Israel–Palestine Today: A Values-Based Approach

Israel–Palestine Today: A Values-Based Approach

Ignoring Israel’s systemic human rights abuses by refusing to hold it to the standards to which we hold all other states would be wavering in our commitment to freedom, democracy, and equality.

Israel’s separation barrier near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank (Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article is part of a debate. Read the original argument by Michael Walzer here, and his reply to Leifer here.

The abiding impression from reading Michael Walzer’s essay, “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism,” is that he is interested much more in what Zionism could have been than what it has turned out to be. He is primarily concerned with the past as opposed to the present, with hypotheticals and counterfactuals as opposed to the facts on the ground, with Zionism in the abstract as opposed to what Zionism has become.

I want to begin instead with the political reality in Israel–Palestine, where Zionism, the operative ideology of the state of Israel, is put into practice. I believe this reality demands a politics very different from what Walzer recommends—a politics that Walzer would likely deem anti-Zionist, but that those on the left committed first and foremost to the values of freedom, democracy, and equality should support. “There is one duty,” Ignazio Silone once wrote in Dissent, “that we cannot evade: to be aware of what is happening.” So let us first take stock of what is happening in Israel–Palestine today.

Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, there is one sovereign state, Israel, which governs, in some places directly, in others indirectly, the lives of roughly 13 million people. Of those 13 million, approximately half are Jews, who enjoy full citizenship and social rights, regardless of where they choose to live. The other half are Palestinians, who live under a range of oppressive systems: codified second-class citizenship in Israel proper; residency, always under threat, without franchise in East Jerusalem; military rule in the West Bank; and siege by air, land, and sea in the Gaza Strip. There are terms to describe similar, now-defunct regimes that enforced separate legal systems and hierarchies of laws, privileges, and rights on the basis of ethno-national identity, but we need not delve into their particular applicability here; for now, we can call this the “one-state reality.”

The one-state reality is not new. Israel has occupied East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank for more than half a century—longer than the apartheid regime lasted in South Africa. (It is also worth remembering that Palestinians within Israel lived under martial law from the state’s founding until 1966.) And though few in number and politically powerless, there were Israeli Jews who, after the 1967 war, called for an immediate withdrawal from the newly occupied territories, the most strident and tireless among them the members of the Israeli socialist organization, Matzpen. They were anti-Zionists.

Since 1967, successive Israeli governments, those headed by the right and those by the left, have alternately maintained, deepened, and defended military rule in the occupied territories while fostering, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the construction and growth of Jewish settlements in those territories—in violation of international law. This has all but eliminated the possibility of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state and turned Palestinian cities and other areas in the West Bank under nominal Palestinian Authority control into isolated bantustans, surrounded by Jewish settlements, soldiers, and checkpoints. The Israeli government now appears poised to begin annexing parts of the West Bank, and the Trump administration to support it in doing so. But even if de jure annexation ultimately does not happen, de facto annexation has long been underway and will proceed apace. The damage has already been done. The chances of a two-state solution: slim to none.

What, then, should the left-wing position on Israel–Palestine be? Regrettably, Walzer’s essay offers little new thinking and few good answers. He concedes the two-state solution may well be “a fantasy” (his words), and yet he rejects any alternative to it. Faced with the grim reality of an endless occupation, he mostly asks why leftists don’t focus their attention elsewhere. He dismisses all anti-Zionist arguments as either the products of ignorance or something more sinister and does not name a single contemporary anti-Zionist interlocutor, as if there were none worthy of respectful debate. He writes that he wants to be “a defender of Zionism” though “not an apologist for what people calling themselves Zionist are doing” but then does precisely that, justifying or explaining away Zionist violence before 1948 and after.

