Good News for Liberal Jews
Recently, I addressed a group of American J Street students in Hebron, with the tomb of the Jewish founding fathers and mothers at my back. I told them about the importance of a Jewish state that would defend our ethnic minority, which has been persecuted throughout the ages and continues to face grave danger today. When I was done, they raised their hands and asked over and over again: But what about our liberal American values? How can we harmonize ethnic nationalism with liberalism?
This tension was highlighted in the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) recently published “12th Annual Assessment: Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People,” a yearly report on the state of the Jews in Israel and around the world. JPPI co-chairs Ambassador Dennis Ross and president Avinoam Bar-Yosef presented the assessment’s findings to the Israeli cabinet. Results included the conclusion, according to Bar-Yosef, that while there remains significant support for Israel in North America, this base is not compensating for “the young generation of liberal and secular American Jews [which] is increasingly critical of the Jewish state, and concerned that Israeli society is becoming more religious and more right wing.”
Two years ago, there was a slew of articles, many appearing in the New York Times, about the death of Israeli liberalism. One of these was an op-ed by Antony Lerman, entitled “The End of Liberal Zionism.” In it Lerman wrote: “Pushed to the political margins in Israel and increasingly irrelevant in the Diaspora, liberal Zionism not only lacks agency; worse, it provides cover for the supremacist Zionism dominant in Israel today.”
After Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu, joined the Israeli government coalition, with Lieberman being named defense minister, headlines became even more vociferously critical. Israel is “infected by the seeds of fascism” and has been taken over by “extremists,” raved Salon.com.
Indeed, one finds that Israel’s liberal voter base is shrinking as the country’s right-wing parties are rising — at the same time that liberal Jews throughout the world are becoming more estranged from Israel.
All these articles, statements and experiences point to a clash between ethnic and religious nationalism and Western liberalism.
But the ironic truth is that liberal Zionism is a success story.
The liberal Jewish movement managed to create Israel in its image and, indeed, Israel is by far the most liberal country in the entire Middle East.
If, for a moment, we just set aside all that is not perfect in Israel, we can enjoy the realization that it is a bastion of liberal values. It provides minorities with health, education and upward mobility; it respects and upholds women’s rights; it offers its citizens safety and clean water. Just go to any Israeli university and you will see Arabs preparing for their future and looking good doing it. Go to any hospital and you will see minorities enjoying the benefits of the best health care in the Middle East. Go to the Knesset and you will find them arguing their cause. Go to the Supreme Court and you will find them administering justice in the Jewish state.
Israel’s liberalism has become even more apparent now that war, destruction and jihad-fueled barbarism have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and displaced millions more. The Arabs living in tiny Israel are the envy of their brethren in the Arab world, standing in stark contrast to those in Jordanian refugee camps, where women fear going to the bathroom alone, or to the headless bodies left in the wake of ISIS atrocities, or to the destroyed lives in the decimated cities of Syria.
So why the long liberal Jewish face? Why do we hear of the death and failure of liberalism, when it seems to be an overall smashing success?
I know: liberal Jews are heartbroken that the two-state solution — the pet project of liberalism — is in its final throes.
But it can’t be that the whole impulse of liberal Zionism boils down to merely the two-state solution. Liberalism is so much more. It’s about equality, rights, education and the environment — so many things that need to be fought for in Israel. So why are liberal Jews willing to hang up their hat just because one idea was a dud? We all have bad ideas sometimes, and the two-state solution was just that — a bad idea that was, frankly, very illiberal and was never going to work out.
Why do I say that the two-state solution was never going to work out? Because the whole concept of “land for peace” was based on two faulty premises. First, that the Jews were going to forget and forgo the ancestral Jewish homeland. Second, jihad was to be placated with a small victory. Both of these turned out to be mistaken assumptions.
To make a Palestinian state in the West Bank, you had to persuade the Jewish people to embrace an ahistorical narrative, to give up the 3,000-year-old tombs of the Mount of Olives, to leave the Biblical vistas of Beit-El and Hebron. But that didn’t happen. Instead, regular Zionist folks, following in the footsteps of the Kibbutznikim (the original Left), and excited to make their rightful ancestral land flourish through thick and thin, thwarted the land-giveaway plan by moving in and interspersing Jewish communities throughout what was to be Palestine. Today, there are 650,000 so-called “settlers” in the so-called “West Bank” — Judea and Samaria and east Jerusalem. So much for a land giveaway from the Israeli side.
On the other side of the land-for-peace equation, the Palestinians, ruled by either secular or religious jihadists (Fatah and Hamas), never made a plausible partner for a two-state solution. When Israel gave away land in major concessions, jihadists flipped them into terror bases.
Yet, while liberal Jews knew about these two flaws with the two-state paradigm, they figured that the settlers and jihadists were merely the extremists, and that “two-staters” will win the day by convincing the average, pragmatic Israeli and Palestinian to side with them. And, indeed, for a long time the Left held sway, and many believed that the two-state solution was the rational way forward. But, alas, this policy plan is now dead — and not because the Right was able to secretly promulgate its views and inculcate the masses with its ideology. Rather, the average, pragmatic Israeli has become disillusioned with the two-state solution because a confluence of events and realities now make this concept impossible. These are:
The Gaza withdrawal. No matter how you slice it, the 2005 Gaza Disengagement did not work out well for Israel, and once again, the land-for-peace formula yielded a terror war instead of peace — three terror wars in six years, to be exact, with the next one looming ahead. The average Israeli sees the Gaza experiment as empirical evidence of the failure of both “land for peace” and the two-state solution.
