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Liberal Zionism at 65: Fantasy and reality

Liberal Zionism has had 65 years to prove Israel can indeed be both a Jewish state and a liberal democracy. Given its track record, is it time to put the ideology to rest? 

By David Sheen

Israeli flag (wikimedia/public domain)

Imagine if you would, for a minute, that Liberal Zionists have been proven correct: that it is totally possible for a state that accords privileges to members of one specific ethnic group only – Jews, in this case – to be a flourishing democracy. Imagine that Israel is indeed a Light Unto the Nations, and that people from all the other nations who see the light can easily immigrate, date, mate and marry a local. Imagine that in the Holy Land, all human beings are treated equally; let’s pretend that we live in the State of “Librael.”

As in the State of Israel, the three weeks that take place during the end of March to the beginning of May (depending on the Hebrew date) are an important time here in the State of Librael. First we celebrate Passover, the holiday of redemption from slavery. Then comes Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we mourn for the victims of genocide. A week later is Memorial Day, where we honor those who fell in battle to fight for our homeland. And the next day is Independence Day, when we celebrate living in the land as free people.

Over the decades, as refugees returned and waves of immigrants ascended to Zion, peoples from all four corners of the globe have imbued these holy days with extra meaning. As the events they are meant to mark begin to recede into memory, people for whom their meanings resonate especially deeply, because of their recent histories, inject the jubilees with their renewed energy, fusing it with Jewish cultural traditions to create a uniquely Libraeli national identity.

Every Passover, when we mark the exodus from Egypt, we are joined by the African Hebrews of Dimona. At the height of the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, thousands of African-Americans left the United States to embrace a biblical way of life in the Land of Israel. The Hebrews remind us that during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, more than 50 million Africans were murdered in the Middle Passage alone, and that even today the American prison-industrial complex holds more Africans behind bars than there were slaves in the 1800s.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the six million Jewish people who were killed by the Nazi death machine. The Filipino-Israelis who have immigrated to the country in last few decades remind us that their ancestors suffered the first industry genocide of a million-plus civilians of the 20th century. The Darfuri-Israelis who have arrived in recent years share their personal horror stories from Sudan. Many of them witnessed their families being butchered and the ethnic cleansing of whole villages.

On Memorial Day, the siren cries out all across the country and we stand at attention and give thanks for those who laid down their lives so that we would not have to. Throughout the country, the families of the fallen and shell-shocked survivors, Israelis and Palestinians, gather at the sites of bitterly fought battles to cry and comfort one another. Together, their descendants prove with their bodies and spirits that their sacrifices were not in vain, that they did not die for nothing. Here, no more blood will be spilled in the name of nationalism.

And on Independence Day – or as some call it, Interdependence Day – once the clock strikes 11 and Memorial Day officially ends, the streets erupt in cries of ecstasy. Every living soul – Jews, Druze, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Asherah-worshippers, and all others – take to the streets and let loose, free from oppression, happy just to be alive and kicking. Nine months later, during the first half of February, in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, the hospital maternity wards are always full up with rainbow babies.

This is how the three weeks that overlap April are marked in the State of Librael. But this State of Librael exists only on an alternate Earth, in our imaginations. Here on the only earth we know, in the very real State of Israel, these three weeks are not a time to reflect on universal truths of heinous slavery, unfathomable genocide, the horrors of war and the struggle for freedom. Instead, they are a time of hyper-nationalist consensus-building, of sharpening the supposed differences between us and them with a race razor.

On Passover, Israelis recall the enslavement of their mythic ancestors thousands of years ago, but most don’t give a thought to the modern-day slavery in their midst. Two years ago, the Knesset amended its laws to restrict the rights of (mainly non-Jewish East Asian) migrant workers to choose where they work and who they work for. Last month, Israel’s High Court ruled that the country’s labor laws do not apply to these same workers, and that they need not be paid overtime for working extra hours.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israelis remember the six million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis, and many curse the countries that refused to open their gates to Jews attempting to flee the bloodbath. But the hearts of most Israelis have hardened to the African survivors of ethnic cleansing campaigns and torture camps. In its determination to remove them from Israeli society, Israel has built the largest refugee jail in the Western world; a government report issued last month called for the African asylum-seekers to be “concentrated” there.

