Jewish and Democratic (III) (The In/Coherence of Liberal Zionism) (Dead Dog?)

lib zionism

Liberal Zionism a dead dog? Maybe, maybe not. In American, most Jews, I bet, are not religious and/or rightwing, not radical one-staters, not religious and now leftwing. They hew pretty much down a stressed out and shapeless middle. Obviously, the same, cannot be said, prima facie, about Israeli Jews, but even there I bet that a majority locate down the middle, at least according to polls that suggest that even voters for rightwing parties would accept a two-state solution under “the right conditions,” whatever those might be. As I understand it, the Jewish middle about Israel and Zionism is defined by commitments that liberal [Zionists] are not yet ready give up on –commitments to this “object” called “a Jewish people,” to a place called “the State of Israel,” namely within the 1967 borders or Green Line, to democratic culture, and to a basic pragmatic and principled recognition that one people cannot rule over another “people” without ceasing to be democratic.

The problem confounding these 4 commitments revolves around the privileging of one group, the dominant group, over other groups, the one(s) disenfranchised by the majority. But I fail to see how the problems of privilege and hegemony are unique to Israel or speak to any necessary or essential contradiction between “the Jewish,” whatever that might mean, and democratic character “of” the state. Dogging every democracy are the problems of hegemony and privilege, how to define it, how to trim it. The only thing this means is that tensions and contradictions are part of the human political condition that liberal and democratic culture is not free ever to ignore, the point being to make sure that these attendant and constitutional tensions are manageable, as opposed to acute.  Perhaps the Scandinavian democracies are free of all this, which is why they are so often admired by liberals and progressives, countries that are, for the most part, demographically homogeneous.

Against the current claims that liberal Zionism is incoherent, I was struck very much by the profound putting together of all these loose strands by of Meirav Michaeli in her  inaugural speech at the Knesset. Her  remarks I found both genuinely “patriotic” and genuinely critical, and sound, not incoherent. It might be too late for two-state solution, it might no longer be “realistic,” which means the end of the Zionist project as heretofore conceived on the basis of “a Jewish State” and Jewish (demographic) sovereignty. But the ideology remains not incoherent, and I don’t necessarily see a necessary or essential contradiction between democracy and the “Jewishness” of “the State of the Jews” under the right set of conditions that still need to be secured.

My academic friends on the Jewish left-left tend to have sharply defined conceptions of both democracy and Jewishness/Judaism. It means “this,” but it can’t mean “that.” But what if a people, a place, and a culture can mean both this and that, either simultaneously, or one thing after the other? As friends and critics of Israel (and I think many of my Jewish academic friends are committed deeply to Israel as both an idea and as a physical place), they can grouse all they want. But I’m not sure what can happen without that amorphous, blob-like middle defined by loose and less sharply defined commitments to Jewish and to democratic culture. Try not to condescend, even when you know better, or think you know better. There’s always a little coherence to that which appears incoherent, even when that (in)coherence appears to be a dead dog.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Jewish and Democratic (III) (The In/Coherence of Liberal Zionism) (Dead Dog?)

  1. Carol Zemel says:

    Really like this piece, Zach. No contradiction as i understand it between Jewish and democratic, with guaranteed full rights for minorities. But I’m stuck on the term Zionist, which is increasingly a bad fit for me. If you mean the original “Zionist project,” and the ‘liberals’ who claim this as an untroubled ideal, then no thanks. At least in North America, their discussion of Israel’s politics and history seems wildly distorted, and their understanding of Israel’s cultural production–largely critical of state policies–doesn’t exist at all.

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