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Of nationalism, liberalism, and dhimmitude

Is there a way of life for everyone from the river to the sea that upholds commitments to both nation and liberalism?

Reported on Israel radio this week: A new survey of Jewish Israelis finds that a full 32 percent support annexation of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria WITHOUT extension of full citizenship to its residents.

This demonstrates a longstanding truth regarding a conflict at the heart of Zionism. Zionism is a melding of nationalism and liberalism. This melding of commitments lies at the ideological heart of most liberal nation states. In a sense, the whole Dreyfus affair in France was a test case for just such a conflict. The dreyfussards fought to establish a liberal ascendancy in French identity, wherein the fundamental definition of Frenchness was citizenship in the republic. The anti-dreyfussards fought to subordinate liberalism to an ethno-catholic foundation of French identity. The dreyfussards won. But the anti-dreyfussard ideology persists in La Pen’s National Front.

The entire rationale for a two-state solution in liberal Zionist circles is a manipulation of demography to forestall just such a conflict between liberalism and nationalism, because it is clear that in Israel, nationalism will trump liberalism. So liberals, from the right as well as from the left (see Meridor and Olmert), seek an end run around this issue. Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid’s great centrist hope, wants a divorce and higher walls for just such a reason. At last years Herzliya Conference, Boujie Herzog, head of Labor/Zionist Union, called for renewal of a diplomatic process aimed at a two-state solution because he doesn’t want to see a Knesset with 61 Palestinian members (a majority of 120) or a Palestinian prime minister of Israel. At the same time, these leaders of the Zionist mainstream political establishment, including Benjamin Netanyahu — if we take him at his word — vigorously endorse full equality for Arab/Palestinian citizens.

But how is a Palestinian citizen fully equal if the entire mechanism of statehood and its parameters is manipulated to limit his or her participation to that of a welcome, but junior partner?

In a certain sense, this attitude mirrors Palestinian contentions that they have never had issues with Jews, only with Zionists. Jews as individuals, as minorities, are welcome. But Jews as a politically organized and self-determining community that is demographically significant, or a majority, is intolerable. Such statements are often contested by those who equate this attitude with an internalization of the religious logic of the dhimmi, whereby Muslims are obligated to tolerate Jews and Christians as regulated minorities. Accordingly, one can see this liberal Zionist attitude toward Palestinian citizens as a form of secular dhimmitude. The survey that shows a growing number of Israeli Jews supporting annexation of Judea and Samaria without extending full citizenship is only different from this attitude regarding Palestinian citizens in degree, but not in logic or essence.

Jewish-Israeli liberals and Palestinian liberals, whether citizens or residents, need to think together about how to negotiate our conflicts between our liberal and national commitments more forthrightly, more honestly, and not just try and set up demographic and political mechanisms to defer them time and again. Can there be a way of life here between the river and the sea for us to live our commitments to nationhood and liberalism together? What would that look like?

And perhaps the best way to catalyze this process would be to encourage the right to bring its annexation bills to the floor of the Knesset for a real national debate. My hope would be that those on both sides who take their liberal commitments as seriously as their national commitments, as I do, might find new possibilities for building coalitions and expanding our political imaginations together. No one should have to subordinate liberal ethics to national identity, or vice versa. Perhaps my hope is quixotic. But the entire Zionist enterprise has been quixotic, as has the entire development and history of contemporary Palestinian identity. It’s past time to be ideologically and politically quixotic together.

About the Author
Ori Weisberg is a writer, editor, and translater. He holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at Michigan State University in English and Jewish Studies, was a Golda Meir Post-Doctoral Fellow and served as Guest Lecturer at The Hebrew University, as well as at The Kibbutzim College and Bar Ilan University. Dr. Weisberg is also the composer of "Hashoshanim," a world-beat setting of the entire text of Shir Hashirim in an 18-song song cycle. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three implausibly attractive children.