Cultural Zionism good, political Zionism bad

Back in 2012 Peter Beinart wrote a book, The Crisis of Zionism, suggesting that Zionism has lost its way from the path promised in Israel’s declaration of independence. That promise was to develop the country for all its inhabitants based on precepts of liberty and justice; the promise was to achieve social and political equality for all its citizens. Beinart argued that Zionism breached this promise and has become illiberal. Beinart argued that liberal Zionism must be restored.

Bernard Avishai published an interesting essay about Beinart’s book in The Nation when the book came out. Avishai distinguished between political Zionism and cultural Zionism. Political Zionism, argued Avishai, was necessarily illiberal at its founding–and remains illiberal to this day. That same point was made by Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land in the chapter about the ethnic cleansing of Lydda that was excerpted in the New Yorker. Without some profoundly illiberal actions (without political Zionism), said Shavit, the state would never have been born.

Avishai suggests that in order to build a Hebrew culture that did not exist in the land in 1900, Jewish settlers needed self-segregated contiguous collectives–otherwise they would become Arab speaking overseers of Arab labor. Socialism fit the bill. And so from 1905 on, says Avishai, the socialist Jewish pioneers built a segregated Jewish political economy and culture. The currents of state building were segregationist, not integrationist. The founding forces of Zionism did not worry about how to integrate Jews and Arabs into a cohesive, harmonious, and non-discriminatory political whole in the small shared plot of land that is Israel/Palestine; they worked in the opposite direction. The founding forces of the state established a separate language, separate political structures, separate institutions, and separate spaces in which the Hebrew culture could emerge.

But the Sturm und Drang of building a Jewish nation has resulted in a (virtually) all Jewish army, Jewish only settlements, expropriation of land from Palestinians to build settlements, contiguous Jewish land-ownership were Arabs are kept out, Jewish courts and institutions, a Jewish-only law of return in combination with a complete prohibition of Arab refugees to return to the land, a refusal to sanction intermarriage, and a 48 year occupation.

From Avishai’s description, it seems clear that all this illiberality is baked into the DNA of political Zionism because political Zionism says “the land is mine.” In order to become a modern liberal democracy the state must abandon its political Zionism.

But the real accomplishments of Zionism, suggested Avishai, are cultural: the creation of 8 million Hebrew speakers who are running a $360 billion economy. The Hebrew language and the culture it has created are now secure. These accomplishments are not going away, no matter what the politics of the country are. The amazing thing about the Zionist venture he suggested is that couples in tank tops and shorts can walk down the street holding hands in Tel Aviv, speaking a language that Moses would have understood. That is a cultural achievement, a cultural legacy that will survive a more liberal politics. These eight million Hebrew speakers and the culture they have created will not go away if the state stops its discrimination against Arabs.

It seems apparent that political Zionism, as described by Avishai, is necessarily illiberal and must go. Cultural Zionism need not be illiberal; it should be preserved and defended.

“Labor Zionists cherished civil and artistic freedoms,” says Avishai, “but questions of how to promote political liberty in a pluralistic inclusive state, once the separation engendered by Zionist activity ended, seemed like a distant problem” during the formative stages of the country. I deduce from this that the focus could have/would have/should have changed starting in 1966 when the military occupation of Arab towns ended. But integration was undermined and interrupted first by the Six Day War, then the Yom Kippur war, Lebanon wars, and the Gaza wars, and (most of all) by the occupation and renewed efforts of political Zionist activity in settling the West Bank–setting up contiguous spaces and separate infrastructure, Jewish only political structures, and land confiscation all over again in the expanded space.

It’s time to do away with this political supremacist Zionism.

Here are the sounds of political Zionism. When Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015, he said: “The days when the Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.” He meant not only “genocidal enemies,” of course, but all enemies–the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Persians, the American President. When soldiers marching to Sinai in 1967 proudly proclaimed “no longer are we tailors, doctors, lawyers,” as shown in the film Censored Voices, they also meant that Israeli Jews are now self-reliant and strong. The bully, not the bullied. Israel’s hawkish former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman showed off his political Zionism this past December at the annual Saban Forum conference in Washington DC. When asked about the concerns of liberal Jewish students who find it hard to defend Israel’s occupation on American college campuses, he said “I don’t care; I really don’t care.”

This is the sound of the political Zionism that thinks of itself as the Jewish state instead of a modern democracy with a secure Jewish culture. To the extent that Netanyahu’s comments to Congress, the soldiers’s gloating about muscular Judaism, and Lieberman’s indifference to people’s feelings about the occupation imply a theory of justice, surely they embrace the view of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. “Listen, then,” says Thrasymachus to Socrates, “I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger.” John Holbo recently expressed this in a cartoon (check it out).

Avishai’s essay suggests that the real remedy is to abandon political Zionism (which is necessarily illiberal), and to embrace the liberal politics of a modern democratic state. The work of political Zionism is complete. In order to achieve justice, political Zionism has got to go. It must be replaced with a modern democratic state that is Jewish not because it is run by and for Jews, but that is Jewish and Palestinian because it has thriving Jewish and Palestinian cultures.

Now that a Hebrew culture, language, and economy have been created, it’s past time to ease up on this illiberal political Zionism. In fact, it’s time to jettison political Zionism altogether and trade it for the politics of a modern liberal democratic state. And this does not mean abandoning cultural Zionism or the Hebrew culture that has been built. I think that’s the implication of what Avishai is saying, but he’s being a bit kabbalistic about the way forward–so read him for yourself [HERE].

Avishai does not foresee one state with one government administration governing all the people between the river and the sea. He speaks of confederated arrangements. Whatever those arrangements will be, they must strive to provide equal protection and equal rights and equal benefits for everyone between the river and the sea, and governmental structures that strive to promote Zionist culture and Palestinian culture equally. Avishai does not expressly say this, but that is what I take away from what he is saying.

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