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Zionism and Liberalism Redux

This is a guest post by Benjamin Kerstein

Early in World War II, George Orwell wrote that pacifism “is only possible to people who have money and guns between them and reality.” Much the same could be said of modern American liberalism, especially Jewish liberalism; that is, if Peter Beinart’s new article in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” [1] is anything to go by.

Beinart’s missive is the latest in what is swiftly becoming a literary subgenre in its own right, in which liberal Jews express their agonizing moral struggle with Zionism and Israel in deeply emotive and despairing language. This is not, quite frankly, a particularly new genre, as liberally inclined Jews have always had a somewhat awkward relationship with Zionism; whose partisans have, generally speaking, come from either the socialist left or the nationalist right, both of which have found a certain kinship with Zionism’s recognition of the limits and drawbacks of traditional liberalism.

Beinart, however, never really defines what his liberalism actually is, though he comes closest when he calls it “a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights.” Obviously, this is something of a self-serving definition, since there are plenty of conservatives, communitarians, libertarians, and others that share those values, and in the case of open debate and human rights one could argue quite easily that liberalism’s commitment to these values is, at best, situational. Nonetheless, liberalism’s alleged decline in certain circles is enough to make Beinart declare that “Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.” It is losing, he claims, its humanity. “Of course, Israel—like the United States—must sometimes take morally difficult actions in its own defense,” he writes, “But they are morally difficult only if you allow yourself some human connection to the other side.” Thus, Beinart calls for “an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be.”

It would take far too long to cover all the points in Beinart’s article. Indeed, the piece is so sprawling that it ultimately becomes nearly incomprehensible. Despite this lack of clarity and the piece’s overall tone—which is, quite frankly, embarrassingly hysterical—the piece does illustrate something important; namely, the very old and often bitter ambivalence with which liberalism and Zionism have always regarded each other. That this is coming to the fore once again is probably inevitable. The trauma of the Holocaust occasioned a brief rapprochement between the two ideologies, but it was bound to end sometime, and as the Holocaust fades from living memory, the old rivalries are beginning to reassert themselves.

It should be noted first that, ideologically speaking, Zionism is not necessarily opposed to liberalism; it does, however, assert that liberalism, in and of itself, is not enough. It is not enough to provide safety and security for the Jewish people, let alone the kind of cultural and political renaissance that Zionism sought to create. It is not a coincidence that Theodore Herzl was moved to found political Zionism by the Dreyfuss trial in France and the rise of organized political anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. What drove Herzl—originally a liberal not unlike Beinart himself—was the realization that liberalism was failing, and inevitably would fail completely. The promise of liberalism in that era was that, if the Jews became good liberals, they would be left alone to pursue happiness as best they could. “But I do not think,” Herzl wrote ominously, “that we will be left alone.” For Herzl, the promise of liberalism, which for him was much as it is for Beinart, could only be realized for the Jews within the framework of a Jewish state.

That liberals then and liberals now find this uncomfortable should not be overly surprising. Liberalism has always been, generally speaking, a form of middle class secular messianism; an edifying millenialism for those with much money and many guns between them and reality. Once everyone becomes liberal, liberalism has always assumed, we will all be happy. Beinart, not unlike his predecessors, clearly believes more or less the same thing. Zionism asserts that not only will the Jews not be happy under liberalism and liberalism alone, but they will not even be capable of surviving the depredations of the modern world. For that, a stronger force is needed; namely, national independence and political sovereignty. Of course, there is a strongly messianic element to Zionism as well, especially in its religious form, but it is a competing and different messianism than that of liberalism. Liberalism asserts that for the Jews to be good and free, they must become liberal. Zionism asserts that for the Jews to exist at all, let alone be good and free—or liberal for that matter—they must first have a Jewish state.

It is worth asking what, one hundred or so years after Herzl, the verdict of history has been in regard to liberalism and the Jews. Despite the fervent belief of many Jewish liberals that liberalism is the one thing standing between them and the abyss, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that liberalism’s actual legacy is decidedly mixed. More than anything else, liberalism has said much and done little at the moments when it really mattered. It failed to save Dreyfuss until a very belated and largely meaningless exoneration; it failed completely to stop the rise of anti-Semitism, Nazism, and the Holocaust; it took an equally belated stance on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union; it has tended to regard Israel with, at best, ambivalence (even pre-1967 democratic socialism, ironically, had a better record); and during the most recent outbreak of anti-Semitism it took two equally disreputable stances—first, that it wasn’t happening at all; and second, even it was happening, it was the Jews’ fault.

