Toward a Post-Zionist Left

Toward a Post-Zionist Left

The left must move beyond the false binaries of liberal Zionism and embrace a post-Zionist politics of civil rights and nonviolent resistance.

With a counter-argument by Susie Linfield.

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

Liberal Zionists position themselves as a third way between the two poles of right-wing religious Zionism and left-wing anti-Zionism, and as the most vocal supporters of the two-state solution. However, in the years since Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, and especially since the collapse of the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada, the two-state solution increasingly appears dead beyond resurrection. The numbers of settlers and settlements continue to grow; there are now more than half a million Jewish settlers living over the Green Line. The Israeli public is more right-wing than it has ever been, and so is its government.

Despite all this, liberal Zionists continue to insist on the two-state solution as both the only possible and only desirable resolution. Consequently, they misread the Israeli political map: the center they claim to occupy no longer exists. By arguing for a two-state solution but not for an immediate end to the occupation, liberal Zionists, whether intentionally or not, support the right-wing territorial maximalists they claim to oppose. And as the movement to end the occupation has gained global recognition, largely thanks to BDS activists, more and more liberal Zionists have sided with other Zionists who are far from liberal. That prominent liberal Zionists and former sixties radicals write without any apparent qualms for publications such as Tablet magazine—funded and operated by Nextbook Inc., whose executive director Morton Landowne promotes orthodox yeshivas in the West Bank—demonstrates how far liberal Zionists have drifted from the values from which they take their name.

Liberal Zionists describe their choice of comrades as a choice between the lesser of two evils. But this cannot be the left’s choice when it comes to politics in Israel and Palestine. Today, there are more natural allies. There is a left, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, that calls for a just resolution to conflict between Arabs and Jews, and breaks with the two-state shibboleths. This left is best described as post-Zionist, because to be Zionist in Israel today is to argue for a political arrangement that leaves no room for Arabs’ full participation. Admittedly, this left is also marginal and underfunded, but that does not mean it will remain so. And more than ever, facing state repression and reactionary violence, this left urgently needs support.

The war in 2014 made clear what many left-wing critics of Zionism have argued for years: no current version of Zionism provides a framework for a just resolution to the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip. “There is no ‘peace camp’ in Israel and no major political force seeking justice: there is only a ‘two-state camp’, which is something completely different,” wrote Noam Sheizaf in 972 Magazine. During Operation Protective Edge, Isaac “Buji” Herzog, Labor’s nominal alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu, publicly supported the war and defended the prime minster when questioned about the IDF’s conduct in Gaza. Tzipi Lvni, the erstwhile Minister of Justice (who would later become co-chair of the Zionist Union with Herzog in the subsequent elections), remained in the governing coalition after negotiations with the PA disintegrated and throughout the summer’s war, despite her promise not to sit in a government that was not conducting peace talks. Even Peace Now and Meretz tried to distance themselves from anti-war demonstrations as long as the fighting continued. As Moriel Rothman-Zecher noted on his blog, they feared that failing to do so would make them appear “too leftist”—a term used as an epithet as much as a political orientation.

Outside of Israel, liberal Zionists’ support for the two-state solution became support for an illiberal and violent status quo. And this status quo is not stasis, but rather the steady increase of settlers and settlements, and periodic bombardment and devastation whenever Israel decides to “mow the lawn.” Claiming to speak from the left, liberal Zionists presented a choice: Hamas or Israel. “We should choose Israel,” Michael Walzer wrote in the New Republic, “because Israel is a democracy where it is possible to imagine the political defeat of the rightwing nationalists who are now in charge . . .” However, as long as Israel maintains its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, depriving millions of people of the right to vote in the country whose army controls their lives, Israel is not a democracy. And while it is possible to imagine the defeat of the right-wing nationalists, that does not mean such a defeat is likely to happen soon, or that the left should support their government in the meantime. One of the ironies of the situation is that by failing to insist on ending the occupation as a prerequisite to any eventual solution, liberal Zionists have probably made their coveted two-state solution unattainable while at the same time strengthening the right-wing and religious nationalists.

The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and sixty-nine years since Israel’s establishment. For nearly all of its history (Arabs within Israel lived under martial law from 1948 to 1966), Israel has ruled civilian Arab populations by military occupation. Many liberal Zionists are old enough to remember a time when the occupation seemed temporary. It is telling that in Susie Linfield’s profile of the Zionist left for the Boston Review, only one person out of eleven who were quoted directly was under the age of fifty-four; more than half were over sixty. But for the next generation of leftists, in Israel and abroad, half a century of the one-state reality has overshadowed the two-state possibility.

The left must move beyond the aging liberal Zionists and the false binary they present, and embrace a post-Zionist politics. This means exchanging the tired language of self-determination for the language of civil rights, and recognizing that nonviolent resistance to the occupation must continue, even without negotiations or a final status agreement on the horizon. It is impossible to predict what any resolution might look like, but no resolution will be possible without an end to the occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza.

There are already activists and organizations in Israel putting this post-Zionist politics into practice. On the parliamentary level, the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, is now the third largest party in the Knesset. Its leader Ayman Odeh—a lawyer and committed socialist from Haifa who also chaired Hadash, the Arab-Jewish socialist party—has called for a civil rights struggle, drawing on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of nonviolence for inspiration. Odeh’s vision for Israel is a state for all its citizens—a state that provides equal rights to Arabs and Jews and privileges neither. Odeh has also pledged to use the Arab parties’ new parliamentary strength to struggle against the occupation and possible future military operations in the Palestinian territories.

On the extra-parliamentary level, Ta’ayush, a group of Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activists, organizes demonstrations and rebuilds demolished houses and fields in the West Bank. Yesh Din, an NGO, provides legal assistance to Palestinians and reports on human rights abuses in the occupied territories. B’tselem, also an NGO, gives cameras to Palestinians to document abuses by settlers and soldiers. In media, there is 972 magazine, its Hebrew sister site Sikha Mekomit (Local Call), and Ha-Makom Hakhi Ham b’Gehenom (The Hottest Place in Hell), to name only a few. There are many other groups, too many to name here, across a wide political spectrum—from Anarchists Against the Wall to the Bereaved Families Forum, a grassroots organization of Israeli and Palestinian families that views reconciliation as a precondition for peace. But what all these groups have in common is that they recognize that waiting for negotiations to resume means allowing an unjust status quo to remain intact. Waiting is not an option.

Joshua Leifer is a member of All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective. He is currently pursuing a B.A. in history at Princeton University.

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