Does Liberal Zionism have a future?

March 28, 2012
Sarah Benton

Liberal Zionism: A Contradiction in Terms?

By Rebecca Steinfeld and Hannah Weisfeld, Jewish Quarterly

Liberal Zionism is in vogue. It underpins the thinking of groups like J-Street, Yachad, and the New Israel Fund, as well as the writings of figures like Peter Beinart and Gershom Gorenberg. They claim that liberalism and Zionism can be fused. Some even claim the two are complementary, asserting that Zionism’s socialist origins lend it a collectivist penchant for social justice and action. It is particularly popular amongst Zionists outside Israel, keen to find a brand of Jewish nationalism that matches their liberal proclivities and chimes well with their belief in the importance of equal rights. It has become prevalent lately largely as a response to the perceived anti-democratic excesses of Netanyahu and Lieberman. Rhetorically, “Liberal Zionism” appears to offer the possibility of supporting Jewish national self- determination while still holding true to the principles of liberty and equality for all.

Peter Beinart is fast becoming the pin-up boy of the Liberal Zionist movement

Peter Beinart is fast becoming the pin-up boy of the Liberal Zionist movement. An American political scientist and journalist, his New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” generated intense international debate when it was published in June 2010 and reached record inboxes virally. His new online group blog, the virtual ‘Zion Square,’ which was launched in March 2012 to provide a platform for “conversation” among a selected group of political thinkers and activists, explicitly states: “We believe in a two-state solution in accordance with the liberal Zionist principles articulated in Israel’s declaration of independence.” Beinart’s latest book, The Crisis of Zionism, launched at J-Street’s 2012 conference, is similarly premised on Liberal Zionist principles. Beinart believes that the original Herzlian Zionism was both a nationalist movement and a liberal one. Though he accepts that there is a tension between the two, he does not view it as any more problematic than the tension between, say, economic development and environmental protection, or government spending and fiscal discipline.

The problem, according to him, is posed by the illiberal Zionism unleashed by Israel’s territorial acquisitions during the 1967 war, and the subsequent establishment of Jewish settlements beyond the so-called ‘Green Line.’ In Beinart’s words, “to the west of that line, Israel is a flawed but genuine democracy. To the east, it is an ethnocracy. In the Israel created in 1948, inequities notwithstanding, citizenship is open to everyone. In the Israel created in 1967, by contrast, Jews are citizens of a state whose government they help elect; Palestinians are not.” Alongside this political injustice, Beinart identifies another problem: a vicious cycle, “in which the illiberal Zionism beyond the green line destroys the possibility of liberal Zionism inside it” by breeding intolerance towards both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Fearful of the imminent destruction of Herzl’s democratic dream, Beinart effectively appeals to the most powerful leaders of the American Jewish establishment to recognize the urgency of the situation, and support a return to the original liberal variant of Zionism. In so doing, he holds out a tantalising opportunity to a new and bewildered generation caught between the unapologetic ultra- Zionism of the right and the disillusioned non-, anti- or post-Zionism of the left: that they can reconcile these increasingly conflicting aspects of their identities — the liberal and the Zionist — and that in seeking to square that circle they are effectively fighting “the battle every Zionist generation wages against itself.”

Not surprisingly, Beinart appears to be acquiring an iconic status in some circles, especially among young Jewish liberals.

Some argue that Zionism is an exclusionary ideology that privileges one ethnic group over another

Yet there are those who question this fusion of liberalism and Zionism. Some argue that Zionism is an exclusionary ideology that privileges one ethnic group over another, and as such is inherently incompatible with liberalism, which is premised on equality. Several writers and academics share this perspective, including Oren Yiftachel, a political geographer at Ben-Gurion University, who regards the ‘Jewish and democratic state’ formula as an oxymoron akin to ‘hot ice.’ Yiftachel argues that the common scholarly and political attempts to portray the existence of ‘Israel proper’ within the ‘Green Line’ as ‘Jewish and democratic’ are both “analytically flawed and politically deceiving.” Instead, he argues that the whole entity, territorially and politically, ought to be characterised as an ethnocracy, which he defines as “a non-democratic regime which attempts to extend or preserve disproportional ethnic control over a contested multi-ethnic territory.” Yiftachel’s argument partly stems from what he regards as Israel’s history as a settler society, marked by ethno-nationalism and the ethnic logic of capital, with its resultant discriminatory land laws and planning policies.

