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Beyond Liberal Zionism: How I became a non-Zionist

Changes in Israeli society are rendering Liberal Zionism’s political program impracticable and irrelevant. Non-Zionism provides an alternative.

By Daniel J. Solomon

A Jewish settler attaches an Israeli flag to a tree in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, January 29, 2010 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Jewish settler attaches an Israeli flag to a tree in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. (File photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The past decade has not been kind to Liberal Zionists. Israel’s far-right government has undermined democratic norms at every turn, entrenched occupation via continued settlement building, and sought to snuff out the national aspirations of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the American left has taken a harder line on Israel that shades into questioning the Jewish state’s right to exist.

Being a Liberal Zionist today means inhabiting a political no man’s land. And there is something to admire in the tenacity of its proponents. Jewish nationalism is a complex historical phenomenon that should not be reduced to the closed, exclusionary ideology which both far-right and far-left would make of it.

But political labels must eventually correspond to political realities. Just as there are no more American Federalists, French Radicals, or English Whigs, changes in Israeli society are rendering the Liberal Zionist program impracticable and irrelevant. The available evidence suggests that Liberal Zionism is destined for the same fate as those bygone parties.

The left in Israel has been on the back-foot for the better part of two decades. Israel’s Labor Party has not won a national election since 1999, and seems poised to suffer dramatic losses in the upcoming Knesset contest. The country’s rising generation is more religious and right wing than its elders, polling indicates. And racist rhetoric increasingly finds an echo in the political mainstream, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s notorious warning about “Arab droves” heading to the polls to Yair Lapid’s more recent denunciation of an interfaith marriage.

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Nor has Israel spared Liberal Zionists in the crusade against its critics. Under the anti-boycott law passed in 2017, border agents now rifle through the reading materials of left-wing activists and question them on their political beliefs. The harassment has touched prominent liberals in the American Jewish community, among them Peter Beinart and Meyer Koplow.

The law has also been turned against the limited boycott of West Bank settlements that Liberal Zionists have long advocated. After the vacation rental service Airbnb announced in November it would de-list properties in the occupied territories, settlers took advantage of the legislation to file a class action lawsuit against the company. The government’s message to Liberal Zionists could not be clearer: swallow the occupation or be treated as anathema.

When support for a state means endorsing its repeated and unrepentant human rights violations, liberals will drop their support for that state. And rightly so, for in a modern political order, the state’s legitimacy is based on its respect for fundamental liberties, not some imagined scriptural right to land.

Liberal Zionists have acknowledged as much. Beinart, the dean of the movement, made this exact point in his landmark 2010 essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” He wrote at the time that “the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” Not even a decade later, the doorstep can no longer be avoided — this is a time for choosing.

As a recovering Liberal Zionist, I have found non-Zionism to be the most congenial self-descriptor. Political labels are amorphous, and it can be difficult to tease out the difference between non-Zionism and its more radical cousin, anti-Zionism. I would argue that anti-Zionists and non-Zionists part company in their diagnosis of Zionism’s sins.

Jewish nationalism is inherently wrong according to most anti-Zionists, either due to the folly of nationalism itself or its incompatibility with Jewish identity. Their aversion to nationalism leads them to favor a bi-national or one-state settlement over a two-state solution. Many also evince a deep-seated and vehement distaste for Israel that extends past questions of politics into the cultural domain.

Non-Zionists have less issue with Jewish nationalism itself than in how Zionism has been developed as an official rhetoric and policy of the state of Israel. The triumph of the far-right’s version of Zionism was not inevitable — it resulted from concrete and contingent historical processes. There were various junctures in Israeli history when a liberal (and acceptable) version of Zionism could have won out. That did not come to pass, and most likely will not. Non-Zionists refuse to delude themselves otherwise and champion a human rights-first perspective free of ethnic or partisan allegiance.

The distance between non-Zionism and Liberal Zionism might seem small indeed – perhaps not great enough to warrant separate names, but the Zionist label can derail the alliances that many liberal American Jews hope to forge with Palestinian and left-wing activists. And making a clean break with Zionism recognizes that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will come not from an inside game of internal critique, but rather through the external pressure of Western governments and protesters.

Liberal Zionism is an anachronism. But non-Zionism preserves its best elements: the refusal to privilege ethnic concerns over universal ones, a commitment to nuance, and moral imagination in the face of occupation’s immorality.