The Arab Spring. Even if some Israelis think that the disengagement worked out splendidly, or believe that the only reason it didn’t work out is because we did not negotiate a deal with the Gazans, there is still a major reason that most Israelis cannot abide another land giveaway: the destabilization and radicalization of the Arab Middle East. The average Israeli knows that if you get in bed with a moderate Palestinian leader today, tomorrow you will wake up with one headless moderate and a whole band of jihadists — like ISIS, Hamas and the Al-Nusra Front — at your border. The only stable truth in the Arab world right now is instability, and no one can make assurances that any Arab deal, or even leader, can stick. Most Israelis are not willing to risk having ISIS next door.
Mahmoud Abbas. Even if you were looking for a Palestinian moderate leader right now, you couldn’t find him. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done everything but restore the average Israeli’s confidence in the peace process, instead championing anti-Israel vitriol and propaganda, including his recent remarks about rabbis poisoning Palestinian water. Abbas has done everything to push the idea of reconciliation farther from Israeli minds.
The Obama administration. Even if some Israelis thought that Gaza worked out great, that ISIS is of no significant danger and that Abbas was a sweetheart, there is still another problem: the Obama administration. The average Israeli does not believe that President Obama has Israel’s best interests at heart and has lost faith that America has Israel’s back — especially in the aftermath of the Iran deal. So, who would guarantee a land-for-peace arrangement if one was offered?
Resettlement success. The pro-resettlement movement (which used to be called the settlement movement, until I changed the term) has managed to fill Judea and Samaria with 650,000 people, build cities like Maaleh Adumim and Ariel, and hold on to Hebron and Beth El. It has become logistically and politically impossible to remove them.
For all these simple reasons, the two-state solution as a practical matter is dead.
The Israeli shift away from the two-state solution is perfectly embodied in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may still idealize a two-state paradigm but has realized that it’s no longer feasible. In an interview right after the 2015 election, Netanyahu told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell:
I haven’t changed my policy. I never retracted my speech at Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state. What has changed is the reality…the Palestinian leader refuses to recognize the Jewish state and has made a pact with Hamas that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and every territory that is vacated today in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces…I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change.
So, the two-state solution is dead. But does that mean that liberal Zionism is dead, as well?
Surprisingly, the liberalism-is-dead pundits who lament the collapse of the Left completely disregard the success of center-left parties like Labor and Yesh Atid. In the last election, both these parties ran on social platforms and showed growth. The lesson that should have been learned in the last elections is that the Left still has voters interested in social issues, in parties that talk about classroom sizes, housing, road fatalities, health care, the environment and, of course, poverty and inequality. Wouldn’t it be so nice to see the Left focus in on these important issues, instead of on the one at which they have totally failed?
Here are three examples of modern liberal Zionism hard at work:
Recently, I interviewed hard-left Israeli politician Dov Khenin, a member of Knesset for the Joint (Arab) List and a member of the central committee of Maki, the Israeli Communist party and the largest faction within the radical-leftist political coalition known as Hadash. Khenin is working hard to save the rapidly evaporating Dead Sea. In 2011, he introduced the Protection and Rehabilitation of the Dead Sea bill, legislation that would instruct Israel’s environmental protection minister to draft a plan to replenish the sea’s northern basin, which would have to include a minimum increase of 235 million cubic meters of water from the Jordan River into the Dead Sea. Khenin’s legislation would also place water-pumping limitations on Dead Sea Works, which has exclusive rights to mining the southern part of the Dead Sea, when performing mineral extractions. Khenin is an avid two-state proponent, who does not let that one defeat get him down. He is still a very active — and very liberal — Jew.
Another hard-at-work liberal Jew is Ben Topor, 28, who appeared on Forbes Israel‘s “30 under 30” list this year. Topor is founder and chairman of the Noah Initiative, a project aimed at establishing an incubator of alternative energy, water and agriculture technologies in the town of Ofakim. The organization aims to turn the Negev, starting with Ofakim, into a leader for green technologies, thus developing Israel’s periphery and attending to environmental issues.
Finally, Israel’s National Insurance Institute (NII) will begin a new savings plan for minors in January 2017, providing a monthly “pension fund” stipend for Israelis 18 and under. The money will be invested in an account managed by the NII, although parents will be able to remove money from investments they determine to be insufficiently high-yielding. The money will belong to the grown child when s/he reaches 18. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon pushed this landmark policy through, saying that it was “an important step in the reduction of the social gap in Israel and in expanding equality. As a result of the program, youths who reach age 18 will have NIS 20,000 ($5,200) in hand, with an opportunity to build their future.”
These are but a few examples of liberal thinking at work in Israel and there are many more. So even though the two-state solution is deader than a doornail, Israeli liberalism is alive and well. Indeed, global Jewish liberalism should not feel estranged from the Jewish state. To the contrary, what Jewish liberalism needs now is a new political impulse of Tikkun Olam aimed at bettering Israel — and there is so much to make better in the areas of education, environmentalism and socioeconomic equality. Forget two states. Now it time to refocus on facilitating actual liberalism in the liberal country that we have built, instead of trying to create a very illiberal one right next door.