But Yiftachel’s argument is not merely about history; he also points to the inherent conceptual incompatibility between liberalism and Zionism, which seeks to simultaneously privilege one group while guaranteeing equal citizenship for all. In this, he is supported by Nadim Rouhana, a legal scholar at Tufts University, who emphasises, “a Jewish state in theory and practice means privileging Jewish citizens over all other citizens […] There are few honest observers in Israel who dispute that a Jewish state, by definition, privileges one group of citizens over another.” Given these internal inconsistencies, the journalist Joseph Dana wrote in the Israeli blog-based web magazine +972 that “liberal Zionism, as used today, is a dangerous and, in some profound ways, dishonest system of thought.”

Liberal Zionists come in many shapes and sizes. The UK based Labour Friends of Israel recently published a collection of essays “Making the Progressive Case for Israel” that introduced a conscious re-branding of the organisation using Liberal Zionist arguments and phrases. Lorna Fitzsimons, the former CEO of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), which is “dedicated to creating a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain,” adopted a similar approach, announcing in The Jerusalem Post, “We are launching a campaign to win back and hold the centre ground alongside many other communal organizations. We are launching the progressive case for Israel and driving the campaign for the Left to support it as a Jewish state.” The UK’s Union of Jewish Students also shifted to a liberal Zionist approach with the launch of their ‘Liberation’ campaign in September 2011.

Some liberals are genuinely struggling — or hugging and wrestling, as they themselves often describe it — with Zionism in a bid to reconcile their love for the Jewish state with their belief in social justice. Finally, there are those who doubt the coherence of Liberal Zionism, and in turn the Jewish and democratic state formula, but who nevertheless support Liberal Zionist organisations that make a valuable contribution to equal rights in Israel. For example, some supporters of the New Israel Fund may question the premise of the organisation, yet acknowledge the importance of the Fund’s investment in groups at the forefront of the struggle for civil and political rights in Israel, like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

“At the heart of the Zionist project is the struggle to reconcile these two valid but conflicting ideals.”

Beinart accepts that the principles of Zionism and liberalism are absolutely in tension. “There will always be tension between Israel’s responsibility to the Jewish people and its responsibility to all its people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike,” he explains, “at the heart of the Zionist project is the struggle to reconcile these two valid but conflicting ideals.” At the same time, he defends the pairing, arguing that the tension between them is neither indicative of one of the values being illegitimate, nor irreconcilable. But are Beinart’s analogies, comparing the tension in liberalism and Zionism to that between economic development and environmental protection, or government spending and fiscal discipline, appropriate? Might other analogies be more appropriate, those in which the two terms are fundamentally at odds with one another, such as the contradiction between heredity and meritocracy, or evolution and creationism?

Much of this debate hinges on the definitions of “Zionism” and “liberalism.” Liberalism, like Zionism, has been through several historical incarnations, and can now be understood as incorporating many things from a loose sense of liberty or equality (themselves arguably in tension) to liberal democracy as a political system, free and fair elections, constitutionalism, and human rights. Liberalism evolved from a focus on ‘negative liberty,’ the reduction of government intervention in the lives of individuals, to incorporate ideals of ‘social liberalism,’ in which the state was obligated to protect its citizens through welfare support. Despite these various, sometimes competing, definitions, it appears that most political theorists agree that liberalism incorporates some notion of individual rights, universal equality and civil liberties.

Zionism, in most of its incarnations, is an ethno-centric political ideology

By contrast, Zionism, in most of its incarnations, is an ethno-centric political ideology committed to returning the Jews to, and sovereignty in, Eretz Yisrael. Though this may be conceived in more territorially expansive terms (Revisionist Zionism) or twinned with certain socialist economic arrangements (Labour Zionism), the underlying assumptions seem to be that Jews constitute an ancient nation, or people group; that they require self- determination to protect themselves from timeless and annihilationist anti-Semitism; and that the logical site of that self-determining entity ought to be the historic Land of Israel.

