What does it mean to be a “Liberal / Progressive Zionist”?

Friends ask me this question with the caveat, “I don’t understand exactly what that means”. I was talking to a few Krav Maga friends (some Israeli, some American) and one of my American friends said, “You really are a Zionist – huh?” I answered back with a “Yep, but, I am a Liberal Zionist”. Which followed with the question “Hmmm what does that mean?”. So I gave him my standard answer and then I thought more on what it means to be a “Liberal / Progressive Zionist”.

Here is what I came up with.

As I wrote here the other day, I think that Zionism is the progressive position to take regarding Israel and the Jewish people. It is my opinion that Zionism is a large tent, but, first and foremost it is a simple concept at the root of it. Simply put, I believe Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a legitimate right to self determination in a Nation State in part of their ancestral homeland in the Middle East.

And here the Jewish Virtual Library states:



The national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.  Has come to include the development of the State of Israel and the protection of the Jewish nation in Israel.

So in a lot of ways beyond this basic definition the term “Zionism” is a very broad term which includes people from people like Zahava Gal-On (Leader of the Leftist Israeli party – Meretz) to Michael Ben-Ari (Leader of the neo-Kahanist Otzma L’Yisrael), both of whom can legitimately be called “Zionists” (whether we like it or not). Now does this mean that people from Meretz and people from Otzma are the same? Of course it doesn’t mean that. Only a simpleton (and some goofy anti-Zionists) believe something like that.

No, because it’s a “big tent” Zionism allows for a great deal of divergence in its thought. There are Religious Zionists, Secular Zionists, Nationalist Zionists, Conservative Zionists, Centrist Zionists, and Liberal / Progressive Zionists, just to name a few varieties.

So what does it mean to be a “Liberal / Progressive” Zionist? In my mind it means a few things. Most important to me though it means that I support the concept of a National Homeland and State for the Jewish people that is also a Westernized, Democratic Nation State with separation between Synagogue and State. I believe in a State that respects true democracy. A State that respects all of its citizens no matter what race, religion, and or cultural background they may have. I support a State that embraces equality for Women and for its LGBT community. I also support a State that maintains the common cultural aspects of the Jewish community regardless of the level of religious observance. In short I support a State that is the a model of “Jewish Democracy”. I am heartened by the words of the Israeli Declaration of Establishment of Statehood when it states:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

I think that these are noble goals. Now, is it realistic that everything will be met… Of course not, we are after human beings. No one is perfect. At the same time I think it is important that we strive to be better than what we are. Isn’t that a goal of being a person, to always improve oneself?

At the same time, I believe very strongly that becoming like our enemies will destroy who we are as well as the “spirit” of our people. I believe we can be and should be better than our enemies who I believe often times exhibit the worst parts of human behavior. In my mind, if I engage in the same tactics as my enemy what exactly makes me better than him/her, and if I am not better… then what’s the point in the long run. Does this mean I advocate defenseless behavior? In now way, shape, or form do I advocate that. I believe in stoutly defending our safety and principles, I just don’t believe we have eject our values and principles to do so.

So what does this mean for Modern Day Israel and by extension the Modern Day Jewish Community?

It means coming to terms with how and what we support in our own political polities. In the U.S., it means supporting candidates who believe in Progressive / Liberal values for the American People. What are those values? See above. It means that despite Rightwing “hackery” (I just made this word up), it means voting for and supporting those candidates that support social and economic justice for all Americans, not just those in the top 2%. It means not using another nation’s politics as an excuse to not support candidates that support (relatively) social and economic justice in one’s own nation. And by no means does it mean supporting candidates that expressly vote against social and civil rights at home.

What does it mean for Israel and the Jewish Community? It means supporting those organizations that support social justice and democracy in Israel (being consistent after all is important). It means supporting the rights of Israelis no matter what their background (Jewish, Muslim, or Christian) to enjoy equal civil rights. It means supporting democracy in its truest form. It means supporting the rights of all members of the Jewish community with regards to worship and marriage.

What does it mean in terms of Israeli foreign policy and in particular how Israel deals with the issues of the West Bank and the Occupation? It means supporting a defensible State. As a Liberal / Progressive Zionist, I heartily applaud the efforts of President Obama and his agenda of working hand in hand with the Israelis to increase their security and well being. It also means supporting a viable Two State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It means supporting a solution where both Israelis AND Palestinians can realize their legitimate rights to self determination.

What a “liberal” does not support is either side’s version of a “One State Solution”, and the disenfranchisement or ethnic cleansing of citizens and residents of the area.

For me, it is fine to call oneself a Zionist as long as that person believes in the legitimate rights of self determination of the Jewish people. What is wrong is when Rightists try to steal the term “liberal” and instead support parties and groups which are strictly opposed to Democracy, and Civil Rights in any polity, whether it be here (in the U.S.) or abroad.

So, this is how I view what Zionism is and what I believe it should be. I believe that our people after 2,500 + years of oppression by others should reach to our “higher selves” and remember to maintain the humanity and sense of justice that has kept us going as a people for all this time. It by no means, means that we should be weak or allow others to take advantage of us, but, I do believe that we can be both strong as well as hold to our higher ideals as much as is humanely possible.



About the Author
Jon Segall is creator of the blog The Progressive Zionist. Jon has lived in Israel and studied Israeli and American Policy in the region. Currently Jon, is re-learning Hebrew, and is an active practitioner of the Israel Self Defense Martial Art Krav Maga.
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