Recently, I addressed a group of American J Street students in Hebron, with the tomb of the Jewish founding fathers and mothers at my back. I told them about the importance of a Jewish state that would defend our ethnic minority, which has been persecuted throughout the ages and continues to face grave danger today. When I was done, they raised their hands and asked over and over again: But what about our liberal American values? How can we harmonize ethnic nationalism with liberalism?
This tension was highlighted in the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) recently published “12th Annual Assessment: Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People,” a yearly report on the state of the Jews in Israel and around the world. JPPI co-chairs Ambassador Dennis Ross and president Avinoam Bar-Yosef presented the assessment’s findings to the Israeli cabinet. Results included the conclusion, according to Bar-Yosef, that while there remains significant support for Israel in North America, this base is not compensating for “the young generation of liberal and secular American Jews [which] is increasingly critical of the Jewish state, and concerned that Israeli society is becoming more religious and more right wing.”
Two years ago, there was a slew of articles, many appearing in the New York Times, about the death of Israeli liberalism. One of these was an op-ed by Antony Lerman, entitled “The End of Liberal Zionism.” In it Lerman wrote: “Pushed to the political margins in Israel and increasingly irrelevant in the Diaspora, liberal Zionism not only lacks agency; worse, it provides cover for the supremacist Zionism dominant in Israel today.”
After Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu, joined the Israeli government coalition, with Lieberman being named defense minister, headlines became even more vociferously critical. Israel is “infected by the seeds of fascism” and has been taken over by “extremists,” raved Salon.com.
Indeed, one finds that Israel’s liberal voter base is shrinking as the country’s right-wing parties are rising — at the same time that liberal Jews throughout the world are becoming more estranged from Israel.
All these articles, statements and experiences point to a clash between ethnic and religious nationalism and Western liberalism.
But the ironic truth is that liberal Zionism is a success story.
The liberal Jewish movement managed to create Israel in its image and, indeed, Israel is by far the most liberal country in the entire Middle East.
If, for a moment, we just set aside all that is not perfect in Israel, we can enjoy the realization that it is a bastion of liberal values. It provides minorities with health, education and upward mobility; it respects and upholds women’s rights; it offers its citizens safety and clean water. Just go to any Israeli university and you will see Arabs preparing for their future and looking good doing it. Go to any hospital and you will see minorities enjoying the benefits of the best health care in the Middle East. Go to the Knesset and you will find them arguing their cause. Go to the Supreme Court and you will find them administering justice in the Jewish state.
Israel’s liberalism has become even more apparent now that war, destruction and jihad-fueled barbarism have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and displaced millions more. The Arabs living in tiny Israel are the envy of their brethren in the Arab world, standing in stark contrast to those in Jordanian refugee camps, where women fear going to the bathroom alone, or to the headless bodies left in the wake of ISIS atrocities, or to the destroyed lives in the decimated cities of Syria.
So why the long liberal Jewish face? Why do we hear of the death and failure of liberalism, when it seems to be an overall smashing success?
I know: liberal Jews are heartbroken that the two-state solution — the pet project of liberalism — is in its final throes.
But it can’t be that the whole impulse of liberal Zionism boils down to merely the two-state solution. Liberalism is so much more. It’s about equality, rights, education and the environment — so many things that need to be fought for in Israel. So why are liberal Jews willing to hang up their hat just because one idea was a dud? We all have bad ideas sometimes, and the two-state solution was just that — a bad idea that was, frankly, very illiberal and was never going to work out.
Why do I say that the two-state solution was never going to work out? Because the whole concept of “land for peace” was based on two faulty premises. First, that the Jews were going to forget and forgo the ancestral Jewish homeland. Second, jihad was to be placated with a small victory. Both of these turned out to be mistaken assumptions.
To make a Palestinian state in the West Bank, you had to persuade the Jewish people to embrace an ahistorical narrative, to give up the 3,000-year-old tombs of the Mount of Olives, to leave the Biblical vistas of Beit-El and Hebron. But that didn’t happen. Instead, regular Zionist folks, following in the footsteps of the Kibbutznikim (the original Left), and excited to make their rightful ancestral land flourish through thick and thin, thwarted the land-giveaway plan by