60 years of an Israeli-inspired police state environment on the West Bank, confronting a suddenly newsworthy liberal Zionist dilemma.

One argument given to explain this belated display of liberal Zionist angst is that only recently have such individuals decided that the two-state solution is in real jeopardy. As this argument goes, as long as a two-state solution was possible, liberal Zionists could hope for the realization of both Jewish and Palestinian political and civil rights within their respective two states.

But this explanation is misleading. It is incorrect to think of the two-state solution as only recently at death’s door. In truth, if this solution was ever alive and possible (which is questionable), it was killed off the moment Menachem Begin lied to President Jimmy Carter about the granting of progressive “autonomy” to the Palestinians. That was 1979. That otherwise quite knowledgeable Zionists as those mentioned above did not know this is hard to believe.

So why is this liberal dilemma an issue now? A more accurate answer might lie with changing public opinion. It has only been in the last ten years or so that the Zionist storyline on the Israeli-Palestine conflict has lost its monopoly. In that same time frame the boycott movement has also become a worldwide affair.

As Israel’s illiberal character becomes more public, option 3 noted above becomes harder to maintain. As Jonathan Freedman tells us in his New York Review of Books article, “The Liberal Zionists,” these folks are now attacked from all sides. The Zionist movement is, if you will, circling its wagons and no longer finds liberal complaints tolerable, even in private. It wants everyone out there saluting the Israeli flag.

The Israeli author and columnist Ari Shavit shows us where these extreme nationalist pressures will likely lead those still trying to square the circle of liberalism and Zionism. In his recent book, My Promised Land,  he writes, “The choice is stark, either reject Zionism [the Zionist State of Israel] because of Lydda [an example of the massacre of civilians by Israeli forces], or accept Zionism [the Zionist state] along with Lydda. If need be, I will stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the state of Israel would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.”  So much for the liberal ideal.

Facing Contradiction

In truth the term “liberal Zionist” has never made much sense. The only way to explain its survival is to consider the survival of the Zionist storyline itself – the story of Israel as a democracy upholding the Western model in the Middle East.

As long as one believed that this was true, one could dismiss Israeli brutality as just occasional slippage from progressive political and civil principles supposedly underlying the state. Within this context, there could be liberal Zionists privately decrying occasional Israeli bad behavior.

But the Zionist storyline was not true. We never were dealing with just occasional slippage but rather with the inherent brutality of a state with policies and practices designed to bring about racist ends (a nation exclusively for one group)  while conjuring up a remarkably durable cover story that it was, after all, a liberal democracy.

The Israeli Right, as well as the Palestinians, always knew the cover story was a sham. Now, with the recent Gaza slaughter, much of the rest of the world does too. That public unveiling, along with the Zionist demands for uncritical loyalty, leaves the liberals in a wholly untenable situation.

You simply cannot adhere to the principle of universal civil and political rights and, at the same time, support a Zionist state. To do so is to involve oneself in a contradiction. The liberals are being forced to face this fact.

And, as this happens, they will have to make a real choice: cease being Zionist or cease adhering to the liberal ideal. I suspect that, along with Ari Shavit, most of them will decide to “stand with the damned.”

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

12 comments for “The Liberal Zionist Dilemma

  1. Jeff Davis
    August 20, 2014 at 22:46

    I’m an American and a Jew.
    We often hear the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” and along with it, “Israel’s right to self-defense.” Hear them endlessly, by propagandists who repeat them endlessly. But endless repetition does not make a thing true. And the seeming “legitimacy” that arises from this endless repetition is not legitimacy at all, but rather the “truth rape” of well executed propaganda.

    Yet the truth exists.

    And here it is: a fact-based, truth-based, ethics-based summary.

    In 1917, the British Imperial elite and the World Zionist Organization colluded in a criminal conspiracy to steal Palestine from the people — 95% Arab — who had lived there for 70 generations, and to give it to the Jews/Zionists. That’s ***STEAL***, as in take what doesn’t belong to you.

