A Dissenting Jewish Liberal

A Dissenting Jewish Liberal


Howard Adelman

Jonathan Freedland’s thesis in his recent review essay, “The Liberal Zionists” (NYRB 14 August, LXI:13, 20-24) is stated clearly and unequivocally in his opening paragraph: “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 as a hypocrite or an apologist or both.”

However, a quick but very unscientific test seems to undermine Freedland’s argument. The responses to the hundreds (not thousands) of protesters in Tel Aviv against the bombing and ground war in Gaza can be cited. But I use the letters printed in the Toronto Daily Star supporting and critical of an OpEd by Gabor Maté, a medical doctor and renowned addiction specialist as well as infant survivor of the Holocaust. Those letters in response to his anti-Zionist liberal critique, “Beautiful Dream of Israel has become a nightmare” (Star, 26 July 2014), do not appear to support Freedland’s thesis.

The sub-lines in Maté’s piece almost say it all: “Everyone ought to be sad at what the beautiful old dream of Jewish redemption has come to. Everyone ought to grieve the death of innocents.” The problem is not the grieving and crying over the innocent who die. That is a given whether one is a right wing hawk or a left wing liberal. The problem is the implication that these innocent deaths are the consequence of the realization of the Zionist dream in the creation and establishment of Israel.

This is the crying and shrying that Freedland refers to of the Zionist liberal who sheds tears over dead Palestinian women and children but, unlike Maté, at the same time defends Israel. For the liberal Zionist defender of Israel, according to Freedland, is the target of “a special poison” not even spewed out against the anti-Israeli liberal. For the latter is branded as an apologist for Hamas, one who points the finger of blame not primarily but exclusively on the Israeli government for slaughtering innocents with surgical precision in the long blockade of Gaza (quoting Maté), “starving Gaza of necessities” and depriving Palestinians of their land, their water, their crops and their trees ‘in the “longest ongoing ethnic cleansing operation in the recent and present centuries, the ongoing attempt to destroy Palestinian nationhood”.

Maté’s article and the published responses to it may suggest that Freedman is wrong for the critics do not display any particular animus towards Maté, but they provide only indirect proof. Real proof would examine and compare responses to a Zionist liberal defence of Israel. However, Freedman argues that an animus is aimed both at the Zionist and anti-Zionist liberal, but a particular form of vitriol reserved for the Zionist liberal. The anti-Zionist liberals accuse Shavit (and other liberal Zionists) of being a hypocrite incapable of or unwilling to draw the logical conclusions of his or her own depictions and analyses. Critics of the right make precisely the same accusations but the logic required is not the logic of suffering of the other side but the threat to one’s own side.

However, the letters published in response to Maté do not even indicate any animus. Admittedly, the survey is non-scientific for the Toronto Star may have excluded letters filled with bile. But most letters published support the anti-Zionist liberal position; in their letters there is no indication that they harbour a particular bile against fellow liberals who are pro-Zionist, and no evidence that Zionist liberals are despised more than anti-Zionist except for the fact that they are criticized by those on either side. Maté clearly has ardent supporters with identical views — such as Harriet Friedman, a professor emeritus from the University of Toronto, views echoed by letter writers like Virginia Thomson, Della Golland, Karen Harvey, Pat Lycett and Peter Trainor. Harriet Friedman follows a particular pattern of libel by accusing the organized Jewish leadership of claiming to speak for all Jews and insisting that Israel can do no wrong.

More significantly, the critics of both Zionist and anti-Zionist liberals in their letters did not seem to reveal a poisonous animus to either group. George Fleischmann was saddened by Maté’s accusations, but not filled with hatred. He defended Israel “warts and all” because Israeli is both a true democracy and a haven for Jews. Alan Rosenberg empathized with Maté’s lamentations but regarded his accusations as misguided in placing all or even the lion’s share of the blame on Israel. Janice Savage offered an even stronger defence of Israel but offered no animus against Maté or his position. Michael Spiegel agreed with Maté but suggested that Israel had no logical or practical alternative. Ariel Burton criticized Maté for drawing ethical conclusions based on disproportionate deaths rather than intent – whether a side uses its resources to defend its civilians or deliberately puts its civilians in harms way while ensuring the politicos and militants are as secure as possible. Jason Shron also showed no animus but criticized Maté for drawing an equivalence between the tunnels or sewers used by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and the tunnels constructed by Hamas to launch terrorist raids against Israeli civilians.

