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Addressing the “Former” Liberal Zionists

August 27, 2014

Tikvah advanced institute alumnus David Bernstein has a thoughtful post on the spate of hand-wringing articles about how hard it has become for self-described liberal Zionists to remain both liberal and Zionist. Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Bernstein rebuts this nonsensical meme. First, any feasible alternative to Zionism would be profoundly illiberal. Second, why is it suddenly so difficult for Western liberals to hold onto their Zionist views? What has really changed? Bernstein cogently refutes the idea that Israel has moved to the right, causing these liberals’ dissatisfaction:

Israel has already withdrawn from Gaza (and also left Lebanon fourteen years ago), and also has given the Palestinian Authority control of parts of the West Bank, so it’s already more “left-wing” in that sense than it was in, say, 1988, when it was still supposedly okay to be a liberal Zionist.
Speaking of 1988, of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, in that year’s elections 52 were won by parties absolutely opposed to a Palestinian state or giving up any of the West Bank: Likud (40); National Religious (5); Tehiya (3); Tzomet (2); Moledet (2).  Today, by contrast, the only party opposed to territorial compromise with the Palestinians is the Jewish Home party, with 12 seats.  Even if you assume that almost half of Likud/Yisrael Beitanu’s MKs are against territorial compromise despite their parties’ positions to the contrary, that still leaves only 27 MKs opposed to further territorial compromise, compared to the 52  in 1988 who were against the territorial compromises that have since occurred, much less anything more.
While the right-wing has declined, so, post-Oslo, has the left.  The (Jewish) left in 1988 had 39 Alignment seats, 5 “Ratz” seats, 2 Mapam seats, and 2 Shinui seats, for a total of 48 MKs.  Today, by contrast, the left has 15 Labor seats, and 6 Meretz seats, for a total of 21.
The obvious conclusion, one shared by most Israeli political analysts, is that since Oslo Israel had become a much more centrist country, with the electorate rejecting both what they see as naive peaceniks who brought the Oslo disaster upon Israel, and the right-wing vision of Greater Israel that sought to hold on to the West Bank forever not out of necessity (the absence of a peace agreement), but as a matter of principle.  The center of the Israeli electorate both wants an agreement that includes territorial compromise, and doesn’t think that such an agreement is feasible, given that past withdrawals have only led to more violence.
There’s a much simpler reason why so many “liberal” (read: left-wing) Zionists are abandoning Israel, which is that the Western left, and in particular the American left, has broadly turned against Israel–in part precisely because Israel is now more centrist, which means its far left has declined, in part because the international left needs a vulnerable Westernized bogeyman to harass, and Israel is well-suited to playing that role, and in part because the far left has, crazily enough, decided that it should ally with Islamic radicalism, Israel’s sworn enemy.
No one’s obligated to defend Israel from its enemies, intellectual and otherwise, or to consider himself a “Zionist.”  But let’s be frank.  If someone is claiming that are abandoning “liberal Zionism” because Israel’s political culture has shifted drastically to the far right, they are either lying or ignorant.

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