Liberal Zionist Dilemma


I’m afraid Eric Herschthal misunderstood, and consequently misrepresented, some of what he quotes me as saying in his “Changing Images Muddy Picture of Zionism, Israel”. One point in particular is worthy of clarification:

As I told Herschthal, I sympathize with Peter Beinart’s call for a liberal Zionism and for an education about Israel that points to its complexities, challenges and flaws along with its achievements and successes. With Beinart, I consider it vital that young Jews today be equipped with a dispassionate and rigorous education on Israel. This, I believe, is important not only for their own intellectual growth and integrity, but ultimately serves Israel and the connection American Jews have with Israel more than mere flag-waving will do.

But as I mentioned to Herschthal, one element that was in my view missing from Beinart’s New York Review Of Book piece is a recognition of the situation students often encounter on many college campuses. What Beinart failed to acknowledge is that his call for a liberal Zionism confronts not only the American Jewish leadership of which he is critical, but also an academic environment on many campuses in which the very terms “Zionism” and “Israel” are deemed little more than dirty words, and equated with such pejoratives as colonialism, racism, and imperialism. According to this perspective, any identification with Zionism and Israel—liberal or otherwise—marks one as a reactionary oppressor.

I believe it is vital to engage in critical and dispassionate discussion of Israel even in the face of such aspersions. Indeed, this rhetoric, because it often combines an assault on Israel with an affront to academic and intellectual integrity, makes critical thinking and intellectual honesty that much more important. But I also have some understanding of how difficult it can be to voice criticism and to be open to an opposing perspective when put on the defensive by those who would paint all of Zionist history and Israeli existence as sinfully malevolent.

Young liberal Jews who do care about Israel are forced to strike a delicate balance between raising questions, and even criticism of Israeli policies, on the one hand, and defending Israel against those who would vilify it and deny its very legitimacy on the other hand.  That is a balance that can only be maintained through an education for complexity and nuance. The combination of intellectual effort and nuanced moral judgment that this requires is in my view one of the greatest challenges of contemporary Jewish life, and the principal element that I consider to have gone missing both from Peter Beinart’s piece and from Eric Herschthal’s version of my comments to him.

Gilbert Chair in Israel Studies,

UCLA Center for Israel Studies