Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can One be a Liberal and a Zionist without being a Liberal Zionist?

Can one be a liberal (or: progressive) and a Zionist? The debate has been going on for some time now, and recent entries in the debate on the +972mag by Joseph Dana, Larry Derfner, and Abir Kopty, are worth reading.

What’s interesting is that both the advocates and detractors of liberal Zionism agree that there is an inherent contradiction between being liberal and being Zionist. Derfner considers himself a liberal, one who believes, for example, in civic equality, but there are times when his allegiance to the statist self-determination of the Jewish people trumps his liberalism. There is nothing wrong or inconsistent with attaching different weight to competing values.  

I don’t agree with the premise that there is an inherent contradiction between being liberal and being Zionist.  But that’s because of how I understand those terms.

Zionism for me involves a cluster of beliefs and attitudes that contain the following:

a) I am conscious of being part of a Jewish people, and that consciousness provides something meaningful within my life;  

b) As a member of this people, I am conscious of a religious/historical connection to the land of Israel/Palestine

c) The growth of Hebrew culture in Israel/Palestine, that began in the twentieth century, has been, on the whole, positive for the Jewish people, and compatible with the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestine Arabs.

d) The legitimate self-determination of the Jewish people requires nothing more than the ability for the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, within  the limits of a liberal, civic framework.

I find these views compatible with various political arrangements in Israel/Palestine. They are certainly compatible with a one state,  binational framework, and arguably compatible with a national Jewish minority status within a Palestinian state, with rights guaranteed by a constitution.

Still, these principles return us to the arguments within the Zionist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, before the Zionist movement made the (wrong, in my opinion) turn towards ethnic statism in the early 1940s. They are controversial, certainly from a Palestinian standpoint. Particularly problematic is c) which rests on Jewish immigration  – although, it is important to point out that most of the key institutions of the revival of Hebrew culture predated the Jewish state, and were not opposed by the Palestinian leadership.

In any event, we are not in the 1930s. There are now around five and a half million Jews in Israel/Palestine.  The overwhelming majority of Palestinians and Arabs, including the Hamas party, accept the physical presence of Jews within Palestine; their problems are more with a Jewish ethnic state.

I do not accept other principles, which may now be dogmas, of Zionism.  I certainly don’t accept the view that the self-determination of the Jewish people trumps the self-determination of the Palestinian people, or that it justified immigration against the wishes of the Palestinian population, much less the formation of an ethnic exclusivist state with quasi-racist laws and provisions that are unparalleled in liberal, decent societies.

Of course, there will be many whose view of Zionism is such that they won’t consider me to be a Zionist.  They will say that my Zionism is so attenuated as not to be worthy of the name.  And they may be right; the fact that there is historical precedent for my brand of Zionism may not cut the mustard for them.

Whatever. At least folks will know why this blog is called the Magnes Zionist


Michael W. said...

Good post even though I disagree with you on a few points.

I think you give the Palestinian Arabs too much authority. Even if they opposed Jewish immigration, it was not their authority to decide no matter how undemocratic as that sounds. It was the Ottomans and then the British that the Jews had to please (even though many didn't obey the British in several aspects).

I also don't believe that the one state solution could have happened in the middle of the 20th century nor today. The competing forces would have torn it apart like it did to Lebanon.

I think the writers that are debating this should define 'liberal' or liberalism. How would you define it?
I think liberalism includes the values of:
1. civic equality
2. democracy
3. individual freedom

I do believe early Zionists violated these values in relation to the Palestinian Arabs. But I also believe that the Arabs were attempting to violate this values in relation to the Zionists. If the Arabs won, I think none of the parties would have had civic equality, democracy, and individual freedom. Zionists at least achieved it for millions of Jews and some Arabs to an extent. It might be counter to universalism, but you have to start somewhere. The past six decades of authoritarianism in the Arab countries is a testament to what the Zionists prevented in a sliver of the ME because they won.

Jerry Haber said...

Michael W,

I didn't say that the Arabs had a legal right to block immigration. But surely they had a right to oppose immigration; just as the Zionist had the right to support it.

In fact, the Zionists pleased neither the Ottomans (!) nor the British, since the British, as you know, sharply limited Jewish immigration. And, as you also know, the Zionists did not have the authority to immigrate illegally, although they did so. Both you and I agree that they were wrong to do so, I assume, from your comment.

I don't understand your reference to Lebanon. Lebanon indeed had a horrific 15 year civil war, which was partly a proxy war between Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians in Southern Lebanon. That ended over twenty years ago, and since then, there has been relative calm, and relative protection of civil rights. By contrast, Israel has been at war for the last sixty three years, and has been controlling the Palestinians against their will for over forty years. I grant you that things have been better for Jews in Israel than for Christians in Lebanon. But Christians in Lebanon have had much better lives than Palestinians in Israel, not to mention the West Bank.

So when people point to Lebanon and point to the evils of binationalism, I say, yes, indeed there are evils, but the evils of Jewish ethnic nationalism have been much worse if you are not a Jew -- and that is not even factoring in Israel's contribution to the suffering of the Lebanese.

AS for your "what if" scenario, I wonder whether a people's being dispossessed of its land and being sent into exile, or reduced to second-class citizenry, is better than living under an authoritarian regime. In any event, I wouldn't want my state to be responsible for either evil.

Michael W. said...

I wouldn't say that their illegal immigration was wrong, just illegal.

Lets look at the 3 liberal values I listed: civic equality, democracy, and individual freedom. Who has more?
Confessionalism? A united army? Foreign influence? Standard of living? Treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon? Freedom of the press?

As far as Zionist belief, I don't believe many would believe the Arab refugees were "wishing ... to live in peace" (UNGA 194). I think this is the major point of contention in the debate about Liberal Zionism. This has to do with the result of Zionism. The other major point of contention is whether the Zionist mission is liberal in the first place, before 1948.

I think you are in a very thin minority that believes in non-statist Zionism. I don't think this version of Zionism would have gone too far. I don't see how it would create a community any different than those that already existed in the Arab world. Would it have achieved the liberal values I stated above? I don't think so as evident by the 60+ years of Arab authoritarianism. The strongest tool ever created against Arab authoritarianism was statist Zionism and still is to this day.

evets said...

You always speak of Zionism as if it grew out of nothing more than a suddenly irrepressible Jewish desire for self-realization in the ancient homeland. You never mention the sense of desperation with the Jewish future in Europe which (at least in part) made this desire suddenly irrepressible.

Acknowledging the role of this desperation would make the statist Zionist movement seem less of an exercise in brute will to power, consequences be damned. It might also do to acknowledge that the Palestinians, who've primarily been victims of Zionism, are still perfectly capable (like Jews) of behaving in nasty, ethnocentric ways. I just can't understand your insouciance about a solution that demands tremendous forbearance and nobility from both groups. It may not be fair to project Palestinian political behavior based solely on the illiberal politics of the Arab world, but it's certainly unrealistic to ignore their socio-political connection to that world. I think Michael W has a point.