My Problem with “Progressive Zionism”

Flat out, the term “progressive Zionism” irks me, let alone the rhetoric and objectives coming from those adhering to the slogan. Take a recent op-ed in the Washington Jewish Week by Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb which is representative of the movement’s views. Dobb asserts that “it’s past time to redefine what ‘pro-Israel’ means’ as he calls on all good American Jews to rally to the banner of “progressive Zionism” to combat the scourges infecting the Jewish homeland. While giving lip service to the “serious external dangers that Israel faces,” Dobb designates these potentially horrific existential threats as secondary to “the significant menaces Israel faces from within.”

I read the piece and felt alienated, patronized, and somewhat angry. Several factors influenced my reaction. There is a certain hubris in arrogating to oneself the mantle of being “progressive” as opposed to others who may think and feel differently and who are, what? Reactionary? On the wrong side of history? Unenlightened? Opposed to moving forward?

From Dobb’s point of view, there seems to be only one definition of Jewish values, and it belongs to him and his assigned community. In his own words, “progressive Zionism” consists of “communities like mine” who “work hard to strengthen the Israel-diaspora relationship among folks who deeply embrace humanistic values (a.k.a. Jewish values).” And so I was left wondering. If I disagree with progressive Zionism, am I bereft of Jewish values? If I don’t see current Israeli politics as bedraggled by “a status quo rife with anti-democratic threats, emanating from the very top” but rather thriving as part of a roiling, truly democratic process, am I an outsider, dark and nefarious, like Dobb’s favorite whipping men, “an unhinged Trump and an emboldened indicted Netanyahu?”

If I were to ask Dobb to consider if the “progressive Zionist” rhetoric informing his piece might be misconstrued or even misused by certain readers as anti-Israel, then do I, steeped in my own discernment of Jewish values and heritage, deserve to be adrift, in a type of cherem, cast as an enabler of “a narrow right-wing cause,” and separated from my community? Such implications upset me greatly.

I sense that “progressive Zionists” treat Israel as if it is a Jewish colony functioning at the pleasure of their crown community of self-assigned virtue and self-proclaimed humanism. In Dobb’s own words, “even as we continue to learn from and connect with Israel, let us help our cousins and friends there to see the view from here — which might just be “the bigger picture.” For a moment I thought I was reading a version of Gunga Din. Dobb’s piece projects a haughtiness that insists a certain segment of the American Jewish community knows better what is good for Israel, how Israelis should behave, and whom they should elect.

Israelis democratically choose their government, but progressive Zionists demonize the latest election, as Dobb puts it, as a slide “toward the extreme right, bolstering a narrow vision of Israel’s Jewishness at the expense of its democracy.” As if he were a resident expert on developing policies for Judea and Samaria, Dobb blithely writes that “long term, to be ‘pro-Israel’ means supporting a two-state solution. (Pithily put, ‘friends don’t let friends build settlements.’).” As if Jewish Americans in their relative safety have the right to stop Israelis who live in daily danger of mortal assaults from taking defensive measures that include its settlement policies. Progressive Zionists are perhaps familiar with what Yitzchak Rabin said in 1975: “The response to the attack on Zionism and the State of Israel must reinforce and underscore the implementation of the settlement plan in all areas in which the government decides regarding settlement.”

In an other bewildering we know better than you statement, Dobb insists Israel connect “with its denizens of all ethnicities and faiths, taking in the whole complicated reality from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Tel Aviv to Hebron, Gaza to the Golan.” Do progressive Zionists really think Israelis are not exactingly assessing their “complicated” realities, or are they asking that Israel attenuate its particular basis as our “Jewish” homeland and, ironically and contradictorily, despite insistence otherwise, devolve into one multi-national state? For now, I too believe in a two-state solution, but I trust the maturity and good sense of Israelis to determine when this approach is viable.

Progressive Zionist rhetoric reverberates with United Nations canards equating Zionism with racism. Dobb claims Israel is “anti-democratic,” “intolerant,” and “racist nationalistic.” These denunciations chilled me to the extreme as they came from a rav in my own Jewish community. I had to check to make sure the byline was not by Ilhan Omar. Dobb does not add in “apartheid,” but the association is there for the taking by any Israel hating, anti-Semitic malefactors wishing to exploit Dobb’s words. It’s difficult for me to understand how, if progressive Zionists experience Israel as malevolent, oppressive, and destructive, it is possible deep down to be lovers of Zion.

For unlike progressive Zionists, I believe being “pro-Israel” does mean “unequivocal support.” Somehow progressive Zionists conflate “unequivocal support” by American Jews with “toeing the (Israeli) governmental line.” It does not. Rather, in echoing Jeremiah, is not Israel for true Zionists still a precious child? And like any parent to whom one’s child is precious, let’s say we find fault with certain actions and attitudes of the child, do we vilify the child with brutally derogative taunts and recriminations or do we act as adults retaining perspective, the “larger picture,” and extend unconditional love?

Thankfully, despite the extraordinary challenges it has faced for over 70 years, that “child” has grown into a mature, responsible nation bringing us joy and pride. Dobb writes of a “special relationship” between American Jewry and Israel. Yes, that relationship does exist, and it takes more than creating and holding to one’s own idea of what Israel should be to be a Zionist. Those of us with a constancy and shared love of Israel, which I hope includes progressive Zionists, do not need, piquantly and reflexively, to redefine the relationship, but as good friends might do, as true Zionists must do, ennoble each other in reaffirming our eternal commitment to Israel as the basis for working through any transient differences of opinion.

About the Author
Saul Golubcow has published several pieces in Jewish weeklies and other Jewish forums. His subject matters have ranged from a well received piece called "The Noxious Notion of Jewish Privilege" to an article on bridging the political divide on "How We Can All Help AIPAC, to a book review of Yossi Klein Halevi's "Like Dreamers," a play review of "Bad Jews," and on the value of saying Kaddish.
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