One could theorize for days about the reasons for this, and it may simply come down to the fact that liberalism, in the end, is essentially an ideology of ineffectiveness. But there is no doubt that it is the case, and those who subscribe to it do not like being forced to admit it. To admit that Zionism is a viable and just ideology would mean admitting that its critique of liberalism is, to some extent, true; and this would in turn require the kind of self-reflection at which liberalism has never excelled. It is easier, then, to see Zionism as the problem, to tell oneself that Zionism is “uncomfortable,” rather than admit that it is, to a great extent, an answer, and not a bad one, to liberalism’s own inherent failures.

And this, I think, cuts to the quick of Beinart’s argument. He claims, no doubt sincerely, that Zionism today lacks “a human connection to the other side” (although it is liberalism, I think, that finds it far more difficult to accept anything that is not itself). He is speaking, of course, about the Palestinians; but he could quite easily be speaking about liberalism’s own relationship with Zionism. Indeed, liberalism’s most glaring flaw is its inability to grasp the nature of “human connection.” Put simply, it cannot accept that a human connection is impossible if it is not reciprocated.

It is this reciprocity, and thus this human connection, which appears to be of no interest to Beinart. He refuses to even admit to the possibility of an uncomfortable liberalism. His article pontificates at length on the deference Zionism owes to liberalism, but nowhere mentions the deference liberalism owes to Zionism. A deference that is, I think, the simple recognition of liberalism’s own inadequacies. Without this basic reciprocity, no genuine human connection, and no genuine humanism, is possible. What we have instead is, as is far too often the case with liberalism, mere narcissistic hypocrisy.

Originally published in The New Ledger

8 comments

8 Comments so far

  1. Michael W. April 17th, 2012 9:42 pm

    Great post! I’m bookmarking it.

  2. Steven W . April 18th, 2012 8:55 am

    I agree Michael . Excellent posting .

  3. Alex D April 18th, 2012 11:05 am

    I can’t help but ask:
    “…liberalism, in the end, is essentially an ideology of ineffectiveness… there is no doubt that it is the case, and those who subscribe to it do not like being forced to admit it”
    I’m intrigued: presuming this is not just vacuous political rhetoric, please expand, as this sounds like provocative nonsense to me and I am eager to be “forced to admit” otherwise. Are you referring to a very specific notion of “liberal ideology” here? as you also assert: “Once everyone becomes liberal, liberalism has always assumed, we will all be happy.” Eh? No harm to others does not imply everyone is happy, etc.

    and
    “liberalism’s most glaring flaw is its inability to grasp the nature of “human connection.” Put simply, it cannot accept that a human connection is impossible if it is not reciprocated… Without this basic reciprocity, no genuine human connection, and no genuine humanism, is possible. What we have instead is, as is far too often the case with liberalism, mere narcissistic hypocrisy.”

    So “genuine” humanism can never be unilateral? (how counterintuitive!) Or even initially unilateral, with the possibility of future reciprocation? That seems like a very bleak world to me.

  4. Nick April 18th, 2012 12:36 pm

    I’m also curious to know more about your views on human connections / reciprocity, Benjamin. One feature of liberalism (and certainly neoliberal economics) seems to be its faith in contracts and relationships in which obligations are formally drawn up (human rights, aims / outcomes models of curriculum, etc). I can see that these can lead to a very shallow ethics. But one alternative is an ethics of obligation to the other that is NOT based on the expectation of reciprocality, ala Levinas. To act because it is the right thing to do, because I have an ethical obligation that goes beyond any expectation of receiving something in return. You seem to be echoing a logic that I associate with liberalism.

  5. Nick April 21st, 2012 5:49 pm

    I see that you’re more interested in trading abuse on Facebook than talking on a more public forum. Shame.

  6. Benjamin Kerstein April 27th, 2012 2:44 am

    I would argue that there is no ethical obligation that does not involve reciprocity. I would agree with Levinas that the beginning of ethics is the reciprocal relationship. Interestingly enough, however, in Levinas this reciprocity is the reciprocal agreement to leave each other alone. The “other,” according to Levinas, must remain the other. This is quite in contradiction to liberalism, I think.

  7. Nick April 27th, 2012 8:51 am

    Interesting. This challenges my extremely basic knowledge of Levinas. I thought for him the other was simply inaccessible, unknowable – deepening, not removing the ethical obligation, which remains in spite of the absence of a formal reciprocal agreement. But I’ve only read second hand accounts of Levinas; I will go to the source. Thanks.

  8. Nick April 27th, 2012 8:53 am

    “in Levinas this reciprocity is the reciprocal agreement to leave each other alone.”

    Perhaps there’s an article in this….

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