Reflections on Liberal Zionism
by Brian Walt
For most of my life I have been a liberal . Since childhood my Judaism had always been connected with a progressive Zionism.
In 1987, I delivered a Yom Kippur sermon, "A Generation of Occupation," about the corrosive moral effects of twenty years of Occupation on Jews and Judaism. This sermon cost me my first position as a congregational rabbi. Back then, as a liberal Zionist, I saw the injustice to Palestinians within Israel and under Occupation as moral perversions of the progressive Zionist vision — "warts" that needed correction.
Over the twenty-three years since then, I have seen many disturbing instances of blatant discrimination against Palestinians and my view has fundamentally changed. I have seen a Palestinian home being demolished and have stood on the demolished ruins of Palestinian homes. I have walked down streets restricted to Jews in what was once a bustling Palestinian neighborhood. I have replanted trees uprooted by settlers knowing they would be uprooted again. These and many more disturbing personal encounters with discrimination led me to the painful understanding that political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethnic nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews.
This is not an issue of "warts" that need correction; this is an issue of systemic discrimination perpetrated in the name of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. There is no such thing as a democratic Jewish state. A Jewish state by definition cannot be democratic. As many in Israel say, Israel is a democratic state for Jews and a Jewish state for non-Jews.
Like many progressive Zionists, I ignored this systemic injustice while acting to repair some of its symptoms: home demolition, uprooted trees, and more. Along with others like me, I also ignored the devastating and hidden evidence of the Nakba: many towns, villages and kibbutzim that I love in Israel where Israelis live (including close personal colleagues and friends) are built over the remains of Palestinian villages whose residents were banished and whose property was either nationalized or destroyed.
I still love the rebirth of Hebrew culture in Israel and I still believe Jews desperately needed safety after the Holocaust. But neither our cultural renewal nor the Holocaust justify the immense suffering imposed on the Palestinian people.
Over the years I have come to realize that progressive Jews, despite being deeply immersed in moral anguish about the state of Jewish values, often take actions that perpetuate the suffering of the Palestinians. We do so in several ways: by our refusal to fully acknowledge the Nakba; by not acknowledging that the Occupation of the West Bank is directly related to what happened in 1947; by demonizing the settlers on the West Bank as the obstacle to peace; and by joining with mainstream and right-wing in silencing the churches, civic groups, or prominent individuals in American society who act to promote justice for the Palestinians.
The is not a conflict between two equal parties. Israel has immense power and the Palestinians are powerless; Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are oppressed. Our religious tradition is clear that God calls us to be on the side of the oppressed.
I once was a liberal Zionist, but now I see myself as a religious in solidarity with justice for the Palestinian people. Israel's security and our liberation as Jews are both tied to justice for the Palestinians.
American progressive Jews have invested their hopes in an endless peace process toward a that Israel has used for two decades as a cover to expand and entrench the Occupation. The most dramatic increases in the number of settlements occur at times when the peace process is most active. America is not an "honest broker" nor is it working on a just solution to the conflict. Our government, largely as a result of pressure from our community, provides blanket support for Israel.
Growing up during apartheid in South Africa and studying the Book of Exodus have taught me that people with privilege and power only cede their power and privilege when the oppressed demand it. The most effective way for progressive Jews to promote change in Israel, is by building a grassroots, interfaith American movement that calls on our government to promote a just solution to the conflict that grants equal human rights to all who live in Israel/Palestine.
Moral anguish about Israel is not going to help anyone. Working in solidarity with Palestinians toward any political settlement — one state, two states, a federation, or any other political arrangement — that ensures the equal human rights of all Israelis and Palestinians should be the singular goal of our work.
By doing so, we will create a new Jewish spirituality, separate from Zionism and not based on our past experience as victims — a spirituality that addresses our responsibility as people with privilege and power to stand with those who suffer discrimination and injustice.
Brian Walt is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, former executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and co-founder of Taanit Tzedek-Jewish Fast for Gaza.