Indeed, over and over again, Walzer turns to history to rebut what he sees as core anti-Zionist arguments. These matters of history are important and should inform any coherent left position on Israel–Palestine, which is why it is worth noting that Walzer makes several historical mischaracterizations in his essay. For instance, he claims “there was no displacement of Palestinian Arabs in the 1920s and 1930s,” despite the ample evidence that aggressive land acquisition by pre-state Zionist settlement agencies forced Palestinian tenant farmers off land they and their families had worked for decades; these Palestinians, of course, were not permitted membership into the Jews-only communities built on the ruins of their homes. Elsewhere, he writes that it was the invasion of Israel “by five Arab armies that led both to the flight of many Palestinian Arabs” and to “the expulsion of many others,” without any reference to the documented instances of Zionist forces expelling the inhabitants of entire Palestinian cities (like Lydda) and massacres by Zionist forces (like Deir Yassin) that frightened many others into fleeing—as if, during the 1948 war and after, it was the Arab armies that forced the Israeli military to carry out ethnic cleansing.

However, the strongest version of anti-Zionism—and the one I believe the left should critically endorse—does not firstly derive from any argument about history, though, of course, recognition of and reparations for historical injustices will have to be part of any durable, just, and peaceful resolution to the conflict. Nor does it firstly derive, contrary to Walzer’s claims, from any theoretical opposition to the nation-state or belief about the “essence” of Zionism or Jewish peoplehood. It derives instead from a values-based assessment of the political reality on the ground in Israel–Palestine, from a principled opposition to what the writer Adam Shatz has called “actually existing Zionism.”

This position gives priority to the fundamental leftist values of freedom, democracy, and equality. And it is here that this position, which I will call the “values-based approach,” first comes into opposition to Walzer’s Zionism, which he defines as “a belief in the rightful existence of a Jewish state.” Given Walzer’s extensive writing about democracy and democratic theory, it is notable that missing from his definition here is any requirement that the Jewish state be a democracy. Indeed, the impression from his essay is that for Walzer neither democracy nor equality are prerequisites; both are subordinate to the higher end of a Jewish state. Many leftists rightfully reject this as unacceptable—a position that one can of course dispute, but which has the advantage of internal consistency.

The same cannot be said of the many Zionists who claim to be liberals and democrats but who oppose the democratization of the current one-state reality through ending the occupation, guaranteeing full equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognizing in some way the right of Palestinian refugees to return. These self-described liberals and democrats often argue that this would mean the end of the Jewish state. In so doing, they reveal that it is not principally anti-Zionists who believe a Jewish state is incompatible with the values of democracy, freedom, and equality, but Zionists themselves. For if democratization would mean the end of the state, what does that say about the character of that state? I know quite a few Jewish and Israeli leftists, many of whom have devoted their lives to ending the occupation, for whom a Jewish state that is not a democracy is not a state worth having.

As a corollary to the priority given to those fundamental leftist values, the approach I am recommending is agnostic on the ideal number of states—as long as whatever form a final status agreement takes guarantees freedom, democracy, and equality for Israelis and Palestinians alike. However, this approach also recognizes that given the historic intransigence of the Israeli government and the unceasing entrenchment of settlements in the West Bank, a two-state solution has ceased to be the most likely form a just final status agreement will take. It is for this reason that the values-based approach rejects the position, common among liberal Zionists, of abstract support for an infinitely deferred two-state solution that in practice treats Palestinians’ rights—considered inalienable for everyone else—as somehow conditional, to be held in indefinite suspension.

To be clear, the values-based approach does not reject two-states or the idea of a Jewish state as such. It could well be the case that some time, probably a long time from now, final status negotiations yield something resembling a federation or confederation of two state-like entities; there is, in fact, a growing though still marginal movement of Israelis and Palestinians, “The Two States, One Homeland” initiative, pushing for this sort of thing. But, it bears repeating, any durable, just, and peaceful end to the occupation and resolution to the conflict—and one that leftists can wholeheartedly support—will have to be based on the very values we hold dear.

