Sometimes, when I talk about Israel, my dad worries that I am becoming an anti-Zionist. And sometimes, when I talk about Israel, my mum worries that I’m going to make Aliyah.
Their responses are symptomatic of a mainstream Jewry that is, quite simply, baffled by the liberal Zionist brand of scathing, loving critique of Israel. It does not surprise me when liberal Zionists are branded “anti-Israel”, but I want to clarify our position.
We do not hate Israel. We criticise Israel because we love it, and want it to live up to its lofty ideals. We passionately believe in, and are fighting for, a liberal and democratic Jewish state. We’re fighting for the Jewish state that most Jews believer already exists.
So, on behalf of liberal Zionists everywhere, here is my message to the Jewish community.
I know it’s upsetting for you to hear us lambast the actions of the Israeli government, and it confuses you to when we support Palestinian initiatives. I know you would like us to do more to support Israel on campus, using the familiar mantras of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East, a hub of scientific progress which benefits the entire world, and the only place in the region where women’s rights and LGBT rights are properly protected. But for me personally, those arguments have become little more than slogans. I want them to be a reality.
You claim that Israel is a homeland for all Jews, a safe haven that would welcome us indiscriminately should we ever be in need. Yet many Jewish sections of Israeli society, including Sephardi, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian Jews, face severe discrimination. Furthermore, Reform Judaism has been so openly disparaged by high-ranking politicians that it often seems that Reform Jews have no place in the Jewish state. I’m not saying these things because I hate Israel. I’m saying them because I love Israel, and wish it was the Jewish homeland that it promised to be.
You often proudly point to Israel’s democratic nature, and I’ll agree, Israel protects the rights of minority groups better than any other country in the region. But that really isn’t saying much. And we liberal Zionists will have a hard time forgetting that when Arab Israelis were exercising their rights in the recent election, they were vilified publically by their own prime minister.
And that’s only in Israel “proper”. In East Jerusalem, part of the occupied West Bank, Arabs are underfunded in education, healthcare, and public services, and their planning permission rejections vastly outnumber those of their Jewish neighbours. Furthermore, many Arabs are only classified as “residents” rather than citizens, meaning that they pay taxes, but cannot vote. This is without even starting on the sheer violence of the occupation. I’m not saying this because I hate Israel. I’m saying this because I love Israel, and wish it lived up to its liberal and democratic reputation.
You compare Israel’s criminal justice system favourably with the fanatical religious law which governs many other countries in the Middle East. Yet you overlook the fact that in the West Bank, there are separate criminal processes for Jews and Arabs. Arabs live under martial law, and youths as young as six have been tried in military courts without lawyers. The penalty for stone-throwing has recently been extended to four years imprisonment, and Netanyahu has just approved the use of snipers against the perpetrators. I’m not saying this because I hate Israel. I’m saying this because I love Israel, and believe that a Jewish state should be a just state.
You cite Israel as the only country in the region that guarantees freedom of expression, and it is undeniable that Israeli artists have produced masterpieces as a result. Yet only this past summer, a theatre production in Haifa, the city hailed as Israel’s interfaith success story, had its funding withdrawn and was removed from the list of plays eligible for student subsidies because it was seen to be showing too much sympathy towards the Palestinian terrorists it was portraying.
Subsequently, the Al-Midan Theatre had its funding temporarily suspended, and several other Palestinian and cross-communal theatres also seemed under threat. I’m not saying this because I hate Israel. I love Israel, and want it to be a place that inspires and protects freedom of speech.
You see Israel as a symbol of progress, a Jewish nation but a secular state, a centre of innovation and modernity. Yet only this past summer, the forces of religious extremism made the headlines when a sixteen-year-old girl was stabbed by an ultra-orthodox Jew at a Gay Pride event, and “Price Tag” Jewish terrorists, burnt a Palestinian toddler and his parents to death. I’m not highlighting these painful examples because I hate Israel. I’m highlighting them because I love Israel, and I’m devastated that these things are still happening there.
In short, what I want, and what I do not believe we have, is a Jewish state that reflects Jewish ideals. It’s not enough that Israel has a majority Jewish population, if it does not act in accordance with Jewish values. Jews are taught, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”, and “Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Eqypt.” Israel may keep its Jewish festivals, have Shabbat as its day of rest, and a meat industry which practises Shechitah. But that is not enough when Israel is detaining African refugees in Holon, humiliating Arabs living under occupation in the West Bank, and systematically destroying the Bedouin way of life through forcible resettlements.
When did diaspora Zionism become so fearful of critical thought? For me, being a Zionist is not about blindly defending Israel, no matter the moral costs. Being Zionist is about building the best Jewish State possible. That means I cannot sit by and pretend that Israel has no flaws. I am fighting for an Israel that I do not feel embarrassed to champion.
So, Mum and Dad, I’m not declaring myself an anti-Zionist, and I’m certainly not making Aliyah any time soon. But if I did, I’d want to be moving to a country that I could be proud of whole-heartedly. It may not be fair to hold Israel to higher standards than other countries in the world. Compared with Russia, or China, or Venezuela, it’s doing pretty well. But I don’t want it to be like Russia, or China, or Venezuela, or even Britain for that matter.
I want Israel to be what it was intended to be, a light among the nations. Until that is the case, I won’t stop fighting for it.