Liberal Zionism Symposium

Interrogating the Ideas Behind the Politics

Chaired by Joseph Finlay, Associate Editor of the Jewish Quarterly

Edie Friedman, Director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality

Rabbi David Goldberg,  Emeritus Rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London. His most recent book is This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel (Faber & Faber).

Dr Bernard Gowers, Lecturer in European Medieval History at King’s College London.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn Harris, Principal of Leo Baeck College. She came to the UK in 1989 to study at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, before entering Leo Baeck College and receiving ordination in 1996.

Matt Plen  is Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism.  He is also a trustee of London Citizens, the UK’s largest community organising network, and a doctoral student at the Institute of Education where his research topic is Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice

Miriam Shaviv, a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle and the UK correspondent for Times of Israel and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Previously she was a features writer and literary editor of The Jerusalem Post.


JF   There’s been a wide ranging debate on liberal zionism, culminating in the launch of Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism which has dominated the Jewish media waves. It feels as if there is a move to portray a liberal zionism in which liberalism and zionism can happily coexist. As both are contested ideologies across wider contemporary debates our opening question is: how do you understand the term “liberal”?

BG   Perhaps we’re really on the periphery of a Jewish American debate so the question is: what does liberalism mean in America? As far as I can see, it refers to anyone to the left of Newt Gingrich. So although the intellectual and historical roots of liberalism—the 1848 revolutions, or even Wilsonian liberalism—are there in the background, the liberal label in America refers to something that in Britain we’d see as more generically social democratic or centre-left.

MP   My starting point was to draw a distinction between liberalism and socialism. I don’t want to say that liberalism is a right wing ideology opposed to the progressive ideology of socialism. I believe that liberalism provides a basis of individualism, universalism, equal rights, equality before the law, and socialism builds on that and extends those concepts. We should focus on the contrast between them because, in the case of Israel/ Zionism, socialism is a much more relevant concept; the question is how we can restore the connections between zionism and socialism or social democracy?

DKH   What I understand by liberal is probably much more informed by an American upbringing; it means social liberalism, belief in equal rights. There’s no sense of socialism in America. You’re either a communist or a marxist, which carries a lot of baggage, particularly within the Jewish community who were blackballed throughout the 50s and 60s for having any left leanings.

MS   I see liberalism in the broadest possible terms in its most basic definition: free and fair elections, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, those kind of things. Because I am clearly the only conservative in the room it’s very important to me that I am still a liberal on those terms. At the moment, yes; the term is becoming muddied and we’re at a point in history where many people on the right actually want to reclaim the word liberalism.

JF   David, as a leading Rabbi of a movement which put liberal in its title you must have a certain attachment to the term.

DG   The concept of liberalism is not a natural one to put with classical zionism, which has been marxist, socialist, left- wing, statist (as Ben Gurion was above all). This is a modern addition. Beinart’s 2010 article identifies a growing distinction between American youth who are brought up with broadly liberal values who wish to support and love Israel but see it going steadily against those values.

JF   Regarding Matt’s point, I’m not sure that socialism simply extends liberalism. They are quite different; liberalism is essentially an individualistic belief system—it lies at the heart of free trade and capitalism—whereas socialism is based on groups and class. There have been attempts to fuse the two in modern political philosophy but they have very different roots.

BG   Liberalism, especially in continental Europe, is bound up with nineteenth-century romantic nationalism. Zionism was paralleled by trends such as Italian unification, by people like the Czech historian František Palacký, who sought political expression for Czech national sentiment. And in the British Isles, of course, the successors to Irish and Scottish romantic nationalism are still very much in play. But I think the liberalism we’re talking about today is a disposition, liberal with the smallest possible ‘l’. At this very basic level it is just non-chauvinism, bringing in everyone except those who are outwardly racist or misogynist.

EF   To me liberalism has a very hard, economic connotation, in connection with neoliberalism. As we saw last year, in Israel and elsewhere with the Occupy movement, people are talking about how neoliberalism has produced inequality, within even the Jewish population of Israel, not to mention the Arab population.

MP   Individualistic connotations of liberalism are not well matched to the Israeli reality—Israel is a very collectivist society. The question is: who is the collective? The fruitful question for me is what kind of collectivism do we want? I’m not sure if the term ‘liberalism’ is helpful in that debate.

