Why Liberal Zionists Won’t Join BDS


The Daily Beast / Open Zion


From its start, Open Zion has been a liberal Zionist blog dedicated to open and respectful dialogue with liberal Zionism’s critics, both hawkish Zionists on the right and post and anti-Zionists on the left. In some ways, my model has been the New Republic of the 1980s, a neoliberal publication that published both conservatives like Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes and left-liberals like Hendrik Hertzberg. That’s why, in our coverage of the controversy at Brooklyn College, we’ve published not only liberal Zionists critical of BDS like Eric Alterman and Mira Sucharov, but also writers like Jerry Haber, who are critical of political Zionism and sympathetic to the BDS cause.

Since Jerry’s most recent article is addressed to liberal Zionists like myself, it’s worth answering. Haber starts with the claim that liberal Zionists agree with two of the BDS movement’s three demands: “Ending its [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and “Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” But speaking for myself, I’m not sure that’s true. I certainly want Israel to stop subsidizing settlements and to do everything possible to create a viable Palestinian state on the vast majority of the West Bank. But if “all Arab lands” means Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, where Israeli control imposes a much less serious moral cost than in the West Bank, and where Israeli withdrawal would mean giving over control to the monstrous regime of Bashar Assad, or the chaos that may follow him, count me out. And if “Arab lands” means nothing more or less than the 1949 armistice line—and the loss of Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall—I’m also opposed. I don’t support a return to the 1949 line armistice line; I support land swaps that allow Israel to retain a small amount of land in the West Bank in return for an equal amount of equal quality land inside Israel proper. Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to that principle, but judging from the plain text of its call, I’m not sure the BDS movement has.

Similarly, I deeply oppose the ongoing discrimination against “Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel” that the Israeli government itself has chronicled. But if by “full equality” the BDS movement means an end to the “right of return” that makes Israel a haven for Jews in distress, I’m not on board. As Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein have detailed, many liberal democracies have preferential immigration policies for a certain ethnic group, and given Jewish history, I think Israel has the right to be included in their ranks. Indeed, I would expect that when a Palestinian state is created, something I yearn to see, it will have a preferential immigration policy for Palestinians.

Jerry acknowledges that liberal Zionists like myself disagree with the BDS movement’s third plank, which calls for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes,” but he says that liberal Zionists should nonetheless “express solidarity with the global BDS movement as a non-violent protest movement… while at the same time making known their reservations about endorsing the right of return.” I’m not sure what this means. Yes, it’s vastly preferable that Palestinians pursue their national aims nonviolently, but I don’t “express solidarity” with movements whose goals I oppose just because I approve of the methods by which they seek to bring those goals about.

Jerry may deride liberals Zionists as ethnic chauvinists or fantasists enthralled to an illusory peace process. (I’d argue that even though the prospects for a two-state solution have undoubtedly receded, it’s still more realistic than expecting Jews and Palestinians to subordinate their national loyalties, under conditions of deep insecurity and stress, to a newly created “secular, binational” state.) But the point is that there’s a fundamental disagreement here, not one that can be papered over by expressions of solidarity for a movement whose aims fundamentally differ from my own.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerry writes, “Israel is the recalcitrant husband and the Palestinian people are the agunah,” the wife being refused a divorce. They are like the chained wife, “powerless to effect anything on her own.” I don’t believe that. Yes, Israel has far more power than do the Palestinians. But the anti-Semitic Hamas charter is a document written by Palestinians, for which Palestinians bear responsibility. It is also Palestinians who lob the rockets from Gaza that traumatize southern Israel. Unlike some other Zionists, I don’t believe that if Hamas rewrote its charter and the rocket fire stopped, a two-state solution would magically appear. Sadly, the settlement enterprise has a momentum all its own. Yet I do believe that for both peoples to enjoy dignity, security and freedom, Palestinians as well as Israelis will have to change some of their destructive behavior. The BDS call takes no account of any such Palestinian obligations, and by comparing them to a powerless, “chained” wife, Jerry seems to endorse that perspective.

Knowing Jerry personally, I know that he sincerely wants the best for both Palestinians and Jews. But I can attest to the goodness of his intentions while still disagreeing with his goals, and with the BDS movement that seeks to achieve them. Respectful argument, yes; that’s what Open Zion is all about. But “expressions of solidarity,” no. I take the BDS movement seriously enough to recognize that it’s not the left edge of liberal Zionism. And I take liberal Zionism seriously enough to defend it against those who wish to make it extinct.


Peter Beinart, editor of OpenZion.com at the Daily Beast, is author of The Crisis of Zionism.


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