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American Progressivism and Zionism: Adversaries or Friends?

In the immediate aftermath of October 7, American Progressives attacked Israel as an oppressor and demonization of Israel cannot be reconciled with Progressives’ myriad policy positions. For Israel is, in many respects, the embodiment of Progressive policies. It has the Progressive answers to California’s water problem that most severely affects Latino and Black families. Israeli women enjoy protections that American Progressives have long championed.  And Israel is inarguably the safest haven for LGBTQ+ individuals in the Middle East.

Before the dead and kidnapped were counted, before remains were identified, before the (limited) public outcry over sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas, and before the launch of Israel’s counteroffensive, American streets and college campuses were filled with Progressive marchers chanting “from the river to the sea.”  Even acknowledging the growing divide between Progressives and the more traditional Democratic party, the pervasiveness of the anti-Israel rhetoric and the vitriol with which it was launched was still shocking.

How did this divide emerge?  Israel, for so long a David, is now Goliath and the oppressor vs. oppressed diremption paints Israel as the cruel overlord.  This single issue renders all its other policies irrelevant.  Contributions to medicine, science, and technology are inconsequential.  Israel’s female and non-Jewish legislators are ignored.  And Israel’s free elections don’t matter.  Viewed as a colonial power and occupier, Israel, can do no right.  If one looks beyond the macro narrative, Israeli policy and culture are, in many respects, the embodiment of the American Progressive agenda.

How would “from the river to the sea” impact a Progressive’s world goals, and how does one evaluate the impact of Israel on the lives of both its citizens and its neighbors, separate from the single lens of the Israel-Palestinian issue?  If the Jewish State of Israel ceased to exist and was replaced “from the river to the sea,” what would the impact be on the Progressive agenda?

As a founding board member of the Delaware State University (HBCU) Global Institute for Equity, Inclusion and Civil Rights, we examine the impacts of colonialism, and of climate change, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights.  As Chair of the Delaware Chapter of Americans for Ben Gurion University, I work to support one of Israel’s most diverse universities situated in the middle of the Negev desert, only 25 miles from the Gaza border.  Can one support the missions of both organizations?  Even if one chooses to view Israel as a colonial oppressor, I suggest considering the possibility that she is more.

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Climate.  April 1934, fourteen years before proclaiming the establishment of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion met with Musa Alami, Attorney General of the British Mandate.  Alami declared “I prefer the country to be poor and desolate, even for another hundred years, until we Arabs are capable, alone, of developing it and making it flourish.”  Ben Gurion, of course, had different ideas.

When I first visited Sde Boker, Israel, Ben Gurion’s adopted home, and home to Ben Gurion University’s Center for Desert Research, I marveled at the juxtaposition of the Mars-like landscape with the lush gardens and olive groves.  In the 1930s and 1940s, the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean was cruel.  Centuries of deforestation dating to the Roman empire left an indelible mark.  No water, no shade, harsh winds, and barren soil.  But Israel’s founder, an eternal optimist, saw an opportunity to develop technologies for export to the rest of the world.  I was drawn to the Negev desert and Ben Gurion University for its progressive values including multiculturalism and climate.  Today, Israel’s desert is in full bloom as the result of climate policies and a culture that would make progressives proud-mostly.

While Israeli policies and culture including plastic recycling deposit laws, electric car import targets aligning with California, and adoption of the Paris Accords (albeit, like most countries falling shy of goals), her true climate miracle is water.  As a country dominated by a desert occupying more than half of its landmass, Israel’s water independence is unparalleled.  Best described by Seth Siegel in Let There Be Water, Israel’s climate friendly culture starts with children singing Mayim Mayim Besason; ”joyful water.”  With necessity being the mother of invention, Israel’s geography has forced her to find creative solutions to the water challenges she faces.  The results have been remarkable.

