“Liberal Zionism” in The New York Times

Though malicious and duplicitous smear campaigns against Israel can be found daily in every media domain, one expects better in the pages of The New York Times’ “The Stone,” populated as they mostly are by professional philosophers. But Omri Boehm’s recent essay, “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump,” barely camouflages in philosophical garb what are in fact dishonest smears, both of Zionism as racism and of American Israel supporters as racists, and as such is an embarrassment to that forum.

Zionism, Boehm tells us baldly, is “a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics.” A quote from Hillary Clinton illustrates: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on religion. How do you do that? We are a country founded on religious freedom and liberty.” This statement, says Boehm, “establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency”—and yet “liberal Zionists” don’t merely deny this minimal standard of decency when it comes to Israel, he says, but “avow this denial as core to their innermost convictions.” How so? Liberalism, he tells us, “depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, [while] Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish. As such, the country belongs first and foremost not to its citizens, but to the Jewish people—a group that’s defined by ethnic affiliation or religious conversion.”

The confusions and inconsistencies here are stunning, even apart from the unclarified notion of a state “belonging” to people. The “minimal standard of liberal decency” is first identified with “religious freedom,” suggesting that nations lacking religious freedom must be “liberally indecent” (whatever that means). But then the item being defined suddenly switches from liberal “decency” to “being liberal,” period, as the proffered definition itself switches from “religious freedom” to “state neutrality on matters of religion and race,” which is not at all the same thing as religious freedom.

So what is going here?

Israel, of course, is in fact committed to religious freedom: it is home to individuals of many faiths who suffer no religious restrictions or persecution, it is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing, it is a safe haven for the oppressed Baha’i, and so on. So perhaps Boehm, realizing that he cannot condemn Israel for violating religious freedoms, switches the focus of his “minimal standard” to “state neutrality on religion and race” in order to condemn Israel for violating that.

Of course Boehm is free to define his “minimal standards” of being “liberal” any way he likes. Many others, however, would include as equally important to liberalism such items as these: commitments to democratic principles, preservation of minority rights, support for women’s rights and for gay rights, the maintenance of fundamental freedoms of religion, of speech, of assembly, of press, and so on. These are not obscure, controversial components of liberalism, but obvious, widely accepted central tenets. So why does Boehm so blatantly leave them out of his idiosyncratic personal standard of liberalism?

Perhaps it’s because including them would directly contradict his stark inflammatory claim that Zionism is rooted in the “denial of liberal politics”: it is hard to accuse Israel of this when in fact Israel satisfies the overwhelming majority of criteria for liberalism. Indeed including these basic criteria might even entail that Israel is actually an extremely liberal country, relatively speaking, its many warts notwithstanding. I just read that The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, an international survey of democracy and minority rights, ranked Israel #34 out of 167 countries (where Norway is best at #1, North Korea worst at #167). No other Middle Eastern state is ranked better than #57, it seems, and most, in fact, are ranked worse than #110. There’s room here for Israel to improve itself on these matters, to be sure, just as the United States has plenty of its own work to do on improving minority rights and confronting racism, as do most other countries in the world. But if one’s concern is with liberalism, as Boehm’s allegedly is, there are at least 133 countries in the “need to improve” queue ahead of Israel—including all the countries in Israel’s neighborhood, all the countries hostile to Israel, and presumably too the Palestinian entity that Boehm likely wants to come into official nationhood. (Indeed Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid’s recent report, “Confronting Human Rights Abuses in the Palestinian Authority,” paints a grim picture indeed, and that doesn’t even address Hamas-ruled Gaza.)

So maybe, despite its commitment to religious freedom and minority civil rights, Israel is not “neutral on matters of religion and race,” according to Boehm. “Race” is a loaded word, of course, and Boehm’s use of it is not entirely accurate here. Yes, Israel is a “Jewish” state in multiple senses, as the ancestral and now contemporary homeland for the Jewish people, but the complex notion of “peoplehood” is not identical to “race”: the Jewish people comprise individuals of many different races, from lighter-skinned Europeans and Americans to darker-skinned Indians and Asians and Middle Easterners and Africans. Perhaps Boehm recognizes that, because he makes another quick switch from speaking of race to speaking of “ethnic affiliation.” I would suggest that the Jewish people comprise many different ethnicities as well, but let’s grant him the point that Israel is not “neutral” on matters of “religion” and (say) “ethnicity.”

The proper response to this, I think, is simply: so what?

Boehm of course spins the non-neutrality to get his readers to think otherwise. “Good” liberal Jews like Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Heschel, he reminds us, were fierce advocates for civil rights, so by insidious twisted implication Israel’s “non-neutrality” makes it akin to the American racists who opposed civil rights. The logic seems to be this: “I define liberalism hyper-narrowly to be x. Some people who were liberal by my narrow definition were anti-racist. Therefore those who are not liberal by my narrow definition are racist.” The logical fallacy here is both significant and, it seems, intentional, as it is present pretty much throughout the entire essay—the main strategy of which is to smear Israel and Zionism by bizarre associations with all the racist accusations Boehm (rightly or wrongly) levies against Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Richard Spencer, and various Austrian right-wing politicians.

