Why Liberalism Vs. Zionism Is A False Choice


Donald Trump’s election has prompted a soul-searching journey for American Jews. Under normal circumstances, fervent support for Israel by an incoming administration would be cause for celebration. And yet because the Trump administration has thus far signaled itself to stand in opposition to a series of progressive values, not to mention ongoing concerns regarding its inability to disassociate itself from the alt-right, any such jubilation has been altogether muted. The president-elect who is suspicious of the Iran nuclear deal and views Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel is the same president-elect whose public tweets stand in opposition to the progressive civic religion of American Jews.

How can I, asks the liberal Zionist, support this agenda? How can I not? It is a disorienting state of affairs for American Jewry.

For progressively minded Zionists, our love for Israel is not the same as blanket support for every policy of Israel’s government. There are times — be it on matters of religious pluralism or, in the case of the last few weeks, the settlements — when American Jews believe that the present policies of the Israeli government run counter to the long-term interests of Israel. For those of us American Jews invested in the American-Israel relationship, America’s recent abstention at the United Nations was deeply problematic — an untrue and hypocritical condemnation of Israel as the primary obstacle to peace while Aleppo burns, Libya unravels, Iran and Russia destabilize their neighbors and, most significantly, and a Palestinian leadership that has yet to perform the basic act of recognizing Israel’s right to exist. And yet, there remains the simple reality that the settlements are an obstacle to a two-state solution.

So for those who believe that a two-state solution is in the best interest of Israel, the Palestinians and the world, how exactly is one able to oppose settlement expansion without being labeled anti-Israel? In the mind of the liberal Zionist, criticism of Israeli policy in the territories — by American Jewry or even the American administration — is an expression of love for Israel, and not, as some would argue, a betrayal of the Jewish people. Liberal Zionists are caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between writing Israel a blank moral check or being labeled anti-Israel or even worse — self-hating Jews. It is a terrible choice that has left a large segment of American Jewry reeling.

Finally, the other end of the political spectrum is just as prickly. As the liberal left has coopted the cause of the Palestinians, American Jews have found themselves unwilling or unable to find common cause with the historic allies of their progressive sensibilities. The decision of the Black Lives Matter movement to use language of apartheid and genocide about Israel prompted appropriate outrage by the liberal branches of American Jewry. With banners proclaiming “From Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime,” is it any wonder that of late Jews have been keeping an arm’s length from progressive causes? In speaking to the leadership of one of the Jewish community’s most progressive organizations, I asked why it was that they were not listed as a co-sponsor of the upcoming Women’s March in D.C. My colleague explained that the group simply could not risk being a co-sponsor to an event where an Israeli flag might be burned … or worse. For socially progressive Jews, it is an awkward time to be a Zionist — to be both liberal and a Zionist at one and the same time.

This is the hand we have been dealt, these are the times in which we live. In the face of such developments it would be altogether understandable were the liberal Zionist community to grant itself a time-out and proceed with caution. Discretion, we may tell ourselves, is the better part of valor. But it is precisely because such a response would be so understandable — perhaps even expected — that liberal Zionists must do exactly the opposite. Now is the time to double down on our principles — not stand down. As positions are being staked out on the left and right, now is precisely the time to mark out the territory of the sane center and have our voices heard.

In word and in deed, liberal Zionists must flatly reject the contention that it is somehow a contradiction to be both liberal and a Zionist. Like-minded communities must disabuse the world of its mistaken belief that to be for a two-state solution is somehow to be anti-Israel. Fifty years after 1967, as annexation legislation is being forwarded in the Knesset, as shifts in American politics serve to embolden the Israeli right, now is the time to press hard on a two-state solution. We dare not allow Israel to cease being a state both Jewish and democratic on our generation’s watch.

Likewise, at the very moment that Israel sits unfairly in the dock of world opinion, now is the time for the liberal Zionist community to be most vocal in its support of Israel. Every left-leaning, justice-loving, rights-giving, BDS-thinking, progressive organization must know that Israel is the first, last and best hope for liberal democracy in the Middle East. Its imperfections, whatever they may be, are on both an absolute and relative basis the finest expression of, not antithetical to, progressive values.

So, too, American Jews must reaffirm our commitment to the prophetic and progressive causes that have been our historic patrimony. Will there be people who label liberal Zionists as misguided? Of course. Liberal Zionism isn’t easy. Liberal Zionism is advanced citizenship. But given the choice between my liberalism and my Zionism, I choose to reject the choice as a false one, fight for what I believe in and let the chips fall where they may.

The measure of our principles is never found in moments of repose, but rather the degree to which we hold fast to them when they are tested. In the waning days of one administration and the run-up to another, as we bear witness to dramatic events impacting Israel on the world stage, liberal Zionists must establish their foothold in this shifting terrain. The stakes are simply too high to sit this round out. Let’s rise to the calling of the hour, support and defend those who would do the same, and labor together towards building a future befitting of our highest hopes.

Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side.

is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.