Liberal Zionism, Illiberal Israel

Liberal Zionism, Illiberal Israel

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In a landmark essay published last week in The New York Review of Books, Prof. Peter Beinart profiles an American Jewish establishment in deep denial.

Four decades ago, Beinart writes, the current establishment’s leaders, “fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation,” than it has since become under the influence of Likud, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and the settler movement.

Love, of course, is a potent emotion which, as Shakespeare realized, makes it hard to be clear-headed and objective (“But love is blind and lovers cannot see; The pretty follies that themselves commit”). And scientists have indeed confirmed that love reduces our ability to make negative judgments about the object of our affection.

As a result, it is sad, but not particularly surprising, that long-serving American Jewish leaders are having a very hard time discarding the romanticized image of the “innocent Israel of their youth”; and accepting the fact that Israel is now being run, in large part, by elements who are inimical to the liberal values that they continue to hold dear – democracy, equality, pluralism and human rights.

But although denial as a psychological mechanism is understandable, it is also dangerous, since it prevents the denier from facing real threats that exist.

Prof. Naomi Chazan, one of three honorees at this week’s Meretz USA gala, held a discussion with Meretz USA board members last Sunday and surveyed one such real threat to Israel’s strength and wellbeing. Chazan, a former Meretz Knesset member and now President of the New Israel Fund, profiled an increasingly undemocratic, illiberal Israel that is far from the image preserved and disseminated by the American Jewish mainstream.

Chazan submitted that Israel’s move away from liberal values has not been a spontaneous development, but a deliberate, systematic campaign organized by a strong, highly-motivated minority that is exploiting the fear and uncertainty of Israel’s large centrist constituency.

Chazan maintained that the campaign actually began some years ago with attacks from some right-wing and religious circles aimed at delegitimizing Israel’s court system, especially its High Court of Justice and its defense of human rights.

About five years ago, she said, this campaign moved on to target Israel’s peace movements, in an effort to push them beyond the Pale of legitimacy for mainstream Israelis. At the same time, forces on the right were stepping up their attacks on the Palestinian citizens of Israel – their organizations, their leadership, and sometimes the citizens themselves.

This year, Chazan continued, the delegitimization became even more intense, with the well-funded Im Tirtzu organization running three distinct ad campaigns targeting the New Israel Fund and its grantees. The notorious ‘Chazan with a horn’ campaign might have attracted the most publicity, Chazan explained, but we should be aware that Im Tirtzu has been continuing its efforts, employing misinformation, guilt by association, and other defamatory tactics to turn average Israelis against the country’s liberal NGOs.

In the wake of these Im Tirtzu campaigns, Chazan reported, the Knesset is now considering two different bills that would severely restrict the activity of Israel’s civil society organizations. Worse, she explained, the bills create an impression that Israel’s NGOs are collaborating with foreigners to, “subvert the state,” in the words of one of the bills’ sponsors, Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh.

Chazan fears that the ongoing campaign is not yet over, and she senses that the next erosion of democracy will come in the form of an organized attack on freedom of speech, press, and academia. Already, she reported, the Im Tirtzu organization has made itself a kind of “Thought Police”, sponsoring a drive to catalogue the undergrad reading lists of all Political Science departments throughout Israel, and giving ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘anti-Israel’ grades to each academic text assigned. The Knesset, she added, is now pressing Israel’s Council for Higher Education to formally assess the lists based on these criteria.

Looking at the recent case of Anat Kam, Chazan acknowledged that Kam had broken the law in her leak of classified military documents, but she slammed the security establishment’s attempt to persecute (and prosecute) Haaretz reporter Uri Blau for publishing articles based on these materials (especially since the articles were cleared by the Military Censor!). Chazan suspects that Haaretz newspaper could well be an upcoming target for Israel’s illiberals.

None of this is to say that Israel is without external enemies, or that its neighbors are paragons of liberal democracy. Far from discounting this reality, Chazan argued that it has always been Israel’s democratic tradition which has given it credibility in the international community and has assured it of allies in the West, particularly the United States. An Israel that turns its back on democracy and human rights, she fears, could lose this support and undermine its own existence.

But despite everything, Chazan is hopeful. She sees a wider American Jewish community that is far ahead of the American Jewish establishment in its ability to integrate love and criticism of Israel. And she sees a growing pushback in Israel, with more and more people rallying around democracy, and realizing that standing on the sidelines is not an option. Chazan points to the growing weekly demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem as a symbol of this renewed effervescence.

Peter Beinart, too, looks approvingly at the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators. And in his suggestion that the idealism displayed by these protestors should catalyze the creation of the next generation of liberal American Zionists, Beinart describes the type of committed, revitalized progressive connection to Israel for which Meretz USA has long stood:

For several months now, a group of Israeli students has been traveling every Friday to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where a Palestinian family named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers. Although repeatedly arrested for protesting without a permit, and called traitors and self-haters by the Israeli right, the students keep coming, their numbers now swelling into the thousands.

What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people to speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s Jewish young? What if [American Jewish students were] told that their generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?

Shabbat Shalom,
Ron Skolnik
Executive Director
Meretz USA

By | 2010-05-21T14:06:18-04:00 May 21st, 2010|Blog, Israeli Government, Israeli Left, Meretz, Zionism|0 Comments

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