So—despite de facto working hard to maintain minority and religious rights and freedoms, doing so under security conditions faced by no other country, doing far better at it than any of its neighbors and enemies, and, according to the Democracy Index, even succeeding to a large degree—no, Israel de jure is not “neutral” on religion and ethnicity. It is indeed a “Jewish” state in various senses: it is by far the most densely Jewish country in the world (with about 75% of its population being Jewish), home to nearly half the world’s Jews and center of positive attention and support for most of the other half, the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people, the location of their ancient sovereign kingdoms, and the primary Jewish population center for the first millennium of their recorded existence, it is a place where Jews have lived continuously for three millennia, and it has been the central focus of the Jewish religion through those three millennia as well, including during the two millennia of dispersion. For these reasons and others the modern State of Israel was, and is, designed to be the homeland of and a safe haven for the Jewish people.

So what exactly is wrong with Zionism per se then, according to Boehm?

Is it that (despite Israel’s religious freedoms) Judaism has a privileged position there? Yet many, many countries have official state or otherwise privileged religions, to various degrees, including European nations such as Denmark, England, Monaco, most or all of the many Muslim countries, and including both the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip and the future Palestinian state (whose leaders have declared that Islam will be its official religion).

Is it that (despite the affirmation of and endeavors toward minority civil rights) the Jewish people do have a privileged position there, as exemplified (among other ways) in the infamous “Law of Return” that allows all Jews to become citizens of Israel? Yet many, many countries have similar laws favoring or expediting citizenship for descendants of those who originally came from those places, including many European countries such as Germany, Hungary and Italy—and the future Palestinian state will be no different, as exemplified in its leaders’ intransigent insistence on the equally infamous “Right of Return” for millions of descendants of the original and later refugees.

Is Zionism is to be faulted because it endorses the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland? But how is that a fault, exactly, when a central tenet even of the contemporary American liberal agenda is the fight for the rights of oppressed peoples everywhere, by throwing off their imperialist oppressors and promoting their—right to self-determination in their ancestral homelands? Indeed that is precisely the language used by pro-Palestinian activists on the Palestinians’ behalf as they advocate for a Palestinian state “belonging” to the Palestinian people. Zionism is to be faulted for endorsing this analogous right for Jews, then, only if Jews are to be uniquely deprived of that right. Another word for that double standard, of course, is antisemitism.

No, Israel is not the United States, which at least aims to be the truly maximally “liberal” nation that Boehm perhaps has in mind. But neither are the overwhelming majority of other countries in the world, including all of Israel’s enemies and neighbors, including Hamas’s Gaza and (almost surely) the future Palestinian state for which Boehm seems to advocate.

Boehm’s attack on Israel therefore amounts to deliberately asking the wrong question and then skewering Israel for performing badly on his loaded question. The question Boehm asks is essentially, “Is Israel liberal in the way the United States aims to be, but specifically and only with respect to the one criterion of ‘neutrality’ on ethnicity and religion?” When the answer turns out to be “no,” then Zionism and Israel are uniquely (and absurdly) condemned as “rooted in the denial of liberal politics,” and therefore to be condemned by all good liberal people, including those who fight against racism. American liberal Jews are then accused of holding a “double standard” when it comes to supporting allegedly anti-liberal Israel, the supporting of which then amounts to being a racist by the faulty logic noted above.

The right questions, to the contrary, the ones that would be asked by any honest investigator of these matters, are these: “How does Israel stack up on the numerous criteria for being liberal that are endorsed by many Americans, and how does it compare to all the other countries in the world, including Europe and the United States, including Israel’s enemies, and including the current Palestinian regimes and likely future Palestinian state?”

The answers here are the ones Boehm is choosing to obscure. Zionism, as a movement for self-determination that is simultaneously committed to maximizing the civil rights of its minorities, doesn’t merely cohere with the liberal ideal of promoting the rights of all peoples, but Israel itself is in fact a bastion of liberal ideals in a region where those are minimally instantiated, and it manages to be this even under security conditions faced by no other nation. So if honest liberal Jews (and non-Jews) want to use liberalism as their criterion for which side to take in the thorny mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim Conflict, they pretty clearly ought to side with Israel—its many warts notwithstanding. The only “double standard” in play here is Boehm’s, who asks dishonest questions of Israel and then skewers it while giving all the many far worse nations in the world (and corresponding nationalisms) a complete pass.

Boehm’s intellectually and morally corrupt strategy is nowhere more evident than in his closing paragraphs. Here he aims to imply that Zionism is itself antisemitic, or at least “continuous with” antisemitism, and he goes all the way to the point of endorsing the ultimate inversion of reality, so favored by antisemites and anti-Israel activists alike, namely identifying Zionists and Israel (in this case by means of “guilt by association”) with the Nazis.

