Dear fellow liberal Zionists: The establishment doesn’t want us

At Hunter College’s Roosevelt House (above), Michael Sfard and spokespeople from Breaking the Silence and the New Israel Fund participated in a panel about the state of human rights activism in Israel today. | Supplied by Fashawks8 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Three weeks ago, I attended a small lunch event at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House featuring spokespeople from the New Israel Fund and Breaking the Silence, as well as the Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. Given the recent tension at my alma mater between student supporters of Israel and members of Students for Justice in Palestine, there was a surprising lack of unnerving drama. There were no protests, banners, or interruptions of any kind.

That isn’t to say there wasn’t a strong and heated discussion. To the contrary, it was more illuminating than I’d anticipated. Toward the end of the session, a pro-Israel student asked the panelists if they were aware that extreme anti-Israel activists often use the information disseminated by left-wing NGOs as grounds to demonize Israel and support a one-state solution.

Sfard, whose lucid and insightful observations of life in the occupied territories made me regret not bringing a pen and a notebook, replied along these lines: Who’s really doing damage to Israel internationally, those Israelis who demonstrate that there are some in Israeli society who oppose the occupation, or the American students repeating easily refutable hasbara?

At that point it finally hit me, although it took a little more time to sink in: For several years, I’d been wrong about the potential for a working relationship between the pro-Israel establishment and liberal Zionists.

The concern behind that student’s question has an extensive pedigree in American Jewish discourse. Strong criticism of Israel from “within” is not labeled anti-Israel or anti-Semitic per se, but it’s long been seen as aiding the enemy by fracturing unity. The late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg succinctly described this attitude in an open letter to his friend Elie Wiesel, published in The New York Review of Books: “The effect of what you have been saying is this: the present situation is deplorable, and Israel has even behaved badly on occasion, but for Jews abroad to say so is less an act of conscience than a sign of weakening resolve.”

In the nearly 28 years since those words were written, little has changed. Supporters of Israel who don’t suspend their progressive values when it comes to Israel are routinely demonized and isolated. Peter Beinart, a liberal commentator, is considered a deeply controversial figure for holding what are essentially barely-left-of-center views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J Street has been subject to ugly attacks, including an entire documentary screened by StandWithUs, a prominent hasbara group that does work for the Prime Minister’s Office.

When BDS, a movement I strongly oppose, started gaining traction on campuses, I hoped that it would at least serve as a point of healing and unification within the broad pro-Israel camp. In fact, I became critical of progressive Zionists who didn’t see the opportunity that BDS offered: “Pro-Israel” was being defined down, and our support for Israel’s continued existence and opposition to BDS might be seen as an asset by the establishment. I thought integration was imminent.

Regrettably, I was mistaken. In the last few months, it’s become clear to me that hasbara is not an ancillary feature of pro-Israel advocacy, but rather its core. BDS did not change the rules of the game, and liberal Zionists who challenge the traditional narrative by opposing the occupation (including the settlements), not just as a strategic error but a profound injustice, will never be seen as allies of the establishment. The goals of hasbara and those of liberal Zionists are not just irreconcilable, but in direct conflict with one another: the former wants to make an ultra-nationalist government’s policies and interests palatable to a broader public, and the latter seeks to undermine those policies.

The student who asked the question made it clear that she didn’t see those who criticized Israel, even in strong terms, as anti-Israel. I believe her, and civil discourse and mutual respect should be a top priority. But in the end there aren’t just two lanes, pro-Israel and pro-BDS. There is a third way in between those lanes — pro-Israel and anti-occupation — strongly opposed to, and indeed by, the other two.


Abe Silberstein is a recent graduate of Hunter College. His work has previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog, and NOW Lebanon.

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