Can one be a liberal and an anti-Zionist?

The kind of liberalism I am considering here is one that includes support for the self-determination of peoples. Zionism is the belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. On the surface, then, as long as the Jews possess enough of the characteristics of peoplehood to qualify as a people – a distinct and common language or languages, a distinct and common religion, and a distinct and common set of cultural beliefs and practices are prime characteristics — a liberal ought to support Zionism.

We find, however, that many people who consider themselves liberals have such grave criticisms of the Jewish state that some of them seem to prefer that it didn’t exist. Is there any way to square liberalism with the desire to put an end to Zionism?

One frequent argument we hear is that Zionism entails the oppression of another people, the Palestinian people, and hence rather than serving as a liberal force for the self-determination of peoples, is actually serving as an illiberal force denying the Palestinian people the exercize of its right to self-determination.

So which is it? Is Zionism an expression of liberalism or illiberalism? Does the suffering of the Palestinian people disqualify the right of the Jewish people to statehood?

Creating a new nation always entails some degree of inconvenience and suffering for people living in the area where the new nation comes to be. This is not only true in well-known cases such as the birth of the American nation-states, it is also true in the cases of the births of the nations that came into being in recent times. The end of World War II saw the rise of numerous nation-states in Europe and the Middle East, and in virtually every case this entailed serious human suffering. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, were uprooted by the creation of the modern states of the Middle East and Africa.

Future states will also cause serious humanitarian problems. The creation of a state for the Kurds or the Roma, should they demand one, will be possible only with many painful relocations.

In principle it seems obvious that no matter how small and underpopulated the area selected for the creation of a state for a stateless people there will always be some number of landed residents who will be affected negatively. Except in Antartica.

A corollary of liberalism, therefore, is that some degree of humanitarian suffering is acceptable as the price we must pay for the rectification of the circumstances of stateless peoples. Because we oppose human suffering of all kind, we strive to limit the cases in which new states must be created and to reduce the humanitarian suffering caused to a bare minimum. People who do not wish to live under the new state’s rule should be allowed to emigrate and receive compensation from the community of nations, without the entire burden being placed on the stateless people who may not have sufficient resources. Those who wish to stay should be treated with equality, even if their national identities will not receive equal expression in the new state.

Let us return from these theoretical consideration to the particular case of Israel. The area selected for the creation of a Jewish state was relatively underpopulated at the time that the Zionist movement began. But by the time the state was created, it contained a significant number of individuals who were members of another people, the Arab, Syrian or Palestinian people. There is no doubt that, even if the partition plan had been fully accepted and implemented, the creation of Israel would have caused serious difficulties to these people. Those who chose to leave would be uprooted. Those who chose to stay would be living in a state dedicated to the national and cultural aspirations of another people. This was a degree of suffering that the majority of UN member states found to be reasonable in relation to the benefits to be gained by enabling Jewish refugees to be resettled in an area conducive to their future lives.

In fact, because the partition plan was not implemented, more suffering was entailed both to the non-Jewish population and to the members of the new state themselves.

How can liberals object to the state of Israel? One path would be to deny the right of stateless people to a state if there is any cost whatsoever to anyone involved. This would not only violate the idea of liberalism as endorsing the self-determination of peoples, it would also contradict recent experience in Europe where new states have been coming into existence rather frequently in the past years even while the Palestine-Israel conflict festers. In other words, the vast majority of the world, whether liberal or not, has continued to embrace the principle of the self-determination of peoples despite the suffering this always entails.

If the idea of self-determination is reasonable despite the inevitability of such suffering how can the suffering of the Palestinian people count as an objection to the right of the Jews to self-determination?

I suggest that this can be understood if the following conditions hold: 1) the suffering inflicted was far in excess of what was necessary for the emergence of  Jewish state and 2) the Jewish people as a whole was morally responsible for inflicting that excess suffering.

Whether these conditions hold is a matter of empirical evaluation. I will not repeat here the many arguments that have been offered to address this question. I am aware of no competent comparative studies of this question. I will only say that many more refugees where produced by the creation of Pakistan.

What interests me here is the implications for those who hold that these two conditions do hold. If so, another conclusion must hold as well. If the Jewish people are the only newly enstated people who violated the principle of reasonable suffering, then the maintenance of anti-Zionism must entail as its corollary the inhumaneness of the Jewish people. In other words, in order to maintain the general liberal principle of self-determination of peoples, in spite of the costs involved, but to deny it to the Jewish people, one must maintain that the Jewish people is singularly inhumane. In order to be a liberal anti-Zionist, then, one must be anti-Jewish racist as well.

This line of reasoning may explain why it has become so difficult to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It suggests that, in fact, those who argue that such a distinction is possible are mistaken.

Whether a liberal can legitimately hold racist theories is a question I leave to my readers.

About the Author
The author is a lecturer in philosophy and classics at Bar Ilan University. He has lived in the areas of Judea and Samaria since 1992, and lives today in the town of Efrat with his wife and children.