An Open Letter to Samuel Fleischacker

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Dear Professor Fleischacker:

I read with great interest and sadness your statement on the election results in Israel: “It breaks my heart to say this, but today I don’t feel I can call myself a Zionist any longer.”

Your position on Zionism interests me more than most positions on Zionism because you, like me, are a scholar of political theory. I admire your work on Adam Smith and since most of my work has been on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who has so many Smith connections, we have mutual friends.

Up until now, you have been part of the Academic Advisory Council for the Third Narrative, a liberal Zionist group that wants Israel out of the West Bank, opposes the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and stands for a two state solution. The Council has said that any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires “empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples.”

But now it seems you have had it with the Israeli people, or at least the Zionists among them, because, as you see it, nearly two-thirds—once we exclude Arab List voters—endorsed this proposition: “We are happy to end the peace process and instead rule over millions of Palestinians indefinitely; we are happy to have them have no vote, ever, either in their own state or in ours.” You propose that this endorsement signals a fundamental change in Israel’s character: “Israel has become, this week, the Herrenvolk [master race] ethnocracy its detractors have accused it of long being.” You conclude that under these circumstances, one should work for “one person, one vote, from the river to the sea: voting rights for all Palestinians under Israeli rule.” And you say that “if BDS will help bring that about,” although you are not sure it will, “then BDS is a good thing.”

Your basis for this assertion are two widely reported remarks Benjamin Netanyahu made toward the end of the race. On his Facebook page, Netanyahu wrote: “The rule of the right is in danger. Arab voters are advancing in large numbers toward voting places. Leftist organizations are bringing them in buses.” In an interview with an Israeli website, NRG, Netanyahu answered “Indeed,” to the question, “Are you saying if you are prime minister, a Palestinian state will not be created?”

Unlike some of Netanyahu’s defenders, I agree that these statements were shameless panders meant to draw voters away from parties to the right of Likud. Although Netanyahu has already denied that he meant to repudiate a two state solution, but rather to indicate that it isn’t possible under present circumstances, the most natural reading of even the definitive forecast that changes in those circumstances would not happen during his term is that it was a nod to voters who, observing the Netanyahu administration’s concessions to the peace process in the past, including the release of prisoners, some with Israeli blood on their hands, feared he would cave to American pressure. And although, as some feebly said, it is true that foreign funding was helping to bring Arab voters to the polls, it’s also true that AIPAC wields political influence—yet we properly understand complaints about the “Jewish lobby” to be anti-Semitic. One can only imagine how these same commentators would react if a New York Republican mayoral candidate complained that “Jews are marching to the polls in droves!” But one can be pretty certain they wouldn’t say: “But Jews really were marching to the polls in droves!” I don’t see how one can absolve Netanyahu of the charge of looking to lure voters to the right of Likud by appealing to anti-Arab prejudice.

All that is certainly ugly. But permit me to say that in proposing that all this constitutes a historical turning point that has altered the very character of Zionism you sound more like my man Rousseau, than your more coolheaded man, Adam Smith. Rousseau is well known, in his educational work, Emile, for warning readers that “all is lost” if one commits certain, seemingly reversible, errors in early education. In his political writings, he also suggests that once corruption sets in, it is likely irreversible. Even if we were to concede that Israeli voters, at this particular moment, in a changing and perplexing Middle East, not long after the most recent Gaza war, with the United States seemingly shifting in the direction of its enemy, Iran, chose nationalism and fear, would that be grounds for giving up on liberal Zionism? Isn’t there going to be another election? Your post, and perhaps this is a problem with instant reactions over social media, reminded me of the people who were determined to move to Canada after Bush was reelected, as if the character of the United States had fundamentally changed because of what the voters chose in a single election. They were probably glad they hadn’t moved when the electorate turned around and chose President Obama.

