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August 22, 2014 3:03 pm

Why It’s So Easy for Liberal Jews to Judge Israel

avatar by Seth Frantzman

Funeral of IDF St.-Sgt. Eliav Kahlon 22, from Safed Photo: Dave Bender

Funeral of IDF St.-Sgt. Eliav Kahlon 22, from Safed Photo: Dave Bender.

It never fails. Whenever Israel fights a war with Hamas in Gaza, you can be sure of a few things: The world media will condemn us. Diplomats will be broadly sympathetic but will express “concern” for civilian casualties and ask that the IDF be “proportionate”. Last and probably least, some liberal American Jews will complain about how “Israel doesn’t represent them” and how Israel’s behavior “alienates” them from the Jewish State.

The present round is no different. A liberal member of Young Judaea, a “Zionist youth movement in the US,” wrote in the following unpublished op-ed to a pro-Israel writer: “as a Liberal Jew I couldn’t help but feel alienation, shame and frustration reading your letter… instead of actively attempting to hush the voices that are left… you should work to uphold the Jewish and democratic values that went into making Israel… telling others to refrain from criticism jeopardizes the democratic framework of [Israel’s] forefathers… fueling a growing movement of hatred and violence in the Jewish state.” Another American-Jewish “lover of Israel” claims “the current Gaza death toll casts a moral shadow upon American Jews, and unfairly, upon Jewish communities everywhere.” He argues that the death toll of Palestinians is too high, worrying he can no longer “justify” Israel’s need to demolish, in his view, whole civilian neighborhoods.

Perpetually agonizing, perpetually self-absorbed

Where do all these “liberal Zionist” Jews who are constantly “disappointed in Israel” come from? To be honest: lots of places. The term “liberal Zionism” is in truth a catch-phrase and self-identity for a wide range of Jews who claim to be both on the progressive left and also have an affinity with Israel. What epitomizes them more than any other single quality is an internal struggle largely disconnected from the complex reality of the Middle East.

A short stroll through Israel Studies Professor Dov Waxman’s Facebook page (friend approval req.) provides a perfect example of this kind of navel gazing and self-satisfaction: on July 31, he linked to a piece by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine titled ‘Israel is making it hard to be pro-Israel.’ Next on the menu are pieces by Peter Beinart, Roger Cohen, an article on the “suffering in Gaza”, and of course David Grossman and then Jonathan Freedland’s ‘The Liberal Zionists’ and finally Gershom Gorenberg, Roger Cohen and J Street.

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It isn’t that this ‘reading list’ of talking points is different than a different repertoire of writers one might find on the right. What makes it stand out is the constant commentary of “struggle” with Israel, the internal self-centered debate of “how we feel.” It is a narrative about feelings and of being uncomfortable. Think of it as a form of therapy for the enlightened chattering classes. What is particularly interesting is this ideology doesn’t express itself as having a set of values, but merely in opposition to values it claims not to like.

Compare their stance on Israel to the American left’s usual view on guns, for instance: “There are too many guns and they are too easy to acquire, let’s control them.” But the liberal Zionist view would be “as a liberal Zionist I have a complex relationship with America and its stance on guns, can we identify with a state that has so many guns?” There isn’t an agenda of change, a goal or even a value to which to work toward: There isn’t an end result good recipe, there is just someone telling you how your cooking isn’t very good.

Meet the Players

Liberal Zionism has turned into a scam, an old-boys club of name-dropping intellectuals whose main contribution is to write articles for each other to read, a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-obsession, paired sometimes with self-hatred. To understand how this is, we need to be acquainted with the group, and Waxman’s listings give us a good sampling. Chait’s essay, for instance, begins with his attendance at a J Street conference several years ago: “I maintained that, while one certainly did not need to agree with everything Israel does to be pro-Israel, a meaningful definition required some form of sympathy more concrete than the sort one might extend to humanity writ large.” But with the outbreak of the recent war he claims an “uncomfortable and alien feeling.”

Chait then discusses his fellow “liberal Jews” and mentions Roger Cohen. Similarly Freedland, writing at the liberal New York Review of Books, who mentions his “fellow” liberal Zionist Ari Shavit, that “never do liberal Zionists feel more torn than when Israel is at war. ” Freedland writes about the “dual posture—defense of Israel paired with horror at the violation of liberal values.” Naturally, he blames anti-semitism on Israel: “defending Israel when Israel is killing civilians by the hundred now exacts a very direct price…in Paris.” He mentions “there is a weariness in the liberal Zionist fraternity. Privately, people admit to growing tired of defending Israeli military action when it comes at such a heavy cost in civilian life.” Somehow he doesn’t find it odd that there are no similar attacks on individual Russians around the world for Ukraine or Chinese for recent violence in Xinjiang.

