Monday, March 11, 2013

Who Is a Liberal Zionist?

Readers, this piece appeared today on Open Zion here.

When I appealed to liberal Zionists to support the global BDS movement, I assumed that the movement called for ending Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli discrimination against non-Jewish citizens, primarily Palestinians, within Israel. I also thought that liberal Zionists accepted these goals (see Mira Sucharov here), and that the central disagreement between liberal Zionists and the global BDS movement was over the third goal, the right of return of Palestinians to Palestine in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194.

My assumptions appear to have been unwarranted. Peter Beinart, answering in the name of liberal Zionists, has problems with the language of the BDS movement’s first goal to “end Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” for the language could include the Golan Heights, and anything over the Green Line, including the settlement blocs that the Palestinian Authority has, under duress, agreed in principle to cede to Israel. Beinart also has a problem with the language of its second goal, the “fundamental right of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” since that could mean an end to the Law of Return.

It’s funny how people read… When I read the global BDS statement, I was surprised to learn that it implied the recognition of the continuing existence, indeed, legitimacy, of the State of Israel. After all, the call for Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands presupposes that there are Arab lands that Israel is not occupying and colonizing—otherwise where would Israel be? And the call for the fundamental right of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality presupposes that they are citizens of the state of Israel, i.e., the state of the Jewish people, since “Israel” and the “Jewish People” are synonyms. Imagine a similar call in which the black citizens of an ethnic nationalist country called “Afrikaaner Land “ are not urged to rise up and replace the settler-state with something else, but rather to become equal Afrikaaners.

The truth is that both his reading and my reading are pilpulistic, as are the attempts by two-staters like Mira Sucharov and Norman Finkelstein to view the global BDS movement as essentially a one-state movement. One-staters in the global BDS movement, like Omar Barghouti and Abu Abunimah, are not reticent about saying they are one-staters. But the language they have chosen to endorse indicates that they wish to build a broad base coalition among nationalists and post-nationalists and anti-nationalists to stop the continuing violation of fundamental Palestinian human and civil rights. And that language recognizes the strong continuing support for two states among the Palestinian people, as well as among some of the organizations that make up the BDS National Committee (BNC), the Palestinian committee that guides the global BDS movement.

I am afraid that this is what many liberal Zionists miss. The real dispute is not between the one-staters and the two-staters, but between those who hold that the collective right of a settler people to self-determination trumps the human and civil rights of the indigenous natives, and those who do not. According to the former, the only hope for Palestinian self-determination is to accept Israel’s generous offer of a “state”, and to rely for its security on strangers (s.v. the Geneva Initiative’s multi-national force) and the kindness of the Israelis who have treated them, to put it mildly, rather shabbily over the last 65 years.

One would have expected a liberal Zionist opponent of the global BDS movement to argue about the dangers of BDS to the State of Israel or to the prospects of peace, as did Gil Troy, for example. But Beinart is troubled by the implications of the statement for the Golan Heights and the Law of Return. This strikes me as odd. If Israeli negotiators were to offer to return the Golan Heights and amend the Law of Return, would he break ranks with them? It’s one thing for a liberal Zionist to accord Israel’s Declaration of Independence the status of sacred scripture; it’s quite another to do so with the Clinton Parameters.

Beinart presents a viewpoint that is typical among Israeli writers of an older Zionist generation. He mentions Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubenstein; one could also include Ruth Gavison, Shlomo Avineri, and others. Such liberal Zionists either see no tension between their liberal principles and Zionism, or, recognizing a tension, compromise their liberal values in the name of Zionism, provided they can justify such a compromise with superficial comparisons to other states, and “X-does-it-so-why-not-us?” arguments.

A case in point is the uncompromising acceptance of the Law of Return, a citizenship eligibility law that is unparalleled in its illiberality because it views members of a religious group as potential returning citizens to a state that never existed, by virtue of their, or their grandparent’s, religious affiliation. Add to this the 1952 Nationality Law, and it turns out that a seventh-generation Palestinian Arab honeymooning in Paris at the time of the declaration of Israel’s independence is legally barred from citizenship unless she performs a religious conversion to Judaism. Any similarities between such laws and laws that “provide preferential immigration policies for a certain ethnic group” are completely coincidental. You don’t become eligible for citizenship anywhere else in the world but Israel solely by virtue of religious conversion.

