The Last Licks of Liberal Zionism in America

Over roughly the past decade, the coming intellectual exhaustion of “anti-Occupation, pro two-states” liberal Zionism in America has been repeatedly prophesied. Out of step with the material realities defended by the pro-Israel right and decried by the anti-Zionist left, ideologically frozen in Oslo-era two-state orthodoxy, and widely seen as naïve and ineffectual, liberal Zionism has found itself assailed from all sides. Still, it has shown some persistence. 

This staying power reached its peak during the first Obama term, a period in which J Street, the liberal “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Two States” group founded in 2007, was arguably at the height of its influence. The group deftly used Clinton-era Beltway connections and found an open ear in the Obama Administration. 

But it’s no longer 2010. The interim decade has seen room for liberal maneuver in pro-Israel politics shrink considerably. Bibi’s open disdain for Obama and embrace of Trump has transformed an issue once considered broadly nonpartisan into a political football. All of which has resulted in liberal Zionism slowly losing its stranglehold on the most left-wing Israel-Palestine position available in mainstream American politics. 

This summer’s fallout over the decision by Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling ice cream in the “occupied Palestinian territories” should be seen within this perspective. Has a dust-up over Israel in the domestic political arena ever been more striking in its absurd cultural symbolism? Ben & Jerry’s attempted the least offensive move they could possibly make which would still register as a coherent statement and found themselves on the receiving end of a cartoonishly hysterical temper tantrum from major American Jewish organizations and Israeli politicians alike. Any remaining scoops of Pro-Israel self-awareness, sense of proportion, or appreciation of the boomerang effect have melted away. The heavy-handed satire has written itself. 

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield attempted to defend the company which bears their names. Paradigmatic artisans of the archetypical treat, a snack of no nutritional consequence, they directed their punny sensibilities to an issue which regularly manifests as a dispute over language. 

They begin their essay by insisting on membership in the same political community as their detractors, stating “we were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel.” They move on to draw an analogy between criticism of the American government and criticism of the Israeli government (“it’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies. Just as we’ve opposed some policies of the U.S. government.”). This is a dubious proposition. It only holds if we think of “support” as an abstract matter of language rather than as a concrete ideological act with material implications. 

You can certainly style yourself as Pro-Israel and Anti-Occupation, but so long as you grant Israel the formal legitimacy of having a “right to exist” (which, of course, no state does) you are necessarily granting it the right to act as a state, i.e. to maintain order and division by way of violence. Finally, they appeal to a vain politics of authenticity, declaring that their company’s decision to divest from Israeli settlements in the West Bank “can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism.” 

As ever, American Liberal Zionism swears fealty to three separate commitments—to the State of Israel, to their ethical values, and to their Jewish identity—seemingly unaware that they, in fact, cannot simply will political discourse into abiding by their definitions. Ben and Jerry, these two avatars of liberal Jewish boomerism, attempted to trot out tired arguments and hackneyed “third-way” Zionist phraseology. They’ve recited liberal Zionist orthodoxy well. Perhaps they genuinely believe it. Still, they’re gesturing toward an idea, as we’ll see, that any reasonable political assessment would find wholly untenable.

Of course, Ben and Jerry are hardly the highest exponents of liberal Zionist thinking in America and their argument isn’t exactly novel. For arguably the leading trendsetter in pro-Israel liberal thinking over the past decade we should look to a person once described, with some justice, as J-Street’s “mascot,” Peter Beinart. 

Beinart notably served as editor of The New Republic from 1999-2006, a period during which he was a prominent liberal cheerleader for Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though he was hardly a new figure in the media landscape by the early Obama years, it was in this period that his prominence as commentator on Jewish communal affairs rose considerably. In June of 2010, Beinart published what became an intellectual touchstone for the rising generation of “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Two States” Zionist activism in the pages of the New York Review of Books

“The Failure of the American-Jewish Establishment” issued a clarion call to assert a position which no longer asked American Jews to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” The essay was primarily motivated by a desire to reanimate liberal Zionism so as to prevent Israel from destroying its democracy and was thus (supposedly) the best promise for a Jewish future. The subtext here was that a remedy for the intolerable Palestinian reality was not the focus of Beinart’s argument. If “the ethical use of Jewish power” led to some modicum of justice for the Palestinian people, all the better for it—but it certainly wasn’t his first priority. 

Peter Beinart of the early 2020s sings a very different tune. Developments over the prior decade have led him “to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high.” In a pair of well-publicized articles published in Jewish Currents in July 2020 and May 2021, Beinart moved from two-state orthodoxy toward embrace of a binational solution based on equal democratic rights for all and the Palestinian right of return. This, on the small scale, represents a positive development. Lest we be mistaken though, Beinart still resists abandoning the label of liberal Zionist—he simply wants to temper its aspirations. 

Beinart can call himself what he wants, but he certainly must admit that there is no consequential Zionist constituency behind him and his increasingly idiosyncratic mental gymnastics. The leading intellectual proponent of the last decade of liberal Zionism has adopted a position which functionally places him in opposition to both the Zionism of reality (i.e. Occupation and Apartheid) as well as the Zionism of erstwhile aspiration (i.e. “the two-state solution”). Finding it conceptually impoverished and incapable of addressing present realities, Beinart abandoned the liberal Zionist argument he helped to hone shortly before Ben and Jerry attempted to reanimate it. 