But Israel has done far more than carefully conserve and reuse water.  Childrens cartoons depict parched characters diving into a mirage, only to end up with a mouthful of sand.  In truth, water surrounds us, even in sweltering deserts.  The scientists and entrepreneurs of this Start-Up Nation have developed ingenious technologies to harvest water helping to save countless lives around the world.  Solar powered atmospheric water generators cool the air to below dew point and collect water vapor.  Three of these Israeli created generators churn in Southern Gaza during the current war, having been placed there in partnership with Israel’s Arava Institute.  Other Israeli-created generators provide water to the Navajo Nation and over 60 other countries, mostly in the developing world.  When disaster strikes, FEMA and the Red Cross deploy these generators, which both quench thirst and reduce the need for plastic bottles.

“Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.” Matthew 14:25  That lake is the Sea of Galilee, unlike so many freshwater lakes across the world, the Kinneret, as it’s known in Hebrew, is full thanks to desalination technology developed in Israel.  Not only does Israel get more than half of its domestic water from desalination, but pipes that fill the Kinneret fork to supply Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of potable water, enough to supply Israel’s 5 largest cities combined.  Jordan, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, quenches its thirst with Israeli water.

Divining potable water from the sea and air is remarkable, but making the shrinking deserts bloom cools the planet, as the growing trees act as carbon sinks.  Today, Israel has 250,000 acres of forests and 260 million trees, each of which was hand planted.  Key to the shrinking deserts is drip irrigation.  Pioneered in Israel, the fastest growing markets are in the developing world helping to reduce hunger.  Drip irrigation also mitigates nitrogen washout from fertilizer, keeping waterways around the world cleaner.  While Israel’s desert is shrinking, the Sahara, just a few hundred miles away, has grown by 10% over the last century.  Growing deserts threaten indigenous homes, raise the planet’s temperature, and risk creating a water refugee crisis.  Israeli drip irrigation is a key to ending desertification.

Women’s Rights.  Just three years after its founding, and more than a decade before America’s passage of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, Israel passed the Women’s Equal Rights Law of 1951, which prohibits gender discrimination and guarantees protection from abuse.  American Progressives would celebrate if able to pass Israel’s 2007 Gender Implications in Legislation law, which requires assessing the impact of proposed legislation on gender.  And while American Progressives still fight for a women’s right to choose, Israel’s health minister, in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, reported a loosening of abortion regulations allowing women access to medication abortion through their universal, government-funded healthcare system.  Israeli women take for granted the control of their bodies, their access to free birth control, and even the right to dress how they choose (except in a few religious neighborhoods).  As a result of these and other policies from the orthodox to secular to non-Jews, Israeli women have legally protected agency.

Perhaps these robust protections for women should not be surprising considering the central role that Israeli women play in government.  In 1969, Golda Meir, Israel’s 4th prime minister received her congratulatory phone call from Richard Nixon.  Despite being nearly 175 years older, the United States still awaits its first female head of state.  And while still underrepresented in both countries, Israeli women have almost universally been better represented in the Knesset (Israel’s legislature) than in the United States Congress.

Women in the Palestinian territories enjoy far fewer protections and have far less involvement in government.  The Palestinians Authority failed to ratify their proposed “Family Protection Law,” and while Palestinian Basic Law states that “all Palestinians are equal before the law and the judiciary,” its article 4 stipulates that Shari’a is a main source of legislation.  As a result, while in Israel, women are protected from legalized spousal rape, in Palestinian lands, husbands who rape their wives are protected from prosecution, and women are forbidden from withholding sex from their husbands.  And in contrast with the bodily freedom Israeli women enjoy, in Gaza abortion is criminalized and over 40% of women’s contraception decisions are made exclusively by husbands.  Restrictions on women’s freedom are not limited to reproductive rights.  In 2021, Gaza’s Supreme Judicial Council ruled that male guardians could restrict unmarried women’s travel, Gazan women are frequently denied inheritance rights, and last fall Hamas began enforcing requirements that girls in school wear Hijabs.  It is therefore not surprising that while Israel scores 73.7 points on the Women’s Workplace Equality Index, the Palestinian territories score 39.3.

