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The real BDS dispute is who has the right to self-determination

Links to other articles in this dispute are given at the end.


Ain al-Hilweh is the largest, most heavily armed and most violent Palestine refugee camp in Lebanon. Home to around 75,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants, Ain al-Hilweh, or Beautiful Eyes, was built on the site of a former British World War II army base just outside the southern port city of Sidon. Photo and caption by Hugh Macleod

Who Is a Liberal Zionist?

Jerry Haber, Magnes Zionist
March 11, 2013

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?

* Pilpulistic, a form of close rabbinical disputation.

[This piece also appeared today on Open Zion here.]

Links to other articles in this dispute between Liberal Zionists
Why BDS Isn’t Compatible With Two States by Mira Sucharov February 8, 2013
BDS drives the future of Liberal Zionism, articles by Beinart and Haber, February 11/12 2013
Making the unexceptional case for boycott, Harber v.Lebens, December 12, 2013
Beinart writes requiem of liberal Zionism, R. Silverstein on Beinart’s Zionist BDS, March 18, 2012;
Does Liberal Zionism have a future?, Jewish Quarterly, March 27, 2012;
Change the story: let’s have equal rights to live and move freely in Israel and the oPt, Dimi Reider on right to return, September 6, 2012;
Targeted BDS, Jerry Haber, March 2, 2011;

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