Ditto for much of Israel’s illiberal relationship between religion and state, despite the far-fetched comparisons offered by the old guard of liberal Zionists. My favorite is Shlomo Avineri’s penchant for pointing out that some European countries have crosses on their flags and that the Queen of England is the head of the Anglican Church. I, for one, would eagerly crown the President of Israel “King of Judaism” if that meant that Israel, like Great Britain, could have civil marriage.

Can anyone call herself “liberal” and support Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which in addition to being a contravention of international law and the Fourth Geneva convention involved the expulsion of many of its inhabitants, and the continual exploitation of its resources? (Like all illegal annexationists, Israel doesn’t consider its annexation illegal.) Here Beinart implies that it would be morally problematic to return the Golan to the “monstrous regime of Bashar Assad, or the chaos that may follow him,” not suggesting that there may be another alternative, such as handing over administration of the Golan to the Arab league or even the U.N. or NATO or the U.S. temporarily, or, for that matter, for Israel to act like a temporary occupier and not an annexationist. Israel may be in possession of the Golan Heights, but it is hardly in possession of the moral high ground to know where the occupied would be better off, especially when Israel has exploited the resources of the territory, moved its citizens there, and expelled many of the 7,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948 who were living there in 1967, making them refugees who are now being shelled by the “monstrous regime of Bashar Assad.”

Many liberal Zionists support a so-called “two-state” solution that doesn’t provide the Palestinians with anything remotely resembling a state, certainly not one whose mandate is to provide security to its inhabitants. Ask any Israeli, no, ask any Zionist, no, ask most human beings whether they would accept a state on 22 percent of their homeland, in land patches connected by bridges and tunnels, without the means to protect themselves from a militarily powerful state on its border with powerful and proven irredentist tendencies.

But who, then, was my call intended for, if not for such liberal Zionists? Actually, it was intended for the liberal Zionists who believe that Israelis and Palestinians deserve their own states, but who refuse to make one subservient to the other, who believe that the Palestinian people have no less a right to live as free people in their homeland of Palestine than do the Jews. Such liberal Zionists hold that Palestine should be divided into two states, but they want the division to be equitable, or close to equitable, with some sort of parity of power between the sides. They believe the wellbeing and security of the Palestinians is as important a value as the wellbeing and security of the Israelis. Such liberal Zionists refuse to take advantage of the power differential in negotiations, but negotiate with the good of both parties in mind. Such liberal Zionists support the State of Israel but are willing to take responsibility for changing the Zionist mentality that to this very day prevents Israelis from seeing the responsibilities that they have as conquering settlers to a native population whose country was quite literally wiped off the map. Are there liberal Zionists like that? You bet there are. Some of them are at the forefront of the fight for Palestinian rights within Israel and within the Occupied Territories.

My call is intended to appeal to those liberal Zionists who understand that some of the principles guiding the Eastern European founders of Israel do not pass muster in what today (or then) is considered a liberal state. Real liberal Zionists in Israel are dissatisfied with Israel’s ethnic exclusivism, just as real liberals in America were dissatisfied with slavery, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination.

Of course, there will be disagreements between liberals on what laws and institutions are inherently illiberal. I for one can easily envision a state of Israel that has amended the Law of Return in ways suggested by Chaim Gans in his book, A Just Zionism, e.g., that would give preference in immigration to both homeland groups, Jew and Palestinian, as well as victims of persecution. I can envision a two-state solution in which Israel would remain a Jewish state but would shed its ethnic exclusivist ethos in favor of a state of all its citizens and would foster the culture and shared Israeli identity of its homeland minority. I could live in such a state and even take pride in it, despite the fact that I, personally, may not find it to be the optimal solution for both Palestinians and Israelis.

At the end of the day, my post was not about ideology as much as it was about tactics. Given Beinart’s reservations, I am willing to alter my call as follows: Will liberal Zionists and Palestinian activists join hands in a BDS campaign against Israel as long as they can find common ground?

