Talking with progressives about Israel

For years, liberal Zionists have been writing about the need to renew the traditional progressive-Zionist alliance, inspired by the civil rights and labor movements, and the importance of using these partnerships to maintain left-leaning allies for Israel.

Getting allies on the right has been easier because supporting Israel fits in neatly with the various goals of groups on the right, such as religious conservatives, the neoconservatives who deeply distrust the Muslim community, or economic conservatives who admire Israel’s thriving capital market. So much so, that political conservatives choose to overlook the “socialistic” policies of Israel, including protectionism, universal health care, education, and equal rights statutes for minorities and women.

The left is trickier. While most on the left side of the political spectrum support Israel, some progressives do not. The irony is that they probably agree with Israel’s domestic social welfare and civil rights policies more than conservatives do, but nevertheless a small element of the progressive movement has taken the “underdog vs. colonizer” model and oversimplified it in the context of a far more complex Middle East than some are willing to admit exists.

However, abandonment of our traditional alliances is only part of the problem. The other problem is how we explain Israel to the left. To paraphrase pollster Frank Luntz, we don’t “frame” Israel in language that resonates with the left.

Groups such as Democrats for Israel, the only Democratic club solely focused on supporting Israel and the Jewish community, made strides in the progressive community by explaining Israel in a way that many in the Democratic Party have embraced, beating back attempts by extremists to get the party to condemn Israel for merely defending itself from Hamas and Hezbollah.

How did we do it? In addition to keeping up partnerships, we learned to frame Israel in a way that resonated with our allies.

Israel is an island of progressivism

Universal education, universal health care, equal rights, minority rights protections, strong activist courts, and gays and lesbians openly serving in the military: Israel sounds like a progressive’s dream. Until I brought this up to several Democratic clubs, they had no idea that Israel was founded by a bunch of socialists on kibbutzim. No other single country in the Middle East has the complete set of social and civil rights that Israel does. 

If Israel was a “creation” of colonialist powers, why is the country so liberal when it comes to activist courts and civil rights?
Israel has limited security choices due to geography and culture

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. At its narrowest point, Israel is about nine miles wide, about the distance from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. This gives Israel very little room for error and sometimes requires it to overcompensate in its security choices.

Also, in the past when the United States publicly backed off its support for Israel, Israel’s enemies have interpreted it as a sign that Israel is weak and can be attacked (some have theorized that Nixon’s weak support for Israel in 1973 led to the Yom Kippur War). Therefore, the United States needs to be careful in how it chooses to resolve differences of opinion with its strongest ally, lest there then become no ally there at all.  

However, every president has had his differences with Israel, just like there have been disagreements with every other ally, and no military aid was cut off to Great Britain or Canada.

Also, the region has more than 60 years of ethnic division building on thousands of years of history. Some Palestinian schools still refuse to teach children that Israel exists, and Hamas’ children’s TV openly preaches anti-Semitism. While Fatah’s leadership may profess to the West supporting peace, their own internal messaging has been more mixed — such as recently naming a town square after a terrorist whose only achievement was killing an innocent Israeli family.
Democracies are not perfect, and neither is Israel

We have heard it repeatedly: “Criticizing Israel publicly is not pro-Israel.” Whether you agree or not, picking on Israel is not what I am advocating here.

We just have to stop acting like we are infallible when we all know that no one, and no nation, is perfect.

We live in a sound-bite age, where pundits are expected to say, “We are right and they are wrong.” Pro-Israel activists are trained to say that Israel takes measures it deems necessary to defend itself and not acknowledge those measures’ collateral effects. It may work for news opinion shows, but the real world is not that way. 

Democratic countries are made of human beings with flaws that extend to their governments, but that does not mean we should get rid of the country. If we got rid of a country just because of mistakes the government made, the United States might have perished numerous times.    

Going into specific faults is unnecessary. Just admitting that our side is not perfect goes a long way toward establishing credibility with skeptics and further acknowledges that Israel at least has the democratic checks and balances that the surrounding countries don’t. 

Nothing in the Middle East is simple

People, especially ideologues, like to see things in the stark contrasts of right and wrong. Just as conservatives value “freedom,” progressives value “justice” and are wary of the use of corporate or military means to oppress or deny any group access to its basic needs and rights, such as food, shelter and freedom of expression.

Progressives distrust state use of military-industrial power, so when they see the Israel Defense Forces in uniforms and Palestinian militiamen in plain clothes, the reflexive reaction is to sympathize with the side that does not appear to be an extension of organized military might (even if both are actually organized armies).

Of course, the situation is not that simple. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complex, involving land, water, peace and a multitude of groups, some of which have a vested interest in opposing peace. The governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are, for the most part, trying to move to the middle despite the pressures, years of distrust and the fact that neither side has been very good at keeping its word to the other (resulting in many lost opportunities on both sides).

Even the issues of borders and settlements are complex, with the borders changing in 1948, 1967 and even 1973, and with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin both using the issue of settlements as a negotiating chip during peace negotiations (how easily we have forgotten that Begin invested heavily in settlements in the Sinai).

The more we openly discuss how complex the situation is, the more we can shift the argument from blaming one party to a broader discussion of the complexities of the region and how the parties can come together. Other conflicts based on deep and long-lasting religious and ethnic divisions (such as Northern Ireland) were not settled by blaming a single party, but by acknowledging that everyone shares responsibility.

Andrew Lachman is the past president of Democrats for Israel — Los Angeles and is a current member of the Democratic National Committee and a Truman National Security Project Partner.