Liberal Zionists Exist

Do I Exist?

The Stone, the New York Times’ “forum for contemporary philosophers,” just published an opinion piece by Omri Boehm called “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump.”   The theme of the article seems to be that liberal Zionists do not exist, that, like the corners of circles, we cannot exist, and that, like fighting Quakers, we should not exist.

Zionism, according to Boehm, is “a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics.”  According to Boehm, liberalism “depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race.”  Compare that beautiful idea with Zionism, which Boehm defines as “the idea that the state of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish.”

Boehm does not have to decide what “Jewish” means.  Either as “religion,” or as “ethnic affiliation,” paying any attention to “Jewish” offends against the very definition of liberalism.

So Boehm claims that liberal Zionists cannot logically exist, should not morally exist, and factually, in the age of Trump, do not happen to exist.  Support for Israel,  if it exists, should be contingent on Israel’s living up to the standard of the United States of America, a government founded on a liberal idea, not a government founded by a people.

Compared to the United States of America, that means, not as the actual United States of America, but as the Platonic ideal of the United States of America.  As a pure Platonic ideal, the United States pays no attention to race, religion, ethnicity, peoplehood, or family ties. As an actual country, the United States might fall short of that liberal idea.

For example, our country excluded and made war against the indigenous peoples, imported slaves from Africa, imported Asians to work on condition that they could never become citizens, wrote immigration laws specifically to keep out southern Europeans and Jews.  Right now, as Boehm notes, we have a president-elect who began his campaign railing against Mexican immigrants.  Boehm does not note that our serving president has ordered the deportation of tens of thousands of people, probably many refugees who have no representation to help them make their claims as refugees.  The United States of American has not exactly opened its borders to refugees from Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and various countries of Latin America.  These people undoubtedly have fled from their native lands in fear of threats to their lives.  Perhaps the color of these people’s skins, or the religions of their native lands, have absolutely nothing to do with why we have not welcomed the refugees.

Wait, my last paragraph makes a totally unfair point.  Real liberals in the United States oppose every one of those failures to live up to liberal standards.  Real liberals in Europe and Australia oppose the operations of their governments to keep dark-skinned and/or non-Christian refugees out.  Many of these unwanted refugees drown at sea, or languish in prison camps along their escape routes, alas.  In theory, though, the real liberals would rescue all those refugees and accept them as immigrants.  In practice, the real liberals do not have the power to do anything of the sort.

Even some liberals recognize that small countries like Norway and Finland, with populations below six million each, can take only a limited number of refugees.  More refugees would change the whole demographics of those countries, change their economies in unpredictable ways, and disrupt their cultures.  Asking these countries to take in millions of refugees might amount too asking too much.  Germany, with a population of over 80 million, should have the ability to accept millions of refugees without too much disruption, without, say, inspiring an illiberal backlash.

So less than 80 years ago, the world divided into those countries which set about murdering Jews as a despised race, and those which did not want Jewish refugees because accepting Jews might dilute their culture, or cause economic stress, or inspire a political backlash, or for some other reason.  Perhaps these uncharitable countries did not even have a theory for why they did not want Jews; no country has to explain why it treats its citizens better than it treats non-citizens. Less than 70 years ago, some Jews founded a country on their ancestral homelands; a country with non-Jewish citizens.

Now the writer in the New York Times tells us that Zionism offends against liberalism.  Zionism does offend against liberalism, not as practiced anywhere on earth, but as preached by liberals who have no political power.  Every actual country has its ethnic, religious, and cultural majorities; most countries have minorities, who feel, to some extent, alienated by the majority.  In the most liberal countries, these minorities also have rights.  In other countries, these minorities live inconstant fear.

How well do minorities do in Israel, compared to minorities in other countries?

That question does not seem to bother Omri Boehm.  Israel cannot have a special affinity for Jews or Jewish culture or Jewish religion, for philosophical reasons. People who support Israel must agitate for getting rid of any relationship between the state and Jews or Judaism.  If ever Jews get in trouble in the world, Israel should treat Jewish refugees with the same degree of concern as the rest of the world does.   Which translates into . . . not much.

A Zionist, who supports the Israel that actually exists, must therefore, according to Boehm, fail as a liberal.  A true liberal would feel dissatisfied by any version of Israel, even if Israel seeks to improve the lot of its non-Jewish citizens, or limit the power of the rabbinical establishment, or find some way towards a fair settlement with the Palestinian leaders (who might not seem all that enthusiastic about finding a fair settlement with Israel). Anyone who supports Israel is not a liberal.

So Boehm says that I do not exist.

Years ago, a frightened freshman rushed into the office of Morris Raphael Cohen, the distinguished Philosophy professor at City College of New York.  “Help me,” the student cried, “a Philosophy student has proved that I do not exist.  Tell me a proof that I do exist.”

Cohen replied, “Gladly, but to whom shall I address the proof?”

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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