Heck, they can even have parallel, coordinated campaigns or organizations, if they like. That’s not “normalization”—that’s coordinated struggle.

Or will they use their ideological differences to thwart the prospect of joint or coordinated action, like firefighters arguing over what extinguisher to buy as the house burns to the ground?


levi9909 said...

Excellent stuff, Jerry, as usual.

Do you think it might be time to change the name of your blog?

pabelmont said...

The big three of many Zionists are: BIG territory, Jewish-majority, and (for some) Democratic. These three don't look to be compatible

Contrary to much writing, BDS does not demand an end to a large-Jewish-Majority Jewish state, even though it does demand a right of return to their homeland of the refugees/exiles/excludees of 1948 and 1967 ("PRoR").

The returnees would return to the land on which they or their ancestors lived in 1948. All Israel need do -- and it is of course a very, very LARGE "all" -- is redefine its borders to occupy a much smaller space. In that way, fewer Palestinians would return to this new and smaller Israel and even 100% return of Palestinians to that new, smaller territory would not disturb the large Jewish populational preponderance. Assuming that all the Jews of Israel and the occupied territories moved to this smaller place.

What fulfilling BDS demands would make impossible is an Israel even as large as pre-1967 Israel. Recall that Israel has never stated its boundaries and that the armistice lines of 1948 allow for redefinition in many directions.

Zionism's big three are: Jewish, big, and democratic. Israel cannot be all three if "democratic" is construed as it should be to include PRoR.

John Welch said...

(1) Your blog has been read into a Facebook discussion of former SDS members; some of them our heroes, the people who first "went South" with the Civil Rights movement. Impression: "wow, I didn't know that". You have made a difference.

(2) I miss the picture of Judah Magnes, although it is interesting to see that you are nearly my age.

(3) Please comment on President Obama's speech during which he "went off script". I agree with Philip Weiss that the off-script remarks should give us hope, we in the US. I remembered a Friday evening in May, 2010, when I went to services at Beit Daniel, where a big guy in the back row put his arm around me, showed me the place we were singing -- I'm a tenth generation American and Methodist with zero Hebrew -- and guided me throughout. The next day, a member of the Israeli Committee Against House Destruction me to Beit Sahour. Once he understood that I don't care much about "holy places", we walked through Beit Sahour, listened to stories of the resistance during the First Intifada, and drove out to the edge of the fence that crawls downhill from Har Homa. I had a deep feeling that if the warm people from Beit Daniel could walk the hills around Beit Sahour, see the fence road hat cuts Palestinian olive groves, look up at Har Homa, that many of the people from Beit Daniel would want to stand with the people of Beit Sahour. Last week, it seemed that the President was talking around Netanyahu to young people like those at Beit Daniel.

Could you write about Obama's speech and Phil Weiss's reaction?

Tamar Orvell said...

Nice! So lucid, such a dream (in the best sense), so true.

Richard Witty said...

You need someone that disagrees with a bit.

So it will be me.

I am a liberal Zionist, and post on a blog with that title "Liberal Zionism".

I believe that peace is an #AND# construction, meaning that there are simultaneous characteristics that must exist in process and result to be achieved.

The primary #AND# construction is of Live #AND# Let Live.

Although Jerry dismisses the concern of the distinction between a BDS approach that includes opportunistic ambiguity about what "occupation" means (either east of the green OR all of the land of Zionist historical settlement - inferred in the language of "colonial"), or opportunistic ambiguity about what "Palestinian right of return" entails.

(In a single-state approach, the right of return would be highly exercised and tip the demographic balance to 60/40 Arab. Whereas in a two-state format, the right of return to Jewish majority Israel would not be highly exercised, and result in a 76-24 Jewish majority rather than the current 80-20).

It is NOT an immaterial concern, as the nature of the proposed state would be radically different, and fundamentally NOT result in the #AND# characteristics of secure Israel and Israelis, and viable Palestine.

To my mind the only dissent remaining on the part of liberal Zionists is the "AS IF" approach, acting as if east of the green is Palestine, affirming it.

