Don't Give Up on the Dream of a Liberal Israel
Reflections from the Diaspora.
Writing in the late 19th century, Judah Leib Levin, an advocate of Jewish enlightenment, warned against settlement in Palestine. “I worried about the orthodox and feared the rabbis, because of the air of Eretz Yisrael, permeated with ancient prejudices, [where] the maskilim (the defenders of enlightenment) would be unable to bring their influence to bear.” Other anti-Zionist intellectuals argued that it’s not the air of the Land but rather the very idea of a Jewish state that would lead, inexorably, to religious revival and ultra-nationalist politics.
I don’t believe in any kind of historical determinism. The present far right turn in Israel is, indeed, one of the possibilities inherent in Zionism, but not the only one. A secular and liberal Israel remains a possibility; a very large part of the country is in the streets fighting for those adjectives: secular and liberal. Yet too many of the Jews I know are ready to write them off. Demography works against liberalism, they say; the occupation has gone on too long; the founding ethos of the state has been definitively superseded. I want to say: not yet.
But what are Diaspora Jews like me to make of the Jewish state today?
First of all, if Israel’s current government succeeds in all its plans, Israel won’t be a Jewish state in the simple sense of those two words. It will be a particular kind of Jewish state, requiring adjectives like “ultra-Orthodox” and “ultra-nationalist”—at odds, then, with most of world Jewry. In the Diaspora, Judaism is a pluralist, multi-denominational religion. In the Israel projected by the far right, the state will be actively hostile to the leading diasporic denominations—more so, perhaps, than to Christianity and Islam, though it won’t be welcoming to them either. In the largest Diaspora community, the United States, the politics of the Jewish people is overwhelmingly liberal, a kind of cautious center-leftism. This is the historic politics of a minority people that relies for its safety on the rights that liberal democracy guarantees. A truly Jewish state cannot override those rights.
But that’s what Israel’s government is doing right now: it denies the rights of Israeli Arabs; it represses Palestinians on the West Bank; it entrenches ultra-Orthodox courts that rule again and again against women. And its aim is to make all this legally definitive, part of the very definition of the state.
So what’s a liberal Zionist to do?
That sounds like a hard question, but it isn’t. The first thing we have to do is to stand with the protesters in Israel who are defending the Supreme Court and the independence of the judiciary. I mean, actively, literally, stand with the protesters. Visit Israel and hold hands with them. Call them, write to them, send money to their organizations. Defend them here at home; explain to fellow Jews and Americans generally that this isn’t a fight about complex issues of judicial philosophy: it’s a fight for the values upon which our own Diaspora—and the lives of all minorities in liberal societies—depend, a fight for democracy.
Of course, that fight will be decided by the citizens of Israel, and by them alone. The protesters are engaged in the central democratic project: to organize and mobilize a majority of their fellow citizens. But they do want help from outside—the kind of individual help I’ve just described, but also help from democratic states, like the United States. There is nothing unusual here. During the uprisings in Arab states in 2011, the activists looked for help from abroad. It is, and should be, a feature of American foreign policy to promote democracy wherever it is at risk, wherever men and women are fighting to make it work. Promoting democracy isn’t a coercive project; its means are moral exhortation, political solidarity, and diplomatic pressure.
Helping Israelis keep their democracy requires both elements, the diplomatic and the personal. Of course, there is now and will always be a significant number of Americans, mostly older Jews and Evangelicals, whose support for any Israeli government is automatic, whatever its politics. This is, I think, a declining number and not the most vocal. More and more American Jews, especially young Jews on our campuses, are critical of an ultra-Orthodox and nationalist Israel.
But the critics are divided; some, a minority but a growing minority, believe that ultra-Orthodoxy and nationalism are Israel’s destiny and that the only way to avoid what is coming (if it isn’t here already) is to reject Zionism altogether. Jews, they argue, should be a protected minority in a bi-national or Palestinian state.
If Israel’s nationalist and religious zealots triumph definitively, that might well be the only thing to do. Liberal Zionism will have reached its end. But the defenders of Israeli democracy, the men and women in the streets, say: No; we are not there yet, not even close. And here in the United States, there are still many critics of Israel who try, as I do, to separate the government from the state, so that we can be brutally critical of zealots in power without giving up on the possible future of a Jewish state—that is, a state that reflects the liberalism of the greater number (by far) of Jews the world over.
What kind of a state is that, exactly? Not a state that rules over another people; not a state that discriminates against religious or ethnic minorities; not a misogynist state; and not a state that is “Jewish” like the states that Jews historically lived in before emancipation were Christian or Muslim. It should represent the self-determination of the Jewish people in the same way that Norway, for example, represents the self-determination of the Norwegian people. It should be a nation-state, not a religious state.
Those are aims and values that derive from the historical experience of the Jewish people; they are the values of the Labor Zionists, the founders of Israel in the 1940s; they are forcefully expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, with its promise to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
The country is divided, bitterly divided, as we are told every other minute in newspapers and magazines. But more important than the division is this extraordinary uprising of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, waving blue and white flags, liberal Zionists all, whatever they call themselves. These are the true defenders of a state that could rightly be called Jewish. Jews everywhere, and small-“d” democrats everywhere, should support the men and women struggling to sustain those values, to create an effective majority for democracy. The stakes are high—but it isn’t hard at all to know what needs to be done.
Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and a former co-editor of Dissent.
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