Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Liberal Political Agenda Discourages a Strong Israel The Liberal Political Agenda Discourages a Strong Israel

Matthew M. Hausman

The recent conference of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (“CAMERA”) provided a glimpse into the subtle ideological struggle for control of the Jewish political spirit and its place in the world of Israel advocacy. Those who believe that the merit of the Jewish State stems from her liberal political character were well represented by Professor Alan Dershowitz, who spoke eloquently about the hypocrisy of media coverage of Israel and the disproportionate criticism of her right to defend herself. In contrast, those who endorse Israel simply because she represents the historical expression of Jewish nationalism in the ancestral homeland – irrespective of the transient political values of her popular culture – were better represented by Melanie Phillips. The friction between the two positions was apparent during a spirited Q and A session after Ms. Phillips’ remarks.
In his keynote speech early in the program, Professor Dershowitz spoke about the lack of moral clarity in reporting, analyzing and commenting on Israel, while he simultaneously extolled the virtues of Israeli society as a bastion of liberal political virtue. Although Dershowitz was sincere in his defense of Israel, the linking of her legitimacy to the political orientation of her society raised the unspoken question of whether secular liberals would withhold their support if they were to cease viewing her as a progressive political force in the Mideast. This concern was all the more poignant in light of comments Dershowitz made in a written debate with Phillips in FrontPage Magazine last year, in which he stated: “… if Israel were to turn against these [liberal] values – if it were to become an oppressive theocracy, like all Muslim countries today, that subjugates women, discriminates against gays and subjects science to religious censorship – I would become extremely critical of any such nation.” The logical question is whether his support for Israel is dependent on the projection of his own political values.

On a broader scale, it is reasonable to ask whether secular liberals who support Israel do so as a matter of historical conviction or because of partisan political ideals they attribute to Israeli society. If the latter, their support for Israel would fluctuate with every fickle change in Israel’s political landscape and would never be absolute. In contrast, advocacy based on history would remain constant despite the shifting political sands because it permits disagreement over specific policies without compromising the belief in Israel’s legitimacy. In view of his outspoken and passionate support for Israel over the years, it seems unlikely that Dershowitz is only a fair-weather advocate. But the continual trumpeting of the progressive nature of Israeli society certainly begs the question whether liberal support is essentially conditional.

In contrast, Ms. Phillips does not rationalize Israel’s existence based on the ephemeral political expressions of her citizens. Instead, Phillips supports Israel – regardless of the fluctuating whims of the electorate – as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish People, whose spiritual connection and physical presence have persisted for thousands of years. Given the disdain of the political left for Israel and its increasing tolerance for antisemitism, the issue facing American liberals who support Israel is how to perpetuate meaningful commitment while maintaining their progressive political credentials. This is an increasingly difficult task considering that the liberal political agenda accepts the revisionist Palestinian narrative and disproportionately criticizes Israel for the failure to achieve peace.
In her remarks at the CAMERA conference, Ms. Phillips tweaked the core elements of the liberal agenda and the dogmatic devotion they demand. Specifically, liberal political culture promotes its agenda as a singular platform and requires the unified acceptance of all planks of the program, no matter how diverse. Thus, for example, if one accepts the liberal agenda’s outlook on increased taxation to fund social welfare programs, one is also expected to accept the its positions regarding, among other things, global warming, the growth of government, and the primacy of science over faith.

The conundrum for politically active liberals who support Israel is that their overarching agenda also calls for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and for acceptance of historically dubious Palestinian claims premised on a repudiation of Jewish history. It also puts the onus on Israel to cede territory despite unwavering Arab-Muslim intransigence, places blame for the failure of the peace process on the so-called settlements, ignores the generations of Arab-Muslim rejectionism that preceded the existence of any “settlements,” and uses historical revisionism and moral relativism to rationalize terrorism.

Dershowitz and Phillips seem to disagree on whether the liberal agenda is compatible with Israel’s safety and continuity, and indeed whether it accepts the existence of Israel on her own historical terms. Unease with this agenda is reasonable considering how the political left routinely condemns Israel’s right to defend herself and denigrates Jewish history, promotes a Palestinian narrative that has little if any historical foundation, and disingenuously labels Israel a colonial state. Discomfort with the liberal agenda is reasonable also because of the political left’s apologia for, and frequent endorsement of, terrorism against Israel and the West. If this agenda is an all-or-nothing proposition, it is difficult to see where unqualified support for Israel could fit in.
Unfortunately, many American Jews fail to see this greater context. While it’s certainly true that many liberal Jews were shocked by President Obama’s outrageous treatment of Israel and his coddling of the Arab-Muslim world, they should have channeled their alarm inward to analyze why they voted for him in the first place – despite his known relationships and political alliances with antisemites and Israel bashers. Jewish support for Obama clearly had nothing to do with his illusory affinity for Israel. Rather, it was motivated by the belief that he symbolized the apotheosis of the progressive agenda. Ironically, it took Obama’s implementation of that agenda, and its misguided Mideast policy, to force them finally to acknowledge his anti-Israel impulses, which had always been apparent from his open and notorious associations with the likes of Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayres, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, and the Nation of Islam.

