The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.
Some people are born Zionists. Some achieve Zionism. And some have Zionism thrust upon them. Of the three, I think I'm primarily the native variety, as, on some level, I've been a Zionist all my life. Not that my parents were card-carrying Zionists (they weren't). Not that I ever attended a Zionist camp (I didn't). Nor did I read Hebrew novels (never have). Nor did I participate in a Zionist youth movement (except for a brief and marginal tie to Young Judaea in 1966). In fact, before May 1967, I never had a serious conversation about Israel.
Yet, reflecting my proto-Zionist childhood, when I came to acquire a strong sense of Jewish collectivity, I entered Columbia College in 1966 and quickly sought out the campus's Student Zionist Organization. I would then go on to spend the next eight years, while an undergraduate and Ph.D. student at Columbia, as a left-Zionist campus activist, making my first trip to Israel in 1970 -- and aliyah in 1992.
My Zionism then, as now, is most fundamentally an expression of an axiomatic and primordial Jewish nationalism; just as some feel beholden to and commanded by God, I've long had similar feeling about my relationship with "the Jewish People." In 1990, Charles Liebman and I would write of Jewish "historical familism," of seeing Jews worldwide as an extended family, one that extends backward and forward in time, and embraces even those with whom one profoundly disagrees. For me, being Jewish is about viewing Judaism as a nationality, albeit with a religiously informed national culture, in line with my self-definition as ambivalently secular and moderately observant. Charles -- a dear friend, close collaborator and beloved teacher -- said of me, "Steve is someone who uses his religion to practice his ethnicity."
My proto-Zionist life emerged in Jewish Brooklyn, where all my friends -- and almost all my public school classmates -- were Jewish. My family was, as I would later discover, what might be called, "committed non-observant Orthodox Jews." Shabbos mornings meant attending Orthodox shul with my father, followed by Saturday afternoons when my dad played pinochle, I played football, and my mom went grocery shopping.
It was a profoundly ethnicity-affirming experience. The world at the time was enamored of Martin Luther King. But my black hero was Malcolm X, whom I took pains to meet at a local demonstration I attended as a 14-year-old. My Ph.D. dissertation, on inter-ethnic marriage and friendship, examined (and subtly extolled) cultural pluralism in America. Significantly (and I now say, regrettably, as well), I have no recollection of ever attending an anti-war rally; in my late adolescent way of constructing the moral world, Vietnam wasn't my people's moral failing or vulnerability.
Paradoxically, alongside this unapologetic Jewish nationalism stands my long-time commitment to a Palestinian State, a position crystallized in 1969 at a lecture by Lova Eliav at Columbia. The "radical Zionists" of my activist chevreh in the early 1970s were passionate two-staters. We were scornful of what we saw as Golda's view of the Arabs west of the Jordan: "There are no Palestinians and Jordan is their homeland." For me, then as now, my commitment to Palestinian statehood draws powerfully upon several elements:
- A belief in the legitimacy of national identities and aspirations, and hence a respect for other national movements, including the Palestinians'.
- Perception of the Palestinians as deeply antagonistic to the Zionist enterprise and incapable of genuinely ceasing hostilities in the near-term.
- Passionate desire for maximum feasible national separation, or in the words of the 1990s' Israel Labor Party: "Us here and them there."
- Confidence in the ability of Israel to defend itself successfully within the 1967 borders.
- Commitment to what was mainstream Zionism's embrace of military restraint (havlagah) as a tactic, and territorial partition as a strategic objective.
In short, my territorial dovishness has little to do with any perception of (or hope for) Palestinian moderation. In fact, I've long seen projections of Palestinians' moderation by the left (a la Shimon Peres' "New Middle East") as damaging the left's credibility with the Israeli and Zionist public. For reasons of both integrity and instrumentality, I much prefer instead the stance graphically captured by Yitzhak Rabin's pained and reluctant hand shake with Yasser Arafat. Peaceful relations with the Palestinians will come, if at all, as a consequence of partition, but not as a prelude to partition.
In this context, human rights abuses of Palestinians by Israelis -- the land-thefts, humiliation, settler violence, perversion of judicial procedures and, yes, instances of torture -- are not "only" morally outrageous and damaging to the good name of Israel and Zionism. They constitute grave security liabilities for Israel. They breed anger and resentment among the Occupied population. They empower Israel's enemies and alienate our friends. And they sap Israelis and the Jewish People worldwide of belief in the very legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise. This is indeed a case where immorality is the worst policy: a pattern of human rights violations is not only wrong, but dangerous as well.
My view of Zionism, then, sees the term as embracing all who see Jews as a nation and the nation as deserving sovereign expression in the Land of Israel. Zionism, in my view, encompasses some Zionists whose values are despicable, as well as some whose positions are dangerous -- the two needn't totally overlap. Not all Zionists are good people, and -- at least objectively speaking -- not all act in such a way as to advance the best interests of the Jewish People.
Zionists of the left must contend with two sorts of challenge. One challenge comes from without. It comes from those who deny the legitimacy of a sovereign Jewish homeland within the Land of Israel, and, quite often the national conception of what it means to be Jewish. But we must also contend with challenges from within. These challenge come from fellow Zionists, from those with views which are misguided or worse, and with positions that put Israel at grave risk both morally and physically.
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. In the past, he served as Professor at The Melton Centre for Jewish Education at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and was Professor of Sociology at Queens College. He has also been a Visiting Professor at Brandeis University, Yale University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has written or edited a dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles; in 2010, he received the Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.