The Liberal Zionists

Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times/Redux
Israeli soldiers on a hill overlooking an Israeli settlement in Ofra, the West Bank, 2001


In the toxic environment that characterizes much, if not most, debate on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a special poison is reserved for the liberal Zionist. Such a person, who stands by Israel even as he yearns for it to change, is fated to be hated by both camps: hawkish Zionists despise the liberal for going too far in his criticisms, accusing him of a hand-wringing betrayal of the cause that can only comfort the enemy, while anti-Zionists denounce the liberal for not going far enough, for failing to follow the logic of his position through to its conclusion and for thereby defending the indefensible. The liberal Zionist is branded either a hypocrite or an apologist or both.

The treatment meted out to My Promised Land, a personal history of Israel by Ari Shavit, a columnist for Israel’s left-leaning daily Haaretz, is a case in point. The laptop warriors on both sides donned their familiar armor and set about attacking the book from right and left. “Far from self-criticism, this is simply self-debasement,” wrote the former World Jewish Congress official Isi Leibler in The Jerusalem Post, suggesting that among Shavit’s motives was an ingratiating desire to win “endorsement from the liberal glitterati for whom debasement of the Jewish state has become a key component of their liberal DNA.” Meanwhile, the leftist academic Norman G. Finkelstein has devoted an entire, if short, book to taking down My Promised Land. In Old Wine, Broken Bottle he insists that Shavit’s insights “comprise a hardcore of hypocrisy and stupidity overlaid by a tinsel patina of arrogance and pomposity. He’s a know-nothing know-it-all who, if ever there were a contest for world’s biggest schmuck, would come in second.”

Which is not to say that My Promised Land has not won prominent admirers. It has, receiving praise from Thomas Friedman, Leon Wieseltier, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Remnick, and others. That fact is unlikely to trouble the critics. On the contrary, they will see praise for Shavit from that quarter as a simple act of group solidarity, the lions of liberal Zionism huddling together in a pride.

The squeezed nature of the liberal Zionist’s position is hardly new, but in recent years the predicament has become more pronounced. The decline of the peace movement in Israel, along with the serial failures of the Israeli Labor Party, has suggested a cause in retreat. In the United States, the liberal lions have also come to resemble an endangered species, for reasons that reflect those long-term shifts in Israel. As Peter Beinart explained in a much-discussed essay in these pages in 2010, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” the leadership of US Jewry has adopted ever more hard-line, Likud-friendly positions on Israel, which leave cold the…

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