Jewish Liberals Must Reject The Zionist/Anti-Zionist Dichotomy

Professors Hasia Diner and Marjorie N. Feld use the nowadays meaningless term 'Zionism' to reduce Israel to a racist, colonialist enterprise.

Last week Israel's liberal Newsaper Haaretz ran Hasia Diner and Marjorie N. Feld's op-ed "We're Jewish American professors. This is why we left Zionism behind." Their bottom line is that they have come to see Israel and Zionism through the eyes of postcolonial theory; that they can no longer avoid seeing Zionism through the categories of racism and colonial oppression, and they are leaving it behind.

I frankly am not sure what this means for the simple reason that for many years I have thought that the terms "Zionism" and "Zionist" have stopped playing any meaningful role in discourse about Israel.

For Israeli right-wingers Zionism means Israel must annex the West Bank because it belongs to the Jews. For Israeli liberals it means Israel must end the occupation because otherwise Herzl's Liberal-Zionist project of a democratic homeland for the Jews is doomed.

For many Palestinians and Iranians, as well as a certain variety of extreme left-wing Europeans and Americans, "Zionist" is a term with strong anti-Semitic overtones, implying a combination of Jewish world domination à la "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and Israel's illegitimacy in the Middle East.

In most cases "Zionist," "anti-Zionist" and "post-Zionist" are therefore either terms of fervent love and patriotism (without clear political meaning) or curse words often hiding anti-Semitic connotations.

Hence the question "Are you Zionist?" only creates obfuscation. And yet Israel's political right and the U.S. Jewish establishment keep using this question as the shibboleth determining whether you are "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel" - another distinction as useless as "pro-U.S." or "anti-U.S."

Jewish liberals should refuse to engage with this approach and insist on clarity of thought. So let's consider which questions do make sense and how Diner and Feld can be understood.

1) Does Israel have the right to exist?

This question seems rather outlandish to me for a simple reason. Israel, like 203 other countries, is an internationally recognized state. True, it occupies the West Bank and oppresses Palestinians, which is deplored and condemned by everybody except the political right in Israel and U.S. evangelical supporters of Israel. But this has absolutely nothing to do with Israel's right to exist.

Other countries have committed and are committing worse atrocities, and nobody questions their right to exist. Russia butchered Chechnya for years, has just annexed Crimea and interferes in Ukraine, which is to be condemned, but nobody considers the option that Russia has no right to exist. Hence denying Israel's right to exist based on the occupation is indefensible based on international law, and mostly an expression of anti-Semitism. If this is what Diner and Feld mean, which I don't believe, they would be unjustifiably singling out Israel for its misdeeds.

2) Are Jews obligated to love Israel?

In totalitarian states, governments believe they have a right to prescribe what their citizens are supposed to feel and believe, and in the past many religions thought they could demand belief and enforce it violently (certain Islamic states do so to this day). In liberal democracies belief and feeling are strictly a private matter, and nobody has the prerogative to demand, even less enforce, beliefs and feelings. Any modern, human-rights-based morality therefore precludes demanding of Jews, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, to love Israel.

This would be illegitimate and anachronistic, not to mention psychologically incoherent: Love and identification cannot be imposed by force. If Diner and Feld declare their freedom from such coercion, they are stating the obvious.

3) Do most Jews identify with and love Israel?

This leaves the empirical question of what relationship Jews have to Israel. Jews are generally seen as a people, i.e. "an ethnos with a sense of common identity, history or fate," to quote Israeli political scientist Azar Gat. The question is whether most Jews indeed feel such commonality of history and fate with Israel.

This is, I think, the correct context of Diner and Feld's statement. The clearest interpretation I can give is that they are not just disappointed by Israel's deeds and policies. They feel that Israel's actions contradict their core values so profoundly that they no longer feel they share a "common identity, history or fate" with Israel.

Two narratives of Jewish history

In this Diner and Feld are of course not at all alone. A growing number of Jewish-American and European-Jewish liberals feel that Israel's occupation of the West Bank, by now lasting 49 of Israel's 68 years, has become so definitive of Israel's identity that these liberals no longer feel that Israel reflects their Jewishness and don't want to be associated with Israel at all.

They reject the narrative that the Diaspora is bad and the Jewish nation-state is good. Instead they build their Jewish identity and history on a positive evaluation of the Diaspora, claiming that almost all they value about Jewish history happened in the Diaspora. Jewish-American liberals as different as Orthodox Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin and gender theorist Judith Butler feel they need to salvage their Jewish identity from the damage Israel has inflicted on it.

This means that at this point in history, Jewish peoplehood according to Azar Gat's definition can no longer be taken for granted. Two different histories are told. In the nationalist, Israel-centered version, King David, the Hasmoneans and Bar Kochba are heroes because they were fighters; the Jews who accepted living under gentile sovereignty are to be pitied.

In the Jewish-liberal Jewish history, the Talmudic rabbis, Maimonides, Spinoza, Kafka and Freud are heroes, and the Diaspora generated most of what is important in Jewish culture; Bar Kochba was a catastrophe that led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews, as are Israeli politicians who turned the occupation of the West Bank into a permanent fact and undermined both Israel's moral backbone and international standing.

There are also two different versions of Jewish fate. In the nationalist version, the Jewish people actualizes itself by ruling over territory and glorifying Jewish nationhood. In the Jewish-liberal version, true Jewish destiny is to learn from Jewish history that nationalism must be reined in and racism must be fought without compromise, while tikkun olam - repairing the world - means to defend human rights anywhere on the planet, including in Palestine.

Avoiding black-and-white thinking

Of course I've been simplifying here: Most liberal-leaning Diaspora Jews are torn between these two narratives or live in a mix between the two. Most are in favor of a Jewish homeland; they yearn for Israel to transform into a state they can love and identify with, and for the army to be liberated from the dreadful task of enforcing the occupation. But there isn't much they can do about it, as they don't vote here.

Liberal Israeli Jews, who feel more and more alienated by a state that passes law after law delegitimizing our organizations and institutions, are in a similar situation. We do vote here, but we have been on the losing end for most of the past 40 years.

We haven't been able to determine policy; all we can do is hang on to the core institutions of Israel's liberal democracy under assault in recent years: an independent judiciary, academic freedom, a free press Benjamin Netanyahu makes every effort to undermine, and Israel's thriving culture that Culture Minister Miri Regev, despite all her efforts, cannot muzzle. But we still want the country to change course, endorse our values and allow us to feel at home.

Here then is what we can do. Jewish liberals, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, should resist the pressure or Israel's right and the somewhat out-of-date American-Jewish establishment as represented by AIPAC to either swear allegiance, love and unconditional loyalty to Zionism (be "pro-Israel") or be defamed as self-hating, anti-Zionist Jews ("Israel bashers").

I think Diner and Feld have run into the trap of accepting this Orwellian distortion of language by phrasing their credo in the wrong terms. They are perfectly entitled to say they want to disengage from Israel and define their Jewish identities against it. But using the meaningless term "Zionism" as a scapegoat to apply the categories of postcolonial theory and reducing Israel to nothing but a racist, colonialist enterprise will do very little good to the Jewish liberal cause.

In doing so they have succumbed to the nationalist, tribal demand that either you are for Israel or against it. Jewish liberals must resist the false dichotomy between idealizing or demonizing Israel and take a much more differentiated approach as exemplified in Ari Shavit's poignant book "My Promised Land" that unflinchingly deals with Israel's sins without reducing Israel to pure evil. To be a Jewish liberal means to endure complexity and to refuse black-and-white thinking both of Israel's illiberal right-wingers and Israel's foes that deny its right to exist.