    This “plan” was a crime of conspiracy then, as the theft and murder in it’s execution is a crime today. A crime is still a crime, despite 90 years of control and censorship of the media.
    A crime is still a crime despite 90 years of impunity from prosecution or 90 years of protection through propaganda. JUST AS NO AMOUNT OF TIME CAN CONVERT A CRIME INTO A LEGAL ACT, NO AMOUNT OF TIME CAN CHANGE A LIE INTO THE TRUTH; .

    The Zionist entity called Israel is nothing less than a geopolitical crime-in-progress. This is the truth that the Jews will never be able to “disappear”, and that the digital age and internet have finally set free.

    So when next you hear propaganda about Israel’s “right to exist”, consider: what crime has a “right to exist”?, what criminal enterprise has a “right to exist”? Add to that: what criminal has a “right to self-defense”? What criminal has the right to commit violence in the furtherance of a crime? What criminal has the right to fight back against the lawful authority that arrives to halt the crime and arrest the criminals?

    Israel, the Zionists, their enablers, and their supporters are criminals: thieves and murderers on a global scale. They have no “right to exist” (as criminals) and they have no “right to self-defense” as they commit their crimes.

    Yet, they do have rights. And I stand in defense of those rights. They have the right to surrender to a competent authority, and not suffer summary execution. The right to a fair trial. If found guilty, the right to a proportionate penalty. And finally, once the offending parties have “done their time”, the right to rejoin society and resume a peaceful cooperative existence.

    The Zionist criminals cannot be allowed to continue in their criminal ways. And while I feel for the Palestinian and Arab and Moslem victims of this crime worldwide, as an American and a Jew I see with absolute clarity the immense danger these crimes pose for Jews the world over, who, whether it is true or not, will be seen as accomplices in the crime. A new holocaust is being built, and the Zionist criminal project Israel is the cornerstone of that catastrophe.


    Here are the crucial sources for understanding the situation the world finds itself in today vis a vis Israel.

    The last three are long, scholarly, and frankly, a bit dry. However, the first, for obvious reasons, is quite entertaining.

    “Concerning the Jews” by Mark Twain

    The Hidden History of Zionism

    Behind the Balfour Declaration

    Benjamin Freedman

    • Aaron
      August 21, 2014 at 11:04

      I’m a Canadian Jew from Montréal, Québec.

      A lot like me will come to the realisation that the term “Liberal Zionist” is actually an oxymoron.

  2. Hillary
    August 20, 2014 at 07:15

    “ the inherent brutality of a state with policies and practices designed to bring about racist ends (a nation exclusively for one group) – while conjuring up a remarkably durable cover story that it was, after all, a liberal democracy.”
    Lawrence Davidson..
    Exactly right.
    Israel is a colony , not an ex-colony and it is NOT an accepted part of the world for many. It is and will continue to be a constant source of violence and conflict for as long as it exists as it is today.

    It is a territory in the Middle East under Western occupation, which possesses no political legitimacy now, nor can it EVER acquire such legitimacy in the future because it has no reason or justification for its existence

    As Prof. Howard Sachar in his ‘History of Israel’ describes Israelis living over the 1949 armistice line as “an aggressive minority of fundamentalist zealots” , “colonialist militants”, “inciters of mob intimidation” , “transgressors of public morality”, and “migratory adventurers”.
    Israel represents 0.2% of the world’s population with enough nuclear weapons to destroy us all. Helen Thomas was honest and correct but nobody can repeat her advice.

  3. toby
    August 19, 2014 at 14:35

    Read the Talmud.

    There is more than just supporting the Zionists ways in Israel, killing Palestinians and taking more land, that they should decide upon. Usury is a big part of it. Not lying to gain business advantage is another (see Kol Nidre prayer).

    Here is a quote from the Balfour Decision:

    “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

    Given what the Talmud says, one would expect there to be no intention of honoring the above by rottenchild and crew, ever, in Israel…. or in ANY country.

