Is a Left Zionism Possible?

Is a Left Zionism Possible?

Kibutz ceremony, 1951 (Wikimedia Commons)
This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Joshua Leifer, click here.

The very posing of this question is profoundly dispiriting. It shows how bad (that is, not left-wing) the political situation of contemporary Israel is; how radically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deteriorated; and how historically ignorant and blindly anti-Israeli today’s American left is.

The short answer is: yes, of course. Zionism has been Leninist, social-democratic, liberal, secular, pacifist, anti-imperialist, proletarian, even, until this became impossible, binational. It has also been militaristic, authoritarian, bourgeois, racist, religious, messianic, imperialist, and neofascist. Edward Said got it exactly wrong when he described Zionism, and Israelis, as “ruthlessly single-minded.” In fact, Zionism was one of the most ideologically disputatious movements in modern history; even today, this is still true. The Israeli Knesset can be described in many ways, but single-minded it is not.

What is Zionism, which has become such a maligned term? It is support for the political self-determination of, and a sovereign state for, the Jewish people. What is left-wing Zionism? Domestically, being left-wing in Israel is pretty much the same as being left-wing anywhere else: it means supporting workers’ rights, ethnic and gender equality, a fair distribution of wealth, the rule of law, and democratic political participation for all. But in Israel, the old adage that all politics are domestic is decidedly untrue. In foreign affairs, left-wing Zionism is the support for a viable, independent Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one. The difference between left-wing and right-wing Zionists is that leftists view Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as the tragic, self-inflicted negation of Zionism, while rightists regard it as Zionism’s jubilant culmination. The great irony is that left-wing anti-Zionists share the right’s view, though without the jubilation.

In its early decades Israel combined socialist, or social-democratic, politics with democratic freedoms. It was a poor and deeply egalitarian country; it was the praxis of left-wing Zionism. As Fred Halliday wrote, until 1967 “Israel enjoyed enormous authority, not so much as a close ally of the west, which at that time it was not . . . but as the site of an experiment in socialist economics and living.” But Israel has changed. Like so many countries, including the United States, Israel’s economic structure has gravitated over the last several decades toward neoliberalism and grossly increased inequality, though many accomplishments of the social-democratic era remain. Politically, there has been a horrific rise in racism and Jewish terrorism against Palestinians, a steep decline in secularism and recognition of the secular state’s authority, and enactment of ominous laws restricting dissent. Developments on the foreign front have been nothing short of disastrous: they include the ravenous theft of Palestinian land for the construction of more and more settlements, the grotesque terrorism of the Second Intifada, the demise of Oslo, the roadblocks, the rise of Hamas and the blockade of Gaza, the political failures of the Palestinian Authority, and the fragmentation and disarray of the Palestinian movement. Perhaps worst of all, for many Israelis the occupation has been “normalized.”

In this dismal context, the real question is: can left-wing Zionism, on both the domestic and foreign fronts, be revived?

Frankly, it is hard, at this juncture, to see how. As we Americans know, it is tremendously difficult to restore a social safety net once it has been weakened; even more difficult is reversing capital’s almost inexorable drive toward economic polarization. On the international front, the situation in the surrounding region is terrifying: in only the last five years, we have witnessed the disintegration of Syria and parts of Iraq, the rise of al-Nusra Front and ISIS, a virtual war in the Sinai between Islamists and Egypt’s repressive military government, the auto-destruction of Libya, the creation of millions of new refugees (most of whom, like refugees all over the world, will not have any “right” of return), the strengthening of Hezbollah, two wars between Israel and Hamas, and the increasingly imperial role of Iran. Not surprisingly, the radical disintegration of the region encourages Israelis to seek stability, not change.

This does not mean that an end to the occupation is any less necessary. I agree with Israeli liberals, humanists, and leftists who argue that, unless the occupation ends, Israel is committing suicide by destroying its phenomenal achievements, betraying its democratic values, and dooming future generations to perpetual war. The barrier to ending the occupation is the lack of political will, not the number of settlers. At the same time, Israelis who fear that a Palestinian state on the West Bank will become a Hamastan (or worse) are far from alarmist, much less necessarily right-wing. This is Israel’s thorny dilemma, which it has been completely unable to solve.

