Friday, September 12, 2014

Bernard Avishai Responds to Antony Lerman: A Discussion about "Zionism"

Antony Lerman is a lapsed Zionist. On August 22, 2014 he published an Op-Ed in the New York Times that struck a nerve: The End of Liberal Zionism. The article concludes that the liberal aspiration of rights and equality for Israelis and Palestinians is, today, incompatible with liberal Zionism. Liberals, he urges, should abandon the "Zionist" brand and get to work on achieving equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.
In the repressive one-state reality of today’s Israel, which Mr. Netanyahu clearly wishes to make permanent, we need a joint Israeli-Palestinian movement to attain those rights and the full equality they imply. Only such a movement can lay the groundwork for the necessary compromises that will allow the two peoples’ national cultures to flourish. This aspiration is incompatible with liberal Zionism. ... [Liberal Zionists] should know that Israel is not Judaism.  Jewish history did not culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.... The liberal Zionist intelligentsia should embrace this challenge, acknowledge the demise of their brand and use their formidable explanatory skills to build support for a movement to achieve equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.
This advice to heave Zionism overboard in the name of liberalism strikes Bernard Avishai as cavalier. (New Yorker 9/05/14) The Jewish state has been built and its security firmly established long ago. Israel has the 37th largest economy in the world (World Bank 2013 fig.), one of the most powerful armies in the world, a nuclear arsenal, a thriving high tech industry, culture, and 8 million Hebrew speakers. It's a little late to throw all this out and start designing from scratch, says Avishai--one of the foremost members of the liberal Zionist intelligentsia:
[T]the most striking thing about Lerman’s argument, with its focus on whether the Zionist idea can be reconciled to the liberal imagination, is how provisional he takes Israel to be. He seems consumed with historic Zionism’s veiled essence, yet he’s oblivious to its obvious achievement: namely, a home for Israelis that has a reality other than as a cause for diaspora Jews—eight million Hebrew-speaking citizens, thousands of companies networked to (and dependent on) the Western world’s intelligentsia, a popular media, colleges and universities, hospitals, films, books, songs, and a G.D.P. of a quarter of a trillion dollars
It is as if the Anglo-American Commission of 1946—the year of Lerman’s birth—were still holding hearings, and liberal organizations such as the American Jewish Committee were agonizing over whether to become Zionist supporters. Had Jewish liberals been true to themselves, they might never have justified the founding of a state that displaced Arabs; they would not have taken pride in Pete Seeger singing folk songs in Hebrew about girls on farming settlements and soldiers. Israel’s DNA was bad. But it is not too late: Israel isn’t the culmination of Jewish history, but Netanyahu is the culmination of Zionism’s. So let’s start over.
Rubbish, says Avishai.  He reminds us that the Zionist enterprise from 1905 to 1967 was intensely liberal: a modern, secular, egalitarian, post-Halachic Judaism. A Judaism "based on individual conscience and dissolving the authority of the Torah and commandments.  Most rabbis hated most Zionists."  What Zionists were looking for was a social-democratic civil society in their own language. When David Ben-Gurion read the declaration of independence, says Avishai, he invoked the prophets and promised "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex... conscience, language, education, and culture."

Liberal Zionists in Israel, says Avishai, "are not a walking contradiction in terms."  They take for granted the Zionist conception of the state as a distinct nation with a novel politics and language. He is thinking of the Hebrew language protected and promoted by the body politic through education, and support of literature, music, theater, and art.  He is thinking of how the French language and culture are preserved in Quebec in the middle of an English speaking continent.  He is thinking of a separation of temple and state, the cultivation of a Hebrew Republic on an Arabic sub-continent.  He is thinking of a confederation with a Palestinian Authority that would similarly protect and preserve Palestinian culture.  Compromises that allow the two people's national cultures to flourish are not incompatible with Zionism, thinks Avishai, such compromises are liberal Zionism.

For diaspora Jews, says Avishai, "'Jewish'... has a congregational definition, as a religion with an encoded, defensive narrative and Halachic strictures. They may--owing to the anachronistic Law of Return--be able to leave Great Neck, land in Israel, and claim citizenship; but they are usually less attuned to Israel's Hebrew culture than the state's Arab citizens are."

The fact is, the best efforts (and considerable inroads) of Orthodox theocrats and messianic settlers notwithstanding, Israel today is not a state built on religion. Although the rabbinate has considerable sway over who can marry whom and who is considered a Jew, Israel is not a theocracy. It has a vibrant press, free universities, and you can get get a great cup of coffee and a croissant in Tel Aviv during Passover. Although Israel has a sizable Jewish majority population within the pre-1967 borders, Israel is not an ethnocracy either.  People get tied in knots over race and who is a Jew, but what Chabad says works for me:
" While the Jewish people began with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, many people have converted to become Jews over the millennia--beginning with the "mixed multitude" that came with us out of Egypt. Today there are African Jews, Japanese Jews, even Eskimo Jews. It seems difficult to call such a mixture a "race".
Add to this that the Law of Return from 1950, as amended in 1970, grants a right for spouses of Jews and grandchildren of Jews--who may not be Jewish at all--to immigrate without restriction.  And add the fact that 25% of the population is Muslim, Christian, Druze, or other--all of whom can vote and have representation in the Knesset--and it becomes very difficult to think of the state as "by and for Jews."

Zionism conceived as a Jewish state in the land of Israel has never meant "Jews only," and much less religious Jews only. David Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University, says that "Some left-wing Israelis are 'post-Zionist' in that they wish Israel to become a 'state of all its citizens' rather than a Jewish state." That is a truly odd thing to say for an American professor of law. Does he really mean to imply that "Zionism" means Israel is not a state of all it's citizens; that it's not a state for the 25% of the citizens who are not Jewish?  Really? That is what Moshe Feiglin thinks. It's what the messianic settlers think. It's not what liberal Zionists think.

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