It seems that this ideology, which privileges one group on the basis of their membership in an ethnic, religious or national group, is inherently at odds with a political philosophy premised on individual rights and universal equality: a state founded by and for the Jewish people, living both within and outside of its territory, cannot also be a democratic state for all its citizens within territorial limits. It is illogical to claim that everyone is equal, yet some are more equal.

The debate about Liberal Zionism is not only about concepts. It is also about history.

But the debate about Liberal Zionism is not only about concepts. It is also about history. Ever since the founding of the State of Israel, the theoretical privileging of Jews within Zionist ideology has resulted in widely documented discrimination in the allocation of resources in Israel, especially access to land and housing, and government budget allocations. Though the socio- economic indicators suggest improvements in the lives of Israel’s Palestinian citizens (as they prefer to be identified) over time, they remain one of the poorest groups in Israel, have a lower life expectancy than Jewish citizens, and their infant mortality rate is twice as high as that of the Jewish population. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), around 50% of Israel’s Palestinian population lives in poverty, compared to around 15% for Jewish families. Palestinian citizens of Israel are vastly under-represented among university students in Israel, making up only 8.1% of all university students in 2003, less than half their share of the country’s population. The gaps between the Jewish majority and Arab minority are the result of multiple factors including large Arab families, the low participation rate of Arab women in the labour force, the overall lower skill level of the Arab workforce, and discrimination in the labour market. But discriminatory state policies and neglect by many Israeli governments have also contributed to this gap, particularly visible in the area of land planning and rural-urban development; in 1949 Jews owned 13.5% of the land. By the 1960s they had 93%. The upshot is that Arab towns and villages have a high population density, and Arab homes are overcrowded.

Perhaps the most serious discrimination has occurred in relation to population policies. Zionism was not only a nationalist movement that saw itself as a revival of an ancient people and a solution to rising levels of European anti-Semitism, but also a settler colonial project that sought to establish a Jewish nation- state in a region populated predominantly by non- Jewish Palestinians. Ironically, the goal of establishing a democratic Jewish state, with a Jewish majority, necessitated a range of population policies to ensure first the creation, and then the maintenance, of that Jewish majority. Population displacement, especially in 1948 and 1967, combined with discriminatory immigration policies, according to which Jews are effectively entitled to automatic citizenship via the Law of Return while Palestinian refugees who fled, or were driven from, their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war are barred from returning. According to the sociologist Christian Joppke at Bern University, “Israel cannot be a liberal state, with a non-discriminatory immigration policy, unless it ceases to be Jewish. Its Jewishness prevents Israel from ever coming to rest within its territory, and from becoming a ‘state of all of its citizens.’” At times, there have also been unofficial discriminatory fertility policies intended to increase Jewish and decrease Palestinian fertility. The 1970 Veteran’s Benefit Law, for example, offered increased child allowances to families in which at least one member had served in the IDF.

In the UK, those who advocate discriminatory immigration policies are not regarded as “ultra-liberals.”

Liberal Zionists often share these demographic fears, pointing out that their support for the two state solution stems from their fear concerning the threat to the Jewish majority posed by retaining areas containing large numbers of Palestinians. For the same reason, many support the continuation of Israel’s selective immigration policies, in particular the Law of Return coupled with the continued barring of the ‘Right of Return’ to Palestinian refugees. The self-described “ultra-liberal Zionist” Larry Derfner says that he would “do away with all the discrimination, except in one area — immigration.” In the UK, those who advocate discriminatory immigration policies are not regarded as “ultra-liberals.” Quite the reverse, they are seen as ultra-nationalists, aligned with the British National Party (BNP) or English Defense League (EDL).

The contradiction of Liberal Zionism, in turn, has serious implications for the “two state solution,” which envisages a Jewish and democratic state alongside a Palestinian and democratic state. The analysis above suggests problems with at least half of that formula. Moreover, the ethno- national logic and exclusivist tendencies of Zionism may be mirrored on the Palestinian side; there are already worrying demands from some Palestinians for a Jew- free Palestinian state. At minimum, Jews left inside the future Palestinian state are likely to experience the same second-class status as Palestinian citizens of Israel. This would not be surprising; anti-colonialist nationalist resistance movements often come to embody the very entity they have fought so hard to throw off.