When we compare his thoughts to others we find a similar dogma. It is profoundly Israelocentric and Judeocentric; no similar outrage is ever expressed for similar actions if they don’t involve Jews. Consider that many of these people who live abroad define themselves as “Jewish Americans” but they don’t express similar moral outrage or horror about US actions in Afghanistan. For instance, a prominent UK Jewish writer claimed in a private email that Israel must deal harshly with police involved in beating Palestinians to prove itself as a moral state. The same writer has never expressed sentiments about the UK when police there were involved in the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009. Indeed, many of these American Jews who condemn Israel don’t count the dead of Afghanistan or Obama’s drone strikes so zealously or wonder if America is moral. Nor do you see much outrage in France for their military activities in Africa, which are unlikely to be any better than those of the IDF in protecting civilian lives.

To be a “liberal Zionist” is about key words and key people. Everyone reads Beinart and Grossman. They speak about “moral struggle” and they see Zionism as primarily being a movement one argues with, not that one is truly a part of. These “liberal Zionists” don’t discuss Israel the way progressives in France or the US discuss their countries. They don’t even discuss it the way Palestinian radical leftist communists discuss Palestine. They are profoundly only operative as an oppositional group. They put Israel on an Israelocentric pedestal, mark it as the cause of much of the region’s problems and the cause of most anti-semitism, and subject it to a tirade of critique they don’t subject any other movement or nation to. How did it become like this?

The ‘Talented Mr. Ripley’ in Palestine

In a memorable scene in the film ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ Meredith, one of the WASPs hanging out with Tom Ripley, admits “the truth is when you’ve had money your entire life, you’re only truly comfortable around other people who have it and despise it.” Similarly in the 2004 film ‘The Aviator’ about Howard Hughes, he goes to dinner with Katherine Hepburn’s family who are rich East Coast aristocracy types and who say “we’re socialists here, we don’t talk about money” to which Howard replies “because you’ve always had it.” The self-perception of liberal Zionism is like this, except they add the notion that Israel is part of their “inheritance” which they “despise” to the rubric of being from a wealthy elite. Familiarity breeds contempt; but in this case we are dealing with a diverse “fraternity” of intellectuals rather than a hereditary aristocracy.

This exclusivity model of Liberal Zionism was best articulated by Carolina Landsman in her claim that Haaretz represents the model of Jewish critique developed by German Jewry. In a sense, what she meant was that the place of the “Jews” in Israel was held by the fellow-traveler left and that the rest of Israelis were Germans, or Americans, or any other non-Jewish group you might pick. For them, Jews are by definition solely critics – a well-known talking point among certain left wing Jews when they talk about “light unto the nations” or “we are a chosen people”, except in this case Liberal Zionism is a “light unto Israel.” It is a point which is strangely ironic, given how much liberal Zionists bash Israel for having a chauvinistic view of itself as the “Chosen People” unbound by normal morality.

Re-defining themselves as a Jewish minority in a non-Jewish Israeli state is an effective tool for advancing an agenda of insularity, in which Jews talk with Jews about the problems of other Jews; the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Peter Beinart conveys this in a Facebook post, noting that his daughter is “lucky to live in an age when Jews have a state and are no longer at the mercy of the gentile world.” Similarly J Street U brags on Twitter that “B’tselem is one of the only Israeli orgs in Gaza.” Amy Klein at Haaretz talks about her Facebook feed and her “mostly Jewish friends.” She asks how she can oppose Israel’s war “what can I do, attend a peace sit-in like the one held at a mosque in Harlem on the 17 of Tammuz, the Jewish fast day? Go to the Jewish community…?”

This is an entirely Jewish-centered life. These are the people who say “kaddish” for the dead in Gaza, even though the Muslim families of the dead in Gaza never asked for Jews to say a prayer for them. It is like Daniel Sieradski – founder of Jewschool, Occupy Judaism, former worker for the JTA and speaker at Limmud – who claimed to me once that he was “active in the West Bank for Palestinians.” With who, did you live in Ramallah? He claimed he was working for J Street. Of course. Another left-wing professor once bragged that “seven of nine of the professors in our department are from Zionist youth movements in the UK.” This is an insular world of “Zionist youth movements” that only create critics of Israel.

It is a quiet fraternity that networks among itself. Its revulsion with Israel is feigned because not only is it focused only on Israel, but its colleagues, friends, youth movement, schools, are all entirely Jewish. When it talks about an “ethnocratic state” in Israel it sees itself as the top of the pyramid, handing out advice and privileges to the “others.” As Beinart writes, Israel must give Palestinians “hope.” Because only “liberal Zionists” or Jews can provide hope. Palestinian power is gifted from these elites who are uncomfortable with their “power and privilege”, while at the same time maintaining it.

