The contradictions between liberal values of universality and Zionism may be exaggerated, but defense and advancement of the Jewish people remain Zionism’s first priority.
In his article “How is Zionism different from other forms of nationalism?” Sean Lee argues that Israel is an “ethno-religious democracy” that must be opposed by universal liberals. I accept that there is a fundamental incompatibility between universal liberalism and Zionism, although I don’t agree that the gaps are as vast as they’re often made out to be. Leaving that aside, though, let’s work on the assumption that the continued existence of a Jewish State is irreconcilable with universal liberal values.
The raison d’être of the State of Israel is the defense and advancement of the Jewish people. For a Zionist, when universal liberal values conflict with this raison d’être, the latter must prevail. Though these conflicts do exist, they are not terribly widespread. Even Lee acknowledges that “Many of the inequalities…are not unique to Israel. If we look at education rates of young Arabs in France or Hispanics and Blacks in the US, we’ll find similar inequalities in situation and even opportunity [sic]. Likewise, for infrastructure.” He goes on to claim that what singles Israel out are its inequalities of citizenship, but doesn’t really go into specifics, aside from the poorly chosen example of military service. In choosing that example, he ignores the ongoing efforts to encourage more Israeli-Palestinians to do national service (efforts which have been predictably opposed by anti-Zionists).
Achieving full equality for Israeli-Palestinians in areas like education, employment, land and infrastructure would not threaten Israel’s raison d’être. In my opinion, there are only two areas that could truly pose a threat. The first is the primacy of Hebrew-Jewish language and culture. Second, the Law of Return, which allows all Jews to automatically take Israeli citizenship, a privilege denied to non-Jews.
Supporters of a one-state solution generally support allowing the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Even a commentator as critical of Israel as Noam Chomsky acknowledges that this would mean replacing a Jewish-Israeli state with a Palestinian-Arab one, even if the Law of Return (for Jews) were to be maintained. Indeed, this would be the outcome of any solution that involves granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians living beyond the Green Line. Even if such a policy is compatible with universal liberal values, is it an equitable solution?
Here is the crux of the problem: Universal liberalism is not necessarily equitable. Accepting a one-state solution would be national suicide. There is no precedent in history of previously warring people being reconciled successfully in a single state, and there is no precedent for accepting the Palestinian right of return. Universal liberalism is inevitably assimilationist, primarily because individual rights always take precedence over collective rights and identity (a major exception to this might be India, whose constitutional arrangement those in favor of a one-state might consider if they were truly interested in an equitable bi-national arrangement). Liberalism favors larger nations, into which it assimilates multiple groups.
It is therefore not a surprise that larger western democracies tend to be stronger on universal liberal norms than smaller states. Universal liberalism, as described by Sean Lee, could only be in the interests of the Palestinians. It represents the idea that “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals.” It cannot possibly provide for the defense and advancement of the Jewish people.
Alex Stein is currently in India working on a novel, but intends to return early next year to Israel for his second aliyah. He blogs at falsedichotomies.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org