In 1987, my Jewish day school wanted me to experience what it means to be Israeli, to appreciate the labor of the Zionist pioneers who had returned home after 2,000 years in exile to till the soil and live under the perpetual threat of violent Arabs out to destroy our Holy Land. So I spent a summer working on a kibbutz, planting trees and enduring a week of “gadna” army training.
Last month on the pages of The Forward I claimed the right to be a liberal Zionist in America, one who feels a deep connection with Israel, one who continues to envision a democratic Jewish state that exists alongside a free and independent Palestine — but also one who recognizes that a half-century after the Six-Day War and 25 years after Oslo, this vision remains out of step with the facts on the ground.
In their response to my recent piece, “The Loneliness of the Liberal Zionist,” Harry Reis and Yoav Schaefer have argued that Israel bears responsibility for the decline (if not death) of liberal Zionism as a viable future path for the Jewish state. Because of five decades of occupation, unremitting settlement expansion beyond the Green Line, the siege of Gaza and the “rightward jolt of the Israeli political landscape,” liberal Zionism has been rendered little more than a utopian dream among Jewish intellectuals in the American diaspora. My piece, they argue, fails to take this into account, that I am either being disingenuous or I am oblivious to the failure of liberal Zionism in Israel’s hyper-nationalistic political arena today.
To be a “liberal Zionist” in the United States is to lead a lonely existence. It often means having few friends, aside from other liberal Zionists. It means you support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their historic homeland while simultaneously supporting progressive causes in your American homeland. It means wanting to have a place on the left, alongside Black, Latinx, and LGBT activists, because it means you react with horror at the Trump administration’s racist, misogynistic, and homophobic agenda. But it also means a denial of your right to have a place on the left, because the left – including prominent activists like Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Shaun King – consider Zionism to be a white supremacist ideology that has decimated the “native” Palestinian population of the middle east through brutal colonial practices. And it means lowering your head in confusion and shame when the Trump administration offers unquestioned support for Israel while simultaneously enabling – even cultivating – the anti-Semitism of the Alt-Right. It means being homeless in America’s increasingly binary political landscape.
I am a professor of Jewish history in North Carolina, and I find it very discouraging that so few young academics, particularly tenured ones, in Jewish studies are willing to speak out against Jewish Voice for Peace’s ideology and its increasingly vitriolic tactics. I am calling on my colleagues who believe that dialogue and justice are not incompatible with Zionism to recognize Jewish Voice for Peace’s demagoguery.