American Jews Far left Israel Palestinians Progressive Jews Zionism

Progressive answers to anti-Zionism — Part 2: Alternative visions

Some respondents to my previous post on “What Israel Could Be” were predictably furious that anyone could associate the word “progressive” with the word “Zionism.” They described Zionism as a movement that was, by its very definition, murderous and evil.

“Zionism” is one of those elastic words or phrases that have long since lost a precise meaning, like “civil rights.” Especially on the blogosphere, people can choose whatever definition they want to choose and base their complaints on those definitions. If one tries to offer alternative definitions, one is accused of justifying or rationalizing “criminal” acts committed by Israelis.

No one can win this argument. The gaps are too wide. But other people are tuning into the argument, on blogs and on campus. Some of them are still trying to make up their minds about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For them, it is important to respond to the bilious and inaccurate definitions, and to show that throughout this century, there were many versions of Zionism. And some of the pre-’48 visions were energized by the same goals and concerns about the plight of Palestinian Arabs that motivate many “progressive Zionists” today.

So let’s start with a definition of Zionism from “,” which is similar to those found in a number of dictionaries: “A Jewish movement that arose in the late 19th century in response to growing anti-Semitism and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Modern Zionism is concerned with the support and development of the state of Israel.” That’s close, although the first sentence doesn’t convey the fact that the movement was a response to the historic and continuous oppression of Jews long before the 19th century.

Compare the above definition to the following comments by some of my blog’s newest visitors:

“Saifedean Ammous” says:

I will always be against anyone who decides to get together in a group and kill other people because they do not belong to that group. Whether that group is based on religion, race, horoscope or shoe size matters nothing to me; what matters is that you do not kill others who do not belong to it, or kick them out of their homes.

“Zionism is a movement that chose to make a land available to a section of people based on one of these criteria and decided to ethnically cleanse and subjugate everyone else who doesn’t belong, who also happened to be the majority. I would oppose it no matter who carries it out and regardless of in which group’s names they carry it out

And “Kevin” Says:

We can’t somehow re-make the present ideology and institutions of Zionism by claiming it has a hidden “progressive” side. To do this is incredibly naive, and a betrayal of progressive values such as multiculturalism, legal rights for all citizens (and non-citizens), and fundamentally, restitution for historical injustices (which is written into the fabric of progressive idealism, which in the US includes the civil rights struggle and the rejection of slavery, etc).

… “Progressive” zionism can only exist when the modern concept of Zionism is drained of its core concepts — a muscular ethno-religious nationalism based upon conquest and settlement. The notion that Jews in historical Palestine have a right to political self-determination isn’t Zionism. The notion that Jews may be “safe” within a national entity isn’t Zionism. The idea that passover may be a state holiday isn’t Zionism: to call these Zionism while rejecting the ethno-religious nationalism that has defined the ideology means to redefine the term and to rethink its history.

I would argue this is only possible when Israel sheds Zionism as ideological underpinning and identity of the state, i.e. in a binational, federal or unitary state within the borders of historical Palestine.

So the first definition presents all Zionists as people who decided to murder another people and, apparently from the start, had “ethnic cleansing” in mind.

The second respondent insists that there is only one definition of Zionism: a “muscular ethno-religious nationalism based upon conquest and settlement.” The writer, Kevin, adamantly refuses to define it any other way. He claims that offering anything other than that definition would “redefine the term and…rethink its history.”

Not true. “The notion that Jews in historical Palestine have a right to political self-determination” is, in fact, Zionism. “The notion that Jews may be `safe’ within a national entity” is Zionism. Those are my definitions, Kevin. They are our definitions. You can’t strip them away from those who choose to call themselves Zionists.

More importantly, different Zionists, pre-’48, had different ideas about how to translate those goals into reality. Their example shows that it is not necessary, as Kevin claims, to completely remake the idea of Zionism in order to leave room for humanistic values and a commitment to find a solution that addresses Palestinian suffering and statelessness.

In the 20th century, some rather prominent Jews called themselves “Zionists” and believed that while Jews needed a homeland, it was possible and necessary to accomplish that without displacing another people or denying them fundamental rights. They did what they could to balance progressive –or at least liberal– values with the practical necessity of giving a constantly shunned, constantly victimized people –i.e., the Jews –a place to lively securely and to govern itself.

The best-known and most intriguing examples were set by Martin Buber; Judah Magnes, the American-born President of the Hebrew University; and Henrietta Szold, the American -born President of Hadassah. These were not exactly lightweights in Palestine or in the Jewish world. In 1942, they formed a political movement called “Ihud” (Hebrew for “unification”), which pushed for a bi-national solution. “We think that if the attempt is made to convert Palestine into a Jewish state or an Arab State there will be no peace here,” Magnes said. He pushed for “a large union across Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon so that Jews could immgrate to Palestine without upsetting Arab sensitivities over the whole region,” according to Peter Grose in Israel in the Mind of America .

Then there was HaShomer Hatzair, the left-wing socialist group in Palestine that pushed for a united movement of Arab and Jewish workers. Like Ihud, it favored a binational state. On the eve of the creation of the state of Israel, Hashomer Hatzair proclaimed:

…the only path…that is related to progressive world policy and opens up new horizons for the Zionist enterprise is a Zionist policy based on political equality between Jews and Arabs in an undivided Palestine…the development of the land For the benefit of both of its peoples, and speeding its march toward independence as a bi-national state.

This group was one of the ideological precursors (I’m oversimplifying tangled Israeli politics) of Meretz, whose vision of a Jewish state was cited in my previous post

Even Chaim Weitzman was not an advocate of a muscular ethno-nationalism, or at least not one as muscular as other Zionist leaders. One of the most important figures in Zionist history took a minimalist approach to the question of Jewish statehood for decades. Even as late as 1942, when more militant, nationalist Zionists were pressing for a full-fledged, independent Jewish state, he wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs that proposed an autonomous Jewish Palestine integrated within a Levantine Arab federation. And he and his allies pushed for that in a critically important gathering of American Zionists, the Biltmore Conference. That sounds reasonably close to some of the solutions offered by Kevin.

All of these questers for a just Zionism lost the argument. But they bore no resemblance to the bloodthirsty ogres depicted by Saifedean Ammous in the first comment excerpted above. I’d like to think that, had I been alive at the time, I would have joined them.

Now, it is too late for the kind of binational state envisioned by Buber, or Magnes, or Kevin, or Saifedean (who no doubt would be mortified at the idea of agreeing with self-described Zionists), even if one believes that is a just solution. The problem is not only that it is impractical, and would be impossible to implement without horrific violence and would permanently heat up simmering tensions between two distinctively different ethnic groups. Another problem is that, since the Israelis will never accept it, those who advocate it are helping to perpetuate a cruel delusion among Palestinians refugees, who desperately need a homeland of their own. They won’t get one unless it is in a state next to Israel. End of story

But even though their goals were different, the likes of Magnes, Buber and Szold had the same motivations and basic values as today’s progressive Zionists, who are fighting against occupation and settlement expansion and pressing Israel not to take steps to preclude a 2-state solution. They were trying to do the right thing, the just thing, against daunting odds. So are we. That is my definition of progressive Zionism.

Comments are closed.