On Memorial Day, Israelis lionize the martyrs of the Israel Defense Force and the pre-state Jewish underground militias who paid the ultimate price to establish the sovereign State of Israel. But when any Palestinian person struggles to achieve the same for his own people – whether by taking up arms or just waving their arms, whether by slinging stones or shouting slogans – they are not called fighters or activists, but terrorists. They are tried in military kangaroo courts, put behind bars for years, and shot or bombed to bits.

And on Independence Day, Israelis rejoice in the streets, celebrating their hard-fought freedoms. But if you believe that Israel should be a state of all its citizens, and that non-Jewish people should not have been expelled and not permitted to return after the 1948 war – and that non-Jewish people should not be expelled today in 2013 – then your freedom of speech and your freedom of movement will be rescinded. Last Independence Day, I live-tweeted as a group of Israeli citizens who planned to speak this simple truth on the streets of Tel Aviv were cordoned off by police; anyone who tried to leave was immediately arrested.

Sixty-five years have now passed since the State of Israel was established. Liberal Zionists have had plenty of time to prove that it is possible for an ethnocracy to simultaneously be a liberal democracy. In this, they have failed miserably. Polls prove what any Israeli who understands Hebrew and has a heartbeat can tell you: that racism is rampant, and that the youth are even worse than their predecessors. Liberal Zionism has given birth to a state that relegates non-Jews to less than second-class status, and a generation of Israelis who believe that they should suffer their servitude in silence, or else leave.

With that kind of 65-year track record, isn’t it high time that Liberal Zionism retired?

David Sheen is a writer and film maker born in Canada and based in Israel. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets at @davidsheen.
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    1. aristeides

      Holy days?

      What’s holy about nationalist celebrations? Not even the US, where religion is a deep ugly current, calls its Independence Day holy.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Actually, if that 50 million dead in the Middle Passage is at all close (I have no reason to believe otherwise), then the Holocaust is trumped and we should give precedence to African Americans and Africans.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      This my fellow readers is known as the straw man argument. It is an argument in which you set up a fictitious man of straw and then verbally beat the crap out of him.

      The underlying premise of the article is that Israel has tried liberal Zionism for 65 years and the result is the present situation. The only problem with this argument is that it is entirely baseless. Israel has been ruled at various times by various governments but almost never by one that can be classified as liberal Zionist. Meretz has been in governments but it has never formed a government of its own. For what happens when liberal Zionism is on the ascendancy it is possible to take a look at the changes that took place in Israeli society, education, politics and ideology in the early 1990s. The education system was made more inclusive, the government reached out to ethnic minorities, and attempts were made towards making peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states.

      So, how can liberal Zionism be disproven if it has never been really tried? Well, that is really the underlying flaw of the argument made here – that is it argues that because its goals haven’t yet been achieved it should be given up and abandoned.

      I can set up the same straw man argument for pretty much any ideology. Try this. Take any ideology. Pretend that it has been in power in a society for x amount of time. Find every negative thing about that society and blame it on that ideology, then argue that the ideology should be abandoned because all these negative issues exist.

      Let’s try this. American progressivism. It has had 70 years to demonstrate that it is possible to create a well-run country where everyone is treated equally and is ensured by the government a decent standard of living while making a change for the better in the world. Has it worked? College is unaffordable for many. Women, blacks and hispanics make much less in income than white men. 40% of the prison population is black. Homosexuals commit suicide on a regular basis because of the persecution they face, while others are dragged behind trucks by homophobes. Economic inequality is reaching unprecedented levels. Unemployment is persistently high and college graduates can’t even dream of affording the lifestyle their parents enjoyed. The government is running massive deficits which can only result eventually in massive cuts in government services to the poor and needy. In the world, democracy is in decline while barbarous civil wars, starvation, ethnic cleansing and oppression continue unabated.

      With that kind of 70-year track record, isn’t it high time that American progressivism be retired?

      See, now you know what a straw man argument is.

      Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        Well, not so much of a straw argument as you may think Kolumn9. Sheen is not arguing that Liberal Zionist Israeli governments have failed. I take your point that Israel has never had a government that could be accurately described as Liberal Zionist. In 65 years, Liberal Zionism has not been able to garner enough support to form a goverment and implement more liberal laws, execute more equitable expenditure on education etc. This is the real failure of Liberal Zionism and there seems little liklihood of Liberal Zionism ever being able to appeal to enough Jewish Israelis to garner electoral support in the future.