To resolve this problem one could redefine Zionism and Palestinian nationalism by removing the discriminatory ethno-national elements of both. Within a two state framework this would look as follows: The Palestinian side would be required to forgo an exclusivist conception of the state premised on ethno-national Palestinian peoplehood transcending geographical boundaries, in favour of a more inclusive legal-territorial citizenship with Palestinian symbols on the flag and national holidays. On the Israeli side, this would entail abandoning the original Herzlian notion of Jewish self-determination, and limiting the ‘Jewish’ element so that it included only symbols, like the Star of David on the flag or Jewish festivals as national holidays. Such cultural symbols, though not innocuous, would render Israel akin to the UK, which has a flag comprising crosses and national holidays that are generally Christian in origin, yet no official policy of selecting or privileging citizens according to ethno-national or ethno-religious belonging or identity.

Do the (discriminatory population policy) means justify the (Jewish majority) ends?

These changes would not, however, ensure the continuation of Israel as a Jewish majority state or safe- haven for persecuted Jews. But is that conception of a state still necessary or has it become an anachronism? Even if it were necessary, do the (discriminatory population policy) means justify the (Jewish majority) ends? In other words, is the Jewish community prepared to accept un- or anti-democratic discriminatory policies in order to maintain the Jewish state? Can anything ever justify flouting democratic norms? Finally, can anti-Semitism be truly resolved by creating a state that perpetuates ethno- national difference, and institutionalises discrimination rather than promoting inclusive citizenship?

The debate about “Liberal Zionism” is not merely a conceptual or historical debate. It is both central to potential political solutions to the conflict, and to the debate about Jewish identity and its relationship to Israel. As ‘Zion Square’ develops, I hope that its contributors live up to their promise “to put front and centre the very questions that official Jewish discourse rules out of order,” in particular questioning Liberal Zionism itself. I also hope that those Liberal Zionists hugging and wrestling with complex ideas find the will and the courage to engage honestly with these questions. This may not be easy, but will be absolutely necessary to the future wellbeing of the Jewish people and Israel.


It is true that there is a tendency among those that define themselves as Liberal Zionists to displace the tensions between Liberalism and Zionism over the green line. The territory considered by the international community and a growing number of Jews to be illegally occupied — a place where 3.5 million Palestinians live without passports, freedom of movement and the right to vote for a government that controls their land, sea and air space to mention just a few of the implications of a 45 year old occupation — is not Israel ‘proper’ and therefore ‘Liberal’ Zionists can voice heartfelt criticism. It is seen to be legitimate criticism as it is tied up with ‘love’ for Israel and concern for its long-term safety and security. The conversation is on much tougher terrain when it comes to dealing with that considered to be ‘legal’ Israel — the territory within the 1949 armistice lines — as it calls into question the Jewish national project in its entirety.

The early Zionists comprised an eclectic mix of visionaries, each believing a nation state for the Jewish people would revive Judaism and the Jewish people in a way that continual dispersal in the diaspora could not. Herzl in particular was driven by the notion that without self determination — in the form of a political entity that could defend itself — the Jews would forever face the threat of annihilation. One could argue that Israel’s premier, Netanyahu, sees himself as a the baton carrier for the political Zionism of Herzl . In his latest interaction with Obama in the White House, in which the threat of a nuclear Iran dominated the conversation, he made clear that “…after all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state, to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny.”

However, while anti-Semitism and pogroms served as one historical backdrop, it was by no means the sole motivating factor for many of these idealists. There were those who believed that Israel did not actually need to be a political entity, rather an opportunity for Jews to build a physical connection to the land, others who believed that the Jewish people would create a truly equal society if they refused to exploit local Palestinian labourers through a class based system, and others who, driven by God, were part of a different discourse entirely: the fulfilment of religious obligation. Underpinning these diverse beliefs was the 20th century discourse of nationalism. Amos Oz describes the modern state of Israel in relation to its early Zionist thinkers as a collection of dreams: ‘dreams can only remain wonderful as long as they don’t come true. But the real Israel is not one dream come true, but a conglomeration of dreams, fantasies, blueprints and master plan’. For many Jews, the dream being played out today is one that does not reflect the core Jewish values of equality and justice. Within the diaspora, and in fact among Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike, the actions of the Israeli government have become synonymous with the state of Israel which, in turn, represents the embodiment of the Zionist dream.

