Never do liberal Zionists feel more torn than when Israel is at war. Days after I’d filed my essay for The New York Review on Ari Shavit and his fellow liberal Zionists, the perennial tension between Israel and the Palestinians had flared into violent confrontation and, eventually, a war in Gaza—the third such military clash in five years. For liberal Zionists these are times when the dual nature of their position is tested, some would say to destruction. What the Israel Defense Forces called Operation Protective Edge—a large-scale mobilization that by the time a twelve-hour “humanitarian truce” was agreed on July 26 had reached its nineteenth day—was no different.
Even during the grim chain of events that led to this episode, liberal Zionists found themselves facing both ways, switching direction day-by-day, even hour-by-hour. Of course, they, like everyone else, condemned the brutal June kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers on the West Bank, an act immediately blamed on the Hamas leadership (falsely so, it later turned out: the kidnapping was, in fact, the work of a local “lone cell,” acting without authorization). But some felt queasy during the subsequent two-week Israeli operation to root out Hamas militants there, referred to as “mowing the lawn,” not least because several Palestinian civilians were killed in the process. Still, it was hard to criticize too loudly, because that effort was conducted under the cover of a search for the three missing teens and, by then, the three were the object of a campaign that encompassed the global Jewish diaspora: #BringBackOurBoys.
Few of these campaigners knew that the Israeli authorities had, in fact, established from the start that the boys were dead and apparently withheld that information from the public. Naturally, liberal Zionists condemned the Hamas response to the West Bank lawn mowing—the resumption of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel—but they hoped Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would react with restraint. And of course the eventual discovery of the teenagers’ corpses had liberal Zionists standing in solidarity with Israel during its hour of national grief. But when that led to the revenge kidnapping and murder by Jewish extremists of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, forced by his abductors to drink gasoline and then set alight, they were appalled at what furies had been unleashed.
This constantly dual posture—defense of Israel paired with horror at the violation of liberal values—only became more pronounced as the military operation gathered steam. The Israeli novelist and veteran peacenik, Amos Oz, likes to say Zionism is a surname, a family name that can sit alongside a wide range of different first names: socialist, religious, revisionist, and so on. In this sense, liberal Zionists remain part of the Israel-supporting family and, when the family is under assault, they feel their place is at Israel’s side. Accordingly, they cannot help but sympathize with and echo the key elements of the case for Israel’s defense.
So they asked—genuinely, not just as a hasbara talking point—what any other country would do in a similar position. As Shavit wrote in Haaretz, “Barack Obama’s United States would never accept al-Qaeda rocket fire on Miami Beach, Washington, D.C. or New York City. David Cameron’s Britain would never accept a terror attack in Manchester, Birmingham, or London.” They insisted that when Israel mounted air strikes against Gaza it was no more than a straightforward act of self-defense.
But the first week of Protective Edge produced awkward statistics. The Palestinian death toll kept climbing while Israel’s remained stubbornly at zero. (Israel’s first casualty came on July 15.) Liberal Zionists were ready with the reply that Israel too would be suffering casualties in serious numbers were it not for the Iron Dome defense system: if Hamas was not succeeding in killing civilians, it was not through lack of trying.
Similar lines of argument were readily deployed, even as the violence escalated and Palestinian civilians began dying in greater numbers. Hamas fighters were ultimately responsible, it was said, because of their willingness to embed themselves among Gaza’s most vulnerable people, using them as human shields. Hamas commanders had spent millions on bunkers for themselves and on cement-lined tunnels to attack Israel, rather than on bomb shelters for their own people. If the TV pictures looked horrific, that was partly because of the media’s application of different rules when it comes to covering Israeli wars. US bombs had wrought similar havoc in Iraq and Afghanistan—orphaning children and wiping out whole families—it was just the world’s media were not gathered on the spot, and in a small, concentrated space, to cover it.
