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Published on June 5th, 2010 | by Daniel Luban


The Future of American Liberal Zionism

A couple weeks ago, I alluded to a longer piece I was writing that would respond to many of the issues raised in Peter Beinart’s New York Review of Books essay. That piece is now up at Tablet magazine. In it, I argue that it is impossible to return to the sort of unproblematic American liberal Zionism that characterized the post-1967 generation. An excerpt:

How can liberal Zionism be saved? For those aiming to revive the form of American liberal Zionism that marked the generation that came of age after the 1967 war, it is tempting to blame its decline on a betrayal by outside forces. On this logic the collapse of support has been caused by Israel’s own shift to the right in recent years—epitomized by the rise of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—a shift aided and abetted by a right-leaning institutional leadership of the American Jewish community that refuses to criticize Israel under any circumstances. Resuscitating liberal Zionism, this argument goes, will thereby involve siding with Israeli moderates while speaking out against settlers abroad and neoconservatives at home.

But can liberal Zionism, at least in the form that has dominated American Jewish life for decades, be saved at all? And should it be? These are harder questions but may ultimately be more important ones. It may be emotionally satisfying to posit a blameless liberal Zionism betrayed by outside forces, or to suppose that younger Jews are reacting only against the right and not liberal Zionism itself, but it is not clear that either claim is true. For one thing, Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman undoubtedly make good villains, but the aspects of Israeli politics that have alienated U.S. liberals go deeper than the current right-wing government. (To take only the most recent example, it was not the nefarious Netanyahu or the loathsome Lieberman who brought us the attack on Gaza, but rather the supposed “good guys”: Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni.)

More generally, the apparently impending collapse of mainstream liberal Zionism in the United States is no accident. Some of the phenomenon may be attributed to the simple passage of time—to a generation growing up farther removed from the looming presence of the Holocaust and without memories of the 1967 and 1973 wars. But we cannot adequately understand this collapse without understanding the compromises and contradictions that liberal Zionism became involved in over a period of decades.

Read the whole thing here.

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3 Responses to The Future of American Liberal Zionism

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  1. avatar Jon Harrison says:

    I have not read your piece in Tablet yet, but will try to do so in the next couple of days. In any case, I have to say that Zionism represents an attempt to square the circle. Do Jews have a right simply to live in Palestine? Sure they do. But do they have a right to maintain a Jewish apartheid state in the face of opposition from the indigenous inhabitants? Certainly not.

    Zionism, liberal or not, is a colonialist manifestation. As I’ve said before, I personally would be happy to see land set aside in the American West as a refuge, a Zion for the Jewish people. But Zion in Palestine? The Palestinians have lived there for some 1,300 years. The creation of Israel in 1948, while technically legal, was morally a crime. (Curious coincidence that the first laws “legalizing” apartheid in South Africa were passed in 1948.) The minority-ruled state of Israel needs to be replaced by a democratic Palestine in which Jews, Muslims, Christians and others can live side by side with equal rights. If the Israelis have so poisoned the atmosphere in Palestine that this is no longer possible, they have no one but themselves to blame. They can come here to live, or they can return to Europe. The American people, the Jewish people, and the world generally would be better off in such circumstances.

    A Jewish-dominated state in Palestine is wrong, period. It created and perpetuates and injustice. Abandon the false dream of Zion before it’s too late!

  2. avatar Jon Harrison says:

    Last sentence: “an” injustice (not “and”)

  3. avatar Ilene says:

    I read your piece Daniel. It was brilliant and had much more moral clarity than Beinert’s (although Beinert has come a long way). Phil Weiss says your piece was breathtaking.

About the Author


Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.

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