The uncertainty behind the rhetoric

This form of Liberal Zionism has three major fears. First, it fears the rise of a Palestinian state which doesn’t need it anymore. Its moral compass aims at Palestinians; a wealthy successful Palestine would mean no more need for welfare and no more playing “white man’s burden” to a “native minority.”

Second, it fears power. With great power comes great responsibility as Uncle Ben said, and it’s far easier for liberal Jews to be irresponsible critics than flawed leaders who need to make real and difficult decisions. Instead, it wants to be at the protests shouting “not in my name”, because instinctively it believes Israel is in its name. Situating itself as a “the German Jews of Israel” is a model that puts it at arm’s length with the normative majority, allows it to endlessly critique without having responsibility and play the victimized “canary in the coal mine.” Give it power and it will run from the spotlight.

The third thing it fears is non-Jewish voices. I was at a planning conference at the Technion debating Bedouin rights. The panel consisted only of Jews all debating what is “best” for the Bedouin. Beinart similarly jets around the world, from the 92nd Street Y to Australia to debate other Jews like Daniel Gordis. This is symptomatic of the entire liberal Jewish discourse: a debate by Jews, of Jews, for Jews. These people want to play the “Palestinian side.” They don’t want actual Palestinians or Bedouin or any of these groups, partly because their niche is “knowing the Arabs better than Arabs know themselves” and partly because it is their “duty” to “stand in solidarity with the other” – the “Other” being an abstract concept and not an actual human being.

That is why Amy Klien can only attend Jewish anti-Israel events or “peace” rallies. She can’t go to the non-Jewish one. That is why groups like Jewish voice for peace have “Jewish” in their name. They can’t be a ‘Voice for Peace’, because they need to wear signs claiming they are “Jews who object”, not just “people who object.” Take away the “Jewish” aspect and Liberal Zionism wants no part of it. Because this is a movement that admits only Jewish voices and is only for other Jewish people. It is why it is profoundly ineffective, but also why it continues to play a role.

Liberal Zionism’s bluff can always be called by saying “let’s have a Palestinian articulate the Palestinian side.” Then the Beinarts are neutered because they are used to telling us what “Ahmed thinks”, how the “Arab street feels and suffers.” Don’t let Dov Waxman tell “us” the Palestinian position as he did with Ilan Peleg in the 2011 book Israel’s Palestinians. When Oren Yiftachel tells us about “social justice” on the kibbutz he grew up on and that the Bedouin are indigenous, he means to keep them in a place of permanent subordination so he can tell us how they think, who they are. Liberal Zionists adopt the same position as bourgeois socialists and revolutionaries who know what “is best” for the proletariat and colonize the workers to work on their “behalf.” This is why at actual Palestinian rallies you don’t see any liberal Zionists. Their efforts are directed entirely inward: op-eds about their “struggle”, articles about how hard it is to “sit on the couch during the Gaza war.”

This form of Liberal Zionism has no real values. Its main value is critique. It ostensibly opposes the settlements, but even when Israel withdrew from Gaza, Liberal Zionism wasn’t there to cheer. They lectured Israel about its “responsibilities”; do-gooders like James Wolfensohn and his Jewish donor colleagues bought the greenhouses for $14 million in 2005 and gave them to Gazans who promptly burned them. Over the years they loosely identified with the kibbutzim around Gaza, but not with Sderot. And with Hamas rocket fire they talk about “impotent rockets” as Jay Michaelson did in The Forward. When they want moral voices on Gaza, they look only to each other “Jewish leading voices”; there is no one value that underlies their dislike of the Gaza operation except some talk about too many Palestinian casualties. Ask them about fundamental issues inside Israel – say discriminatory acceptance committees, segregated school systems or issues of socio-economic policy – and there is no clear view.

This is less a “liberal” or “progressive” movement than a self-absorbed discussion group. They themselves know it is a myth, which is why they drift farther into the radical anti-Zionist camp – but even there the opposition is about being in a “Jewish” opposition. It’s like Catholics who oppose the church dropping Latin. It isn’t about anything more than an internal battle. It’s past time that these ineffective liberal Zionists Jews grow up and understand the world doesn’t revolve around them and their narcissistic anguish. If they want to have a real effect on issues, they will need to actually talk to the people they claim to represent – both Israelis and Palestinians – and take them seriously. Otherwise, they will continue to be irrelevant.

This article was originally published by Mida.

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