Amy Levin: Given that today and tomorrow mark two extremely important national holidays in Israel beginning with Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for Israeli soldiers, followed by Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s independence day, it seems fitting to bring the timeless debate over Zionism to the virtual table. This week, Huffpost Religion is publishing daily columns as part of a series called “Liberal Zionists Speak Out.”
The series began earlier this week and will publish a total of 18 pieces leading up to Israel’s Independence Day. Leonard Fein, founder of Moment magazine and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, commenced the commentary with his piece on “The Future of Israel: Liberal Zionists Speak Out.” He begins with a (rhetorical?) question: “Is liberal Zionism an oxymoron?” (hint: no) Fein and his co-commentators argue that not only is liberal Zionism a coherent, present, and well-represented movement, but that in its formation, Zionism was, in essence, a liberal endeavor.
The columnists represent a gamut of Israeli and American academics, rabbis, activists, and journalists, including familiar outspoken Jews like Rabbi Eric Yoffie, David Biale, Yuli Tamir, and Steven Zipperstein, among others. While some writers offer their political and ideological definitions of liberal Zionism, arguing both for and against the term “post-Zionism,” others tell more personal narratives about family members and what Zionism meant for settlers pre-1948.
In David Biale’s piece, “When the Movement Becomes Part of the Problem,” he begins by telling the story of his father who, impoverished and oppressed in Eastern Europe, moved from Poland to California in order to study agriculture and become a farmer in Israel. Biale claims that if it weren’t for his father’s “fervent Zionism,” he would have perished in the Holocaust. Biale invokes this story because it is “easy to forget” that Zionism once stood for an idealistic marriage of “Jewish self-determination” and “social justice” and has since been redefined by right-wing advocates guilty of ‘ethno-nationalism.”
Biale is not alone in his impulse to remember the initial tenants of Zionism in its original context. Particularly when it comes to the occupations of the West Bank and Gaza, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus that the occupation is not Zionistic. In Biale’s words, “The Occupation is not Zionism; it is a grotesque distortion of Zionism.” Fein also agrees that Zionism has been distorted, or perhaps, misrepresented by the “pro-settle right-wing camp”. For Fein, and I would gauge that this is the case for most liberal Zionists (and liberal Jews for the matter) the (very complicated) solution for the conflict in Israel is the creation of a Palestinian state. As Fein argues:
History can be a cruel trickster. No one foresaw either the depth or the durability of the conflict. It’s conventional, these days, to talk about the “competing narratives” that inform the ongoing debate, but the problem is neither choosing the “right” narrative nor, for that matter, reconciling the two. The Palestinians narrative is right. The Israeli narrative is right. History plays differently for the two peoples, now both stuck in a status quo that satisfies no one. Right against right; a recipe for tragedy.
So does a two-state solution and condemnation of the occupation make a Zionist “liberal?” For Anita Shapira, a professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, I’m not sure if Zionism is any different from just plain liberalism:
My kind of Zionism is very basic, almost too obvious to put into words. I would like a Zionism that looks for the middle road, that recoils from high rhetoric, from all kinds of messianism; a Zionism that does not look for territorial gains, that does not define its meaning via real estate; a Zionism that is satisfied with the minimum essential for the existence of the Jewish state, that does not wish to bring about a revolution but that strives to bring about constant, gradual, progress and reconciliation between Jews and Jews as well as between Jews and Arabs.
So what does make liberal Zionism, Zionism? Is there a value in keeping the term at all? I think the authors of HuffPo’s blogs would argue that there is indeed something distinct and important in calling oneself a Zionist, perhaps because there are both left and right-wing groups that claim to be ‘anti-Zionist’ which many (mis)read as ‘anti-Israel.’ Of course, as any rabbi or Jewish studies scholar would argue, the descriptions and prescriptions of Zionism are so large it could possibly be considered a field in itself. But what does it mean to debate these questions now, on the web, a public and civic sphere, during the week of Israel’s independence day, in a context of highly visual and outspoken right-wing politicking?
It seem that the question, what does it mean to be a liberal Zionist, doesn’t quite get at the root of the issue – nowadays the term Zionism is so misunderstood, and yet its meanings seem equally valid in their varied political, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Like the term liberal, which has become so pejorative that any “progressive” would not be caught with such an identification, leftists are no longer Zionists. Like hipsters are no longer hipsters.