Saturday, March 12, 2011

Zionism: Left, Right, and Center

As a Zionist, I welcome the support of my conservative friends for Israel. I can understand where they're coming from: quite apart from religious concerns, the pro-Israel position is not inconsistent with the conservative worldview. Israel is a democracy, standing for decades as a bulwark against Soviet imperialism in a Middle East largely controlled and supported by the USSR. Israeli society, though historically to the left of the American conservative ideal, is thriving and entrepreneurial, rewarding risk and innovation, governed by the rule of law.

And yet, while support for Israel is compatible with American conservatism, it is absolutely essential to American liberalism. Israel pioneered individual rights in the Middle East, built a social safety net for its citizens, and established the kibbutz, the world's only example of successful communal living.

The American Jewish Committee's David Harris recently gave an interview in which he discussed the relationship between liberal values and Zionism:
I am a liberal, in the sense that I believe in liberal values. I believe in human freedom; I believe in human rights; I believe in human dignity... I believe that supporting Israel means defending those values... In fact I believe that Israel is a liberal cause, and I believe that pro-Israel advocates who have given up on defending Israel as a liberal cause are really giving up [on those values]... Who exactly is it they are defending, and what are the values [they] espouse?
Is Harris correct? Let's look at the facts:
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel is a robust democracy with strong, transparent democratic institutions, including labor unions, advocacy organizations, and political parties.
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel operates a policy of full access to holy sites to all religions.
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel guarantees equal rights to its thriving LGBT community.
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel has accepted millions of refugees—black, white, and brown—offering them assistance, equality, and the privileges of citizenship.
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel has an energetic free press that is openly—sometimes brutally—critical of the government.
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel's universities offer its faculty and students unfettered academic freedom.
  • Unlike its neighbors, Israel is not afraid to investigate, and, when appropriate, convict, even its highest leaders when they have violated the law.
All these and more represent beliefs and actions not only consistent with, but absolutely essential to the liberal ideal. But if support for Israel is such a key liberal value, what then should we make of that minority of self-styled American "liberals" who express contempt for Israel, call for the boycott of Israeli goods, seek to prevent Israeli academics from working with their counterparts outside of Israel, and even voice solidarity with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah? David Harris says these individuals have "abandoned" liberal values; if he is right, as I have suggested, then they are not true liberals—so what are they?

On the extreme end of the political spectrum lives a political philosophy unconcerned with traditional liberal values like freedom of the press and equal rights for all. To denizens of this dark corner of the left, the wealthy are always evil and the poor always worthy. Power exercised by the strong is never appropriate, no matter how carefully deployed; power exercised by the weak is never unjustified, no matter how brutal. If a terrorist bomber targets and murders teenagers at a dance club, that is because the killer had no other way to vent his justifiable rage. If a soldier fires on an armed thug who is attacking him, that soldier is no better than a Nazi.

Such a belief system is not compatible with liberalism, regardless of how its practitioners choose to identify themselves. The correct term for this worldview is Communism—yes, that Communism, the utterly discredited ideology of the last century: the movement that gave the world Stalin, Castro, and the KGB; that destroyed Russia, leaving it a broken and lawless kleptocracy; that murdered millions of its own people and brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. There is simply no other political ideology compatible with support for oppressive totalitarian regimes whose only appeal is the poverty in which it traps its citizens.

No nation or political philosophy is without flaw, but support for Israel is as intrinsic to liberal values as it is consistent with conservative ideals. The Zionist enterprise appeals to left, right, and center—until, that is, one reaches the fringes, the extreme endpoints of the political spectrum. Fortunately for Israel, Americans of both parties, having universally shunned 20th century Communism, are also bound to disavow that movement's 21st century ideological heir, anti-Zionism.

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