Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism”

Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism” February 9, 2011

Dear Subscribers,

When Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” came out in the New York Review of Books last June, I was out of the country and missed the excitement.  I was bombarded with it from a number of listserves, but began to notice that I was avoiding reading it.  And I know why:  I didn’t feel like getting heated up about what I suspected was in the piece.  Well, I finally read it last December, and I did get heated up, and I wrote this essay.  I submitted it to several left-wing print and internet periodicals, received acceptances, and then, for some reason, it never ran. Added a “Palestine Papers” lead, and then a lead about Egypt.  Still no luck.  No matter — here it is:

Peter Beinart and The Failure of American Jewish Progressivism:

Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism”

Mark Braverman

The popular uprising in Egypt that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, together with Aljazeera’s January 23rd release of the “Palestine Papers,” have produced if not a an earthquake, then certainly seismic rumblings in the ground supporting Israel’s control of the West Bank (from within) and Gaza (from without). The plight of the Palestinians is not what motivated Egyptians to take to the streets – yet the complicity of the Mubarak government with the siege of Gaza certainly stuck in the craw of the Egyptian people. Similarly, the Aljezeera revelations that negotiators for the Palestinian Authority had effectively ceded East Jerusalem to Israel and relinquished the right of return for Palestinian refugees would have only reinforced Egyptians’ conviction that the  promised Palestinian State  a has been a snare and a delusion perpetrated by the U.S.-Israel-Jordan-Egypt alliance.

It is a sure bet that any spillover from Tahrir Square into the streets of Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus or Bethlehem will be quickly repressed by the Palestinian Authority. But the future of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and throughout the world does not rest with the actions of the client government installed in Ramallah. Rather, the fate of these people –as well of the close to eight million citizens of Israel, is been held hostage to the assumptions and requirements of political Zionism. More than territory and borders, the issue of demography is the key to this conflict. The question of return of refugees has been a red line for Israelis because the introduction of so many non-Jews would spell “the end of Israel.” And so it would, as long as its future is tied to the Zionist idea of a Jewish state. But recognition is dawning that a just and equitable sharing of the territory will mean, not the end of Israel, but its only hope for a future. The release of the Palestinian Authority documents is a further sign that the path to peace requires a confrontation with Zionism itself as a political enterprise. But even within the progressive camp, this realization has been slow in coming. When Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” appeared in the New York Review of Books in June 2010, it caused a considerable stir:  here was a young Jewish intellectual boldly challenging the human rights record of the State of Israel. But Beinart’s subject was not Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Rather, he was addressing the failure of the American Jewish establishment to successfully promote Zionism as a viable political program. The piece opens with this declaration:  “Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”  To this Jewish American, this is an astonishing statement, and it is tragically off the mark.

Born in the heady years after the establishment of the state, I grew up believing that Israel was the key to Jewish survival. But I would suggest that preserving Zionism is not the challenge facing Jews today. Rather, our task is to rescue Judaism from an ideology that has hijacked the faith, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today. Despite its romantic attachment to the idea of the “new Jew” — a Jew liberated from the powerlessness and humiliation of the ghetto — in reality Zionism has served to keep Jews trapped in an isolationist, exclusivist past. We must challenge a historical narrative that has yoked us to a theology of territoriality and tribal privilege. We must acknowledge how deep is the hole we have dug for ourselves in the pursuit of our national homeland project.

But it is not for the Jews alone to resolve this crisis. Rather, the prospect of Israel spinning rapidly into rogue state status challenges people from all faiths and nationalities to confront sectarian and particularistic strivings wherever they hold the political process hostage. This is not the challenge that being thrown down by Beinart, however. Instead, he is proposing that rather than questioning the legitimacy of Zionism, we shore it up. Beinart never considers the possibility that Zionism itself is a flawed ideology. Instead, he operates on the assumption that if only Zionism could be implemented in its true democratic and liberal spirit, meaningful change could be created and things would work out. “Yes, we have erred, we have strayed,” — so goes the argument – “but because we are heirs to a liberal, humanistic tradition, we can make this work — and our work deserves to be crowned with success.”