Daniel J. Solomon is a freelance writer based in France.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      The difference between Liberal Zionism and your “non-Zionism” is that Liberal Zionism continues to believe that it is important to have a Jewish state. “Non-Zionists”, like anti-Zionists insist that Israel should stop existing. The only disagreement between “non-Zionists” and anti-Zionists is that the latter believe it should have never been created. For all practical purposes the difference is about historical perspectives rather then the shared current goal.

      You are anti-Zionist for all practical current purposes. Stop being a coward and say so.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        These distinctions of Daniel Solomon are clear and cogent enough to me:

        “The triumph of the far-right’s version of Zionism was not inevitable…There were various junctures in Israeli history when a liberal (and acceptable) version of Zionism could have won out. That did not come to pass, and most likely will not. Non-Zionists refuse to delude themselves otherwise and champion a human rights-first perspective free of ethnic or partisan allegiance. The distance between non-Zionism and Liberal Zionism might seem small indeed…but…making a clean break with Zionism recognizes that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will come not from an inside game of internal critique, but rather through the external pressure of Western governments and protesters”

        And it has to be clear enough to anyone for whom the intelligent, competent leaving behind of Jewish supremacism for a better future for all is not tantamount to “Israel ceasing to exist.” Where you and Danny Solomon really differ, Firentis, is in your definition of “Israel” and thus your definition of “Israel ceasing to exist.”

        Solomon is, in any event, sobered up and on the right track with this realism: “resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will come not from an inside game of internal critique, but rather through the external pressure of Western governments and protesters.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Mashal

        No one is claiming Israel doesn’t have a right to exist except maybe some extremists. Stop equating what he’s saying with something most are not.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Tommy Goldberg

      You’re still lying to yourself, Daniel.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mike Cushman

      An interesting piece but I would dissent from its characterisation of anti-Zionism:

      “Jewish nationalism is inherently wrong according to most anti-Zionists, either due to the folly of nationalism itself or its incompatibility with Jewish identity. Their aversion to nationalism leads them to favor a bi-national or one-state settlement over a two-state solution. Many also evince a deep-seated and vehement distaste for Israel that extends past questions of politics into the cultural domain.”

      My anti-Zionism is located in its foundation upon an exclusionary, supremacist vision of a Jewish state located in land already occupied by others justified though biblical reference.

      Had the movement from the early 20th century been of finding a refuge from pogroms by living among and with the existing inhabitants rather than placing Jews above them and seeking to displace them then the unhappy history might have been very different – but alternative histories are for speculative fiction not political discourse.

      My anti-Zionism is based upon this aversion to this basic premise not “a deep-seated and vehement distaste for Israel that extends past questions of politics into the cultural domain.” which I read as a synonym for antisemitism and reflects the attacks made by Likud et al on anti-Zionists as antisemites.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Sheldon Ranz

      There is no need to ditch the Zionist label. In the US, Democratic Zionists who endorse BDS have forged alliances with Palestinian-Americans and the Left. Unlike liberal Zionists, Democratic Zionists believe in full equality for Israel’s Gentile citizens. The “dean” of Liberal Zionism, Peter Beinart, opposes not only the Palestinian Right of Return but BDS Demand #2, a call for full equality for Israel’s citizens.

      So, Mr. Solomon, before you throw out the baby with the bathwater, try on the Democratic Zionist label first.

      Reply to Comment
    5. The impediment to anyone’s refinement of self description is the judgement of those who claim ownership of the enterprise. Being what it is and they are, we- anyone, must agree and support the status quo to a meaningful degree or be identified as anti-zionists..AKA “anti-Semites” (sic).I have been an Anti-zionist for 15 years now, that is anti-political zionism of course, Jewish Zionism is quite another thing and thus part of political zionism’s anti-Semitism.

      Nationalism’s do not have to be toxic but review history, the parallels to today and you will find it too clear that they (almost?) always are. That known- Why not, How not something else?!

      I respect Mr. Solomons process and thank him for his sharing the explaination of a term which has mystified me. Perhaps it’s an age and education thing, I remember Hillel and hold up the test to the model saying, “it’s 1941, am I ‘Pro’, ‘Non’ or ‘Anti’?” No slam to any “Nons”, intended but for me “Never Again” made my choice inevitable. I work toward the better for the majority, majority of All.

      Very hopeful to read a higher level of discourse in the comments than too often found. My respects to the posters as well.

      Reply to Comment