Some historical comparisons, however, are relevant. In strategic bombing in WWII, cities and civilians were targeted to disrupt command and control centres and damage the communication and production infrastructure as well as serving as a psychological weapon to break the enemy’s will. In terms of numbers killed from the air, 62,000 British civilians were killed by German bombs while over 300,000 Germans were killed by allied bombs in the war against the Nazis, 780,000 were wounded and 7.5 million were made homeless. 67,000 French were killed by allied bombs. Further, the RAF initiated bombing of German civilians on 15 May 1940 while the Nazis reciprocated with the blitz on Britain in September of that same year.

The disproportionate death rate in the eastern theatre was even greater. In one raid alone against Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945, an estimated 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the resultant firestorm. By June, 40% of the urban areas in the major Japanese cities were destroyed and the number of civilian casualties were huge in spite of dropping warning leaflets over those cities. No rockets or bombs were being fired at the United States civilian populations in return let alone as a provocation. And this does not even take into account the use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Perhaps Freedman is not offering an empirical argument but instead either a literary or a logical device to reveal with greater clarity the posture of a Zionist liberal. However, is it possible to be a liberal and not a militant Zionist hawk without endorsing the necessity of fighting while crying at the same time over the resultant costs to the suffering of the Palestinians? Put another way, is it possible to be deeply pained by Palestinian losses without beating oneself over one’s back over endorsing military action as a necessity. Ari Shavit, and through his endorsement, Jonathan Freedland, offer one answer. I think it is unsatisfactory and suggest another.

Freedman’s beginning of the review takes as its central liberal Zionist, Ari Shavit and his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. He frames his argument by bracketing this choice in relationship to two alternative books he chooses to put forth to support his thesis. Freedman offers up the anti-Zionist, Norman G. Finkelstein and his book, Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land, on the one hand, as an example of an anti-Zionist Jew. But why not an anti-liberal or right-wing Zionist and his/her book that criticizes Shavit as the other choice? Instead, Freedland offers us an even more liberal Zionist, John B. Judis and his book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict as the other bracket. Freedman only puts forth a few review quotes of Shavit’s book by critics to the right. Further, is it not possible to be a Zionist liberal who insists on continuing to reach out the hand of peace to the Palestinians without becoming either a shrewish extremist liberal, an anti-Zionist liberal or a liberal realist like Shavit?

If the asymmetrical frame set up at the beginning is not confusing enough, Freedland soon offers another frame, not the anti-Zionist and the zealot Zionist of the first dichotomy, but the Zionist zealot and the disengaged liberal Jew on the left, a very different group than either the liberal anti-Zionist or the more radically committed liberal Zionist. For these disengaged liberal Jews, largely politically unsophisticated about the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, start with a basic gut sympathy for Israel but are embarrassed when Israel expresses the need to make war on Gaza when Hamas shoots hordes of rockets at civilian targets in Israel and builds a network of tunnels to plan future clandestine attacks from an area of Palestine from which Israel withdrew its occupation. These disengaged liberal Jews cannot stand to witness fellow Jews killing innocent women and children as the country seeks to defend itself from rocket attacks. They cannot offer an alternative policy for Israel given the nature of urban warfare in a densely populated enclave, but their guts are wrenched more by the stench of suffering Palestinian civilians than by their nostalgic weak identification with Israel and fellow Jews. These are not anti-Zionists. These are more emotional rather than cognitive liberals who become agnostic rather than atheist Zionists.

Well into his essay, the explanation for the inclusion of the Judis book becomes apparent. Freedland offers his own nostalgic longing for the post WWII period when leading liberal Jews, whether supporting a two-state solution (Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) or the small group of eminent idealist supporters of a one state two-nation solution such as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Gershom Shalom, were once so active. The latter is the position to which Judis harks back, but it is no longer a real option on the table if it ever was one. Shavit’s thesis is put forth as a plausible explanation. Unlike other liberals, Shavit faces the central and, to liberals, historically distasteful conclusion that if Zionism was to succeed, Palestinians had to be displaced. Freedland endorses Shavit’s hard-headed insistence on facing facts – that Israel now and Zionism earlier located itself in a very hostile environment where it faced an existential threat for over a century and, given that threat, had to resort to a militant defensive position. However, it is one thing to settle the land in order to bring Israel into existence. It is another to found settlements in the midst of Palestinian society and then insist on occupation to protect those settlements. This is colonialism.

