Call for a liberal Zionist voice

It was in those first days after Sept. 11 that I found myself frustrated to be in Williamstown. My brother had just started his freshman year at Columbia, and as I was on the phone with him in the smoky aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, I felt a strong need to be in New York. I can’t really say why this was. It wasn’t a feeling that I had to give blood or help with the cleanup, and it wasn’t an exploitative fascination with the attacks. No, it was just a vague but strong pulling, and within a week it was gone; by then I was reconciled to remaining in Williamstown.

Not that “remaining in Williamstown” (God forbid!) is such severe isolation. I’ve spoken to my brother on the phone often in the past few years, usually about the situation in Israel and Palestine, and engaged in vocal chord-straining diatribes (ask my suitemates) involving a lot of swearing. With Sept. 11, our topic of discussion changed slightly, but we soon came back to speaking about our old choice of subject matter. What really concerns me, though, is that our conversations have of late become more and more frantic.

I’ll show my hand right now – I’m a liberal Zionist. So is my brother. But often it feels like there are no other liberal Zionists in America. They exist, that’s for certain. Yet for some reason their voices are quiet, or perhaps shouted over and drowned out. There’s Americans for Peace Now, the American branch of the Israeli leftist organization. There are rabbis – every rabbi I’ve met is liberal about Israel (though right-wing ones exist). And there are plenty of others. But I haven’t heard a strong liberal voice from Jewish students.

I should go back and explain some of my biases at this point and share my political standpoints. I’d call myself a Zionist, using Amos Oz’s description of Zionism: “it is good for the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel and it is bad for that people to be scattered among the nations.” I’d call myself a realist, in that I support a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital and a token right of return. I’d call myself a liberal in my thinking that Sharon’s policies are a disaster for Israelis and Palestinians and, in my grandfather’s formula, “bad for the Jews.”

Anyway, back to the students, other liberal Jews concerned about Israel and Palestine. It’s not that there aren’t many other liberal Jewish Zionists – from the conversations I’ve had, it seems there are a substantial number. But most of the activity, the protests and anger, come from the right-wing element. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

For one thing, much often legitimate criticism of Israeli policy comes from sources that don’t have much credibility in the eyes of Jews today. Criticism from Europe drips with hypocrisy; the people who brought Sykes-Picot, colonialism, Orientalism and anti-Semitism (the last two, Edward Said writes, work in the same way) give scathing attacks on Israel. The Jan. 14 issue of the New Statesman, a liberal British magazine, has on its cover a picture of a Star of David pinning down a Union Jack, with the large headline, “A kosher conspiracy?” screaming from the bottom. Without going too deeply into this, the playing off of anti-Semitic stereotypes that a Jewish conspiracy menaces the non-Jewish world is completely unacceptable. (The cover is little different from a recent cover of the National Review, a conservative American magazine, in which Saudi royals are pictured and made to look cringing, sneaky and subversive – the similarity to anti-Jewish stereotypes is obvious – with the headline “Desert Rats.”) This and other problematic criticism of Israel has so tainted itself with bias that legitimate criticisms of Israel from the far left are written off as anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic (usually in a conflation of the two).

Right-wing Zionist support of Israel, in addition, tries to put itself off as the legitimately Jewish way to view the situation in Israel and Palestine. Sometimes “Jewish Solidarity Rallies” are held, which in their cacophonies of unexamined Zionist clichés try to show themselves as the “official” Jewish approach to Israel. At Columbia, students have formed a “PLO out of NYC” group, which sponsors protests at the PLO mission in New York (it’s unclear what exactly they’re protesting) and allows students to engage in Torah study while protesting. Aside from the problematic politics of this group, the studying of Torah in this sort of protest is a desecration of God and of the Torah in its attempt to connect right-wing Zionism to Jewishness.

I guess I can see why liberal Zionists are quiet. They’re not comfortable being bedfellows with anti-Semites and they don’t like being considered un-Jewish or anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. What’s important, though, is to reject these two categorizations – being a liberal Zionist does not mean you’re cozy with anti-Semites, and it does not make you un-Jewish. (In fact, I’d argue that the only really pro-Israel view comes from the left; that Zionism is untenable in its right-wing manifestation, and the Torah demands the approach to Israel and Palestine that is labeled as liberal.) We liberal Zionists must make ourselves heard. Chaverim, at your Passover seders, think of what it means to say that you were a stranger in the land, that you were oppressed and afflicted. And have this in your heart when you say, “L’shanah haba’ah biYrushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem!”