The unwillingness of liberals to recognize left-wing contempt for Israel stems partly from the assumption that Jewish values are synonymous with progressive ideals. However, this perception ignores the disparity between traditional Judaism and various elements of liberal doctrine. Although Jews as individuals are certainly free to hold their own political beliefs, they cannot claim consistency with Jewish tradition on issues that clearly conflict with Jewish law. Regarding matters that implicate personal status, marriage and sexual relationships, for example, traditional Judaism leans more to the conservative side. Thus, despite attempts by liberals to claim that they are guided by traditional Jewish mores, their agenda is often divergent from normative Judaism.

The failure to acknowledge left-wing hostility also arises from the belief that Zionism is an intrinsically liberal ideology and that Israel must therefore be guided by progressive principles. However, such beliefs display a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the birth and evolution of political Zionism. Although most American Jews know who Theodor Herzl was, it seems that few of them actually ever read Der Judenstaat. If they had, they would realize that Zionism is predicated first and foremost on Jewish nationalism and self-determination. At its core, Zionism is neither an economic theory nor a specific system of government, but rather a prescription for national regeneration.
Herzl certainly drew from the French utopian socialists in conceiving the future state’s economic structure as a “third way” between capitalist and socialist ideals. Nevertheless, the basis of his vision was not rooted in economic theory at all, but in nationalism. As he explained in Der Judenstaat:

I consider the Jewish question neither a social nor a religious one, even though it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, and to solve it we must first of all establish it as an international political problem to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.

We are a people — one people…

Though Herzl may have been the most famous, he was not the first Jew of the post-enlightenment period to advocate the restoration of Zion, or to put words into action. His ideological predecessors included the religious “proto-Zionists,” Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai (whose writings influenced Herzl’s own grandfather) and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer; the socialist theoretician Moses Hess, who wrote Rome and Jerusalem; and the secular nationalist Leo Pinsker, author of “Auto-Emancipation” and founder of Hibbat Zion. While many socialists did see in Zionism an opportunity to advance the “great socialist experiment,” they could not refocus the essential purpose of Zionism, which remained the physical and cultural salvation of the Jews through national regeneration. Indeed, Zionism’s embrace of Jewish nationality ran counter to the rejection of nationalism by the European left-wing movements.

Consistent with these disparate antecedents, the various Zionist Congresses reflected a diversity of philosophical, ideological, economic and religious thought. The interests of the various liberal and labor movements were certainly well-represented, but so were those of religious Zionists, secular nationalists, capitalist industrialists and apolitical philanthropists. Despite the perception that the Labor Zionists always guided the movement, they represented but one faction. And while they may have attempted to infuse Zionism with their own political values, they did not alter the central goal of reestablishing the Jewish nation.

The continuity of the movement was threatened only when it deviated from this goal, as happened in 1935 when the Zionist Executive declined to proclaim the establishment of a Jewish State to be the aim of Zionism. In response, Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionists withdrew from the World Zionist Organization. The rift healed only after the organization reconciled in 1946 and the Revisionists returned to the fold, constituting the second largest faction behind the General Zionists. The Labor Zionists under Ben Gurion were the smallest faction, albeit the one with more influence over the British in Mandatory Palestine and the one often perceived as molding and directing practical Zionist ideology in Israel. Nevertheless, the presence of disparate social and economic philosophies under the same organizational umbrella indicates that the essential spirit of Zionism was not the exclusive province of the left or the right.

If one recognizes that Zionism is not left-of-center, and that Israel is not inherently defined by liberal political priorities, it would seem misguided to premise one’s support for Israel on a perceived affinity with American liberal values. Such support would necessarily whither if Israeli society and government were to grow more conservative. To a large extent this has already happened as the Israeli left has been marginalized and the government has shifted to the right. Indeed, liberal abandonment of Israel is apparent in Congressional voting patterns showing that Senate and House Republicans support Israel far more consistently than do Democrats.

Those who rationalize support for Israel based on the presumed political orientation of her society seem to forget that Israel remains a liberal democracy regardless of who controls the government.

Americans seem to confuse “liberal democracy” with “liberal” political values, but the two concepts are separate and distinct. The term “liberal democracy” refers to representative government characterized by free, fair and competitive elections. In contrast, the “liberal agenda” reflects a partisan philosophy that may compete in the electoral process – the same as any other political ideology – but which is not guaranteed supremacy. The point of liberal democracy is not that it must reflect a specific partisan ideology or action plan, but that its citizens have the freedom to accept or reject competing ideologies.

The Israeli electorate’s rejection of the left-wing parties responsible for the ill-conceived Oslo Process – and the waves of terror it enabled – shows the triumph of informed voter choice in a liberal democracy. This is the aspect of Israeli political society that Professor Dershowitz and other liberals should be championing, not the elevation of a partisan agenda that patronizes Israel and promotes policies that threaten her safety and security. They would do well to recognize that modern Israel was not reestablished to fulfill the dreams of modern progressive intellectuals, but to satisfy 2,000 years of yearning for the restoration of Zion. The depth of this yearning is not reflected in the writings of John Locke or any of the other western liberal philosophers. Rather, it is expressed in the prose of Psalm 137, which says: “If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy.”

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