“Liberal Zionism”: A Contradiction in Terms
Peter Beinart’s New York Times op-ed, “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements,” is an example of the increased volume voices described as ‘Liberal Zionists’ have garnered in the discourse on Israel/Palestine. But liberal Zionism is a contradiction is terms.
Peter’s piece expemplifies the “Liberal Zionist” narrative; “Liberal Zionists” cling to three central illusions to avoid confronting the reality that they are walking contradictions.
First, “Liberal Zionists” construct an artificial dichotomy between the state and the settlements; they pretend that the Israeli State and its settlements are somehow separate or separable. Beinart typifies this when he suggests renaming the West Bank ‘undemocratic Israel’ to distinguish from 1948 Israel. In reality, one cannot, in any serious way, separate Israel from its settlement enterprise.
The settlements were developed, continue to exist and grow precisely because of Israeli state policies. These policies are formulated by the government of Israel (all of it, not just the settlements). The settlement enterprise is not directed from the hilltops of the West Bank which it dominates, but rather from the central corridors of Israeli power which allocates resources to them, builds settlement infrastructure (and destroys Palestinian infrastructure) in and around them, supports the usurpation of Palestinian land and natural resources for them, and deploys Israeli military for support in this effort. This is why there is a strategic imperative for BDS to target the state, not just the settlements.
Further, as part of this self-inflicted deception, “Liberal Zionists” often attempt to mitigate the problem presented by settlers and settlements by dishonestly diminishing their numbers. Beinart excludes the residents of occupied Jerusalem (which the Israeli government has annexed), and cites 300,000 settlers in the West Bank. But as even the Israeli Prime Minister told Congress, 650,000 Israelis live beyond the green line.
Second, “Liberal Zionists” talk about an always-approaching-yet-non-existent deadline for two states. Beinart writes that Israel is “erasing” the green line; he worries what will happen “if Israel makes the occupation permanent…” and says that “we are closer to that day” than many may admit. But that day never seems to come for “Liberal Zionists,” it is always somewhere off in the undefined distance, although, we are told, it is approaching.
But by never defining a deadline, by never demarcating a point of no return, that day never has to come and “Liberal Zionists” never have to confront the contradiction inherent in their views. Rather, by failing to draw a line (which in reality we have probably long passed) and by failing to make a serious effort against the Israeli state for its colonialist policies, what “Liberal Zionists” are effectively saying is that there is no Palestinian minimum (or Zionist maximum) they would not accept – there is nothing “liberal” about that!
The third and perhaps the biggest problem with the “Liberal Zionist” narrative is that they erase the Nakba from the history of Israel/Palestine. The Nakba (the depopulation of Palestine of the majority of its native inhabitants) continues to be at the foundation of the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic. Zionism necessitates a Jewish majority, which it achieved in 1948 through a series of events (including mass expulsion and the flight of civilians from hostilities), and perpetuated by systematically denying the human right of Palestinian refugees to return. It should come as no surprise that even while “Liberal Zionists” are willing to condemn many of the human rights abuses inherent in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the rights of refugees go ignored.
Any sympathies “Liberal Zionists” have for Palestinian rights generally stops at the green line. This is moral and intellectual cowardice. With the Palestinian question and Palestinian rights answered within the confines of green line, “Liberal Zionists” put off confronting the fundamental challenge that liberalism presents to Zionism.
You see, liberalism and Zionism are by nature incompatible and those calling themselves “Liberal Zionists” misunderstand one or both of the concepts. Liberalism is by nature an inclusivist ideology; Zionism, by contrast is an exclusivist ideology. While liberalism is associated with equal rights regardless to ethnicity or creed, human rights, and free elections, Zionism requires maintaining a Jewish majority over territory even at the expense of the non-Jewish native inhabitants of the land.
For many Americans who have Zionist and liberal inclinations, confronting this reality is both difficult and necessary. Yet “Liberal Zionists” choose instead to create and focus on illusions to avoid making the decisions, imposed on them by Zionism’s colonialist reality, that make them cringe.
The use of myths to obfuscate the inconvenient truths of Zionism’s illiberal agenda is not new. Early leaders of the Israeli left advanced the notion of a “land without a people”: David Ben Gurion, for example, described pre-colonization Palestine as “in a virtual state of anarchy... primitive, neglected, and derelict,” willfully ignoring the land’s native Palestinians.
The fact that Beinart’s call for a boycott of Israeli settlement products is on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times is indicative of a changing discourse—and this is a good thing. Nonetheless, the discourse clearly has a long way to go. “Liberal Zionists” may find safety and comfort in putting off confronting the irreconcilability of liberalism and Zionism for another generation, but they aren’t doing the Palestinians or themselves any favors.
Rather, what is needed today before tomorrow is for that confrontation to take place; one is either a liberal or a Zionist. Being too afraid to choose can no longer be an option.