Yes, You Can Be Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Zionist

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-21-10

Last week, I addressed hundreds of young Australians finishing their “shnat” year-in-Israel programs. A number asked me more or less the same critical question: How can we be pro-Zionist while being pro-Palestinian (and thus occasionally criticized for being anti-Zionist)?  I glibly answered that today, with Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister endorsing two states for two peoples, you can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Zionist. Moreover, our enemies make it easy for us. The attack against Israel is so extreme, so disproportionate, so resonant with anti-Semitic imagery and animus, we can simply unite on an anti-anti-Israel platform – leaving much room to argue. Finally, I said a Big Tent Zionism needs the left as well as the right; Jewish leaders should welcome them not reject them.

Despite Israel’s long record of compromising for peace, from accepting the pre-state partition in 1947 to signing the Camp David accords three decades later – it used to be harder to be pro-Zionist and pro-Palestinian. Since the Oslo Peace Process began in 1993, most Zionists and most Israelis have respected the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations and sought a two-state solution. In 1995, the anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman quit his synagogue when his rabbi harshly denounced the Israeli leaders who accepted the Oslo compromises.

On June 14, 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed at Bar Ilan University:  “In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.  Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.”

We must stop treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game. Two different peoples are in love with the same land and must coexist together somehow. In defining nationalisms, in constituting peoples, the mix of romantic myth and historical fact prevents one nation from judging another’s validity. True, the Jewish people’s relationship with Israel predates Palestinian or Islamic consciousness. But as an historian I would be the first to admit that such facts are irrelevant centuries later, because Palestinian and Islamic consciousness now exist.

Palestinian nationalism’s great crime has been treating the conflict as a zero-sum game, becoming addicted to negationism, nihilism and violence. The Hamas Charter, dripping with anti-Semitism, seeking Israel’s destruction, is only one example. That is the basis of my second argument. Even these days, Israel’s enemies make it easy for Israel’s defenders. The attack on Israel goes beyond boundaries or behavior. So many of Israel’s enemies endorse destroying Israel itself, so many jump to delegitimizing Zionism, to hating Judaism, they shift the terms of debate. The burden of proof is on the bigot not the victim to prove that they are not perpetuating historic stereotypes. Zionists defend Israel’s right to exist, and denounce the anti-Semitic strains shaping these obsessive attacks on Israel. Criticizing Israel’s behavior, and championing Palestinian rights to self-determination, fit within the Zionist framework, which respects national rights to self-determination.

In fact, the Zionist movement needs pro-Palestinian Zionists. Support for Israel has long been bipartisan and must remain so. The double helix forming Zionism’s DNA interweaves what people today consider the liberal commitment to collectivism, liberty, and universalism with the conservative commitment to individualism, tradition and particularism. The Kibbutz and the fighting Hesder Yeshiva are both quintessentially Zionist institutions, just as the quest for universal justice and Jewish self-defense are both quintessentially Zionist aspirations.

Last week, before delivering a rousing call for an Orthodoxy balancing the universal and the particular, universities and yeshivas, secular learning with religious wisdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, England’s Chief Rabbi, spoke informally to some of us about fighting Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism. “We have gotten it all wrong,” he lamented, summarizing his majestic 2002 book The Dignity of Difference. Sacks rejects Jews’ tendency to “narrowcast” – convening Jews to complain to other Jews about anti-Semitism. He teaches that truly understanding Judaism – and other faiths – can encourage mutual respect, championing universal values by embracing one’s own particular narrative and community while making “space for difference” too.

Like religion, nationalism can turn people inward or outward, becoming destructive or constructive. A Big Tent Zionism, with strong left and right flanks, will put Zionism’s creative tension to good use, as Israel defends its own citizens while respecting others, seeking win-wins in international politics rather than do-or-die zero sum interactions.

The day before Lord Sacks’ speech, my colleague from the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Micha Goodman, explained second-generation Israelis’ disappointment with Zionism to the World Zionist Congress by quoting Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. By demanding perfection, reality inevitably looks ugly and becomes devastatingly disappointing, he warned. Goodman’s insight also explains some liberals’ disappointment with Israel. Many Jews hold Israel up to unrealistically high expectations, then overreact, recoiling in disgust when Israel disappoints.

But an opposite phenomenon occurs among more committed Diaspora Zionists, left and right. For many of us who grew up in large, well-organized, well-manicured, suburbanized Western countries, the seeming perfection of these paradises can feel overwhelming, alienating, diminishing of our potential impact. For that committed minority, Israel’s imperfections are a lure, a compelling invitation to make a difference, to help change the world. This should be the new chalutziut, the new pioneering spirit, seeing Israel’s challenges as opportunities to help shape a dynamic society still in formation, and because of its youth, intimacy, and myriad troubles, more open to creative inputs.

While not solely the province of progressives, forging conversations about the dignity of difference and embracing opportunities for reform have long been standard-issue equipment in the liberal toolbox. Now, more than ever, the Zionist movements needs that universal vision, that reforming zeal, and the credibility that comes from embracing others, balanced by the realism, dignity, and self-protectiveness the anti-Israel left and the self-loathing Israeli left often lack. That kind of Zionism is pro-Palestinian, pro-Jewish, pro-humanity.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at

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