The irony is that the essay appeared just as the third Gaza War was underway, a Gaza from which Israel withdrew its settlers only to have Gazans elect more radical leaders (Hamas) determined to continue the war against Israel with the intention of reversing history. Thus, although Freedland, like both Shavit and Finkelstein, see the central question as ethnic cleansing, the forced removal of Palestinians to make room for Zionist settlement, found to be necessary for Shavit and morally deplorable by Finkelstein, the fault of Freedland, Shavit and Finkelstein is buying into this issue as the central question – precisely the position that Palestinian zealots, whether Abbas realists or Hamas extremists, adopt who insist on the “right of return”.

Expulsion of the Palestinian population was not a prerequisite to establishing the Jewish state. It became an imperative because of war and the intransigent rejection of Jewish resettlement in Palestine. This may be characteristic of all religious and ethnic militant struggles, which never witness a refugee return unless the side identified with the refugees emerges as the military victor – as in the Tutsi-led struggle in Rwanda where Tutsi refugees did return – but exclusion or expulsion of the other group need not be inevitable. The WASP leadership in Ontario and, to some extent in the rest of Canada, for different reasons, accepted the principle of the loss of their monopoly on power and even eventually their political domination and instead welcomed a future of a multi-cultural Canada in which non-Caucasians would eventually become the majority. But that pattern, while a logical possibility, is neither the norm nor a significant alternative pattern in history. Further, it has been precisely the opposite pattern in the Middle East where minorities without power have been systematically extruded throughout the last century – from Christians in Iraq to the Baha’i in Iran – and the remains have been fought over by Sunnis versus Shi’ites, Kurds versus Arabs, millenialists versus realists and a variety of other divisions of humanity.

Given the geographic and political context, not the Zionist ideology, expulsion might have been inevitable. But what choices did the Jews have in the thirties and forties of the last century. Freedland uncritically accepts Judis’ thesis that Harry Truman bowed to “the muscular pressure of American Zionism “as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Stephen Wise, and others strong-armed the president into favoring the Jewish case over the Palestinian.” (p. 22) Certainly, those gentlemen did put enormous pressure on Truman, but on reading Truman’s own account, he responded negatively to those strong-armed pressures, not positively, and had only contempt for Ben Gurion. The position he took was influenced by a combination of the persuasive powers of Chaim Weizmann’s arguments, the prejudicial and clearly one-sided anti-Zionist intransigence of his own State Department and his own hero, Secretary of State George Marshall, and, most powerfully, the need to resettle 200,000 Jews still left in camps two years after the war and whom the United States until 1948, along with almost all other countries, were unwilling to accept.

The reality is that the damned of Lydda, the Palestinian refugees driven out, were not an inevitable outcome of Zionist nationalism and settlement in Palestine, but that ideology and historical commitment in a context in which the states of the world, including the United States and Canada at the time, and the leadership of the local population of Palestinian Arabs were antithetical to settling Jews. Jews had to resort to military means, and, once that path was taken, then military necessity trumped humanitarianism in dealing with civilian populations as it almost always does, even in the laws of Just War.

That is the continuity between the position in which the Zionists found themselves in 1947 and the position they are in today when dealing with Gaza. When rockets are aimed at Lod, Israel becomes stubbornly committed to the elimination of the source of those rockets and the horrific costs on the Palestinian civilians of Gaza who elected the government that endorses sending those rockets and whose support for Hamas seems to be reinforced even more strongly by the Israeli reprisals.

My reading of Zionist history is contrary to Shavit’s. The pioneers were not blind to the existence of the Arabs living on the land but adopted blinkers, possibly necessary to pursue their goals, to the presence and potential growth of Arab and eventually Palestinian nationalism, not the population of Palestinians. The conundrum Freedland (and Shavit) construct is a product of the frames they bring to their historical analyses and not any historical necessities. Dominant propensities do not determine the results but, combined with contingencies make a certain direction most likely. One can be a liberal without accepting Shavit’s thesis that the logic of their ideology forced the Zionists to adopt inhumane policies. Circumstances and pronounced propensities were far more significant than any reference to Zionist ideology.

That remains the case with Gaza today and even with the issue of the settlements, though on this question, a particular Zionist ideology plays a far more influential part. No formal acknowledgement, as Freedland and Shavit endorse, will play any significant role in the process of reconciliation until and unless the underlying recognition of the Jewish state once and for all is accepted by Arabs and Palestinians. One need not be a right wing hawk or a proponent of settlements to make such a claim even though I share with both Shavit and Freedland the need to discard the moral myth of Jewish exceptionalism as the core of the liberal Zionist creed.