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Zionism and Liberalism Can Remain Strong Bedfellows

As the left-of-center political camp has transposed an American racial lens onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has also manipulated the language of human rights to bludgeon Israel.
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March 29, 2024
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American society was already polarized before the October 7 War, particularly around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But even that reality couldn’t prepare us for the dynamic we’ve seen on college campuses and opinion pages since the Hamas massacre.

The conversation has shifted from a discussion about the appropriate Israeli response to terror and the treatment of Palestinians to a referendum on Israel’s very right to exist and the delegitimization of those of us who are committed to that right.

The tension was highlighted by author Peter Beinart’s recent New York Times guest essay in which he suggested it’s time for American Jews to make a choice: either support American liberalism, on the one hand, or Zionism, on the other.

Not only is this a false choice — it’s a dangerous narrative for Americans, for Jews, and for the US-Israel relationship. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the liberal roots of Zionism, the Jewish national movement for self-determination. It also ignores the tenets of American liberalism that have been distorted specifically to create this binary option.

Liberalism, at its core, is a political doctrine that protects and enhances individuals’ liberty, political equality, and freedoms. It stems from the 17th-century Enlightenment views of philosopher John Locke, who articulated a social contract between humankind and the society in which humans live.

Locke’s vision was predicated on the natural right to life, liberty, and property and the belief that governments should not violate these rights. And liberalism was always built upon an openness to different ideas. 

Just as the American Declaration of Independence affirmed the new Republic’s commitment to ”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in 1776, Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence made clear Zionism’s inextricable ties to liberalism. It spoke of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and vowed to “safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Both nations have continually aspired to actualize those aspirations, sometimes achieving them, sometimes falling short, just as every nation-state does.

Distorting Liberalism

Frighteningly, though, American liberalism is now being undermined as never before. The ideological hard right is peddling hate and embracing an ultra-nationalism that threatens the future of democracy.  Meanwhile, the hard left has adopted a worldview that holds race and power as the primary means through which we should understand the past and present.

American Jews and Israel are caught in the crosshairs.

The progressive worldview falsely claims that Zionism is at odds with liberal values. It views Jews as being part of the white power structure in the US and condemns Israel as a European colonial outpost (never mind its diverse makeup and Jews’ historical ties to the land).

Jewish college students are being targeted if they don’t pass a progressive litmus test that says they have to disavow their Zionist interest.

As the left-of-center political camp has transposed an American racial lens onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has also manipulated the language of human rights to bludgeon Israel. Words like “genocide” and “apartheid” that once had specific meanings are now thrown around loosely to accuse Israel of committing uniquely unspeakable atrocities.

The Fight for Israel’s Life

To be sure, discrimination in Israeli society is real and must be addressed. Over the past few years, Israel’s ruling political coalition has also shifted far to the right, demonstrating a xenophobia and anti-Arab rhetoric that needs to be denounced by political leaders there.

But for Beinart and others to suggest that Arabs don’t have equal citizenship in Israel is simply false. They do, even if the reality still falls short of our liberal aspirations.

On the surface, some progressives blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for all problems in the region. Netanyahu has plenty to account for: from the still-unresolved judicial proposals that divided the nation last year to the intelligence and security failures of Oct. 7 that will forever be his legacy.

But Israel’s approach towards the War in Gaza and freeing Palestine from Hamas is not an extreme right-wing approach that can be dismissed as illiberal. It represents a broad consensus among the Israeli public who are smart enough to believe the daily proclamations from Iranian-backed Hamas and Hezbollah that they will annihilate all Israelis and the Jewish State. Israelis live at the tip of the spear and view the war as the fight for Israel’s life.

Polls show Israelis from across the political spectrum are not interested in a ceasefire. They want the hostages released and Hamas’s capabilities severely limited to prevent Oct. 7 from happening again

American progressives, meanwhile, find the intentions of Israel’s enemies unimaginable and irresponsibly shrug off that reality.

Despite all evidence that Israel faces continual existential threats, many of Israel’s critics will  jump through mental hoops to  sustain a mirage they have created about the Jewish state and condemn any show of strength. Like a record playing on loop, we hear the same refrains of “disproportionality” and “collective punishment.”

Beinart goes so far as to suggest that pro-Israel college students are unwilling to “tolerate and even learn from their pro-Palestinian peers.” He doesn’t seem to be following campus life very closely. In fact, it’s been the anti-Zionists who have spent the past six months shouting down speakers; taking over campus buildings; prohibiting Jewish students from passing by, attending classes, or studying; tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis; and disrupting campus programs that have absolutely nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The censorship he imagines from Zionists is just that — imagined.

Not an either-or choice

In sum, the binary choice of liberalism at one end of the spectrum and Zionism at the other is misleading at best and nefarious at worst. There is nothing illiberal about seeking to destroy Hamas, the terror group that has deprived Palestinians of basic freedoms for 15 years and that raped, slaughtered and kidnapped Israeli citizens on October 7.

The binary choice of liberalism at one end of the spectrum and Zionism at the other is misleading at best and nefarious at worst.

To the contrary, we have a responsibility to ask why the values of liberalism are not part of the conversation about Palestinian political theory, nationalism, and aggression. By failing to address such questions, Beinart and others peddle a “soft racism,” in which they lower the expectations and make excuses for the Palestinian leadership and justify leveraging terrorism to achieve their political objectives.

U.S. leaders from both parties rightly want Israel to limit civilian deaths and suffering in Gaza. But they understand that Israel is at the forefront of engaging a radical Islamism, which, if left unchecked, will target other peoples in other sovereignties. We saw that in Russia last week.

The reality is that many on the left are simply uncomfortable that, after 76 years, the Jewish Zionist state possesses real military and economic power. Such power is messy and hard. It raises tough moral questions, especially when fighting an enemy like Hamas and Hezbollah.

The reality is that many on the left are simply uncomfortable that, after 76 years, the Jewish Zionist state possesses real military and economic power.

But tackling hard questions should never lead us to an inevitable conclusion that liberalism and Zionism are at odds with one another.

Beinart romanticizes the idea of Jews being powerless and having no agency to make difficult decisions. Instead, he revels in the notion of all sides coming together in a “liberal utopia” uncorrupted by power or authority.  But Jewish history teaches us the danger when Jews are beholden to the host societies in which they live. American and Israeli Jews need to be actors in history and not subjects of history, too powerless to take action to secure their own future.

Thankfully, we’re no longer the weak and powerless Jews who for centuries were forced to depend on the kindness of strangers for their safety.


Rachel Fish, PhD, is Special Adviser to the Brandeis University Presidential Initiative to Counter Antisemitism in Higher Education. She is the co-founder of Boundless. 

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