So what does the values-based approach mean in practice? What should leftists do? First, we should listen to what our left-wing comrades—Israelis and Palestinians—are saying, with the understanding that because Palestinians live under various regimes of subjugation while Israelis do not, our comrades will not always agree. In cases of disagreement, I believe it is just to turn first to those who feel the boot of oppression on their necks most acutely. For almost fifteen years, Palestinian trade unions, political parties (including socialist ones), local popular committees (the backbone of the unarmed civil resistance movement in the West Bank), human rights organizations, and civil society groups have been calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions to pressure the Israeli government. Known as the BDS movement, their call has three demands: end the occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, guarantee full equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return. The BDS movement, notably, does not call for one or two states, though, to be sure, some of its most prominent advocates do support one state. However, one need not support every single one of the BDS movement’s numerous campaigns or agree with all of its leading figures—such a standard would make any left-wing political practice nearly impossible—to recognize that these are nonviolent forms of resistance that those of us on the democratic left should at the very least defend, if not actively participate in.

A bare minimum for leftists should be dogged opposition to the attempts by pro-Israel groups in conjunction with Israeli state and para-state institutions to push unconstitutional anti-boycott laws through U.S. state legislatures. As of this writing, Representative Ilhan Omar has introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Representatives John Lewis and Rashida Tlaib, that would protect the right to boycott “in pursuit of civil and human rights.” We should support this bill, and efforts like it, too. We should also fight back fiercely against attempts by pro-Israel organizations to intimidate, through blacklists like Canary Mission, anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activists on college campuses—even if we sometimes bristle at their rhetoric or tactics.

Second, we should back, by a range of means, Israeli and Palestinian activists on the ground fighting the daily abuses of the occupation. There is no shortage of groups—some of them NGOs, some of them decentralized collectives—that are modeling the kind of values-based approach I have advocated here, prioritizing ending the occupation and the injustices it entails over achieving a one- or two-state solution. These groups are always in need of funds and, perhaps just as important, of help in amplifying their messages and their principled, often dangerous work. The very least leftists in the United States and elsewhere can do is to lend them our financial, political, and moral support.

Third, as U.S. citizens, we should push our elected representatives to end unconditional aid to the Israeli government as long as it maintains the military occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Using our power as citizens of the global hegemon to put an end to human rights violations that our tax dollars enable—and not only in Israel–Palestine but in countless countries around the world—is an exemplary form of left internationalist practice. It is encouraging that from liberal Zionist groups like J Street to progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there is a growing sense that the Israeli government must face consequences for committing grave human rights abuses—home demolitions and population transfer in Area C of the West Bank, the routine detention of Palestinian children, and the use of live fire against unarmed protesters by the Israel–Gaza separation fence, to name only a few.

Some Zionists will no doubt argue that this values-approach, or, for that matter, critical support for the BDS movement, in practice means rejecting Israel’s “right to exist.” I have tried to make clear that this position does no such thing. Instead, it presents the Israeli government with a choice: end more than half a century of military rule in the occupied territories or democratize by giving all Palestinians living under Israeli rule full equality and the right to vote. But it is also worth emphasizing that no state’s “right to exist” should be used as justification to deprive millions of people living under that state’s control their basic human rights. A decent left should put people first, nation-states second.

I expect there will also be charges that this approach somehow “singles out Israel.” This is a tired talking point of the professional Israel-advocacy world. Contrary to the charge of “singling out Israel,” failing to hold the Israeli government accountable for its actions would be to give Israel exceptional treatment—to single it out, if you will. No respectable leftist I know believes that systematic human rights abuses carried out by states—whether the United States of America, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the People’s Republic of China—should go unopposed.

To make an exception for the state of Israel, to refuse to hold it to the standards to which we hold all other states, to waver in our commitment to freedom, democracy, and equality—as too many self-described leftists have done for much too long—would be, to borrow Walzer’s words, “a very bad politics.”


Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent. Previously, he was an associate editor at +972 Magazine and based in Jerusalem.


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