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Progressive answers to anti-Zionism — Part 1: A vision of what Israel could be

There are perfectly reasonable, articulate, well-meaning people who share many of the values of progressive Zionists but do not believe the Jewish state should exist.

It is possible to believe this without being anti-Semitic. It is possible to believe this and still denounce protestors against the Jewish state who treat Palestinians suicide bombers as freedom fighters. It is possible to believe this without advocating that Jews currently living in Israel should leave or lose the ability to govern themselves (some one-state advocates are pushing for a federal system).

Too many mainstream Jewish leaders are so appalled by the increasing popularity of anti-Zionism that they want to deprive all of its advocates of all platforms. Sometimes that makes sense, as when arguments against Israel rely on grandiose conspiracy theories about international Jewry that are recycled versions of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But dismissing all anti-Zionists as “beyond the pale” is ill-advised. On campuses and on the blogosphere and in polite conversations among educated Americans, this anti-Zionist/anti-Israel train has left the station. It is impossible to call it back. The only response that will help Israel is to explain why it is the wrong train and then offer another, better vehicle to board.

The best essay I have read on this thorny issue is by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. Entitled “Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism?” it is included in an indispensable anthology edited by Ron Rosenbaum, Those Who Forget the Past. Alas, I can’t find it anywhere on the Web and I won’t labor to insert most of it here. But suffice it to say that it makes careful distinctions between different kinds of anti-Zionists, culling the alarming ones from those who deserve to be answered:

As the novelist Howard Jacobson puts it, when Jews see an attack on Israel they see an attack on “a version of themselves.” This should at least give anti-Zionists pause: much as they insist that they condemn only Zionists, not Jews, this is not how Jews themselves experience it. The Jewish people has made up its mind since 1945 and it has embraced Zionism. To stand against that idea now is to stand against a core Jewish belief.

Yet we should not use this fact to close down discussion. After all, it’s possible to disagree with someone, even on one of their most closely held principles, without hating them. That should hold true for anti-Zionists; surely they should be allowed to disagree with Zionism without being branded as a hater of Jews. Recall for a moment the Bundists, socialists, and communist Jews of the pre-Holocaust period who believed Jewish redemption would come through revolution rather than return. Were they anti-Semites? Of course not.

What Freeland doesn’t mention, of course, is that many anti-Zionists are Jews. Many of them are furious with Israeli policies and the legacy of Zionism. They do not believe that Israel, in its current form –or, perhaps, in any possible form–has enough of a moral basis to justify their support. Some of them claim the objections they raise are based on decidedly Jewish values.

There was a time when my Labor Zionist parents and grandparents felt compelled to make the case for Zionism and a Jewish homeland, to come up with cogent arguments that could convince fellow Jews as well as the rest of the world. Progressive Zionists should not shirk that responsibility now.

In this post and few others that will follow, I want to suggest some responses to anti-Zionist arguments. These suggestions are offered for the consideration of people who are mortified by the ongoing occupation and the plight of the Palestinians, but believe Jews deserve a state of their own.

Let’s start with some answers to Tony Judt, the NYU professor who has shaken up the intellectual firmament by arguing that Israel is essentially an anachronism and that a single bi-national state is the only answer.

On March 6th, 2007, I participated in a panel discussion jointly hosted by Meretz USA and Ameinu. It focused on recent critical writings on Israel and the American Jewish community by Jimmy Carter and Professors Mearsheimer, Walt and Judt. The response of Meretz USA’s Ralph Seliger to Tony Judt is worth thinking about. Here is a small snippet of his presentation:

…[Judt] opened a new chapter in his public profile with an article in the NY Review of Books on Oct. 23, 2003 called: “Israel: The Alternative.” This instantly made him both more famous and controversial. Let me read a section that gives you the gist:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded— is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism. [Emphasis added by DF]

“In one vital attribute, however, Israel is quite different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: it is a democracy. Hence its present dilemma. Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.

“Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy “Samaria,” “Judea,” and Gaza, whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.

“Or else Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah….”