But in fact your characterization of what, in your estimate, two-thirds of Zionist voters said with their vote is at best highly speculative. First, as has now been widely reported, the right didn’t really gain in this election. In 2013, they won 43 seats. In the next Knesset, they will hold 44. The left did not lose in this election. In 2013, they won 27 seats. In the next Knesset they will hold 29. Perhaps one can argue that, as Brent Sasley does here, the seat numbers disguise a weakening of the left because neither the Labor Party in 2013 nor the Zionist Union in 2015 distinguished itself much from Likud on security issues. But this is a far cry from your assertion that this election signaled a dramatic change, or that Israeli voters have opted for racism and permanent occupation. It is at least as plausible, given that the story of the election was of a movement of those to the right of Likud into Likud’s camp, that even voters who dislike Arabs and reject a two state solution thought that, given the strength of the left, they had better go with Netanyahu, even though they don’t really think he is one of them.

I suppose you could fall back on the suggestion that the center right should have abandoned Netanyahu over the comments he made late in the election. They have shown that they “are indifferent enough to his views on this issue that they are willing to sit in coalition with him.” But why would voters otherwise inclined toward Likud believe what Netanyahu said when he thought he was in danger of losing the election rather than attending to his record, and, perhaps even more to the point, why would they, at least in large numbers, forget about every other issue of the election, and vote on the basis of those two comments? I’ll bet a lot of them held their noses, like we often hold our noses in democratic elections, and voted because they calculated—as you do not—that Israel can recover from Benjamin Netanyahu’s admittedly nauseating attempt to steal the thunder of the parties to his right.

Certainly your interpretation, that two thirds of Israel’s voters, including many Mizrahim, voted for Herrenvolk, is the least charitable interpretation possible, a surprising approach for a member of an advisory group that makes so much of “empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples.” Now you believe the Israeli people are a lost cause, though you have never said that the Palestinians are a lost cause because of the comments and actions of their leaders. And you are prepared to make the shocking comparison between today’s Israeli’s majority and the Nazis. That you use the term Herrenvolk, which also takes in the slaveholding South and apartheid era South Africa, instead, doesn’t much diminish the gravity and—to a Jewish people—the obscenity of the charge. I realize that you made this statement on Facebook in the immediate aftermath and shock of the election results, but don’t you think that such a serious charge had better be founded on more than one election and on an airtight or nearly airtight interpretation of why people voted the way they did?

That “Herrenvolk” reminds me of the last thing you said, that “BDS will be a good thing” if it can bring about Palestinian voting rights from the river to the sea. Although you say that this is a “political” rather than a “moral” question, I do not think a single election ought to make one forget that BDS has attempted to revive the old “Zionism is racism” charge, rightly rejected in the 1970s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the United States as anti-Semitic. Even if you think that Zionism has for the time being changed into something you can no longer endorse, do you really want to claim that a movement that refuses to endorse the existence of even the Israel of 1948 is a “strategy” rather than a movement with a moral component? Even if everything you said previously was true, could it really be morally defensible to align oneself with a movement whose heroes traffic in violence, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theorizing? Even the Obama administration, which bows to no one in its disappointment over the recent election, avoids this position, and it has not, for that matter, proposed that Zionism is now dead or tainted. Perhaps the Obama administration just doesn’t want to get ahead of American voters, but if you take what its representatives say at face value, it is capable of distinguishing between the historical phenomenon of Zionism and comments made by one prominent representative or another of that phenomenon. So also is the Zionist Union, which lost the election. Why not you?

I hope that, when you have had time to get over your passionate—dare I say Rousseauian?—reaction to the results of the election, you will return to the position of liberal Zionists, who have always hated Netanyahu and have always known that some Israeli voters are prejudiced against Arabs. Such Zionists have understood until now that it is nearly miraculous that Israel has remained relatively liberal and democratic in spite of being on nearly constant war footing since its birth, and has succumbed less to hate perhaps than any nation that has been at war with roughly the same set of enemies for so long. Such Zionists have found it possible to hold in their heads at the same time the thought that this endless war had harmed both Israelis and Palestinians, and the thought that Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is worth fighting for.

That the left gained fewer seats than pollsters predicted in 2015 after—but probably not because of—Netanyahu’s very troubling remarks—hardly changes that.

Your Disappointed But Hopeful Fan,

Jonathan Marks

An Open Letter to Samuel Fleischacker

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Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and publishes in modern and contemporary political philosophy in journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, the Journal of American Political Science, and the Review of Politics. He is the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Marks also has written on higher education for InsideHigherEd, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. He blogs occasionally at Commentary Magazine.

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