As an American Jew with left leaning politics, what am I to make of Israel? I believe in human rights, equality, democracy and social justice and can see very clearly that Israel is falling far short of upholding those values. Do I check my values at the door and support Israel no matter what? Or, do I refuse to give up on these values (which reflect the Jewish values on which I was raised) and find a way to apply them to Israel? If I truly care about Israel and want it respect and uphold human rights and be an equal and democratic society with justice for all, shouldn’t I fight to help it live up to those values?
I was raised a Zionist. Growing up in a Zionist youth group I was accustomed to proudly defining as a Zionist. I often hesitate to self-define that way today. I still believe in the Jewish people’s right for self determination and the establishment and legitimacy of our own state, but the policies of that state and the rightward regressive actions of fringe settlers and their supporters have caused me to distance myself from the term Zionism. For those who believe in human rights and democracy the “z” word is now beyond the pale. It is whispered in hushed tones and understood only as what the right wing preaches and implements as policy. The Zionism that was once a broad nationalism has been distorted and replaced by racist and xenophobic fears that drive unjust and dehumanizing policies.
What many people, Jew and gentile, do not seem to realize is that Zionism was never a monolithic political movement. Nor was it initially a right-wing movement. There were in fact multiple Zionisms of various political, social and cultural stripes. The mainstream Zionism I, and most of world Jewry, was raised on was progressive, rhetorically open and reflected many traditional Jewish values, including both the desire to return to our homeland and respect for the “other” that lives amongst us. It was that Zionism that came to realize that while we had a right to a country of our own just like all the other peoples of the world, so too did the Palestinians, and that a two-state solution was not only preferred but was also the most just way to create our own country.
Where did mainstream Zionism go? Why do Israeli politics and policies pander to racism, xenophobia and bigotry of Palestinians, migrant workers, and anyone else now deemed “other”? When did hope, which is the title of the Israeli national anthem, get replaced by fear as the primary paradigm? And most importantly, how do I and other people who share the values of human rights, equality, democracy and social justice relate to both Zionism and Israel today?
Of course I don’t have all the answers, and I can’t answer those questions for anyone but myself, but I also can’t give up on either my values or on my hope for Israel. My answer then is to explicitly highlight my values when I address Israel-Palestinian issues. I recently took a job as the Assistant Director of Meretz USA for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace. Meretz USA is an American non-profit that works to educate Americans about the civil rights, human rights, social justice and peace issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories so that we can work to change unjust Israeli policies and foster true peace between Israel and all of its neighbors. Meretz USA also considers itself to be a “progressive Zionist” organization, an organization that believes the Israel worth working for and hoping for is one that respects human rights, democracy and lasting peace. It’s a tall order, to be sure.
My answer with how to relate to Zionism and Israel is this: I will be critical of Israeli policies and political rhetoric when they ignore or violate human rights; I will speak out when Israeli polices and right-wing Zionists limit free speech and other cornerstones of democracy; I will be critical of Israeli politicians who do not pursue a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians; I will not let the right-wing dictate what caring about Israel looks like; and I will be hopeful that Israel can still become a democratic and just country. I’m excited about bringing all of who I am to the table. I’m excited that I am part of an organization that has not ceded Zionism to all the haters on the right. And most of all, I’m excited about not having to check my values at the door when I work on issues related to Israel and the future Palestinian state.
Finally, my answer is this, the only way I can be a Zionist in 2011 is to be a human rights advocate. The only way I can be a Zionist is to call out Israel when it falls short of being the country it set out to be. The way only for me to be a Zionist is to be a Zionist who works for the human rights, peace and security of both Israelis and Palestinians. I still believe in the two-state solution, but the only way forward is through working for the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. If that does not fit someone else’s definition of Zionism, too bad, because that is how this Zionist is going to relate to Israel.