        As for the imaginery ‘Librael’ – well, if it ever existed (even in anyone’s imagination) it wouldn’t be predominantly Jewish and thus couldn’t be Zionist.

        Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than the victims of various genocides or the oppressed, coming to Israel. What a crowded little place it would be.

        I suspect that rather than all the people taking to the streets and letting loose, happy just to be alive etc, they would be debating just who is the greatest or most worthy victim.

        If you want to stick with Liberalism, you just gotta ditch the Zionism.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Sheen is arguing that because liberal Zionism has not achieved its objectives it should be dumped. He uses a series of negative phenomenon in Israeli society as if to demonstrate that they are somehow the result or fault of liberal Zionism even though they can’t be such since liberal Zionism has never been in power. This is a straw man argument. It is well-written but that is the underlying logical trick being used.

          I don’t agree that one has to dump a politicized ethnic identity in order to be a liberal. In America that would be like arguing that one can’t be a proper liberal unless they cease to pursue the interests of their specific ethnic, religious or other lifestyle group. Something like, you can’t be a liberal and continue to pursue the specific concerns of African Americans if you are black.

          Additionally, I can’t see a valid argument why I would be required to dump my desire to continue to have my own country with symbols and culture I can identify with for the sake of liberalism. At one side of Zionism that is what the ideology stands for – making sure that my country continues to exist and there is no contradiction possible here with liberalism.

          Reply to Comment
          • For the first 29 years of its existence, Israel was ruled by the Labor party, who are members of the Socialist International. They determined the face of the State. The Likud Party, who then took over, is officially called MACHAL – Miflaga Herut Liberalit (the Freedom-Liberal Party). Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in December 2011: “Israel is a Western liberal democracy” (see the first sentence of this article: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/netanyahu-israel-is-a-democracy-and-won-t-tolerate-discrimination-1.403473). Of course it’s not true and it’s never been true. But it’s been claimed by those who defend the actions of the Israeli government, who call themselves Liberal Zionists. It is these false claims of Liberalism that protect the Israel government from pressure to change its racist ways. The article illustrates the gap between these claims of Liberalism and the reality on the ground: Ethnocracism (with increasing elements of Theocracism).

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            From the very inception, and even before, Liberal Zionists had to deal with extremely unliberal adversaries.

            Claims that Israel is oh-not-liberal-enough are laughable, when one takes in consideration the fact that “liberalism” is alien to any surrounding nations.

            Reply to Comment
    4. jo hughes

      can someone explain the ‘ethnicity’ part? being an ignorant goy, i cant quite fathom the concept. wasnt zionism a concept developed in eastern europe by jewish merchant families that migrated around the collapse of roman empire? what bloodline is claimed? sumerian? canaanite? didnt the ashkenazi settle in an empire that changed its religion like underwear?

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Any person, even a most ignorant goy, such as yourself, can become part of Jewish people as an outcome of process named “giyur”

        Reply to Comment
        • jo hughes

          thanx for acknowledgement of my ignorance. so, if i understand your explanation, i will be genetically altered once ive completed the process of ‘giyur’ and then become part of an ethnic group? my ‘non-chosen’ mind is struggling to comprehend. please supply further enlightenment.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            You see, Judaism stands a bit above petty racism.

            Anyone can become a Jew – or stop being a Jew.

            Reply to Comment
          • jo hughes

            no ethnicity? terms like ‘anti-semite” should be taken literally as all people that speak a root language used from morocco to turkey? i’m an american and have jewish in-laws. i’m accused of being a racist when i criticize israel. i researched ’cause i consider myself to be too intelligent to be a racist. thanks again for your clarification. 972 is one of my faves.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Term “anti-semite” is semantically not correct.
            Judophobe or Judeophobe is much more appropriate.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Don’t worry. You are in no danger of being too intelligent to be a racist.

            Reply to Comment
          • Alan

            You consider yourself too intelligent to be racist? What a dumb thing to say. There’s no connection between being intelligent and liberal minded. I’m sure George Wallace and Strom Thurmond were fairly intelligent. Or consider Albert Speer, who benefited from the best education possible in Western Europe.

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            Additionally, Jo, you forfeit your ethnicity if you dare follow a different belief system.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Ruth

      This is one of the most poorly-argued pieces of writing I have seen on 972.

      Reply to Comment