Hopeful and resigned Zionists

Ruth Margalit and Emily Bazelon have exchanged (largely similar, commiserating) views on an op-ed in the New York Times by Shmuel Rosner, to which they both felt their faces “reddening.” In a discussion with Bazelon, Rosner clarifies that he doesn’t mind the criticism of Israel as much as the timing. To which Margalit responds: “When should we be “allowed” to voice legitimate opposition to government policies if not as these policies are being implemented?” (her italics)

Bazelon, along with at least one of the critics Rosner complains about, argues that his Zionism is “immutable.” So let’s start with that.

“Immutable” clearly does not mean the belief that the Israeli government is infallible. You don’t have to follow Israeli politics for more than a few minutes to realize that criticizing the sitting government knows no boundaries: even members of a sitting cabinet will publicly rebuke their own government.

In an entry with the headline “Israel doesn’t need mindless cheerleaders,” Margalit defends the critics by pointing out that “I have no doubt that if you ask Klein, Chait, or Cohen whether they believe in the creation of the Jewish state and support its continued existence, they would answer with an unequivocal yes.”

But I also expect that Rosner would say that “believing in the creation and continued existence of Israel” requires more than affirming such a belief. It means recognizing that Israel is governed by a political process that makes other countries look like tea parties. There will be good governments, bad governments, good decisions, and bad decisions, but in large part we can only tell those apart in hindsight. After all, we don’t worry about the ideals of the American constitution just because we vehemently disagree with one administration or another. As grown ups, we experience outrage, chagrin, and even serious worry, but no other country than Israel has its entire national movement cast in doubt for doing disagreeable things.

Margalit, I think, falls prey to the practice Rosner is concerned about when she writes:

“Engaged criticism that takes to task several of Netanyahu’s decisions—such as his decision to release Palestinian prisoners over freezing settlement construction, or his decision to isolate and weaken the moderate Mahmoud Abbas—is not only legitimate but crucial. If our shared goal, as you wrote to me earlier, is to move away from a moral and demographic calamity, then one hopes that this kind of criticism would only strengthen the Zionist vision.”

This is a good example, because I happen to agree with her political point of view. But I don’t think it’s such a clear position that I would brand those who disagree with me as lesser Zionists, whatever that might mean. If she means that vigorous criticism strengthens Zionism in general and Israel politics in particular, I wholeheartedly agree. But she seems to qualify “this kind of criticism” with her point of view. Would she say the same about critics who don’t think Netanyahu’s decisions don’t go far enough? Roger Cohen, for his part, speaks of hawkish views as a “perversion” of Zionism.

Polemics invite hyperbole, and Cohen would probably, if pressed, concede that a broad political debate must by definition includes (to him) distasteful views without the whole enterprise running the risk of being perverted. And I suspect that Bazelon (who knows a thing or two about constitutional law) and Margalit also understand this.

But if we for the sake of argument rule out the maximalist view that on one end of the spectrum call for dismantling the Jewish state, and on the other call for expanding and purifying it, then I believe we are left with two major and one minor point of view.

One consists of resigned Zionists, those who may have been hopeful or skeptical about the peace process but have lost confidence in the Palestinian leadership’s ability to make the necessary changes. To them, Israel’s existence consists of patience during tumultuous times, deterrence against enemies, and defiance against the outside world who naively believes that Abbas can make things happen if you’re nicer to him. There is undoubtedly a correlation between resigned and right-wing worldviews, but I don’t think we should assume that means there is causality. This is a pessimistic and often cynical point of view, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time with these people to see where they’re coming from.

The other consists of hopeful Zionists, those who look at the history of Israel not as disappointments in the opponent, but as opportunities that both sides have missed. To them, Israel’s existence is imperiled by a government that seems to subvert opportunities rather than nurture them. They hope that every armed conflict will be the last and that Israel is foolish for ignoring the legitimate concerns of western governments. There is also a correlation between the hopeful worldview and traditionally liberal positions but I would also hesitate to infer causality. This is an optimistic but sometimes naive point of view, especially when you face enemies like Hamas and forces such as Iran and IS.

To the hopeful Zionists, the resigned crowd is intransigent, unimaginative, and short-sighted.

To the resigned Zionists, the hopeful crowd is wishy-washy, dreamy, and unrealistic.

The third, much smaller group, consists of the disillusioned Zionists, those who are permanently traumatized by the discovery that Israel, and Zionism is much less perfect than they once believed – with perfect faith – that it would be. Though these are small and number and mostly ignored within mainstream Zionist circles, they get a lot of airtime in the anti-Israeli crowd in the Diaspora. They are the well-behaved and enlightened Jews who find acceptance among people who would otherwise hold people’s Jewish identities against them.

The third group needs therapy, or some kind of long overdue reverse indoctrination.

Because neither of the two other sides can predict the future, and especially not in this volatile region, both have to entertain the possibility that the other might be right.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.