Posted by: sean | May 19, 2010

Zionism and liberalism

Yesterday, I read with interest Peter Beinart’s wave-making piece on American liberalism and Zionism. A few things about the ensuing debate caught my attention.

First, one of Spencer Ackerman’s posts about the piece, entitled “Those crucial internal shtetl divides,” got me to wondering why this topic is always framed as a typically Jewish debate. In other words, why is this an internal tribal discussion? And, as I’ve asked before,  why are we so rarely privy to the opinions of, say, Palestinians or other Arabs? As it stands, Beinart’s piece will be discussed and taken seriously, but would it have even been published if it had been written by an Arab? Maybe, but certainly not in the NYRB, for even Hussein Agha apparently needs a Rob Malley to talk about Palestine and Israel in The New York Review of Books. Arabs don’t really get much of a say in the American conversation, because … well I guess because we don’t think they’re capable of saying anything for themselves, or we immediately discount what they say as biased, since they’re Arabs. Why is it that many of the best known partisans of the Palestinian cause in the US aren’t Arabs? (Think Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, for example.) It’s not for a dearth of Arab voices.

Likewise, it’s important in the US to know what Alan Dershowitz  or Marty Peretz and his cronies have to say on this issue, but can we imagine similar, but converse, rhetoric (à la they make us kill their babies) being considered part of the mainstream debate? I imagine that not only would the Arab Dershowitz not be teaching at Harvard, or likely anywhere else for that matter, but that he’d likely find himself quickly embroiled in criminal proceedings for inciting violence or supporting terrorism.

Second, I predicted yesterday while chatting with a friend of mine, that we’d see Jeffrey Goldberg, who considers himself a part of the lonely liberal Zionist camp because he wrote that one op-ed criticizing settlements that time, rush to engage Beinart, however grudgingly, when a lot of his criticism mirrors what Stephen Walt has said (and with better documentation) in the past. But because he’s part of the tribe, and does the courtesy of avoiding the word “lobby,” he won’t get the same treatment as Walt, whom Goldberg describes with his usual class as a “grubby Jew-baiter” whose endorsement J-Street should have avoided more than that of Osama Bin Laden.

Finally, the one thing that this discussion of liberalism and Zionism is totally avoiding is the question of whether the two are even reconcilable in the first place. This brings up another piece, this time in Harper’s, on Yitzak Laor’s book, recently translated as The Myths of Liberal Zionism, which, comparatively speaking, went largely unnoticed in the blogosphere:

According to Laor, the singular Myth of Liberal Zionism is Liberal Zionism itself. Like the beasts Behemoth and Leviathan, a Zionis liberalis is inconceivable to Laor, because whereas his Liberal believes in openness and the policies of empathy, his Zionist—more than a century after Theodor Herzl recalled Palestine as the Judenstaat—believes that millions can be denied their patrimony, dispossessed, abused, and even murdered in the name of Jewish statehood.

As Laor writes in the preface to this essay collection, composed in Hebrew, then translated into French (published by La Fabrique éditions as Le nouveau philosémitisme européen et le “camp de la paix” en Israël), then from French into the following, with the rage intact:

History is always written by the mighty, by the victors. Even if we do not talk openly of bloodshed, of the price of our blood compared to “theirs” in the ongoing equation between sufferings, every discussion about Israel must bear in mind that over 10 million people live in this nation-state and the territories occupied by it. Half of them are Arabs, but almost 4 million of them live under military occupation, with virtually no law protecting them. Fifty percent of all the prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers—in other words, 10,000 people—are “security prisoners,” as Israel calls them, in other words Arabs from the occupied territories who are sitting in prison after being convicted by military courts, or detained without any trial at all. Close to 4 million people are currently living under the longest military occupation in modern times, stripped of the right to vote on the laws that have governed their lives for more than four decades.

This is the elephant in the room, as it were. Zionism is a form of particularist politics, based on a tribalist view of history that sees the goal as an ethno-religious nationalism in the form of a Jewish state: Israel. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a universalist conception of equality and freedom, a philosophy in which the rights of one person are equal to those of another, regardless of race, creed, language, sexuality, color, etc. So it’s difficult for me to understand how an exclusionary conception of nationalism, in this case a Jewish state, can fit into a liberalist vision of the state in which to be American or French, for example, is a purely political distinction divorced from tribal concerns of race or religion.

And there, as the bard says, is the rub. For in his discussion of his piece with Goldberg, Beinart makes this conflict between liberalism and Zionism explicit, although perhaps without meaning to do so:

I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.

