One of my readers asked for help in answering friends who have been “awakened” to anti-Zionism by Antony Lerman, who recently wrote, “The End of Liberal Zionism” (8/22/14) in The NY Times Sunday Review.
Lerman is a British writer who on the subjects of anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, multiculturalism, and the place of religion in society. From 2006 to early 2009, he was Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research think tank. Lerman has publicly advocated for pro-Arab/anti-Israel initiatives, often writing op-ed pieces in the notoriously anti-Zionist Guardian newspaper.
What is Liberal Zionism anyway? Wikipedia defines it as a strong trend in Israeli politics advocating free market principles, democracy and adherence to human rights. If that’s what it is, it doesn’t sound to me what Lerman described in his article. Let me say what I think Lerman is talking about. His “Liberal Zionist” is someone who may live in Israel but probably doesn’t. That person doesn’t want to get his or her hands dirty with the nitty-gritty aspects of life in Israel. Lerman’s Liberal Zionist lives comfortably in some other place, perhaps, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., or London.
Israel’s neighbors don’t even vaguely resemble Canada or Mexico, Scotland or France. Israel’s neighbors either want to destroy Israel or have a very frigid peace with it. Consequently, Israelis who expect the Arabs to be rational and reasonable are few and far between; their champion is Shimon Peres. The rest of us have learned that there is no significant peace movement among the Arabs. It exists, of course, but its impact is negligible.
From afar, it’s easy to be a “Zionist” of some stripe. The committed ones often make Aliyah or buy a second home here. Others donate money or fund Zionist projects. Still others, such as Lerman describes, undermine Israel, some purposefully and others unwittingly. Below I will try to counter some of Lerman’s contentions.
Antony Lerman: “‘Never do liberal Zionists feel more torn than when Israel is at war,’ wrote Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian’s opinion editor and a leading British Liberal Zionist, for ‘The New York Review of Books’ last month. He’s not alone. Columnists like Jonathan Chait, Roger Cohen and Thomas L. Friedman have all riffed in recent weeks on the theme that what Israel is doing can’t be reconciled with their humanism.”
Steve Kramer: It’s a shame about Thomas Friedman and others’ “humanism.” They don’t agree with Israel’s tactics in defending itself against thousands of mortars, rockets, and missiles. They probably think that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s battle strategy is too harsh. That’s ironic, because most Israelis have the opposite opinion and we are the ones on the receiving end of Hamas’ attacks. For some reason, Israelis object to our lives being turned upside down by the Arabs in Gaza, just because they want to replace Israel with a caliphate.
A.L.: “But it’s not just Gaza, and the latest episode of ‘shock and awe’ militarism. The romantic Zionist ideal, to which Jewish liberals — and I was one, once — subscribed for so many decades, has been tarnished by the reality of modern Israel. The  attacks on freedom of speech and human rights organizations in Israel,  the land-grabbing settler movement,  a growing strain of anti-Arab and anti-immigrant racism,  extremist politics, and a  powerful, intolerant religious right — this mixture has pushed liberal Zionism to the brink.”
S.K.: Ah, yes, the “reality of modern Israel.”
1. Freedom of speech/human rights: There is a cacophony of free speech in Israel, up to and including the Supreme Court allowing Muslim Members of Knesset (!) to praise an enemy of Israel during wartime. All Israelis are accorded human rights, regardless of race or religion. Israeli Muslims, for example, have more human rights in Israel than in any Arab country. They refuse to even consider giving up their Israeli citizenship to become citizens of “Palestine.”
2. land-grabbing: the Arabs are occupying Judea and Samaria, more than the other way around. Jews certainly have no less right to live on the land than the Arabs, and by my reckoning, much more right. This is because borders are defined by the victors in nearly all existing states, including the United States and Britain. Capsule history: (Putting aside all the religious and historical/legal arguments) Israel conquered Judea and Samaria during the defensive Six Day War of 1967. This is the land which the Arabs declared to be the “West Bank” only a few years after Transjordan conquered it during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The Arabs (soon to be renamed Jordanians) ethnically cleansed all the Jewish residents at the start of their 19-year period of rule over Judea and Samaria.
3. racism: Unfortunately, racism exists throughout the world. It is no more prevalent in Israel than in the United States or Britain. In comparison to Muslim countries, which allow no Jewish residents (with a few small exceptions), Israel is a human rights paradise.
4. extremist politics: These also exist throughout the world. In Israel, however, there are no prominent and rapidly growing parties like the racist/xenophobic Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.
5. religious right: Yes, there are religious parties in Israel. They run the gamut from nationalist right to anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox. They are an example of Israel’s right of free speech.
A.L.: “J Street in America and Yachad in Britain, founded in 2008 and 2011 respectively, describe themselves as ‘pro-Israel and pro-peace’ and have attracted significant numbers of people who seek a more critical engagement with Israel.”
S.K.: Sorry to say, but J-Street undermines Israel. (I don’t know anything about Yachad.) Critical is one thing, but encouraging groups such as college Hillel chapters to be inclusive by promoting hate-spewing Palestinian speakers is helping turn impressionable college students against Israel.
A.L.: “I still understood its dream of Israel as a moral and just cause, but I judged it anachronistic. The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism. It is carrying out an open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.”
S.K.: Yes, Jews are a tribe, both a nation and a people, unlike any other people on earth. Israel is moral and just, but not perfect. Perhaps if Lerman were in charge of Israel, it wouldn’t be so “anachronistic” in trying to remain the State of the Jews. It could be more trendy by inviting the Arabs to be our friends. . Running a country is tough, just ask President Obama, who is probably in sync with Lerman’s post-Zionist views. (Post-Zionism: a set of critical positions that disparage Zionist ideals and the historical narratives and social and cultural representations that it produced.)
A.L.: “Since liberal Zionists can’t countenance anything but two states, this situation leaves them high and dry.”
S.K.: Two states will not work and it’s not the only option. In this region, where Muslims slaughter each other with regularity, only a naive person would cling to a failed paradigm. I don’t know exactly what the best solution is, but I recognize a “solution” has no chance to succeed, such as the two-state vision. With Israel sitting on less than a half per cent of so-called Arab land, to give land for peace is worse than fruitless, it’s a recipe for disaster. My view is that things will eventually settle down in Israel’s favor, because the Palestinian Arabs have proven themselves incapable of governing, let alone sharing, even a part of this tiny space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
If Lerner and the others doubt this, take a second look at the Gaza experiment, or just imagine if Israel had turned over the Golan Heights to the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, who has previously been called a “reformer” by Hillary Clinton and “generous” as well as a man of his word by John Kerry.
Antony Lerner and his ilk find it easy to criticize Israel from their comfortable arm chairs somewhere else. Israel is a vibrant democracy which invites all Jews to make it their home. Lerner can move here and say whatever he wants, without fear of imprisonment or worse. In fact, that’s what many like-minded critics do, as loyal Israeli resident-citizens.