Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day today, and it’s not likely that too many of them are spending their holiday worrying about American Jewish efforts to save them from themselves. The imbalance in the relationship between the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship lends a touch of comedy, if not pathos, to the celebrated anguish of liberal American Jews who will spend this day, if not every day, publicizing their angst about Israeli policies and dramatically predicting doom for the Jewish state if it does not listen to their criticisms.
We have been hearing a lot lately about the imperative for “liberal Zionists” to speak out. Israel is a democratic country with a bewildering array of political parties and ideologies (almost all of which have some representation in its parliament), and if American Jews wish to identify with a particular brand of Israeli politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with some of the political views expressed on the Zionist left, but I consider the debate with those who are devoted to Israel but who wish to improve it in various ways, arguments undertaken, as Jewish tradition calls it, “for the sake of heaven,” which ought to be conducted with civility and respect on both sides and mutual commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Israel does not need blind devotion from its foreign friends or from Diaspora Jews. Nor does it require anyone to pretend that the Israeli state is perfect. Its democratic system, its politicians and even its military are no more perfect than those in the United States. But it does deserve a degree of respect that I think is lacking lately from some who call themselves liberal Zionists.
Much ink has been spilled and great deal of space on the Internet has been wasted debating the dubious merits of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, but as off target as his views about American Jewry may be in many respects, his ignorance of Israel has made it a symbol of all that is wrong with the liberal Jewish critique of the country. It’s all well and good for Beinart and other American Jews to wish for peace or to argue that different policies might bring it closer. It’s that they operate in an intellectual vacuum in which the real world dilemmas of Israeli life and the realities of Palestinian nationalism don’t exist.
That’s why, despite the fact that the vast majority of Israelis desire a two-state solution and are no more enamored of extremist settlers than Beinart, they support the government they elected in 2009 and are almost certain to return it to power when it faces the electorate sometime next year. They do not see their country walking off a cliff bent on suicidal policies as Beinart and others preach. Instead, they believe they are undertaking prudent measures of self-defense and asserting their right to exist in peace and freedom. Israel has achieved much in its 64 years of existence, but it cannot magically transform the political culture of the Palestinians that rejects the legitimacy of any Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
This is a basic truth that most Israelis intuitively understand but which continues to elude some of their liberal American friends. Israeli Independence Day is as good a day as any for some of these preening liberal Zionists to ask themselves why is it that the average Israeli regards their impulse to save Israel from itself with a mixture of humor and contempt? After a generation of territorial withdrawals, peace accords and peace offers that have been consistently rejected by the Palestinians, Israelis are right to view those who act as if the history of the last 20 years never happened as simply irrelevant.
Those American Jews who support Israel against the assault on its existence are often accused by their foes of believing in a mythical Israel and having no conception of the real place. But despite the naivete of some who wish to hear no evil of Israel, it is those liberals and left-wingers who believe that the Jewish state can unilaterally create peace or in any way diminish the ideological and religious opposition of the Muslim and Arab worlds to its existence who are really living in a fantasy world.
Liberal Zionists and other so-called progressives should not feel inhibited from putting forward their vision of what Israel can or should be. But what they first need to do is to show some respect for the people of Israel and demonstrate some understanding of the limits to which their ideas can alter political reality on either side of the security fence. Without that respect and understanding, Israelis are to be forgiven for viewing American liberal Zionism as a thin façade for self-righteous and ignorant claptrap.