In other words, he’s not asking it to be liberal at all, because in what other context would we even think of calling such a view liberal? If white Alabamians were to say the same thing about not giving blacks equal rights so as to maintain a white state, anyone who called such a view liberal would be roundly and rightly mocked. Why is it that Beinart can come out and say that the Palestinians in Yaffa and Haifa and the Negev desert (all citizens of Israel) should not be given equal rights and still call himself a liberal?

And this is the problem in a nutshell: the Zionist conception of citizenship is an illiberal one. It’s not a coincidence or a losing of the way that has led liberal American Jews away from Israel, it’s a fundamental incompatibility between Zionism and liberalism. And as Israel has become stronger and stronger, and its digressions more and more flagrant (from Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 to Gaza in 2008), this incompatibility has become more and more difficult to ignore, leaving Zionism to become more and more the territory of the distinctly illiberal ultra-Orthodox of the Meir Kahane variety, who don’t have this sort of cognitive dissonance.



  1. Thanks for the great post Shanshun!

  2. Excellent piece, Sean! (Shanshun???)

    I wonder if you have read this Magnes Zionist blog post, which I thought dissects Beinart’s piece well:

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, guys.

    T: I’ll give the Magnes post a look, and yeah, Shanshoun al-Jabbar is my nickname in some of the cozier parts of Beirut…

  4. thanks man.. that’s a great piece… does that mean you’re getting dinner tonight? ;)

  5. thanks man.. that’s a great piece… does that mean you can go to bed tonight?;)

  6. Good post. The point you make about having space as an Arab-American to pursue a dialogue is interesting. But unfortunately the right-wing US media pre-empts any debate by instinctively lurching for the red button marked “terrorism”. That poor girl who won a beauty contest, for example. Which means that it’s left up to Arab proxies to make the case.

    As you point out, a key line is “I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.” It’s like having a racist grandma in the family – one with a particularly pernicious influence.

    The vast majority of people don’t scrutinize their oxymoronic cherished beliefs too often, unless provoked. But reports like this make me hopeful
    I get the feeling that a shift is gradually occuring in the mainstream – a realization that Israel’s behaviour is making it the new South Africa, and thus, a pariah state. (Building the wall didn’t help.) Of course, I’m writing from Europe and US support is a whole other kettle of fish (thinking missile shields here.)

    But the orthodox will pretty much stick by Israel through thick and thin. The liberals will waver and split. But it’s in the middle (where most live) that any important shift will take place. And the crux won’t be reconciling contradictory beliefs; it’ll be fear of embarrassment – of being associated with an unpredictable friend, one you can freely support one day, but have to apologize for the next.

  7. Good stuff, Sean.

    I have a personal anecdote that might elucidate your point further.

    I once had this same discussion with your standard-issue Liberal Zionist Ivy League hypocrite American. After I talked about Zionism’s persecution of Palestinians, he dismissively replied: “But Zionism has nothing to do with Palestinians,” before continuing to rant about some liberal policy that Israel has.

    This was perhaps the single most illuminating moment for me in my quest to understand the minds of monomaniacal American Zionist retards like Jeff Goldberg.

    He was not joking, and he did not see anything wrong with his statement, even after I repeated to him. To him, Zionism is a wonderful ideal about saving the Jewish people, escaping the persecution of Christians and making the deserts bloom while celebrating gay marriage and providing socialized medicine. It’s all the wonderful cliches and Hasbara of Zionist Summer Camp and Birthright trips. It has absolutely nothing to do with Palestinians.

    The fate of the Palestinians is a “tragedy”–it’s “unfortunate” and what not, but it can never be brought to bear on the discussion of Zionism, because in their brains, it exists in an entirely different realm of reality from Zionism.

    This is why arguing with the Liberal Zionist American can be so exasperating. Whatever you tell him about Zionism’s effects on Palestinians simply does not register. It is irrelevant, at best. Years of Zionist Summer Camp and Birthright have succeeded in elevating Zionism in their brains into a holy ideal that has nothing to do with its victims, whose fate is of course a result of their own incompetent leaders, and not Zionism.

  8. […] Abunimah is allowed. Jimmy Carter? Too ill-informed on the subject to express an opinion. Sean Lee reads the Peter Beinart essay in the New York Review of Books and sees a religious bar. He asks "why this topic is always framed as a typically Jewish […]

  9. […] Abunimah is allowed. Jimmy Carter? Too ill-informed on the subject to express an opinion. Sean Lee reads the Peter Beinart essay in the New York Review of Books and sees a religious bar. He asks “why this topic is always framed as a typically Jewish […]

  10. David: Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right, except that the center, at least in the states, is skewed in the knee jerk pro-Likud direction, and I think that an unwillingness to listen to what Palestinians have to say (and sometimes a failure to communicate well on the part of the Palestinians — look at the difference between PA or Hamas and Israeli spokesmen) is partially to blame for that.