According to Beinart, bad actors have sabotaged the noble enterprise.  The problem, he maintains, lies with overtly racist politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who proposes transfer of non-Jews (and who recently pushed through the Knesset the targeting of Israeli human rights organizations for special investigations), and ex-cabinet minister Effi Eitam, who wants Arabs out of Israeli politics. Here we have the classic straw man maneuver – very much like progressive Israeli and non-Israeli Jews blaming the “radical fringe” of the settler movement for Israel’s human rights abuses and the “mistake” of the occupation. But settler depredations, permanent occupation of Palestinian lands, brutal suppression of popular resistance, racial laws governing loyalty and land ownership, and de facto second class citizenship for Arabs in Israel are not accidents or unfortunate deviations from Israel’s democratic agenda. The government of Israel is doing precisely what a Jewish state has to do to maintain its Jewish character. Ethnic cleansing and military control of a subject population (also known as Apartheid) have emerged as the only means to address the threat to Israel’s continued existence as a sovereign Jewish state. The abhorrent concept of the Arab “demographic threat” is embraced in Israel by racist demagogues and centrist politicians alike. The sobering truth is that for Israel the line between racist demagoguery and government policy has all but disappeared.

But for the Jewish progressive, the idea that Zionism itself is the problem is unacceptable. A different enemy must be found — and Israel’s fundamentalist Jewish establishment presents itself as the most convenient. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is the poster child for those who bemoan Israel’s threatened descent into fascism. Last October Jewish voices the world over issued horrified condemnations when a group of Israeli rabbis, backed by Yosef, issued rulings against renting to non-Jews. Even the Anti-Defamation League’s arch-conservative Director Abraham Foxman weighed in against the “hateful and divisive ideas” of these religious leaders. Lamenting Shas’ growing boldness and influence, Beinart warns against this threat to Israel’s “liberal and democratic order.” The point, however, bears repeating: Shas and Israel’s other religious parties are not unfortunate byproducts of democracy – rather, they are firmly entrenched in Israel’s political structure. Despite its initial conflict with political Zionism, Jewish fundamentalism has shown itself to be frighteningly compatible with the goal of building a Jewish state.

Quoted in a recent article in New York Jewish Week, Beinart expresses concern that his children may have to choose between “blind support” of Israel and their liberal values. But as Jews – and Americans — we do have to choose. Accepting Zionism as a workable, sustainable political program is a kind of blindness. It calls for a striking lapse in critical thinking and the jettisoning of fundamental humanistic principles, and it leads to the political dead end in which we find ourselves today. Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” (“The Hope”) embodies the Zionist dream and ethos: “The hope of two thousand years, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” This yearning is understandable and it is powerful. But I would propose to Beinart and those progressive Jews who cling to this dream that they replace it with one more in tune with the trajectory of history, which points away from nationalism, and certainly from ethnic nationalism. Zionism held a kind of desperate logic for the Jews of 19th century Europe, and seemed valid in the historical and ideological context of the time – but it is wrong and unsustainable today. Only when Israel itself, and the Jewish community that supports it, can begin to let go of these anachronistic strivings can we turn ourselves to the task of recreating Israel as a political entity truly committed to democratic and liberal principles. The late and deeply mourned Tony Judt got it exactly right in his NYRB piece back in 2003: “The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place.”

In his recent book, The Icarus Syndrome, A History of American Hubris, Beinart warns against “pushing ideas further and further, until, like a swelled balloon, they burst.” We have arrived at that bursting point. The end of Zionism will not be the disaster that so many Jews – and some Christians — fear. Rather, it will open the Jewish people to a future where the Other is embraced, rather than back to a past in which armies are mustered, walls are built, and enemies, real and imagined, are vilified and attacked. “Saving” Zionism by trying to make it into something it is not takes us in precisely the wrong direction.

Mark Braverman is author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land, Synergy Press, 2010. Writing and his blog can be found at

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