The alliance that’s beginning to form between Zionist leadership and politicians with anti-Semitic tendencies has the power to transform Jewish-American consciousness for years to come. In the last few decades, many of America’s Jewish communities have grown accustomed to living in a political contradiction. On one hand, a large majority of these communities could rightly take pride in a powerful liberal tradition, stretching back to such models as Louis Brandeis — a defender of social justice and the first Jew to become a Supreme Court justice — or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched in Selma alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the other hand, the same communities have often identified themselves with Zionism, a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics...
Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish. As such, the country belongs first and foremost not to its citizens, but to the Jewish people — a group that’s defined by ethnic affiliation or religious conversion.
As long as liberalism was secure back in America and the rejection of liberalism confined to the Israeli scene, this tension could be mitigated. But as it spills out into the open in the rapidly changing landscape of American politics, the double standard is becoming difficult to defend....
American Jewry [is faced with a choice:] Hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights; or embrace the principles driving Zionism. In the age of Trump, insisting on both is likely to prove too difficult to contain.--Omri Boehm (Dec 20, 2016) "Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump," New York Times.
Omri Boehm is an in important historian of philosophy and a fertile, philosophical mind; I always read his work with interest. The essay I partially quoted above received a rather harsh response ("dishonest smears, both of Zionism as racism and of American Israel supporters as racists") from Andrew Pessin, himself also a distinguished historian.* (Pessin's piece also contains several unsubstantiated even malicious charges, including the absurd claim that "Boehm recycles antisemitic trope of dual loyalty.") Even where Pessin is right about some of Boehm's rhetoric, his response fails to properly understand the history of Zionism and so ends up repeating familiar homilies about the quality of Israeli democracy without confronting the pertinent issues. In particular, Pessin never grasps the crucial historical and conceptual fact that from its inception Zionism is self-consciously a response to the (multiple) failures of Liberalism (recall here, and especially here). In particular, liberal's inability to secure international open borders (so that refugees are never tramped) and its many imperfections in protecting minority rights against democratic encroachment (in part because successful participation of some minorities always runs the risk of violent backlash). This is not to deny Pessin's point that Zionism can be made compatible with many liberal commitments, but these are not intrinsic to the Zionist enterprise.**
Pessin's response is a missed opportunity not just because it increases the polarization among-(would-be)-zionists and non-zionist Jews, but because Boehm's piece raises complicated questions that demand an answer from those of us that care about the future of Zionism (for my defense of Zionism, see here). These questions are all the more urgent because Boehm is right to suggest that many elements within Zionism feel vindicated by and are indeed willing to ally with the resurgence of ethno-nationalism(s) around the world (including Stateside) [recall this post]. One reason why I am philosophically interested in Zionism is that it helps us re-think the nature of liberalism worth having--and this is an urgent task, again.
Before I get to my response to Boehm, I need to introduce and stipulate some analysis and terminology (indebted to Herzl): I take it as unquestionable that (recall) market economies generate permanent competition, and the pattern of outcomes of this competition can generate group conflicts among populations that are not homogeneous for historical reasons. This becomes problematic when (the) group(s) that expects to benefit from the Liberal state is frustrated in its reasonable, and thus 'just', expectations. It's this frustrated expectation of the would-be-beneficiary of the political status quo that generates some of the the permanent problems within Liberalism and that grows toxic if it can be mapped onto some us/them distinction that allows some us to be the authentic people -- even a moral community -- that excludes would be (inauthentic) members of the people. I call that the 'enduring Jewish problem,' which need not involve Jews at all, or if Jews are involved they need not be them. As a (somewhat skeptical) liberal, I take the enduring Jewish problem as a central problem to our tradition.
In what follows, I take for granted, (i) that modern antisemitism is a species of the enduring Jewish problem and (ii) that Zionism is only contingently liberal and has many intrinsic tendencies that are illiberal. A complicating factor is that the establishment and enduring existence of the State of Israel has coincided with Pax Americana, which guaranteed a relatively liberal international order (and within this order American Jewry played a non-trivial role in securing support for Israel). Such a Pax Americana cannot be taken for granted anymore nor can the survival of a liberal regime Stateside. It is, however, possible, of course, that American hegemony can be maintained on illiberal principles. As it happens, Israel is also in the best possible strategic position since its inception; its historical enemies are weakened, divided, or needful of its support. (It is not open-ended because some of its strategic rivals will acquire nuclear weapons.) Okay, now let me turn to Boehm,
A key point of disagreement with Boehm is his claim that, "by denying liberal principles, Zionism immediately becomes continuous with — rather than contradictory to — the anti-Semitic politics of the sort promoted by the alt-right." (Undoubtedly it's passages like these that understandably angered Pessin.) I don't disagree with Boehm's empirical claim that within the alt-right (and also European neo-fascism) there is much admiration for Zionism (in Europe because Zionism is identified with military success against Islam; in America circles because, as Boehm notes, of admiration for national and ethnic cohesion). The American alt-right clearly has not heard the old joke.+ Such admiration is compatible with anti-Jewish attitudes in policies (sometimes a by-product of anti-Islamic policies [e.g., hostility toward ritual slaughter, circumcision, and modest female attire, etc.). But it does not follow that the ways in which Zionism is illiberal must be "continuous with anti-Semitic politics of the sort promoted by the alt-right." To put the point logically: there are many ways not to be liberal; it is not just a conceptual, but also a political mistake not to distinguish among them. Not all species of illiberalism must involve ethno-chauvinism.