[Seliger continues]:

I agree with much of this analysis; I don’t doubt that there is an overlap in values and concerns between Prof. Judt and ourselves, but Judt throws the baby out with the bathwater in challenging the legitimacy of any kind of Jewish state — which he defines as “a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded.” But this is not the kind of Jewish state which we in Meretz USA or the Meretz party in Israel support.

I don’t think that our definition would trouble most Labor Zionists or other Zionists either…Meretz supports an Israel that is Jewish in the sense that it respects certain cultural conventions of the Jewish majority of the population: the calendar is influenced by the Jewish week (with the sabbath falling on Saturday, not on Sunday, and the weekend being Friday and Saturday) and that Passover, the High Holy Days, and other Jewish holidays have a significance on a par with Christmas and Easter in this country; Christmas and Easter are not simply honored as religious holidays here, but mainly as cultural conventions of a majority of the US population.

And, vitally important: Meretz supports a Jewish state that is also a state of all its citizens, respecting the aspirations of non-Jewish Israelis to equal rights as citizens. This would mean, for example, that Israeli-Arab towns and neighborhoods should have equal funding for public works and education and that Arab citizens feel an equal stake in Israel as their state — as indicated in Israel’s declaration of Independence: to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex….”

– – –
Now, there is much else that could be said about Judt, notably his advocacy of a one-state solution. Seliger argues against other, specific points the professor has made. But I’ve included that excerpt because it provides something that is often lacking when people try to defend Israel: a credible, moral vision of what Israel could be.

The most troubling anti-Zionist argument is one that treats the entire basis of Israel as an evil ethnic construct, –i.e., it will always confer privileges on a Jewish majority and openly discriminate against an Arab minority. It is insufficient, I think, to respond by pointing to the many other ethnic constructs and national self-definitions that exist throughout the world, and to ask why Jews should not have the same right of self-determination as everyone else. It is not enough to ask why Israel’s accusers are ignoring the practices of so many other states or ethnic groups that are much worse, much less defensible. It is not enough to say, simply, that Jewish refugees had no choice after the Holocaust, there was no place else to go, there was nothing else that could be done, the Jewish state was a moral necessity, but a very high moral price –the dispossession of other people durlng a war for survival– had to be paid for it.

Those familiar are arguments are good ones. But they don’t provide answers to the specific problems currently faced by Israel’s Arab citizens or by Palestinians living under occupation or the Palestinian diaspora.

One answer –a moral answer– is to end the occupation and give Palestinians a homeland of their own. Another is provided by the many liberal Israeli Jews who support the abolition of a wide range of laws and practices that clearly discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens. They include some practices of cherished Zionist institutions, which should be –and, lately, have been– questioned harshly.

I put the legal structures that govern the use and development of land by the Jewish National Fund in that category. Dating back to the pre-state era, these regulations still prevent Arabs from building and leasing on this land. In my brand of Zionism, they are not justified and should be abolished.

My brand of Zionism is exemplified by the tireless Israeli Jews who are working together with Israeli Arabs to figure out a way for the country to have some kind of Jewish character without denying Arabs full economic, political and cultural equality. There is no good reason why a program that includes aggressive affirmative action, mandatory civil service for Israel’s Arabs instead of military service, the mandatory teaching of Arabic in majority-Jewish schools, and other measures could not be implemented. Will such steps solve every problem? Of course not. But other nations, including the U.S., continue to struggle with the challenge of addressing the plight of historically disenfranchised minorities. Israel need not be viewed any differently, despite its tortured past, despite conflicting narratives about that past.

If you think that is hopelessly naive, check out an optimistic piece in this week’s Forward by Youseff Jabereen, co-author of the controversial document: “The Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” He describes Israeli Jews’ surprisingly positive reactions to many ideas proposed in that ambitious document, which I won’t sum up here. The goal of real Jewish-Arab equality may not be attainable. But there are some very smart, very admirable Israeli insiders who refuse to believe it is out of reach.

When people reject the very idea of a “Jewish state,” one answer is to describe what that state ought to be, and what it can be.

More to come, I hope, in a few days.

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