    Renouncing the Talmud, repeatedly and by acts, would be my threshold for believing there is not prejudice against goy by Judea, which is beyond support of Israel aggression.

  4. Abe
    August 19, 2014 at 12:21

    Max Blumenthal, author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013), discussing the growing Incitement to genocide in Israeli political discourse

    • Brendan
      August 19, 2014 at 14:34

      Thanks for that link. The desirability of genocide against Palestinians has been expressed before, for example the threat of a ‘Shoah’ by an Israeli Defence Minister in one of the earlier wars against Gaza, but it’s now much more common.

      What’s also disturbing is that these views have not just crept into mainstream politics but also into mainstream media outlets. The op-ed by Giora Eiland mentioned in that video appeared in, the website of Israel’s most-read newspaper.

      Another op-ed entitled “When Genocide is Permissible” appeared in The Times Of Israel whose founder and editor is the familiar journalist David Horovitz and which has editors who previously worked for Haaretz. That piece was later removed.

      Not many “Friends of Israel” will find out about those widespread genocidal views. Maybe they’ll be turned off by the comments by the ugly face of Zionism, Joan Rivers, about the slaughtered civilians in Gaza: “They deserve to be dead”.

  5. Abe
    August 19, 2014 at 12:09

    Norman Finkelstein, author of Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land (2014), discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the shift in liberal Jewish attitudes toward Israel

  6. Chris Mendelsohn
    August 19, 2014 at 11:13

    “Yet here we are, following three massive invasions of Gaza and its inhumane blockade, repeated massacres of Palestinian civilians”

    All of these invasions happened after rocket attacks against Israel. You act as if the only way to be a true liberal is to accept other groups use of force against your citizens. Palestinians are allowed to suffer because the other Arab countries want to use them as a pawn against Israel. They could invite them into their country and most of this violence would end.

    • Abe
      August 20, 2014 at 17:51

      Chris, thanks for the cut-and-paste Israeli government talking points.

      Five Israeli Talking Points on Gaza — Debunked
      Israel claims that it is merely exercising its right to self-defense and that Gaza is no longer occupied. Here’s what you need to know about these talking points and more.

    • John J
      August 21, 2014 at 21:52

      Two wrongs don’t make a right. The holocaust was shear evil as is the displacement of Palestinians from their homes their land and livelihood. Many Palestinians have managed to find their way to Western countries and done well. They once had a enviable record for further education until the real Israeli clampdown.
      Some Zionists didn’t help Jews escape, they pressured Western governments to close there door hoping to push more Jews into Palestine. Even then immigration of Jews to Israel was far short of what Zionists wanted so they gave US secrets to Russia in exchange for Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel. Politics being more important than its effect upon people. Many thousands of Lebanese killed for no other reason in 1982 than for Israel to gain land south of the Litani river it considered part of Greater Israel. The 1967 war to gain more land for the same reason. One guess as to why Israel is the only country which hasn’t defined its border. It’s one reason why Palestinians have difficulty recognizing Israel. Which Israel is it?
      There is no peace because Zionists want Palestinians, Christian and Muslim (but not Jewish), gone so they can have a racist state. Make life uncomfortable (extremely so) and hopefully they will move philosophy is a religious/political fanaticism the world should worry about. In 1973 it got to the point where Israel blackmailed the West by arming two nuclear missiles and threatening to use them if it didn’t come to their aid in the Yom Kippur war. A conceited Israeli government warned of potential retaliation nearly brought about a world wide nuclear war.
      How presumptuous and egotistical to say its the other Arab countries fault.

  7. Joe
    August 19, 2014 at 10:49

    “You simply cannot adhere to the principle of universal civil and political rights and, at the same time, support a Zionist state. To do so is to involve oneself in a contradiction. The liberals are being forced to face this fact.”

    So true. one really has to wonder about “liberals” who believe in the separation of church in one state but not another. This is true cognitive dissonance.

    • turtle
      August 20, 2014 at 21:38

      Well written expose’ of the holocaust hypocrites.

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