Zionism itself has come to be associated with an ongoing occupation and increasingly anti-democratic legislation

So Zionism itself has come to be associated with an ongoing occupation and increasingly anti-democratic legislation that seeks to marginalise dissenting voices within Israel, along with minority communities. It is for this reason that the widely acclaimed ‘Beinart theory’ of young Jews ‘checking’ their Zionism at the door of liberalism is playing out. It is not surprising, Zionism having been redacted so significantly, that there is a powerful drive within diaspora communities to reinvent a ‘brand’ of Zionism that can engage a new generation of Jews.

Organisations such as J Street in the USA and Yachad in the UK assert that the most urgent task of this generation of Zionists is to end the occupation and safeguard Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. As this can only be achieved by removing the ‘demographic’ threat of 3.5 million Palestinians, who most people believe, cannot and should not be indefinitely occupied, the choice must be either to give them the vote or give them their own state. So does this mean that Liberal Zionism fails to deal with the tensions existing within the green line, and is, therefore, an intellectually dishonest exercise in protecting what is, at its core, a rotten concept — a nationalist dream that will forever need to privilege one group over another? Is the very discourse of viewing a minority population as a ‘demographic threat’ entirely illiberal?

At the first Zionist Congress held on August 29th 1897 Herzl famously said ‘“In Basle I founded the Jewish state . . . Maybe in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will realise it.’ On November 29th 1947, three months short of exactly fifty years, the United Nations voted into existence the Jewish state. The sense of urgency and visionary leadership which drove the Zionist movement in 1897 is today required by the Liberal Zionist movement of 2012.

The Liberal Zionism of the 21st century must continue to recognise the urgency of ending the Occupation

Liberal Zionism must not only to give legitimacy back to an ideology which was once considered to be core to our national self determination, but build a new narrative that will take the Jewish national project in the 21st century. The Liberal Zionism of the 21st century must continue to recognise the urgency of ending the Occupation, not least because of the grave threat it poses to the viability of a Jewish state. At the same time it must articulate a civic narrative for all the citizens of Israel, including the 20% that are not Jewish. This narrative will contain multiple, and sometimes conflicting versions of history, and accept that those holding the literal (or metaphorical) key to a home no longer theirs, form part of the story of contemporary Israel. Liberal Zionism will revisit the discussions of the early Zionists and understand that what was, for some, an attempt to build a Marxist utopia, resulted for others in displacement and economic hardship. The Israel of the new Liberal Zionist may not look like that of the old Zionists. Some of the symbols of statehood, and certain state institutions and mechanisms created during the years when the Jewish people were fighting a war of survival, may no longer be deemed fit for purpose. This is not a rejection of rotten ideology, it is modernisation.

While modernising, Liberal Zionism retains at its core the narrative of the Jewish people: the longing to return, the desire to have a place where Jewish people can feel safe both physically and psychologically, and a place where the revival of the Hebrew language and culture can provide sustenance to Jewish culture and tradition world-wide. This is the legitimate dream of successive generations and any national manifestation must, in part, be a reflection of the dreams of the people.

The Israel of the new Liberal Zionist may not look like that of the old Zionists

The task of defusing the tension within the term ‘Liberal Zionism’ has barely begun. Those already on task in Israel need the support of their fellow Jews abroad — Zionism was always a co-creation between the diaspora and Jews of Israel. Rather than dismissing the task as too great, or irreconcilable before it has even been tried, we can both hold onto the dream and bring it into a new world that looks and feels quite different from the original world into which it was born.

Rebecca Steinfeld is a Visiting Lecturer and Teaching Fellow in the history and politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict at the University of Birmingham. She received her doctorate in politics from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
Hannah Weisfeld is the director, and one of the founders of the pro-Israel pro-peace movement Yachad. Prior to this, she was involved in managing campaigns on a wide range of social issues including the conflict in Darfur and climate change.

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