DKH   I think individualism is very important in American Jewry. We know from sociological work that young Jews in America want an individualistic approach to their Judaism; they are the sovereign self, seeking meaning for their individual lives. Liberalism makes sense in that context because it’s a another piece on their shopping list of identities. However, that comes into direct conflict when they expect to be heard by the collective in Israeli society. So the notion of liberal zionism, if you’re talking, as Beinart’s trying to do, to a bunch of disengaged Jews in America, makes a lot more sense than it might do if you were trying to insert yourself into debates in Israel. When we talk about zionism are we talking about what makes us feel good or are we trying to be players in shaping contemporary Israeli society?

DG   This debate goes to the core of the whole Jewish enterprise: Jewish being. The tension between particularism and universalism has been at the heart of Jewish history as long as we’ve had Jewish history. Maybe one could, in contemporary terms, rephrase the debate to say that the future of the State of Israel depends on which way its democratic electorate decides to go. Either it carries on doing what its reactionary government says it needs to do, pre-emptively attacking Iran or subjugating the Palestinians because we are a sovereign, nationalist people and we imagine that the lessons of history do not apply to us; or, hopefully, Israel could become a beacon amongst the nations. For many years, even beyond 1967, Israel basked in the warm glow of almost universal support. She was looked on as a socialist state with an ideal civil infrastructure. Whether we should be am schoched l’vado or a light unto the nations is crucial to the future of Israel.

JF   Let’s consider the association between liberalism and the nation state. Such a state needs a majority language, a majority culture and an artistic-literary canon. Establishing these may require exclusion or suppression of alternative systems, be they local, tribal, international or religious. Even in modernity, structures like the Austro-Hungarian empire offer a different model — a pan-Imperial governance over diverse ethnic groups—to those centralised Western European states.

DG   In London, English is a minority language. Is the nation state in decline? We have an essentially federal Europe in which, at one level, borders are meaningless (you only know you’re in Italy rather than Switzerland when the language changes). I’m not sure what the nation state will mean in the future.

MS   I agree that the nation state is in decline and I think that that’s one of the major reasons, particularly in Europe, why Israel is misunderstood and in some cases very much disliked. The nation state is essentially an old idea that Europe has discarded. As for the idea that Israel is becoming clannish, tribal, ethnocentric, I think we’re doing Israel a great injustice by talking about it in those terms. I just don’t see this great shift to the right that everyone’s worried about. That’s not to say there aren’t some anti-democratic strains or some profoundly disturbing things that have happened recently, but when I look at Israel I see essentially a European state; it has many people who live very secular lives, it has a free press, it’s democratic, it has freedom of speech, a free judiciary, freedom of religion. It’s an exaggeration to say that something terrible is happening in Israel when it remains fundamentally a liberal place.

MP   There’s a distinction to be made between liberal nationalism and romantic nationalism. Liberal nationalism is the nationalism of the French and American revolutions in which anyone, regardless of ethnicity, can be part of the nation state founded on liberty, equality and fraternity. Most nationalisms that we can think of, both historically and in contemporary settings, are of the romantic variety, if not blood and soil they’re based on history, language and often religion as well. I wonder if we have a false idea of the decline of nationalism given that we’re in Western Europe. There were traces of liberal nationalism within zionism— you can see them in Herzl and Jabotinsky. But I think those elements of liberal zionism were never the ones that captured people’s imagination. When Herzl came and spoke in the East End of London, and in other places in Europe, what people were loved was the romantic dream of returning to the land of Israel. If you look at Jabotinsky, even more so. Jabotinsky’s followers were not attracted by his liberalism! Thinking about zionism and Israel it seems we’re lacking any foundation using for using liberal zionism as a paradigm.

JF   It’s important to remember the foundational acts of violence which allowed America to become a relatively homogenous federation of states—the brutal suppression of Spanish in the southern states to create an English-speaking majority for example. I think we should put 1948 in that context; in most states that we would now call ‘liberal’ there has been foundational violence that contemporary liberals would not be happy to endorse.

BG   If you spoke Breton or Corsican or Occitan, the French republican project didn’t simply look like liberté, égalité, fraternité it was also a metropolitan industrial project. In the early nineteenth century only half of French people spoke formal French, the rest spoke other dialects and languages. That was changed by social and educational pressure from the centre. In enlightenment America there was never really room for the First Nations and Blacks. It’s impossible to disentangle enlightenment states from the creation of homogenous polities which either excludes people and/or makes them give up elements of their cultural patrimony.

