Reviving Liberal Zionism


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of essays on Zionist thinkers and doers, in Israel and outside, who are pioneering new understandings of what Jewish nationalism can mean in the 21st century.

How fitting that Ruth Gavison, a legal expert in the areas of human and civil rights and constitutional law, was awarded the Israel Prize this week, cited for grappling “exhaustively and courageously with forming Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”

She will receive the prestigious prize, considered Israel’s highest civilian honor, at a national ceremony in Jerusalem in May, on Yom Ya’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

Born in Jerusalem in 1945, Gavison is an academic superstar. She trained at Hebrew University and Oxford, has taught for short stints at Yale, University of Southern California and Princeton, and has been a beloved Hebrew University law professor for decades and one of Israel’s most respected authors, lecturers and media commentators.

Hailed for her integrity and judgment, she was one of five leading Israelis appointed to the Vinograd Commission that investigated the 2006 Lebanon War.

A co-founder of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel over 35 years ago, in 2005 she undertook what may be her most ambitious project. In founding Metzilah, the Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought (, Gavison is trying to revive liberal Zionism; she is forging a Zionist center that explains why we need a Jewish state even in our cosmopolitan age, and how a Jewish democracy can thrive in harmony with universal values, featuring a respected Arab minority, a humane immigration policy and enough public Jewishness in the state to keep its uniqueness without becoming stifling, coercive or excluding.

“It is puzzling that even in Israel itself Jews hesitate to describe themselves as Zionists,” Professor Gavison told me recently in Jerusalem. “Israel was founded as the culmination of Zionism. Yet today many doubt Israel’s legitimacy, especially as the place where Jews exercise their right to self-determination. Zionism is the only form of nationalism singled out as racism. Israel cannot survive if its own citizens doubt its legitimacy.

“Many Israelis are the victims of the amazing success of Zionism,” she said. “They take for granted the existence of the one place in the world in which Jews enjoy political independence and where Hebrew culture is the primary public culture. But we cannot afford to do that.”

She noted that in asserting that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, there are at least four “distinct — and controversial — statements” in that simple sentence.

“Jews are a people, not just a religion; being dispersed among different countries and cultures is bad for both Jews and Judaism; Jews have the same legitimate national rights as other people; and the location where those rights are to be expressed is Zion.

“The essence of the Zionist argument is that to express a national identity to its fullest territory is basic — you need a majority culture not just a minority culture where you are in constant conversation with the host culture,” she continued. “Jews are remarkably adaptive and for a long time could survive as a minority culture, especially with the religion as a locus. But in today’s world, it is much harder because much identity is secular, cosmopolitan, nation-based. While most Jews no longer need a safe haven physically — in terms of identity, Israel offers a unique opportunity, especially for a non-religious identity.”

Zionism and Israel’s welfare are naturally critical questions for Jews living in Israel. However, Gavison emphasizes that these issues are also relevant for Jews who live elsewhere, especially if they are not religiously observant yet wish to maintain their Jewish identity and transmit it to their children. Jewish national culture, she explains, can provide guideposts, values, meaning as we pass through defining events in our lives.

“You need an answer to what your Judaism means and why it is important,” she said. “American identity is broad but thin — you can’t just be American, most people seek other affiliations as well. Tikkun olam is not enough. Affirming the Jewish component of your identity permits you to become part of an ancient tradition that has miraculously survived and revived its independence. Feeling a part of a community with a past, a present and a future is an important aspect of such meaning.”

Understanding the power of place, and the need for a Jewish majority to express itself, somewhere, Gavison has defended the idea of a Jewish state as normative, sanctioned by history, compatible with democracy, typical of many nation-states.

“Peoples are entitled to states of their own on the territories on which they sit,” she explains. “Israel is the place where the Jewish people can realize their right to national self-determination.

“Israel is not a neutral state, but a national one. This is fully compatible, and should be pursued, with meticulous attention to minority rights.”

Gavison doesn’t stop with rhetoric. Metzilah publishes thoughtful position papers, rooted in history, sharpened by philosophy, sanctioned by international legal precedent. The latest explains that with the Law of Return, Israel, like most democracies, “conditions” immigration to achieve specific national goals. An earlier essay demonstrated how Israeli Arabs can have full individual rights and enjoy significant collective rights while functioning within a majority Jewish culture.

For understanding that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic — and working to make that happen; for teaching how Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority can each find fulfillment; for tackling tough questions without hiding behind easy answers; for being an exceptional teacher to the masses while making it all seem so normal; for showing how Zionism can use the rights Jews have like all other nations to create something special; and for navigating messy questions with wit, honesty, clarity and lots of heart, I designate Ruth Gavison one of my favorite Zionists.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of numerous books, including “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.”

is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism, including "Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People," co-authored with Natan Sharansky.