A recent NYT op-ed by Anthony Lerman left me both puzzled and insulted. As a liberal Zionist, I am not at a crossroads, as Lerman directly accused in his sweeping and generalizing editorial, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” wherein he has unfairly categorized many of us in a camp to which we do not belong.
I would like to offer a different picture than that of Lerman’s portrayal of liberal Diaspora Jews getting fed up with Israel’s conduct. On the contrary, this summer’s war has been a wake-up call for many liberal Zionists. So many have come to the realization that now, more than ever, is the time to be involved. Liberal Zionists realize that they have the opportunity and ability to help foster Israel’s Zionist core, which dates back to its “romantic” foundation. Our own Reform movement has worked to provide critical support for a variety of projects since the beginning of the current escalation of violence and rioting this summer. This support has led to the enhancement of co-existence projects between Jewish communities and their Palestinian-Israeli neighbors, and more.
As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Further, I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional, and we recognize that as Diaspora Jews we do have the luxury to choose how to support Israel. Israelis, however, do not have the luxury to ignore constant attacks on their fellow citizens, and Lerman, in his accusation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to establish an independent Palestinian state, fails to see that there are, in fact, other parties involved. Does being a liberal mean that the Palestinians must be absolved of all culpability for determining their own destiny? Even if Israel has the upper hand, which it clearly does militarily, should the international community give Hamas a carte blanche?
Furthermore, why does Lerman accuse liberal Zionists of being torn during times of war? The liberals that are my friends and colleagues have become more united in affirming Israel’s right to defend herself while staunchly believing in the need for a negotiated two-state arrangement. Let us remember how many reservists heeded their summons and went in to fight despite their own political opinions.
Also, to which rising trend in Israeli politics is Lerman referring? To the trend that turned out in Rabin Square last Saturday night? To the thoughtful discussion between famed left-wing laureate David Grossman and modern Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow? There has always been vitriol and intolerance from certain Israeli politicians. We are a people who take words seriously and cannot ignore threats or blatant illegal racism. Today, sadly, the examples of these are plentiful. Is this a trend worse than ’95-’96, where the Oslo process passed by a 51% majority?
Liberal Zionism does not lack agency. It is working hard to help its educators, rabbis, youth advisors and affiliates find a voice in the storm. It is mobilizing its constituency to support Israel, as Zionists and as liberals, and to deplore dangerous and demagogic voices coming from the right to far-right. While Lerman does not supply us with the vast research conducted and on whose behalf he writes, I can say personally that being a Zionist means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values. Most importantly, being a Zionist means that Israel is our family with whom we will always be connected, despite how each of us might chose to act were we in the Prime Minister’s chair. As a liberal Zionist I would encourage the government to look towards important diplomatic steps to end the current war – which would result in more than just another abbreviated ceasefire. We must look to the international community (including the Arab states) to help ensure that Hamas will stop firing rockets and mortars so that we can open the strip and aid in the rebuilding of Gaza.
Lerman does, however, make an important point with which I agree wholeheartedly – that now is the time to embrace the challenge of reclaiming Zionism and working to change Israel’s perceived image from its grassroots. Many years ago, I, like Lerman, fell in love with the romantic Zionist ideal. Now, as an adult, I am well aware that Israel is not perfect and has made its fair share of mistakes. I also know that Israel has had to deal with more strife, threat and unfair judgment than most, and that today’s Zionism of consequence must be an enlightened and thoughtful Zionism that admonishes racist and intolerant rhetoric while being cautious regarding those who wish to cause us harm. We liberal Zionists, therefore, continue to pray for peace and work to do what we can to improve the lives of those affected by the throes of war.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and a Res. Lt. in the IDF Spokespersons unit.