Joseph Dana’s piece on liberal Zionism, published on November 27, has sparked some lively debate. Dana critiqued those liberal Zionists—like Bernard Avishai and Gershom Gorenberg—for not being Palestinian-centric enough, and for imposing American-centric frames about the conflict onto an understanding of what Zionism is and stands for. Presumably, by that he meant the Diaspora’s continuing obsession with the old perceptions of Israel and Zionism fostered by Leon Uris and Herman Wouk.
The critique prompted Larry Derfner to post a response, in which he argued that one can both hold liberal values and promote Israel as the Jewish state (alongside Palestine as the Palestinian state) for instrumental reasons: without it, the Jews would be destroyed. This, in turn, encouraged Abir Kopty to write out her own argument, which is that there is no hyphenated Zionism—it’s simply a “colonialist ideology” bent on enshrining the violent hegemony of the Jews at the expense of the Palestinians.
All of this is confusing, because at no time in its history did Zionism ever assume a monolithic identity: there was never a Zionism, but always multiple Zionisms. There were/are the obvious ones: labor Zionism, Revisionist (secular nationalist) Zionism, religious Zionism. Each of these had their own sub-identities, divided into ideological and political factions. And there were several other movements within Zionism apart from these three most famous ones. They criss-crossed the economic, political, cultural, ethnic, and religious spectrums.
Of course there is tension in Zionist thinking—it’s inherent to the fabric of it, as it is in any framework of belief. But it is the very existence of it that gives Zionism the vigor to remain relevant: it’s why there is debate about liberal versus other types of Zionism, and why Zionists argue amongst themselves over what it means to be Israel and, consequently, where the Palestinians fit into these conceptualizations.
Those who represented the different factions struggled with each other to make their particular vision the dominant one within the World Zionist Organization and the Yishuv, but they always acknowledged the existence of each other no matter how little they might have thought of them. It’s why Zionist leaders in the Yishuv agreed to proportional representation as the basis for the political system—as a way of incorporating all of the movements and parties within the Zionist movement.
The one thing that united them was their acceptance of the idea of Zionism as the Jewish nationalist movement. It’s not clear why this nationalist movement is any less important—or tolerable—today than it was at the time. We have not entered a post-nationalist era: if we did, there wouldn’t be any Palestinian nationalism. The protestors of the Arab Spring wouldn’t be demanding reforms within their country, they’d be demanding the very abolishment of state borders. Debates about citizenship that suffuse Western states as much as countries in Africa and Asia wouldn’t occur otherwise.
Yes, some people do bad things in the name of Zionism. But they do so as individuals or groups who represent a particular form of Zionism. The fact that other individuals and groups, representing other movements within Zionism, call them out for their actions is an indication of Zionism’s broadness—and thus the importance of including a liberal Zionist perspective in it.
Zionism was never about the Palestinians or anyone else: it was always about the Jews. As a movement of ideas that was and is used as the basis for a variety of political programs, Zionism is not the problem when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the conflict is certainly anchored in different identities, it is composed of numerous other elements, not least of which are the political, economic, and security ones—and these are the ones that need to be resolved.
Focusing on how the various actors describe themselves obscures the overriding importance of dealing with those concrete issues.