First, he suggests, the Zionist idea that Israel is “the Jews’ own ethnic state” implies that non-Israeli Jews are not living in their own country—which in turn enforces the common antisemitic trope of dual loyalty, that non-Israeli Jews are not genuine citizens of their country of residence.

Second, he notes the “close ties” between evangelical Christians and the State of Israel. But these Christians’ messianic scheme is antisemitic: they support Israel only so that Jesus may return and convert all the Jews.

Third and most important, he cites the 1941 Avraham Stern letter that supported working with with the Nazis in order to allow the millions of Jews then under Nazi control to emigrate ultimately to Palestine. The letter, Boehm says, was written by a logic that “sanctifies Zionism to the point of tolerating antisemitism.” So Zionism as manifest in Stern “tolerates” Nazi antisemitism.

That a philosopher could proceed in this fashion is nothing short of a scandal.

First, does Boehm also hold that the movement to establish a Palestinian state turns the many Palestinians in their own diaspora into untrustworthy dual citizens? Does he hold that Italian-Americans and Chinese-Americans are guilty of dual loyalty? One surely hopes not. But then the fact that antisemites maliciously taint Jews with charges of dual loyalty is a reflection only of their antisemitism, and in no way imparts antisemitism to Zionist affirmation of a Jewish homeland.

With respect to those sinister “close ties” between Israel and evangelicals, it is hard to unravel the twist of logic that now taints Zionism or Israelis with Christian antisemitism. Is Boehm seriously suggesting that Jews, who do not accept the Christian evangelical view, should give up their homeland because holding onto it might further the alleged Christian long-term antisemitic agenda? Is he suggesting that Israel, and Jews, should boycott and ban such Christians so as not to associate with them? (Wouldn’t that violate even his narrow personal liberalism, endorsing religious freedom?) One hopes not—but then what in fact does he expect Israelis to do?

With the Stern letter Boehm’s logic evaporates entirely into pure malice as he sinks into the obscene—for it surely is obscene to describe someone’s desperate effort to save the lives of millions of Jews from the murderous Nazis, when the gates to every country in the world were closed to Jews, as a kind of inherent Zionist affinity with Nazism. In fact Stern was known to explicitly compare Hitler to Haman, the great symbol of anti-Jewish hatred from the book of Esther, but that’s almost besides the point—for Boehm doesn’t merely misrepresent Stern’s behavior here, he also commits an even graver philosophical offense: he takes this single highly specific (misrepresented) case and generalizes it to Zionism as a whole. Stern, he tells us, is celebrated all over Israel, and even shares a Hebrew first name with the son of the current Prime Minister! So if Stern was willing to collaborate with the Nazis, apparently all Zionists were, and all of today’s Israelis enthusiastically go along. It follows ineluctably: Israel is, and Israelis are, Nazi-collaborators! And since Nazis are the great antisemites, it turns out, ironically, that Zionism is antisemitism.

One gathers that Boehm’s repeated use of the charged word “collaborate” is quite deliberate here. Indeed this whole absurd nest of fallacies could only be deliberate. Zionists from left to right were deeply opposed to the Nazi regime from early on, so much so that there was great controversy whenever the subject of “collaborating” with them, even to save Jews, came up. Nor does Boehm bother to mention the salient fact that Zionist Jews played an active role in fighting for the Allies against the Nazis, in both manpower and materiel, and did this while the Arab world, including the leader of the Palestinian national movement, Grand Mufti Amin Al-Husseini, didn’t merely back the Nazis but actively—and really—“collaborated” with them, both militarily and with respect to the Holocaust. Yet in Boehm’s mind it is somehow the Zionist Jews who were collaborators.

So Boehm misrepresents Stern’s behavior as an endorsement of the Nazis, then uses this single (misrepresented) event to imply that Zionism and today’s Israelis are Nazi collaborators—producing a complete inversion of the actual truth by means of a grievous act of philosophical abuse.

A professional philosopher doesn’t reason this badly unless she or he has an agenda.

There is plenty of real material to discuss when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim Conflict. There is plenty to critique about Israel’s behavior, including its contribution to the current status quo, including its policies and behavior in the 1967 territories. There is plenty to critique about Israel, and the behavior of Zionists, throughout the long nitty-gritty of historical contingencies. It surely is possible to critique all that, and to advocate for Palestinian rights, without being antisemitic. But you cannot begin to have a real and genuine discussion of these matters unless you begin with a basic level of honesty and integrity in the discourse. Boehm’s profoundly dishonest smear job, his malicious effort to taint Israel and Zionists with guilt by association, his inverted characterization of Israel as fundamentally “anti-liberal,” his effort to attack the very essence of Zionism, is an affront to that necessary condition for real and genuine philosophical discussion.

It should have no place in the pages of “The Stone,” or anywhere.


About the Author
Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, and author most recently of the novel, "The Irrationalist," based on the difficult life and mysterious death of the famous philosopher, René Descartes. For more information, visit www.andrewpessin.com.
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