    Saif: I agree. I think there is a tendency to see Zionism as a theory as opposed to an actually existing national movement that was only successful by dispossessing other people. This senseless (but convenient) separation is part of the cognitive dissonance that I’m talking about.

  11. […] on Zionism and liberalism In response to my post about Zionism and liberalism, David in the comments replied that “citizenship everywhere is bounded by illiberalism,” while […]

  12. sean – you “agree” with someone who uses the phrase “american zionist retards”?

    it is really going to be hard to take seriously someone making alleged “liberal” arguments if they’re in agreement with someone like, say, mr. saifedean – known on the interwebs for many, many things, none of which are “liberal.”

    oh well.

  13. I’m not sure I understand.
    Zionism is incompatible with liberalism but the palestinian struggle for statehood is compatible with liberalism?
    And Dershowitz may be extreme but he made his name as an attorney and is extremely “noisy”. Any similarly talented arab attorney who was similarly loud about expressing his views would likely rise to the same prominence as Alan. I think the reason many of the people on both sides of this debate are jewish is because they have more time and thus confidence in america loudly expressing their opinions. I think if and when there is an arab dershowitz in america the mainstream left or right in america will be more than happy to parade them around.

  14. Why is this topic is always framed as a typically Jewish debate? Because the world is obsessed with the Jews. How much ink is spilled on Palestinian abuses at the hands of Lebanese, or Syrians, or Egyptians? The world doesn’t care about the Palestinians any more than they do any other misfortunate people (not much). The topic gets so much attention in print and on the internet because of their interest in their “oppressors.”

  15. Let’s get a couple things straight.

    Zionism, in all its many forms (and trust me, there are many), is a type of nationalism – Jewish nationalism, akin to any European nationalist movement that began in the 19th century. We often associate nationalism with current nationalists movements, which are typically illiberal. But in the 19th century, nationalism was the cornerstone of liberalism. It was nationalism that led to all the liberal revolutions in Europe. They argued that, as members of a nation, individuals had the right to have their say (by voting and other political rights) in the way their nation was governed. It argued that every nation should have its own state, where the people – not royalty or a foreign power – governed. Zionism was different only in that its “nation” was scattered across the world.

    So when people talk about “Liberal Zionism,” they are talking about that belief – that Jews should have a democratic, liberal, Jewish state. Most liberal Zionists also believe that Palestinians should also have a liberal Palestinian State. Some feel strongly about the mixing of the two (Arabs in a Jewish state, or Jews in a Palestinian state (as if the latter would ever be allowed by a future Palestinian state)), the same way that ANY liberal democracy is concerned with immigration issues. Admittedly, I’m disappointed with Beinart’s admission that he would give up his “liberalism” for Israel’s security and status as a Jewish state, although I imagine that he means “liberalism” as the opposite of conservatism rather than “liberalism” as the opposite of illiberalism.

    Also, it should be noted that not all Zionism is liberal Zionism. Orthodox Jews do not believe in liberal Zionism, neither do Russian immigrants to Israel, who have lifted Avigdor Lieberman (definitely NOT a liberal, in any sense of that word) to a position of power. People forget that parties like Kadima and Labor and Meretz and many others are all incredibly liberal parties, who believe that Arab-Israelis should have equal rights, that the security wall violates human and/or economic rights of Palestinians, and that Palestinians deserve their own state – all the while retaining Zionist beliefs.

    Just because Israel is becoming (apparently) more illiberal does not mean that Israel, by virtue of being a Jewish state, cannot be liberal. Zionism and liberalism are not mutually exclusive.

  16. Insulartaxi,

    “Zionism is incompatible with liberalism but the palestinian struggle for statehood is compatible with liberalism?”
    –That’s a good point, and a mistake that anti-Zionists can sometimes make. A Palestinian struggle for statehood that was predicated on an exclusivist definition of “Palestinian” that would exclude people based on religion, race, ethnicity or beliefs would be as illiberal as Zionism.

    But for me, the Palestinians struggle is most definitely not about that. It is, rather, specifically and exclusively anti-Zionist. It simply refuses the exclusivist, intolerant and genocidal “For Jews Only” logic of Zionism. It refuses to replace it with another intolerant logic, but rather with an inclusionary vision of a secular democratic state where rights and obligations are not relevant to religion, race or ethnicity.

