John Kerry’s apartheid remarks might have been unhelpful, but so too was the way in which he was bludgeoned into issuing a retraction.

(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Like the David versus Goliath narrative that used to dominate interpretations of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, today’s binary approach to discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict is unhelpful and anachronistic. Typical of this is the promptness with which Washington’s well-oiled political machine recently mobilised to express indignation at Kerry’s comments to the Trilateral Commission and, in one case, even to demand his resignation.

People were always going to take offense at this explosive word but, interestingly, many of the criticisms made only a perfunctory attempt to engage with the substance behind Kerry’s comments: namely that in the event of a two-state solution failing, Israel could face a demographic challenge that threatens either the Jewish or democratic character of the state. Rather, an avalanche of sentimental disapproval was unleashed, with one commentator even accusing the Secretary of State of having “given a full throated endorsement of anti-Semitic demagoguery”.

This episode is indicative of a wider trend whereby some organisations seek to monopolise the words and ideas that can be used in the context of discussing Israel. In doing so they attempt to redefine the boundaries of Zionism such that even moderate questioning of the government’s policies is off limits. And as a result, those who, in good faith, criticise behaviour which they see as inimical to peace and those who seek to fuel a campaign of delegitimisation are lumped together, with the former risibly but quite unbelievably chastised as “anti-Zionist”, “self-hating”, and even “anti-Semitic”. Such terms are devalued by their misapplication and the fight against genuine anti-Zionism loses momentum.

Stifling internal dissent by refusing to tolerate criticism creates an impossible demand for unqualified support for all of Israel’s actions. It ignores the heterogeneity and nuance of the Zionist community’s opinions, thus running the risk of alienating (especially young) Zionists who struggle to conform to this standard. More problematic still, in stifling debate and encouraging groupthink, it precludes the kind of open discussions that are vital to furthering an agreement to this conflict. And finally, it internally divides supporters of Israel at a time when we should be collaborating to implement some kind of two-state solution; as well as uniting to oppose a flourishing far-Right and the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe.

“You’re either with us or against us” said President Bush in an unequivocal but self-evident statement made in the wake of the September 11 attacks. His framing of the conflict in such a manichaen way brings to mind today’s refusal to discern ideological opposition to Israel from healthy political dissent or, in the case of Kerry’s comments, from exhaustion at how another peace process has eluded both sides. Yet, just as it was possible to support Bush’s fight against terrorism and still disagree over some of the tactics used in this fight, so too is it possible to be a vocal Zionist whilst criticising the Israeli government or speculating over the consequences of a one-state solution.

Some have argued that public critique only serves to fan the flames of anti-Zionism. But surely a powerful response to ideological critics would be open, nuanced, unflinching support for a Zionism that does not seek expansion into all of Mandatory Palestine and that works to agree the borders of an autonomous Palestinian state guaranteeing Israel’s security. By definition, support for such an entity requires opposition, at least in principle, to settlements and disapproval of individuals and policies, on both sides, that would hinder the road to peace.

This is an unoriginal point, but one which is not made often enough: expecting monolithic support for the party line is not only unrealistic; it also does a disservice to Zionism’s diversity and risks marginalising its supporters. And resorting to ad hominem political attacks is for those who lack confidence in the validity of their own arguments. People should instead engage with the Secretary of State’s ideas, even if that means disagreeing with them.