MP   If it’s true that historically you can never disentangle liberalism from acts of nationalist violence, there’s still the question of whether you can untangle it philosophically — does that historical fact condemn liberalism as a project or are its values still worthwhile? Perhaps we could blame liberalism for many of the things we find problematic in Israel rather than looking to it as a potential salvation.

JF   I want to raise the notion of cosmopolitanism which can be seen as an offspring of liberalism, but is perhaps more radical. Its lack of borders implies a weakening of nation state power. Its strongest manifestation is, of course, in the European Union. What are the implications for zionism while cosmopolitanism is alive in Europe?

MS   I see zionism as a reaction against cosmopolitanism. Jewish cosmopolitans were a small number, an elite who made a bargain that they would give up on their identity in return for equal rights and acceptance. That didn’t work, and the answer to that was zionism.

BG   The Ottoman empire was cosmopolitan—think of the millet system with self-regulating communities of Armenians and Greek Orthodox and so on— and not at all radical. Lebanon before the Civil War was a formally cosmopolitan state.

DG   Cosmopolitanism is not helpful in this context. Under the Ottoman millet system minorities like Copts, Armenians and Jews, enjoyed fairly loose rule, provided they recognised the central government in Constantinople and paid their taxes. I must defend liberalism. It’s certainly preferable to totalitarianism or statism of any kind. We here have benefited from liberalism; we’ve been accepted by host communities while being able to hold on to our culture and history. I would also question that the nation state is in decline: look at all these new countries that have joined the United Nations. There were 59 when Israel was founded in 1948 now there’s nearly 200. Look at all those Balkan states which have sprung up in the wake of Yugoslavia. Whether they will last is a different question.

JF  On the millet System — does that not offer a competing method of statehood? Does not localised, group based government offer another model?

BG  Some ultra-orthodox power-brokers in Israel would like that because they want to control their own communities. The millet system creates a series of bosses. It’s about patronage and clientage.

JF   But it’s conceivable that you could still have ethnic based governance whilst having democracy within each community.

BG   That still comes down to the earlier problem: who is in the collective? Will a Tel Aviv leftist be in the same collective as someone in Meah Shearim? Where do you end with the creation of the millets? Would there be a Shas millet and a yeshivish millet? Different millets for Belz and Satmar? A millet model, even a nice, democratic, egalitarian one would just reproduce many of the problems of nation state nationalism at a different level.

JF   Back to our definitions. Is there a coherent ideology called zionism or are there multiple zionisms?

MS   I think it was Walter Laqueur who said that since 1948 zionism is a luxury of the diaspora. For Israelis, the term zionism is useless as they go about their practical, day-to-day lives—it’s more interesting for us looking in from the outside.

DG   To return to the question, the historical fact is that there was only one kind of zionism. It was based around the yishuv on the collectivist model of the eastern European intellectuals who came in the second aliyah. Interestingly, Herzl, in Altneuland, foresaw a very advanced social democracy— mutualism—with the workers sharing the profits. The argument was between the socialist model and the reaction of Jabotinsky and Betar who were largely petit bourgeois. But there’s only really been one kind of zionism since creating the state.

JF   What I had in mind was that until the 1941 Baltimore platform a national state wasn’t specified. The Balfour declaration uses the language of a ‘national home’, Ahad Ha’am uses the language of a ‘cultural centre’ and only at that point does it become clear that we want a nation state with a Jewish majority. So some people in the liberal zionism debate are trying to appeal to forms of zionism before that point, notably Brit Shalom, Buber/Ha-Magnes and the idea of a Jewish centre which doesn’t depend on a majoritarian nation state. Is that defunct or is that useful?

MP   In Gideon Shimoni’s book The Zionist Ideology he suggests that zionism comprised a set of diverse ideologies. These different zionisms managed to co-operate with each other because the means to achieve their diverse aims happened to coincide in the building of the Jewish national home in the land of Israel. Shimoni’s argument is that there wasn’t ‘zionism’ there were ‘zionisms’ that coalesced around this strategic, tactical goal. That isn’t to say that in practical terms there wasn’t a dominant strand, and constructive labour zionism was dominant in the yishuv, yet it collaborated with those with a very different ideological outlook. In 1948, once that strategic goal had been achieved, the multiplicity of different worldviews erupted. If you looked even in the 1970s at someone who called themselves a zionist as part of Gush Emunim, and someone who called themselves a zionist as a member Mapam, what did they really have in common? Today that’s gone even further and some people have stopped calling themselves zionist. In the liberal zionist debate there’s a tendency by the left to try to reassert their claim over the term which has been appropriated by the right. On the other hand, in terms of semantics, it’s possible that zionism as an analytical category is less than helpful — its real use now is symbolic.