It is an irony to me that in addition to the right-wing that routinely travel to the suburbs and close settlements east of the green line without a visa or even acknowledgement of where the green line is, the vanguard dissenting solidarity do as well.

They mark it by the "other", the IDF presence, rather than substantive in its own right.

When we start acting as if Palestine is sovereign, including seeking permission to enter, paying taxes directly to PA, paying taxes on products made in Palestine (NOT boycotted), then the idea can become reality.

In Jerusalem, do you seek permission to cross the green line, or do you assume that you have the right to?

Unknown said...

I got the chance to talk to you a few weeks ago. I also got the chance to tell you everything I had to say about a two-state solution, the Nakba, my refusal to depict Israel as a European colonial settler state, a possible Jewish-Arab confederation respecting the self-determination right of both nations, Israel's need to redifine its national identity in such a way that Israeli-Palestinians (Israeli Arabs)can feel home in Israel...
However, I did not talk about my opposition, as a Liberal Zionist, to the BDS campaign.

My opposition to a full implementation of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees (although I believe that in the framework of a confederation, ALL Palestinians would have the right to live and work in Israel, the same way as Germans can live in France is they want to and vice-versa), is not the only issue which prevents me from supporting the BDS movement.
I oppose the BDS campain because Israel is not South Africa. Apartheid (which is illegal), was inscribed in the Apartheid regime of South Africa. Therefore, all South African public institutions, were legitimate targets (although I think the cultural boycott was abusive).
In Israel, however, not every institution is linked to the oppression of the Palestinians. What is illegal about Israel, is not the existence of a Jewish (Hebrew speaking)state within the 1967 border, it's the ongoing occupation of the West Bank. Thus, I think only the institutions that are involved in the oppression of the Palestinians should be boycotted. This is why, I support the boycott of the settlements and all the companies involved in their development as well. By doing so, it would preserve the ''legitimate Israel'' and give Israelis a clear choice: if they don't want to be penalized, they much stay away from the settlements. With this kind of strategy, which is likely to be adopted by the UE in a near future, the international community can enforce a 2 state solution, by drying out the Jewish settlements, without putting in peril the existence of Israel. Once again, as I already told you, SIAH did much more to raise awareness against the moral tragedy of the occupation, than MATZPEN which had no audience in Israel. If you want Israelis to be receptive to punitive measures against the occupation, you must make clear that the BDS movement is not just a sophisticated strategy aiming to deligitimize their state.

Finally, let me remind you that Israel is not the only one responsible for the stalemate. Don't get me wrong. I am not condoning settlement activities. In fact, I believe there is no excuse for this irredentist land grab. And therefore, I believe Israel is responsible for its international isolation. However, the terrorist attacks of the 1990's and the rockets fired on Israeli civilians in the 2000's, destroyed the Israeli peace camp. And please, don't justify terrorism by telling me that terrorism is the weapon of poor. The FLN in Algeria never wanted to destroy France, and its charter never called for a genocide against the French. Terrorism against Israel would be legitimate if its goal were the liberation of the Palestinian territories. But unfortunately(and with good reason), Israelis feel that if they relinquish the Occupied Territories, it would not bring them peace, since Hamas is not willing to envision more than a ''Hudna'' (long term truce) in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 border. As far as I can tell, the Moroccans never claimed that they had the right to destroy Spain and fire rockets on Malaga or Seville because their ancestors were expelled from Andalusia. I think its time for the Palestinians to accept unequivocally the existence of Israel. The PLO did it 25 years ago, but unfortunately, without Hamas joining the 2 state consensus, you can't expect the Israeli Peace camp to rise up, like in 1992.

Unknown said...

I worry that Israelis simply do not understand why Palestinians are angry. Violence on the part of Israel or Palestine is wrong. So the Israeli military should stop intimidating people. On annother note, can anyone tell me just how much military might the Palestinians have? Exactly what can they do to Israel? It seems to me that Israel faces a worse problem from Iran, who is trying to hide its nuclear capability.

Unknown said...

What would your optimal solution to the conflict look like?

Unknown said...

Thank you for this enlightening post. Would you mind sharing what your envisioned optimal solution would be?