Professor of History, McGill University for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Online Digest
Amid this worldwide campaign to rob Israel of its good name, the long and proud association of Zionism with liberalism is also threatened. Too many progressives have turned on Israel and Zionism with a vengeance, especially in the university. Palestinians and their supporters have cleverly hijacked the rhetoric of human rights in service of that great human wrong, terrorism. In a classic case of intellectual irresponsibility, Israel-bashing has become great sport, with no thoughts to the lethal consequences, considering how much such hostility encourages Palestinian terrorists. Words may not kill, but we have seen how they feed the murderous rage of the self-righteous suicide killers. The new, politically correct position of demonizing the Jewish state and Jewish nationalism, combined with the Palestinians’ turn from negotiation toward terrorism, has confused Zionists and anti-Zionists. With most of Israel’s peace camp reeling, with Ariel Sharon’s right-wing government able to forge a coalition without a left-wing party, with conservatives in the United States and elsewhere rallying to Israel’s side, it is easy to see why campus radicals caricature Zionism as a conservative creation. Nevertheless, now, more than ever, it is essential – and surprisingly easy – to rise up and affirm the fact that not only can you be a liberal and a Zionist, but that liberalism and Zionism remain not just compatible but mutually reinforcing.
In so many ways, on so many levels, liberalism and Zionism spring from common sources. Both are modern movements, shaped by the Enlightenment and other intellectual currents of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, with central tenets rooted in the Bible. Just as it is hard to tell the story of Zionism without going back to “lech lecha,” Abraham’s charge in Genesis to “go forth” to a new land, the land of Israel, it is hard to tell the story of how Western notions of equality and social justice developed without going back to the ethical precepts of the Torah, let alone to the crusading passion of the Prophets. Critics like Professor Tony Judt reducing Zionism to a Middle European sideshow distort the truth in their zeal to tar modern Zionism with Western disdain for the murderous impulses of the Serbians and Croatians. The contemporary stories of both Zionism and liberalism are intertwined with that great, defining, sometimes ennobling, and yes, sometimes cruel, but absolutely defining modern movement – nationalism.
In the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, these three intellectual currents harmonized. This enlightened Viennese progressive is best remembered for jumpstarting Zionism in reaction to the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus trial. Yet in his visionary 1896 book “The Jewish State,” Herzl dreamed of the Jewish state as a liberal model for the world. “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die,” Herzl wrote. “The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.” In this passage, Herzl articulated the essential Zionist message that still holds true, and that echoes in the liberal nationalism of most Western nation states – that only through self-determination can utopian ideals be achieved, that a community first must unite and protect itself before it can become a force for good.
Nationalism posits that the community is the best structure through which to implement high ideals – sometimes out of broad conviction, sometimes out of sad necessity. There is, of course, a rich, ongoing debate about how to balance universalism and particularism. But it is very odd that often the same Chomskyite forces that go out of their way to celebrate Palestinian nationalism insist on negating Zionism. Sidestepping the entire debate about the historic origins of Jewish or Palestinian nationalism, many modern scholars accept Benedict Anderson’s notion of nationalism as an “imagined community.” Whether you accept that definition – or embrace Professor Irwin Cotler’s notion of the Jews as the original aboriginal peoples, still speaking the same language, still developing the same culture, still tied to the same land after thousands of years, the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism is clear. And with another one of the great scholars of nationalism Professor Liah Greenfield, identifying nationalism as the defining “constitutive” force of the modern world, singling out Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, as the only illegitimate form of nationalism is sheer bigotry.
Just as Betty Friedan was not the only feminist in the 1960s, Herzl was not the only Zionist in the nineteenth century. Zionism was a many-splendored thing, a broad, rollicking conversation attempting to create the perfect ideological mix of Judaism, nationalism, liberalism, idealism, rationalism, socialism, and capitalism. Zionism was a bold experiment to realize these ideals, and often entailed a rejection of the status quo. Nahum Syrkin in “The Jewish Problem and the Socialist-Jewish State” (1898) insisted: “For a Jewish state to come to be, it must, from the very beginning, avoid all the ills of modern life. To evoke the sympathetic interest of modern man, its guidelines must be justice, rational planning, and social solidarity. Once a Jewish state has been realized on such scientific social principles, the time will come for modern technology to flourish within it.” These were bold, sometimes doctrinaire, intellectual pioneers, trying to fix all the evils of the world while making the desert bloom.
