My Liberalism Sits Hand-in-Hand with My Zionism

I first came out as a liberal as a teen in the 1980s. I sat around the finished basements of my friends’ homes and we “didn’t inhale”, if you know what I mean. I wore ripped jeans and paid extra for the rips. I wore tie-dyed shirts and shed my leather belts (I am actually too high-waisted to look good in belts anyway). I became a vegetarian. We debated theoretical issues and like all good teenage-rebels mainly focused, perhaps subconsciously, on believing the opposite of whatever we thought our parents would support.

As an adult, I am still proudly liberal and admittedly still pay extra for jeans with holes in them though I have long since abandoned ‘not inhaling’ and have moved on to red wine or whiskey. My friends’ politics are now often dictated by their pocketbooks first and their principals second or even third as priorities often change in adulthood.

Where my newly conservative-converted friends and I however have always agreed, in any decade, was on Israel. And while we can debate with great passion on the stance towards Israel by a particular US politician on either side of the spectrum, our support of Israel has never wavered. There is a feeling that the Obama administration has failed us. But having said it has failed me as Jewish liberal American Zionist (happy to enter into a theoretical debate on the order of the labels I have chosen but to do so I am afraid that we might need to return to the basement of my childhood home and not inhale), is not the same as saying that liberalism or Zionism has failed me. My liberalism and my Zionism are both very much intact, thank you.

And while I prefer to leave politics out of my articles, I am afraid that with this one it may be too late. I am dismayed to learn (from a recent widely circulated article) that I must disavow either my liberalism or my Zionism.

Let’s first understand what it means to be liberal and what it means to be a Zionist before we say the two can’t coexist. Zionism is the belief in the Jewish state’s right to exist. Liberalism is the belief that ideals of freedom and tolerance, such as racial equality, women’s rights, freedom of the press and freedom of religion, are paramount.

Zionism certainly doesn’t demand a blind acceptance of every single policy that Israel adopts. It can’t because this is the beauty of democracy. Regardless of how Israel comes out on any one individual issue, Israelis engage meaningfully in the types of conversations that you find in every liberal democracy.  It’s the debates and introspection, along with the freedom of speech and freedom of press to engage in this type of dialogue in a meaningful way that is the hallmark of liberalism.

Moreover, inclusivity is the true realization of a liberal ideology and a country that can rightfully boast that it has, while still in its youth, included members of its Arab minority on its Supreme Court, numerous Arab MKs, a woman as their fourth Prime Minister and a Druze Israeli as the commander of an elite infantry unit, has come closer on many levels to achieving full inclusivity than many much older democracies. (By way of contrast consider the over 200 years that passed before the United States included its first woman on the Supreme Court and the 230 years before its first non-white president.)

In the context of the on-again off-again conflict in Gaza, however, this discussion is wholly misplaced. I am confused by the logic that my liberalism would somehow translate into the understanding that Israel shouldn’t have a right to defend itself against terrorists. How is this part of the same conversation?

Whether I support or fail to support the settlements, whether I refer to the region they are in as Judea and Samaria or the West Back is also entirely irrelevant. Whether Israel should have civil marriage is likewise entirely irrelevant.

Again, should Israel allow for civil marriage, gay marriage, multi-denominational marriage or intermarriage is entirely misplaced in any argument about Zionism. They are entirely misplaced in an argument about the validity of Israel’s right to defend itself in this conflict.

In the same vein as when Al-Queda attacked the U.S. on 9-11, it would have been absurd to first begin to enter into a debate about whether the U.S. was justified in defending itself against terrorists when there is clearly racial inequality, gay marriage is still highly contested and for the most part legally prohibited and women’s rights are losing ground to conservative politics’ ‘right-to-life’ campaigns that call for the outlawing of abortion even in cases of rape and where the mother’s life is at stake.

Does any child deserve to be caught in a conflict? Of course not. I am certainly haunted by the vision of civilian casualties on both sides, and on different sides of conflicts in many part of the world. But I am somewhat comforted by the fact that just militaries, like those of the Israel and the United States, take precautions to limit these casualties. Believing your child deserves protection by no means translates to the idea that other children shouldn’t be protected too.

But when I am in Israel and I have to lay on top of my eight-year old on a soccer pitch because the sirens have sounded and there is no shelter nearby, I am not thinking of the misguided politicians that allowed DOMA to pass. I might though think about the fact that with an over 90% certainty the Iron Dome will stop Hamas’ missile and the IDF is working to protect my child and me. I don’t, while lying in that field, think that Hamas should have an Iron Dome and I should be left in that field just hoping that the missile misses me. I do think that this is no way to be forced to live.

When the siren finishes sounding, I might be willing to debate issues like abortion or marriage equality with you. But lets be clear, my liberalism is perfectly in line with my Zionism. I am not caught in any sort of internal conflict or turmoil. I know for certain that what I think about the marriage debate doesn’t belong in the same debate over the validity of Israel’s response to Hamas. This shouldn’t be a politically charged issue.

Demanding perfection from Israel and subjecting its every policy to such an intense scrutiny that all other democracies would certainly also fail if measured by the same standards isn’t liberalism. And Zionism hasn’t failed because Israel isn’t a utopia.

Understanding this current conflict to be about anything but the right of Israel to defend itself is seriously misguided.

I am sorry for those that have become disillusioned and that the Liberal Zionism of their youth somehow seems no longer relevant. Fortunately mine has matured with age.

About the Author
Erica Lyons is the founder and editor-in-chief of Asian Jewish Life. She and her family have called Hong Kong home since 2002.