As an aside, Boehm's is also a peculiarly liberal mistake. Because of trends in ethics and the way ethics-first has become dominant in some strains of political philosophy, all deviations from liberalism end up being thought immoral and illegitimate (and savage, etc. [recall]) and basically alike. But this disguises lots of regime-diversity. (Some other time I'll reflect on ways illiberal regimes may be worth having.)
This is not to deny that illiberal attitudes have lots in common (or to deny the reality of ethno-chauvinism (and worse) among some Zionists and Liberal Jews), and that they can (in the name of, say, 'security' or occupation) badly reinforce each other. But precisely because Zionism is not intrinsically liberal it need not give rise to species of the enduring Jewish problem or policies that Boehm calls 'continuous with Anti-Semitic politics.' Of course, in practice, the State of Israel has embraced plenty of features of liberal institutions (as Pessin emphasized) and a liberal economy and so, de facto, is likely to generate some species of the enduring Jewish problem even if there were no Palestinians or occupation at all. But anybody who remembers the rather serious entanglement of Zionism with Corporatist, Anarchist, Socialist, and Biblical ideas (even today), recognizes that this is not intrinsic to Zionism or the State of Israel.
Even if one may grant me the logical point in the previous paragraph, one may still worry that one cannot consistently advocate Liberal ideals in one state (say Stateside) and accept illiberal doctrines for another state (Zionism)--this seems to be Boehm's basic conceptual charge. It's undoubtedly true that there are versions of this stance that are unsavory (think nineteenth century Liberal paternalism and imperialism toward others, or the recent fondness for regime change and purportedly humanitarian, armed intervention) or hypocritical. But not all liberalism is universalistic or aims at a cosmopolitan world-republic with uniform laws and rights. There are plenty of strands within liberalism that recognize that national self-determination may well involve non trivial departure from or genuine alternatives to liberal commitments. In fact, because liberals value free choice and peaceful co-existence, we ought never wish to impose our values on others. (So no militarily exportation of democracy or human rights or financial capitalism.) To be sure, the claims in this paragraph are compatible with moral realism (if you happen to be allergic to pluralism and relativism) and also a willingness to support forcefully, albeit peacefully, the emancipatory efforts of other peoples and groups within other states.
One may object along two lines: first, one may claim that really existing Zionism has unsavory and inhumane elements. There is a harsh occupation and too much acceptance of open-ended conflict among dominant forms of Zionism. On my view this just is a consequence and instantiation of Zionism's three strategic failures (recall): (i) its failure to establish permanent borders for the state of Israel and, in conjunction with this, (ii) to settle what kind of political entity Israel should be so that it can end its near-permanent war-footing and occupation of hostile populations. Even if it were true that neither (i) nor (ii) can be imposed at will, there is no unambiguous Zionist position on either issue. In addition, (iii) (the perception of) Israel's dependence on America's political and military support, which ties Israel to America's strategic interests and electoral politics. On (iii) there has been unfortunate movement: (iv) Israel is increasingly (and partially through its own choices) becoming associated with partisan politics which makes it increasingly vulnerable to swings in American political fortunes.
Second,and this is another way of saying (iv), there is indeed a de facto tactical alliance among those that reject liberal values. (It's not strategic because over time the illiberal forces do not have a vision of peaceful co-existence and reinforce zero-sum tendencies at home and abroad.) Thus, supporting contemporary Zionism may well entail or facilitate undermining liberal values at home (because one ends up strengthening illiberal coalitions and parties). This may well be the true point of Boehm's analysis (and, thus, a standing challenge against my position).
But that's just to say that liberalism is embattled right now in its historical heartlands. But at the end of 2016, we didn't need Boehm to tell us that. The proper response, then, to Boehm's challenge is two-fold: first. 'we' must defend (and urgently rethink) the survival of the American experiment with government by discussion and self-rule. (But that experiment has survived Indian genocide, slavery, civil war, Jim Crow, internment camps, etc.) If this experiment ends, liberalism will become to be treated as a historical curiosity and human exception (apt for some wealthy states at the periphery of global politics). Second, it is to advance a species of Zionism that solves its three (or four) strategic failures in a humane and peaceable fashion.
So, yes, one can be a Liberal and Support Zionism, but it's not always easy (but we knew that already).
**Why this is so is partially a contingent matter -- that is, there are Liberal nationalist movements --, but also not quite contingent because Jewish identity is, in part, grounded in non-liberal commitments.
+A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to.”