Confessions of a liberal Zionist


I confess that I am a liberal Zionist. I am proudly pro-Israel. Like almost all Israeli and American Jews, I am also pro-peace. Though I know that many of my fellow Jews disagree with me, I believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interest of the State of Israel, the world Jewish community and the community of the world at large.

It seems to me that only a two-state solution will ensure Israel’s survival as both a Jewish and a democratic state. By way of contrast, a one-state solution means that Israel will have to maintain its Jewish character by limiting the rights of its Arab citizens, who in the not-too-distant future are likely to become a majority in any proposed “greater” Israel bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Jordan River on the east. On the other hand, if the one state of Israel is to remain democratic – one vote for every Israeli citizen – then Israel will gradually lose its Jewish character since, under inexorable demographic pressure, Jews will ultimately be in the minority.

I am open to discussion with those who do not share my perspective. I certainly do not possess a monopoly on truth, nor do my opponents. As a person who believes that kol Yisrael areyvim zeh bazeh, that all Jews are responsible for each other, I have a responsibility to express my views regarding Israel; but as a non-Israeli, I affirm that only Israelis have the right to decide what is best for them. Gaza’s rockets are not raining down on my head.

While I feel it is my duty to engage in open and civil discussion with my fellow Jews who take a more politically conservative approach to Israel-related issues, I call upon my opponents to refrain from unhelpful, unsubstantiated, ad hominem rhetoric. During the past several months, I and my fellow liberal Zionists have directly or indirectly been accused of a number of  “sins.”

We have been told that we are “illegitimately” redefining the meaning of being pro-Israel, even as we “always” blame Israel for failures of the peace process and “never” blame the Palestinians. We have been berated for deliberately seeking to undermine American Jewish support for Israel; and, even worse, we are said to be working to weaken support for Israel among Jewish college students by trying to “universalize” our Jewish youth by teaching them to care more about the world at large than about our own Jewish family.

Moreover, our opponents contend that we liberal Zionists are perverting true Jewish values by insisting that the liberal values with which we approach Zionism are also Jewish values. It is obvious that Judaism is not identical to liberalism; nevertheless, one would need to be deaf not to hear the loud voice of liberal values in the prophetic words of Amos, Isaiah and Micah.

It will take another column to answer these criticisms. My point for now is that distorting the arguments of fellow Jews in order to delegitimize their position is intellectually vacuous as well as socially and politically corrosive.

We American Jews of all political stripes need to put our heads together and ask ourselves the hard questions: Is a land-for-peace approach still feasible? If not, what are the alternatives? What needs to be done about the settlements and the settlers who live in them? Is the occupation THE problem? Is Palestinian intransigence THE problem? How does each side learn to hear the narrative of the other? Most importantly, all of us – left, center, right – need to ask ourselves: how can we work together to help ensure the survival of the Israel we all love?

Perhaps what most deeply divides liberal and conservative Zionists is our differing understandings of human nature. Conservatives accuse liberals of having a naïve view of the character of our enemies; they remind us that asserting that our enemies are decent people, basically good at heart, does not make them so. We liberals often unfairly counter that our conservative adversaries are cold and calculating, incapable of seeing the humanity of the “other.”

The truth is that most people are a complex mixture of good and evil intentions, what our ancient rabbis called the yetzer tov and the yetzer harah. We liberals must admit that Hamas is a dangerous, deceitful and determined enemy; nevertheless, we affirm that the overwhelming majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are not infected by Hamas’ poisonous hatred for Jews.

We liberal and conservative Zionists read history differently. We liberals believe that individuals and societies can and do change. Back in 1944, who could have imagined that today, 70 years later, both Japan and Germany would be among America’s closest allies? Indeed, who could have dreamed that Germany would become one of Israel’s most reliable allies? On the other hand, we liberal Zionists should not dismiss with a wave of the hand those supporters of Israel who maintain a more cautious reading of history, who harbor a profound distrust of the true intentions of our Arab neighbors. Arab nations can lose war after war and still survive. For Israel, to lose a single war spells extinction.

I do not apologize for being a liberal Zionist, nor do I expect more conservative Zionists to apologize for the views they hold. What I do expect – if we are serious about becoming a healthier, better-functioning community – is for liberal and conservative Zionists to stop calling into question the integrity of the other side, to stop questioning their loyalty to Israel and to the Jewish people. We obviously see many matters from different points of view, but in the end we need to reaffirm that what divides us is not nearly as significant as what brings us together. In the end, we are still one.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG, rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington, can be contacted at