Israel’s proclamation of independence from 1948 also illustrates the happy marriage between Zionism and liberalism, offering a model of how nationalism can be a force for good in the world. In reading these words, David Ben-Gurion ping-ponged from universalism to particularism, demonstrating just how intertwined the two concepts were, just how expansive, ambitious, and progressive the Zionist dream could be. “ERETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) -the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” he began. “Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” Attempting to build a broad, appealing, ideological infrastructure based on what experts now call “civic nationalism” on its admittedly “ethnic” base, Ben Gurion declared: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
It would demean Israel, and Zionist liberalism, to use the oppressive examples of Israel’s selfrighteous Arab neighbors as any kind of a behavior standard. And Israelis will be the first to detail all the ways their State has failed to fulfill its highest ideals. But it has been, overall, a gloriously successful experiment, carving out a little oasis of liberal democracy in a harsh, forbidding totalitarian desert.
Critics should be ashamed for singling out Israel for acting in the ways typical of the modern nation-state. Critics like Adam Shapiro, the so-called “peace” activist, are myopic, blind to Jewish suffering, silent in the face of Palestinian violence, and only able to see Palestinian suffering and Israeli “aggression.” Even many Israelis, especially far too many Israeli academics at home and abroad, lambaste Israeli “oppression” in a vacuum, ignoring Israel’s risks for peace during the Oslo years, forgetting Ehud Barak’s unilateral Camp David concessions, not mentioning Yasir Arafat’s rejectionism and the Palestinian’s strategic decision to reject negotiations and rely on terror.
These days, many critics also violate reasonable norms by indicting Israel for the “pre-crime” of transfer and expulsion – simply because there are some voices in Israel calling for this immoral plan or because some outside analysts have decided that this is Ariel Sharon’s only option or true intent. Such premature indictments may pass muster in the Hollywood of the Tom Cruise-Steven Spielberg collaboration “Minority Report,” they are not acceptable in the real world, and should be especially rejected in academia. Similarly, it is fashionable to damn Israel as a mini-Bosnia or Serbia wallowing in its “ethno-religious criteria” when the rest of the democratic world has gone multiethnic and multicultural. In fact, the United States and Canada stand out as states based on an all-inclusive civic nationalism; most of Europe remains rooted in ethno-religious forms of nationalism.
It is suspicious that liberal critics spend much time demonizing the Jewish state but fail to mention the restrictions in most European countries for non-Europeans. In deeming Israel an “anachronism” in the New York Review of Books, NYU’s Tony Judt claimed that the Western world had turned “pluralist … multiethnic and multicultural,” making Israel “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations … because it is a Jewish state in which one community-Jews -is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.” Here, as usual, hope triumphs over facts, selective perception distorts the truth. Noble liberty-, equality, and fraternity-minded France has closed more than 50 professions to non-EU citizens, according to the International Herald Tribune of December 25, 2002, with the list including “pharmacists, midwives, architects, airline pilots, funeral home directors and anyone who wants to obtain a license to sell tobacco or alcohol.” Other European countries have imposed similar restrictions, especially regarding working in government jobs. “People don’
t really like foreigners here,” one immigrant student reported in Germany. “The neighbors are terrible to us.” According to the Tribune, “multiculturalism, a word that has positive connotations in immigration societies such as the United States, has negative connotations in Germany. Only 21 percent of Europeans polled in 2000 were considered ‘actively tolerant’ of immigrants.” Given such restrictions and prejudices, Israel can proudly compare its record of openness to immigrants, and openness to its Arab minority, despite difficult, and often war-like conditions. And that is comparing Israel to Europe – let alone to its Arab neighbors.
Israel, then, is typical of modern nation-states neither “anachronistic” nor uniquely oppressive as the Chomsky-Shapiro relativists masquerading as moralists claim. Progressives can and should continue to delight in Israel, in the vigor of its press, the vitality of its democracy, the power of its courts, the creativity of its universities, the dynamism of its population, the latitude of its many internal dissidents, the rights afforded its minorities, the sophistication of its economy, the ease, freedom, and equality of so many of its citizens. Of course, Israel faces serious challenges and is far from perfect, like every nation-state, like all human creations. Shame on so many liberals, and so many academics, for jumping on the intifadist bandwagon, highlighting every Israeli imperfection – and doing it to delegtimize the Jewish state –while overlooking so many other countries’ failures to fulfill many basic liberal ideals. Liberals who are Zionists can and should proudly celebrate Israel’s many accomplishments, while prodding it persistently but constructively to do even better.
(This material is copyrighted by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, 2003. While it may be electronically distributed it may not be reprinted without the consent of the author Dr. Gil Troy at [email protected] and properly cited as appearing in the SPME Online Digest 11.2.03)