    As for an Arab Dershowitz… trust me, if he did exist, it would only take a couple of weeks of batshit American Zionuts slinging mud at him to drown him out. The only parading around that’d happen to him is that where he’s accused of being an intolerant, terrorist-loving anti-Semite. Who probably likes to sleep with kids, too.


    You are utterly and demonstrably wrong. It isn’t that the world is obsessed with Jews; it’s that American Zionists are obsessed with Israel, and have for decades turned this otherwise inconsequential colonial enterprise into the vital centerpiece and raison d’être of American foreign policy and diplomacy. From 1948 until today, Zionists have continuously succeeded in getting USG to mindlessly and needlessly intervene in this god-forsaken region to the benefit of their pet colonial enterprise, to the detriment of Jews, Palestinians, Arabs and Americans.

    Had the US Government maintained a healthy and complete indifference to the fate of Israel, Palestinians and Arabs, then you wouldn’t be hearing about this all day every day. The reason you don’t hear as much about the Burmese, for instance, is simply that the world’s only superpower is NOT a bottom-bitch of the regime that is oppressing the Burmese. If the ruling Burmese military junta had a similar relationship with USG to that Israel has, then trust me, you’d hear a lot more about what is going on in Burma.

    The funny thing about grievances such as yours is that American Zionists want to continue recruiting the world’s only superpower to the endless, unconditional, and dedicated service of a shitty colonial enterprise, and yet cannot see that perhaps this might be objectionable to Americans who view their government as having other, more important, stuff to do. No, if an American thinks that, then surely it’s all because they’re “obsessed with the Jews”. It is precisely this navel-gazing myopia that afflicts people like Beinart and continues to provide endless amusement for anyone not afflicted by it.

  17. David,

    Unfortunately, your elaborate argument completely misses the main and most important point of this discussion: How can you reconcile liberalism with an exclusivist nationalism for Jews on a land that is predominantly not Jewish. All your beating around the bush completely sidesteps this point. A two-state-solution does not address this, as it still involves the creation of an exclusivist national home for a religious group on a land that is predominantly not from this religious group.

    It is impossible to get this point across to Zionists because your brain is hard-wired, through decades of Birthright and Summer Camp, to never view Zionism in terms of what it does to non-Jews who live on its land.

    Look, if you ignore the effect apartheid has on blacks, it can be a great liberal system. Similarly, if you ignored how bad it was to be black under segregation, then it appears like a wonderful system. The whole reason for their illiberalism, however, is in how they treat those they are illiberal towards!

    In order to drive this point home, let’s try a simple analogy:

    Illinois today has some %15 Latinos in its population—more than the percentage of Jews in Palestine in 1917. Now, imagine some Herzl-like megalomaniac Hispanic American came up with some (highly illiberal) religious book which he claimed comes from a “God” character who promised to make Illinois into a national homeland for Latinos from all over the world. Would you think that turning Illinois into a national homeland for Latinos is a liberal thing to do? Of course you wouldn’t, because, like any sane human being, you’d look the Latin Herzl in the eye and tell him: “That’s all really nice and dandy, but how are you going to possibly pull this off without displacing, murdering and oppressing millions of non-Latino Illinoisans?”

    For some reason, you fail to make this connection with Zionism. Good luck trying to convince people that this hypocrisy makes sense.

  18. salfedean: “How can you reconcile liberalism with an exclusivist nationalism for Jews on a land that is predominantly not Jewish.”

    Last time I looked, “land is predominantly not” anything. Land is land. Mass migrations of populations are a constant — perhaps *the* constant — of human history, as your analogy by way of Latinos in Illinois inadvertently demonstrates. The unspoken premise of your argument is that the area of land marked off by the state boundaries of Illinois is legitimately ‘predominantly white,’ for no better reason than because that happens to be the majority population living there *now.* Go back 150 to 200 years, and this was absolutely not the case. Yet you conveniently ‘forget’ that earlier majority population, which the ancestors of our contemporary “sane human being” did in fact, displace, murder and oppress in the process of changing the demographic profile of the area.

    So my first question to you is: at what point did your statute of limitations kick in, such that you will accept the results of one history of displacement, which was not, after all, as long ago as all that, but reject the results of another, somewhat more recent history of displacement? Moreover, as a sane human being surveying the situation as it exists today, I’d like to put to you a second question: how do you expect to pull off the overthrow of illiberal Zionism with displacing, murdering and oppressing millions of Israeli Jews?

  19. David,

    I’m delighted you’ve precisely pin-pointed the root of your misunderstanding of my argument.