The Ben & Jerry’s brouhaha, a critical early test case for Biden-era Israel politics and its attendant cultural symbolism, has proven deeply meaningful. The Republican attempt to make Israel into an exclusively conservative issue, a project which reached fever pitch under Trump, seemed potentially vulnerable as a liberal president with arch-Zionist bona fides took office in January 2021. There was no doubt that the Biden Administration would be supportive of Israel; the real question was how the Democratic base would react to this support. After the hyper politicization of Israel during the years of the Bibi-Trump confluence, could America’s liberal elite and media class still convince its increasingly skeptical constituency

For anyone who wanted to see it, the transparent illiberalism and Trumpian-level bombast of Bibi plainly gave the lie to standard Zionist propaganda depicting Israel as a liberal oasis amidst a desert of oriental despotism. And yet, this tired line, this utopian Jewish state in the mold of Herzl’s vision—“a Vienna on the Mediterranean”—might actually be quite instructive. 

Intellectuals across the colonized world have long understood that the history of western imperialism is properly understood not as deviation from liberal sensibilities, but rather as its photonegative, its necessary precondition. Lest we forget that while the consummate liberal revolutions (English, American, and French) styled themselves in the language of inclusive egalitarianism, in fact they accelerated the brutal spread of global empire. 

It could therefore be argued that not only does the American liberal Zionist misunderstand what London Review of Books writer Adam Shatz has termed “actually existing Zionism,” but they misunderstand the logic of actually existing liberalism as well. In this sense, we might understand Israel as an exemplary liberal nation-state, considering that unabashed support for ethnic hierarchy extends widely across the political spectrum. Of course, the Palestinian people hardly need reminding that western liberal democracy speaks out of both sides of its mouth.

Suffice it to say that the self-confident J-Street-style liberal Zionism of circa 2010 no longer holds the mantle of liberal Zionism in America. The historical conditions which gave rise to its post-Oslo reinvigoration—namely the ascendance of Obama and the renewed liberal confidence it inspired—simply no longer obtain. Newer Millenial and Gen-Z Zionist groups which insist on their liberal credentials, e.g. the New Zionist Congress and the Zioness Movement, are far more concerned with maintaining a veneer of liberal rhetoric while effectively brooking no criticism of the Zionist State, settlements included. They are Zionists first and foremost; everything else is decorative.

This revised liberal Zionism essentially functions as a project of negation. There is no constructive intellectual project at play here, no preoccupation with offering policy prescriptions, and only vague gestures toward the two-state solution. Its primary exponents are laser focused on a game of one-upmanship with the anti-Zionist left, insisting that they are the true progressives, the true supporters of LGBTQ rights, the true indigenous people of Israel. 

The recent emphasis on Jewish indigeneity to Palestine is indeed representative of this broader tactic. In 1984 it was enough for Joan Peters to wrongly claim, as she did in her best-selling From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab Jewish Conflict over Palestine, that Palestinians are not the true native population of Palestine but rather recent immigrants attracted by the fruits of Jewish settlement. No longer content with simply displacing Palestinian history, the representational sensibilities of the present demand it be replaced with Jewish history in its entirety. There’s a popular term for a strategy intended to make one’s target question their own perception of reality, to sow doubt about their ability to interpret their own senses: it’s called gaslighting. 

American Liberal Zionism, as it’s been understood at least since the Oslo-era mid-90s, has fallen into utter conceptual incoherence. In April of this year, J Street and Americans for Peace Now essentially accepted the conclusions of a report by Human Rights Watch which acknowledged what Palestinians have long been insisting: that “apartheid” is the appropriate term to describe a one-state reality between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Still, they make sure to emphasize both their disagreement with this particular label and that their primary concern remains “Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.” 

Do they believe that by simply avoiding terminology that “actually existing Zionism” abhors they will save themselves from its ire and finally win acceptance? For their part, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and The New Israel Fund, have come out against the wave of red state anti-BDS laws while making sure to highlight that they do not, themselves, support BDS. Are they concerned that these laws will eventually be used to hinder their own activities by exponents of “actually existing Zionism”? They certainly ought to be. Tweaking rhetorical formulations for political expediency is, as always, far easier than reassessing dogma. 

American Liberal Zionism appears unwilling to reconcile itself with itself; its animating principles are no longer reflected in any remotely plausible political program or constituency. The absolute exhaustion of this intellectual tradition can thus be declared complete. Simply put, there is no liberal Zionist reality—either real or plausible—which corresponds to liberal Zionist ideology. 

The striking dissonance between a light-hearted ice cream company and a dire political situation have placed the inadequacy of half-measures and rhetorical tap dancing into as stark relief as ever. There’s only a Zionist reality corresponding to a Zionist ideology and, unlike its liberal counterpart, it’s governed by a simple, effective, and internally consistent logic—segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.