DG   I first came to Israel in 1957 between school and university, staying on a very left wing Kibbutz, and already then people would say, contemptuously, ‘don’t be a zionist’, (i.e don’t spout ideology at me). In that era, mamlachtiyut— statism— subsumed everything. Ben Gurion actually said “Zionism is dead. We’re all Israelis now, we’re all building the state.”

BG   It seems to me that the main difference is between the chauvinists and the non-chauvinists, and the non-chauvinists include people who wouldn’t describe themselves as zionists as well as people who would. Yet in terms of British Jewish institutional life, subscribing to some kind of zionism is often the price for admission.

MP   Zionism today is about the centrality of Israel to Jewish life. We need to understand its significance: is it about the aspiration to go and live there, or is it about supporting Israel from the outside, not only because there happen to be Jews there, but because of its decisive importance in contemporary Jewish life?

JF   Returning to this notion of centralist, pragmatic zionism, of mamlachtiyut, which everyone is trying to claim as their roots. It seems to me that liberal zionism is trying to say “We are this centrist, sensible zionism, and the revisionists ruined everything. The right ruins everything because it has an ideological attachment to the land, whereas we are the middle, the mainstream.” Is liberal zionism anything more than labour zionism, centrist zionism reimagined?

MP   Ze’ev Sternhall wrote a book about the origins of the state of Israel and the role of the labour movement. It was very controversial at the time because he said that, while labour zionism purported to be socialist, it was never truly socialist. It was an ethnocentric nationalist movement which used socialist means for nationalist ends. He’s been attacked by Anita Shapira who says that he’s reading labour zionism through the lens of european fascism. What was labour zionism? Was it a liberal enlightenment project committed to universal values, self-determination and potentially amenable towards Palestinian statehood or was all of that cover for a nationalist project which cared first and foremost about Jewish statehood? We don’t know what liberalism means and it turns out we don’t know what labour zionism means.

DKH   When I talk about zionism, or post-zionism or non- zionism, I’m really talking about attachment to the state. For me as a diaspora Jew, zionism has become too wrapped up in Jewish existential angst: are we zionists because we’re still afraid that the shoah might come back to bite us, or because we’re religiously, theologically, connected to the land itself ? Or is it quite simply because in order to live and breathe as a Jew we have to have an opinion on the subject?

JF   Attachment to the Jewish people doesn’t carry the same ideological weight as attachment to the state. How might we characterise a diaspora Jewish politics today?

MP   This is a valuable discussion for the narrative we’re trying to create in terms of Israel, Jewish peoplehood and our place in British society. My limited, anecdotal experience with students and young people in the community is that there’s a lot of frustration with institutional boundaries. The import of this conversation is not for Israel, but for our identity here.

JF   Is it fair to say that diaspora Jewish politics is broadly liberal? Miriam, you identify yourself as reclaiming a part of the liberal tradition, do you think there are many others taking a similar road?

MS   For sure. But I think this whole idea that we are naturally avid liberals is exaggerated. I think American Jews are far more ‘liberal’ than UK Jews for historical reasons. I’m not sure how liberal european Jews actually are. If you look at the 2010 JPR survey, they are split down the middle in terms of voting Conservative or Labour. It seems to me that Jews here are attached to liberalism partly out of self-interest: it’s safe for us, having previously been excluded to a much greater extent than in America. We feel that it’s the ideology where we’re going to be most accepted. American Jews have a much deeper attachment to liberalism because of their immigrant experience and their history of involvement in the civil rights movement.

JF   Perhaps its always been a form of self interest. In Europe it was always in the Jews’ interests to promote minority rights, minority languages, liberal media. Does that fall by the way when we have power, when we have our own state, when there’s another minority?

MP   Britain is an extremely liberal society. There are very few manifestations of anti-liberal politics in this country, liberalism seems an almost universal set of assumptions. As a result it doesn’t make much sense to ask if British Jews are liberal; what else would they be? In Israel however, issues of democracy, of human rights, of the rule of law are so conflicted, and the spectrum of debate is so much wider.

EF   In this country there’s this huge austerity agenda, attacking the NHS the welfare state, cuts to services, where is this talked about in the Jewish world? These are fundamental Jewish concerns which we ought to be writing about and speaking about from every pulpit. We have failed as a community to address these issues.