    I entirely agree with you that land is never predominantly anything. Now notice that that is precisely why I reject all sorts of exclusivist definitions of nationalism; and that that is precisely why Zionism is not and cannot be liberal. Palestine is not Jewish any more than it is Muslim or Christian.

    I don’t believe that any ethnicity/race/religion ever has the right to demarcate land as belonging to them, and as a result kill, dispossess or persecute anyone. Any person who happens to live anywhere, in my book, has the right to stay there. There is nothing—religious, nationalist, ethnic, racial or astrological—that justifies expelling or killing them.

    Our disagreement is exposed fully in your misunderstanding of my Illinois analogy. The unspoken premise of my argument is NOT, as you state, “that the area of land marked off by the state boundaries of Illinois is legitimately ‘predominantly white’”. The explicit premise of my argument is that the land of Illinois (and everywhere) is legitimately belonging only to whoever happens to live there—regardless of any elements of their identity.

    It is not just “whites” who would be displaced by a Hispanic Homeland in Illinois; it is also blacks, Arabs, Asians, Jews, Native Americans, and many other identities that do not meet the approval of the Hispanic Herzl.

    I do not ‘forget’ the history of displacement, murder, and oppression in Illinois and everywhere else. But, to answer your first question to me, I have a perfectly consistent position towards all of these acts whenever and wherever they take place. There is no statute of limitations to my view, but nor does there need to be. My view is thus: it is wrong and illiberal to ever expel, murder, oppress, or persecute anyone because of their religion/race/ethnicity. Anytime this takes place, I oppose it. Once it has taken place, I strive to stop it from continuing. I do not believe in retributive justice, and so would never seek to displace those who have carried out displacement—only to stop them from doing more of it.

    Therefore, if Hispanic Herzl wanted to establish Hispanic Illinois today, I’d oppose him as if he was Ben Gurion, Cecil Rhodes, or any other two-bit colonialist. If he does succeed in doing it, I would not want to kick out any Hispanics from Illinois—only to give the non-Hispanic inhabitants of Illinois the right to return to it and live normal lives not persecuted because of their non-Hispanicism.

    The answer to your second question will clarify my point further. You asked “how do you expect to pull off the overthrow of illiberal Zionism [without] displacing, murdering and oppressing millions of Israeli Jews?”

    I intend to overthrow illiberal Zionism precisely by NOT displacing, murdering and oppressing millions of Jews. In my mind, the dismantlement of Zionism involves the displacement of Jews precisely as much as the dismantling of Jim Crow involved the displacement of whites. As a liberal person, I believe that every single Jew in all of historic Palestine has a right to stay where they are. No one has the right to displace anyone—even West Bank settler thieves who stole their houses last week. I want all of them to stay where they are. All that I want is the RIGHT to live wherever I want in Palestine, as well. I don’t care about claims to specific pieces of property—these can all be easily settled financially. What matters is the nullification of the illiberal and criminal political order that makes it a crime—punishable by death—for me to even set foot in my grandfather’s land in Palestine.

    The key point is that if you have a true liberal political system where land-ownership, citizenship and civil rights are entirely unrelated to religion/race/ethnicity, then you will not have any religion/race/ethnicity problems. If you have a system where land-ownership, citizenship, and civil and human rights are a function of meaningless parochial categories, these categories become a problem. Historic Palestine is itself the best living embodiment of this. For hundreds of years before Zionism Palestine was almost completely peaceful. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, atheists, whites, browns, blacks and a spattering of other sects, groups, ethnicities all coexisted peacefully, because there was no political system that repressed any of them based on these criteria.

    As soon as dumbass European colonialists came to us with their wonderful concepts of ethno-nationalism and political messianism, we’ve had the most awful century of our history. (Cheers, Lord Balfour!) Another tragedy is how some Palestinians (Hamas) have adopted these retarded and criminal concepts that shaped Zionism and used them to build a Palestinian anti-Zionism that aspires to a political and religious illiberalism that is almost as bad as that of Zionism.

    These exclusivist and ethno-nationalist concepts are disgusting social diseases that have brought us nothing but hundreds of years of bloodshed and murder. The sooner people grow out of them, the better.

    Finally, let me just clarify my position further: If Zionism is to be overthrown through an equally illiberal political force that does to Jews what Zionism did to non-Jews, you can expect me to be the first to oppose that illiberal political force.

    I’d written this piece a long while back which I feel is very relevant to this discussion:

  20. […] had my interest piqued by an exchange between Sean Lee and Spencer Ackerman (here’s Lee, then Ackerman, then Lee, then Ackerman again) on the compatibility – or not – of […]

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