For Zionists of the right, repeating these arguments came easily. But liberal Zionists felt conflicted. A death rate that saw civilians account for four out of every five Palestinians killed—and that by July 25, according to the UN, included nearly 200 children—was hard to defend. Earlier this week, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, David Landau, wrote that it was no longer good enough to rely on the traditional hasbara sound bite that, while Hamas deliberately targets civilians, Israel only ever kills civilians by accident. Citing halacha, Landau argued that when it’s certain that civilians will die as a result of one’s actions, the distinction between intended and unintended becomes meaningless and is “nullified.” (Landau added that a ground operation was more morally defensible, because it allowed for greater precision.)
Others have not been so specific in their dissent, but they share the sense that it will no longer do simply to trot out the familiar lines. Partly it’s because some of the consequences of the Israeli bombardment have been so hard to stomach: hospitals, schools, and homes battered by shells, with instantly lethal consequences. It requires a special steel, perhaps lacking in some liberal Zionists, to speak up for Israel when the country’s air force has just hit a home for the disabled.
And partly it’s that the way some Israelis themselves have reacted is difficult to defend. Liberal Israelis are mocked for the habit known as yorim u’vochim, literally shooting and crying—indulging their guilt even as they continue to oppress Palestinians—but shooting and laughing is surely worse. Reports that Israelis were sitting on garden chairs on a hilltop by the Gaza border, munching popcorn as they watched the shelling of Gaza, as if witnessing a fireworks display, wrongfooted many usually reliable defenders of Israel. I have heard one rabbi, an avowed Zionist, describe these developments as nothing less than “a failure of Judaism.”
In continental Europe there is another dimension. Defending Israel when Israel is killing civilians by the hundred now exacts a very direct price. In Paris, protests against the war in Gaza spilled over into anti-Jewish violence, with chants of “Death to the Jews” and the attempted storming of two synagogues. In Berlin, an Israeli tourist was attacked during a Gaza-related demonstration. Few Jews or Israel-supporters would ever want to back down in the face of such intimidation: indeed, for many it strengthens their resolve, seeing in such overt anti-Semitism confirmation of the Zionist necessity for Jews to have a place of their own. But it is naïve to pretend everyone reacts to such hostility that way.
So there is a weariness in the liberal Zionist fraternity. Privately, people admit to growing tired of defending Israeli military action when it comes at such a heavy cost in civilian life, its futility confirmed by the frequency with which it has to be repeated. Operation Cast Lead was in 2008-2009. Operation Pillar of Defense followed in 2012. And here we are again in 2014.
But underlying this fatigue might be a deeper anxiety. For nearly three decades, the hope of an eventual two state solution provided a kind of comfort zone for liberal Zionists, if not comfort blanket. The two-state solution expressed the liberal Zionist position perfectly: Jews could have a state of their own, without depriving Palestinians of their legitimate national aspirations. Even if it was not about to be realized any time soon, it was a goal that allowed one to be both a Zionist and a liberal at the same time.
But the two-state solution does not offer much comfort if it becomes a chimera, a mythical notion as out of reach as the holy grail or Atlantis. The failure of Oslo, the failure at Camp David, the failure of Annapolis, the failure most recently of John Kerry’s indefatigable nine-month effort has prompted the unwelcome thought: what if it keeps failing not because the leaders did not try hard enough, but because the plan cannot work? What if the two-state solution is impossible?
That prospect frightens liberal Zionists to their core. For the alternatives to two states are unpalatable, either for liberal reasons or for Zionist reasons. A single state in all of historic Palestine, dominated by Jews but in which Palestinians are deprived of the vote, might be Zionist but it certainly would not be liberal. A binational state offering full equality between Jew and Arab would be admirably liberal, but it would seem to thwart Jewish self-determination, at least as it has traditionally been conceived, and therefore could not easily be described as Zionist.
When Israelis and Palestinians appear fated to fight more frequently and with ever-bloodier consequences, and when peace initiatives seem to be utopian pipe-dreams doomed to fail, the liberal Zionist faces something like an existential crisis. For if there is no prospect of two states, then liberal Zionists will have to do something they resist with all their might. They will have to decide which of their political identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a Zionist. And that is a choice they don’t want to make.