Netanyahu's lesson for American liberals: Zionism is not synonymous with liberalism
The Jewish State is not perfectly compatible with liberal ideals
The vast majority of American Jews are Zionists. A solid majority of them are also liberals. But that doesn't mean that Zionism is a liberal political philosophy.
This seems an important point to make in the wake of Israel's election this week — an election in which the Likud Party not only came in first but surged in the final days as Benjamin Netanyahu lurched to the illiberal right, demonizing Israel's Arab citizens for daring to vote and vowing to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. (Netanyahu has already begun to walk back both statements.)
Netanyahu's outbursts inspired understandable outrage among liberal American supporters of Israel. Speaking, I suspect, for many of them, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait castigated the Israeli prime minister, calling his statements in the run-up to the final vote a "chilling vision for post-democratic Israel."
I agree with every lacerating word in Chait's post — except for his very last sentence, where he claims that Netanyahu's statements threatened "to bury forever the original Zionist dream." If Chait merely meant this as an elaboration of an earlier comment about how "the early Zionists" were willing to accept partition of the land into two states, then I concede the point. But I suspect that Chait meant something more than this — that Zionism itself is essentially a liberal-democratic ideological project.
It is not.
Which means that Netanyahu's blatantly illiberal statements over the past week are not the radical break from the Zionist tradition that liberal American supporters of Israel believe them to be.
A nation can unite around any number of ideas. The United States is constituted by a creed of democracy, liberty, and equality that is open, in principle, to anyone of any race, religion, or ethnic group. Then there are nations, like many of those in Europe, that see themselves as rooted in an ethnic, linguistic, territorial, religious, or other historically founded identity. Finally, there are nations like France that combine elements of both models, treating the republican ideal as somehow both distinctly French and a universal gift to humanity that all human beings can and should affirm.
When a nation constituted by a historically founded identity adopts and applies liberal norms and institutions to itself, it becomes a liberal-democratic country. But what about those, such as indigenous minorities or immigrants, who reside within the nation but don't belong to its constituting group? At one extreme, those outsiders can be granted full political and civil rights, thereby rendering the nation's constituting identity largely symbolic and making its political system fully liberal. At the opposite extreme, the constituting identity can be affirmed in law and mores, leading "outside" groups to be politically and civilly disenfranchised.
Zionism as developed and championed by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century sought to conjure a national identity from out of the scattered remnants of the ancient Hebrew nation living throughout the globe in diaspora, and to encourage its ingathering in the historic homeland of the Jews. When it came time to think in political terms about what a reconstituted Jewish nation would look like, Herzl advocated broadly liberal institutions. This had a major influence, decades later, on the formation of the Israeli state and the shape of its political system and culture — especially the once-dominant but now electorally hobbled Labor Party.
Other forms of Zionism were less liberal, or even explicitly anti-liberal, in orientation.
The Revisionist Zionism of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, which influenced the founding of Netanyahu's Likud Party, rejected the idea of partitioning the Holy Land, with separate Jewish and Palestinian states, and envisioned a unified Jewish state that would include all of the historical land of Israel, on both sides of the Jordan River. Before he died in 1940, Jabotinsky made clear that he supported granting equal rights to Arabs living within this envisioned Greater Israel — although it's far from clear that he would have held to this position if he believed that Arabs would constitute a majority of that state's population, thereby making its Jewish character impossible to sustain democratically.
In such a situation — which is where Israel now finds itself, with more than 60 percent of its Jewish voters having cast ballots for parties that have vowed not to permit the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank — liberalism and Revisionist Zionism stand in fundamental conflict.
Then there is the Religious Zionism of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, which had little impact in his lifetime (he died in 1935), but has gone on to exercise an enormous posthumous influence on the settler movement that views the expansion of Israel into biblical Judea and Samaria as a fulfillment of the messianic hopes for the Jewish people. This, it should go without saying, is an illiberal form of Zionism as well.
This range of Zionist alternatives has led may liberal American supporters of Israel to conclude that the nation faces a stark, clear choice, with the steadfastly liberal Zionism of Labor and like-minded parties on the left squared off against the staunchly illiberal nationalistic or religious Zionism of Likud and parties further to the right.
But the reality is murkier.
Even in the form delineated by Herzl, Zionism was more than an expression of a pre-existing nation's political aspirations. It was also a project of (re)forging that nationhood and a promise to protect and preserve it in perpetuity. That's why Zionists routinely speak of Israel as a "Jewish state." That's also why there's next to no chance that the bloc of Arab parties that finished in third place in this week's elections will be invited to participate in forming a government. The Arab bloc will almost certainly be bypassed not only by Netanyahu's Likud, but also by Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union (a joint list combining the Labor and Hatnuah Parties).
To be clear, there is no legal obstacle to Arabs joining a government. But there is a fundamental ideological one. Members of the Arab parties are Israeli citizens, but they are neither Jews nor Zionists — and that makes them, in this sense at least, second-class citizens, entitled to representation in the Israeli legislature (the Knesset), but not to a share in governing the country.
An American analogue to this situation is difficult to imagine. It would be roughly akin to allowing African Americans to sit in Congress while de facto excluding them from becoming president — on the grounds that the United States is an essentially white nation. Or if you'd prefer a non-racial analogy, it would be like excluding Jews from holding high office because the United States is an essentially Christian nation.
Imagining a French analogue is no easier. France has its own problem of integrating minorities into its political culture, precisely because, for all of its ostensible universalism, the French national idea is historically wrapped up with a racial (Caucasian) and religious (Roman Catholic) identity that automatically makes the largest minority in the country (Muslims of Arab and African descent) seem like outsiders. And yet, there are no formal or informal obstacles to a Muslim party sharing political power in France. Indeed the legal principle of French secularism (laïcité) formally precludes the imposition any such obstacle.
Israel is different. And it will remain different as long as it defines itself in Zionist terms, as a "Jewish state."
None of which means that Zionism should be rejected as a Jewish ideal or an Israeli reality. But it does mean that American liberals are deceiving themselves when they insist, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Zionism (in any form) is perfectly compatible with liberalism.