The increasingly popular claim that Zionism and liberalism are incompatible misreads contemporary Israeli politics, modern Zionism and liberalism itself.
Zionism, like Americanism, is a form of liberal nationalism, one of the world’s most constructive, successful ideologies. Liberalism and Zionism remain not just compatible but mutually reinforcing.
Like George W. Bush’s America, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is a diverse democracy, with its current conservative government vigorously opposed politically and within civil society. Israel has a powerful left-leaning judiciary, an outspoken left-leaning press, and an influential left-leaning intelligentsia. In Israel today, women’s legal rights to an abortion are rarely questioned. Gays serve openly in the military. Israel’s labor federation, the Histadrut, remains formidable.
Moreover, in the last 15 years, as Israel ceded control of most major Palestinian population centers to the Palestinian Authority and left Gaza, most Israelis accepted the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism. Netanyahu’s government has endorsed a two-state solution, dismantled checkpoints and nurtured the West Bank economy. By contrast, most Arabs continue to repudiate Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism. The Israeli peace consensus, which has consistently supported territorial compromise, is currently stymied because the recent concessions triggered violence, followed by international condemnation when Israeli defended itself.
While Israelis quarrel about how to achieve peace, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel combined with Israel’s continuing control over millions of Palestinians has helped make Israel politically poisonous to many liberals.
Back in 1975, when the Soviet-Third World alliance in the United Nations labeled Zionism racism, the mainstream American liberal establishment denounced the UN, not Israel. UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that this “terrible lie” assaulting democracy and decency would enter like a toxin into the bloodstream of international discourse. Subsequently, the Soviet Union collapsed. The UN repealed the resolution in 1991. But the poison persists.
Israel remains the only nation on probation, with its legitimacy seemingly contingent on good behavior. Exaggerating Israel’s rightward shift and concluding that the state never belonged in the Middle East internalizes the relentless attacks rejecting its right to exist.
Treating support for Israel as a right-wing phenomenon ignores the longstanding calls for a “big tent” Zionism spanning right and left, and overlooks the common sources that spawned liberalism and Zionism. Both movements stemmed from the Enlightenment, with central values rooted in the Bible. Zionism and liberalism are intertwined with that sometimes ennobling, sometimes cruel, but defining modern movement — nationalism.
Modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, harmonized these three intellectual currents. In his visionary 1896 book, “The Jewish State,” Herzl dreamed of the Jewish state as a liberal model for the world. Herzl articulated the essential Zionist message still true today, echoed in America’s liberal nationalism, that national self-determination can provide the best framework to achieve utopian ideals collectively. Communities first must unite and protect their members before becoming forces for good.
Israel’s proclamation of independence in 1948 reconciles Zionism and liberalism, achieving universalism through particularism, by establishing a Jewish state rooted in Jewish history, expressing Jewish culture, carving out a Jewish public space, while promising equal rights to all its inhabitants. Despite tensions and imperfections, a liberal democratic oasis has sprung up in a harsh totalitarian desert. As Barack Obama eloquently told the Atlantic Monthly in 2008, Zionism represents this “incredible opportunity … when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”
Liberal nationalism American style — and Israeli style — enjoys the magical gift of self-correction. In countries offering their citizens equal rights, the natural logic of those guarantees have dramatically expanded freedom for all residents. Free speech, in particular, serves as a battering ram, knocking down hypocrisies, orthodoxies, inequities, injustice. Without changing regimes, America progressed from being a slave-holding white male democracy to today’s multicultural democracy.
Like Americanism, Zionism has never been static or monolithic. Zionism’s founders were charmingly, creatively, fragmented. Labor Zionists battled Revisionist Zionists. Cultural Zionists combated Political Zionists. Today, Religious Zionism and settler Zionism flourish alongside multicultural Zionism, eco-Zionism, entrepreneurial Zionism, feminist Zionism, and two-state-solution Zionism.
Those on the left who so demonize Zionism and romanticize Palestinianism to the point that they ignore Hamas’ violence against Palestinians and Israelis, violate liberalism’s core commitments to individual liberty and fair, rational conclusions. Progressives should delight in the vitality of Israel’s democracy, the vigor of its press, the power of its courts, the creativity of its universities, the dynamism of its population, the brashness of its many patriotic critics, the rights of its minorities, the freedom and equality so many of its citizens enjoy.
The Jewish and liberal traditions of development through disputation thrive in Israel, analyzing shortcomings, advancing reforms. Nevertheless, Israel, facing serious challenges, stumbles, like every nation-state, like all human creations. While criticizing Israel’s faults, without pulling any punches, also reaffirming the historic, harmonic convergence between liberalism and Zionism can help redeem Zionism — and liberalism.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His upcoming seventh book on American history will analyze Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s battle against the 1975 UN Zionism is racism resolution.
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