This difference in rights mirrors the difference in political leadership.  To date, one woman has served in Hamas’ political leadership.  She was elected in 2021, more than 50 years after Golda Meir’s election.  And that election came after the election of the first Hijab wearing woman in the Knesset (Khatib-Yasin) (Of course, there are currently no Jewish women or men in the government of any Arab or Muslim majority countries world-wide).

LGBTQ.  Last year, “Married at First Sight,” an Israeli reality television show, aired the wedding of two Jewish men.  They stood under the chuppah (a Jewish marriage canopy), broke glasses, and celebrated with their families.  Like all Israeli couples, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, they will be free to adopt children and be required to serve in the military.  During Pride, city hall in Tel Aviv shines brightly under rainbow lights.  And, last year Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced a ban on conversion therapy describing it as a practice that “kills the soul.”

The exact legal framework regarding homosexuality in Palestine is controversial, with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International disagreeing on whether a criminal code prohibiting homosexual behavior is enforced.  In either case, Pride flags do not fly freely in the historical Levant, except in Israel.  Even if one assumes that homosexuality is not criminal in these Arab countries, discrimination, homophobia, and what we would consider hate crimes are not investigated.  And, it goes without saying that the Palestinian culture is not kind to the trans community.

Now, marriage in Israel is complex.  Israel does recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad, but marriage and divorce fall under the mandate of religious law (perhaps a remnant of the 1856 Ottoman Tanzimat reformation).  So, in this regard Israel’s rabbinate maintains control of marriage and divorce and the recent judicial reforms potentially threaten LGBTQ rights even further.  Nonetheless, Israel is inarguably the safest haven for LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East.

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In the 1980’s, Americans smoked, filled our cars with leaded gasoline, and most could not imagine legally protected, same sex marriage.  A few years earlier, our skin color determined whether we used the front or back door.  Cultures change.  Laws change.  Progress is inclusive.  And, it feels good.  The lands surrounding Israel can change too and their cultures, with too many remnants of the 6th century, may someday join our liberal canon.  Today, Israel is an oasis of safety for women, LGBTQ, and our planet in a desert of yesteryear.  What would “from the river to the sea” do to women leaders?  For gay, lesbian, and trans Jews, Christians, and Muslims?  Would Israeli scientists and entrepreneurs stay “from the river to the sea?” Or would they find new homes and different problems to solve?

Israel’s pluralistic liberal culture is not a perfect Progressive paradise.  Income inequality is only slightly better than in the United States.  Although a democracy, she has seen her fair share of political corruption, and her current right-wing government pushes her farther away from the Progressive Promise.  The balance of Israel’s security with Palestinian liberty further scars her progressive record.  But, even if Israel’s current ruling party (despite the pre-war, months long, legally protected protests) restricts judicial autonomy and security concerns restrict Palestinian movement, a human rights chasm still separates Israel from her neighbors, for both Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis.

American Progressives march for a Free Palestine, but is there a place for Zionists, and a recognition of Israel’s good, in the Progressive movement?  Palestinians, cis or trans, women and men, non-binary, gay, and straight, deserve a healthy planet to love, learn, work, and worship freely.  Today, in their own lands, those freedoms are constrained.  Expanding Palestinian land “from the river to the sea” will crush so many of the freedoms for which Progressives valiantly fight.  American Progressives adopt the Palestinian struggle, but blindness to the Israel who shines as the only beacon of liberal light in a Middle Eastern desert is a disease in desperate need of cure.

About the Author
Neil Hockstein, M.D. chairs the Delaware chapter of Americans for Ben Gurion University where he works to educate his community on the University's mandate to to be an engine for development of the Negev. He is also a founding board member of the Delaware State University Global Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Civil Rights. The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the organizations with which he is affiliated.
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