As for Gaza, no one—not the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, the Egyptians, the other Arab states, and certainly not the “international community”—wants responsibility for it, Turkish flotillas notwithstanding. Groups even more irredentist and religiously crazed than Hamas, such as Islamic Jihad and even ISIS, are reportedly gaining traction in Gaza. Please do not identify these groups as “to the left” of Hamas: there is nothing remotely leftist about them.

In the midst of this mess, what should be the goal of the U.S. left? Two strategies have been adopted, neither of which has the slimmest chance of ending the occupation or strengthening an Israeli left. The first is the overpublicized Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which seeks to turn Israel into an international pariah. BDS is righteously anti-imperialist in its rhetoric, but I challenge anyone to show how it has improved the life of even one Palestinian. (The boycott is opposed by the Palestinian Authority.) Leftists should stop nostalgically reliving the glory days of the South African struggle and deal, dare I say, with the facts on the ground of the actual Israeli-Palestinian, and Israeli-Arab, conflict. (Hamas and Hezbollah are not the African National Congress.) The boycott is, paradoxically, a gift to Netanyahu: it feeds directly into his demagogic narrative that “the whole world is against us.” BDS will not threaten, shame, pressure, or pauperize Israelis into giving up the settlements; on the contrary, it will, if anything, move more of them further to the right. But why worry about such details?

The other proposal is for the creation of one state that would encompass present-day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. This entity would presumably be binational and democratic and even, in some versions, socialist. The one-state solution was, in fact, the position of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for many years. But the envisioned state would not be binational: it would be Arab. (The PLO, unlike some present-day one-staters, was quite honest about this, as is Hamas.) It would not be democratic, since it could only be maintained at the point of a gun. It would certainly not be either secular or socialist.

Most of all, the attempt to create such a state would result in savage violence; the civil wars in Lebanon and Bosnia would pale in comparison. History teaches us that, after this, reconciliation between the two peoples would be even less, rather than more, possible. (See under: Yugoslavia.) The notion that a unified, functioning, even trivially democratic state could be built on such a basis—crushing together two peoples who, for good reason, have amassed a capacious store of mutual distrust and even hatred—is profoundly ahistoric and anti-materialist. It is bewildering that leftists subscribe to it. I once asked a Jewish-Israeli academic, a strong proponent of a one-state future, what kind of legal and political institutions, educational system, and foreign policy such a state would have. “Well, it’s not exactly practical, but it’s a good idea,” he rather sheepishly replied.

The task for American leftists is to support democratic, anti-occupation, two-state groups in any ways we can, including publications, conferences, visits, and, where appropriate, donations (even if we can’t match Sheldon Adelson). There are numerous such organizations, from the well-established New Israel Fund to smaller ones like Ta’ayush (in Arabic, “Living Together”) and Women Wage Peace, all of whose members include Arabs and Jews. What we, and the Israeli Left, need is more engagement, exchange, information, creativity, and honest debate, not the frosty, pristine isolation of boycotts. As the Israeli scholar and longtime anti-occupation activist David Shulman recently wrote, “We have work to do. Holding on to hope is part of that work. . . . In the end, the alliance between moderates and activists on both sides may turn out to be as strong, or stronger, than the unspoken blood alliance of Netanyahu with Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS. We will have many opportunities to test this proposition.” But to do this—to find ways of forging real bonds of solidarity, rather than indulge in BDS’s vilification or the one-staters’ fantasies—you have to believe that Israel is something worth fighting for rather than a candidate for elimination.

The one good thing about the contemporary Middle East’s chaos is its wild unpredictability. Surprising things will keep happening for a long time to come; as a leftist Israeli friend said to me recently, “You never know!” My friend, a former Communist and longtime supporter of Meretz, is heartbroken about the political situation in Israel. Yet he said this with a robust laugh. The spirit of left Zionism, which was strong enough to build a country, is still there; so is a center that has little sympathy for the settlers. You never know.


Susie Linfield is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her reconsideration of Hannah Arendt’s relationship to Zionism will appear in the winter issue of Salmagundi.

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Joshua Leifer, click here.

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