BG   I think the crucial task for Jews in Britain isn’t to influence what happens in Israel. The crucial challenge is about how we live as Jews in Britain. In terms of British Jewish institutions, a lot of debate revolves around Israel. But is that just a form of self indulgence, which doesn’t really say anything to Israelis, still less to Palestinians? It seems to me that the the two central features of British Jewish life are affluence, and a sort of anti- intellectualism. Perhaps debates about zionism are a way to avoid talking about other things?

JF   The warning cry of liberal zionism is that Israel will cease to be a majoritarian Jewish state and become some kind of one state. If we don’t withdraw from the territories, there will be a Palestinian majority between the river and the sea, and thus no longer a Jewish state. I think this represents an interesting focus on the nation state—we must maintain this structure at all costs otherwise the whole enterprise collapses. At the same time there’s been significant movement from the political right in Israel to accept that. Reuven Rivlin, Knesset speaker, now seems to back a binational state, with a Jewish President and an Arab vice president, or vice versa. Some on the right are a bit evasive about whether Palestinians would have full voting rights under such a state, but others are willing to grant voting rights, as long as the state has been constitutionally predefined as Jewish. I think that’s a real challenge to a liberal notion of statehood in which the majority define the notion of the state. Do you think that most people are backing a two-state solution and withdrawal from the territories?

MS   Yes, the irony is that everyone talks about the shift to the right, because the left in the Knesset is tiny right now, but what has actually happened is that what we call the right has shifted massively to the left. I think the majority of right wingers really do think that there will be a two state solution. They might not think its going to happen now, but they have accepted it in principle.

MP   My concern, as someone who’s always believed in the two-state solution is that a huge gap has emerged between the rhetoric and what’s actually happening. We’re carrying on with the same discussions as in the 1980s as if nothing has changed while, all the time, the settlement enterprise has been extended with the support of every government since the 70s with very little distinction between Labor and Likud. The disengagement from Gaza was the only divergence from this overall trend. My sense is that a one state solution is almost inevitable. If that’s the case the real question is what kind of one state solution? That goes back to this whole question of zionism and liberalism. As we know the people who in the past have spoken about a state from the Jordan to the sea were on the one hand the revisionists (Jabotinsky strongly believed in equal rights once the state was established) and Brit Shalom on the other, who believed in binationalism. The two state solution was very easy for us progressive zionists, a Jewish majority in a democratic state. The question for progressive zionists is: now what do we do? How do we bring our progressive values to bear in a one state context?

JF   Are liberals—Israeli and in the diaspora—part of the problem rather than the solution? This was a point put to me by Dimi Reider from +972. He said that both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are happy with a communitarian, ethnocentric, conservative society and that it’s a fantasy to create a european style nation state. This echoes the right-wing one state idea: we’ll have localised self-governance, we’ll have religious governance, forget about these liberals, they can go and live in Berlin or London.

DKH   I say this with trepidation, but if we were serious about our liberalism we could influence the demographic debate by simply providing better education and good healthcare for Palestinian women. The birthrate would drop and the time bomb would disappear. There are answers and solutions to these problems that we are often not willing to express. Ten years ago, there was a fear that we’d gone past the moment for the two state solution. I feel that the contribution we can make is to put our intellectual energy into thinking about what an Israeli state beyond the boundaries of what we’ve currently imagined could look like. Maybe we’ll end up with the two state solution, maybe we’ll have a liberal democratic fudge,
a Jewish majority in certain boundaries. There is at least an intellectual game to be played by a community of people who have never been very good at self governance. What could a truly radical alternative look like? I don’t have an answer to that but I do have a sense that as Jews we might be better placed to address those questions than a lot of other people.

MS   I’m horrified by this idea. The more you talk about it the more you make it possible. I personally am not ready to give up on the two state solution yet. I understand what you’re saying, that time is of the essence. I think that Israelis have shown that they really do want that two state solution. We talk about zionism not being relevant to the lives of Israelis any more, but I think, if there was a serious prospect of one state with everyone living together, Israelis would be horrified and we would start hearing many more people saying “Hey, I’m a zionist, I want what we originally dreamed of.” Peter Beinart has it easy. He says, “We’re liberals. We have to put pressure on the Israeli government to solve everything.” But I think the real path to the two state solution is much harder and if you really believe in it you have to do two things: 1) put equal pressure on the Palestinians 2) put pressure on Israel’s Arab neighbours to recognise the Jewish polity in their midst


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