Jews are accomplished worriers, for good historical reasons. If worrying were an Olympic event, Jewish medalists would be as disproportionate in number as we are among Nobel laureates. Much Jewish worry centers on Israel, the growing dangers it faces in the world’s most volatile region, its achievements and challenges, successes and failures, problems and prospects.
Some discern a worrisome crisis among “Liberal Zionists.” In a recent essay, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” Antony Lerman, a disaffected former Zionist, declared the “demise” of the Liberal Zionist “project.” Those who believe that liberalism and Zionism can be combined, that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, that a two-state solution is possible, are benighted romantics, in Lerman’s view.
In a similar, but less apocalyptic vein, Jason Horowitz, a Washington-based New York Times correspondent, asks “Can Liberal Zionists Count on Hillary Clinton?” Horowitz separates Zionists into opposing camps. “Liberal Zionists” are reflective, thoughtful holders of nuanced views; they believe in a two-state solution, agonize about Israel’s perceived errors and, though they love the Jewish State, readily criticize it. To their left is an extremist Jewish anti-Zionist fringe. To the right is “a wealthy and influential sliver of more moderate Democratic Jews for whom Israel is a priority.” Then we have “right wing” Zionists, absolutists who do not agonize about Israel and are impervious to nuance, “unwavering” supporters of Likud, “unquestioning” supporters of Israel with a reflexive “Israel can do no wrong mentality.”
Can Liberal Zionists count on Hillary Clinton? Horowitz is unsure. Most, he says, will vote for her if she’s the Democratic presidential candidate, because they have nowhere else to go. But they will do so holding their noses, hoping that her private views differ from her public statements, which Horowitz characterizes as “firmly hawkish” and pro-Israel on Gaza and Israeli security, and devoid of empathy for Palestinians, views purportedly identical with those of the hard core right. In other words, “Liberal Zionists” hope that Clinton is a cynical, calculating, disingenuous, hypocritical opportunist who will show her true colors once in the oval office. Karl Rove could not have put it better.
I am a Zionist. I am also a political liberal, a lifelong Democrat, the Senior Rabbi of an historic Reform congregation once led by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the world’s oldest and largest rabbinical body, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism. Our 2,000 members hold a range of views on every subject, including Israel, but the CCAR’s Platform on Zionism, our official statement of policy, affirms that promoting Israel’s security and ensuring the welfare of its citizens are primary obligations.
Like many rabbis, I spoke about Israel on the high holy days. I discussed the implications of the recent conflict and called upon fellow Jewish liberals to recognize what Avi Shavit calls “The New Middle East,” which is “raising penetrating questions that must generate an upheaval in liberal thought.” I cited the 2003 essay by Ellen Willis, a leftist critic, “Is There Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist,” which revealed that “accusations of blind loyalty to Israel [and] intolerance of debate…are routinely used to stifle discussion of how anti-Semitism influences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the world’s reaction to it or the public conversation about it.”
I referred to the widely lauded article by Matti Friedman, former AP reporter and editor in Jerusalem, who declared, “Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians. The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of [Israel].” And I shared the view of Professor Carlo Strenger, Israeli psychologist and self-proclaimed leftist: “[T]he time has come to stop mourning Israel’s idealized image…Israel is an impressive achievement in many ways, but it was never an ideal society…Israel certainly needs to mature, but so do we.”
I have a number of quibbles with Horowitz’s essay, but its greatest analytical flaw is treating Liberal Zionism as a monolith. Horowitz fails to distinguish between what are best called “Utopian Liberal Zionists” and “Pragmatic Liberal Zionists.” The former cling to an idealized image of a Jewish State that is inspiring, but not fully attainable. Utopians believe they know better than Israel itself what risks it must accept and seek to prescribe or have the U.S. impose on Israel the compromises they think it must make. Pragmatists cherish a lofty vision, but temper their hopes with realism, recognizing that human progress is not linear and unreasonable expectations are self-defeating. They respect Israel’s right, as a sovereign democracy, to make decisions that will determine the ultimate fate of the Jewish State and its citizens.
I am a Pragmatic Liberal Zionist. And I believe most American Jews are, too.
I believe in an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. I support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but I worry whether it is presently attainable, given Hamas’ fanaticism and Abbas’ weakness and indecision. I hold that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and that an agreement must be enforceable and truly end the conflict forever. I regard an ironclad strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel as essential to the national security of both countries, the region, and the world. I am convinced that these are Hillary Clinton’s genuine convictions, too. Utopian Liberal Zionists may vote for her despite them. Many Pragmatic Liberal Zionists will support her because of them.