Ben White: The Dilemma of Liberal Zionism

By Ben White

Howard Jacobson is one of the most high-profile Jewish authors in Britain, having written numerous critically-acclaimed and successful comic novels. He also writes a weekly column in the liberal-leaning The Independent and in recent times has used it to vociferously attack the growing boycott of Israel. His column on 1 September, "There seems to be a pecking order among the dispossessed, and Jews come last," was a fine example of the twin track approach of the liberal Zionist, combining moral remorse with unhampered support for ethnic cleansing. [1]

Soft-pedaling Israeli colonialism is nothing new — as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has noted, in 1948 a number of Zionist politicians condemned some isolated incidents among the widespread atrocities being perpetrated against the Palestinians. This, according to Pappe, was an attempt "by ‘sensitive’ Jewish politicians and soldiers to absolve their consciences," an "Israeli ethos that can best be described as ‘shoot and cry.’"[2] Jacobson’s angst drew such a response in the letters’ page that the writer felt compelled to pen another, rambling defense of his defense of Zionism, "When I argue on the side of Zionism, it is because it seems intellectually right to do so."[3]

Most of Jacobson’s original piece is an attack on either John Pilger or Robert Fisk, wrapped in his musings on how the Jewish exile is afforded little sympathy when compared to other people groups (the Palestinians included). But the article is also a classic example of how Zionism appropriates the rich, varied religious-cultural significance of Jewish identity (and in particular, Jewish exile) for a narrow, colonial purpose. For Jacobson, "the lost respect and homelessness" experienced by the Jewish people through history "found expression in Zionism." Twice, Jewish "yearning" is equated with the modern day state of Israel, even though this Zionist-driven equivalence has always been fiercely contested among Jewish communities.

Many Reform and Orthodox Jews opposed the Zionist project from the start, and although the combined effect of the Zionists’ best efforts to conflate Judaism with Zionism together with the devastating impact of the Holocaust soon reversed the balance, significant numbers continue their resistance today:

The Jewish tradition had formulated the strategy of return to the promised land through the agency of spiritual effort, in order to do so in peace. Many threads of tradition warn against any worldly effort, which might delay redemption and bring down unprecedented calamity upon the Jews. The military conquest of the Holy Land and the ingathering of the Jews there constitutes, from this perspective, an act of blasphemy, a usurpation of the divine prerogative, which undermines the Covenant of the children of Israel with God.[4]

Needless to say, that is simply one example — many nonreligious Jews would also reject the conflation of their own complex sense of identity with the destiny of a colonial settler-state.

Effacing these differences and claiming to speak for all Jews, as Jacobson does in his commentaries, has always been a core part of Zionism. This illogical equivalence, which ironically is the same accusation leveled against alleged or real anti-Semites, forms the basis for Jacobson’s meanderings. With typical clarity, Joseph Massad highlighted the three assumptions underlying this move:

(i) Modern European Jews are the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews; (ii) The ancient Hebrews had exclusive rights to Palestine in which they lived alone; and (iii) European Jews have the right to claim the homeland of their alleged ancestors 2,000 years later.[5]

Jacobson repeated these foundational ideas in his second column (which were sometimes taken at face value even by his critics), as he wrote about how unjust it was to "express sorrow" for the Jewish "exile" but deny these feelings when "they return." In his essay, Massad goes on to cite Israeli historian Benjamin Beit- Hallahmi, who described how the "Zionist settlers claimed they were not moving to a new country, but simply coming home after an extended stay abroad." While "theirs was an act of repatriation" then, "the apparent natives were actually the real foreigners."

Jacobson’s tactic is simple. If one puts the millennia-old Jewish diaspora on a par with the Palestinian refugees, then the likes of Fisk do indeed look unfair in their solidarity with the Palestinians compared to the lack of "understanding" for the Jewish (read Zionist) success in "returning to the ‘land for ever denied’":

"If it is terrible to lose your home today, then it was terrible to lose your home yesterday."

But of course, there is no comparison. Responding to the controversy over the inclusion of the Nakba in government-approved Israeli textbooks, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman defended the ethnic cleansing of 1948, saying "we did what we had to." Lieberman was born in Moldova in 1958 and only moved to Israel in 1978; Jewish militias were clearing out Palestinian villages to make way for the Jewish "return" ten years before Lieberman was even alive. Compare that with the experience of one from thousands of Palestinian families who have witnessed their home demolished:

Armed Israeli security forces woke them up at 5:00 a.m. Jessica said she was given five minutes to get out. Her daughter screamed and her husband was arrested as clearers stuffed some of their possessions into plastic bags before the bulldozers pulverized the two-bedroom house and vegetable patch into rubble.[6]

That was in August, in Occupied East Jerusalem (and sadly, the story’s surfacing owes much to the fact that the wife is British). In an unbroken line of demolition, massacre and uprooting, the "returning" Jews have come as dispossessors, the Palestinians rendered an inconvenience.

But Jacobson is a liberal Zionist, not a Likudnik, a Sharon or a Netanyahu. He thus finds himself in a fix — how to render the horrors of colonialism more palatable? This is done in two ways (aside from appealing to the standard Zionist frameworks already discussed): firstly, Jacobson sows a seed of doubt that all this talk of "ethnic cleansing" is even true — "Jews are now held to be dispossessors themselves" (my emphasis). At the risk of repetition, it is worth noting that once again, Jacobson talks of "Jews," a mirror-claim of the anti-Semites who see world Jewry as one and the same as the Zionist colonizers.

In his follow-up column, he positively layers on the ambiguities, diverting the reader’s gaze from the columns of Palestinians forced from their homes in 1948, or the farmers robbed of their land in 2007, to a less queasy exchange of claim and counter-claim. It is impossible to "understand" a situation, Jacobson urges, if you "refuse to see its contradictions and intractabilities." Apparently, you don’t aid peace by denying the "competing claims" of a "complex situation." It is the naggingly familiar liberal lullaby of the "circle of violence" and "two sides," which sends us to sleep while Palestine shrinks.

The second approach, and one beloved by Zionist liberals from Tel Aviv to London, is to move from the material horror of Palestine’s colonization to the vaporous world of existential rumination and "feelings." Jacobson states for the record that he is "one of those who believe that Jewish experience of exile obliges Israel actively to comprehend the sorrows of Palestinian exile." That, of course, is as far as it goes. It’s similar to one of the correspondents who wrote to the paper in Jacobson’s defense, who acknowledges that the Palestinians might "feel" badly treated, as if all that was needed was a good dose of navel-gazing therapy. Jacobson was even more categorical in the second column. The dispossession of the Palestinians is not a "moral" issue, he wrote, but rather an unfortunate afterthought, a "tragic political consequence" of the Jews’ "return."

Jacobson’s writings exemplify the dilemma of liberal Zionists, the politicians, authors and journalists who often grace the pages of the "center-left" press in the US and UK (as well as Israel). They desperately wish to "acknowledge" and embrace the Palestinian "feeling" of suffering and dispossession, yet at the same time, help to solidify the Zionist mythology that was, and is, used to justify the Palestinians’ dispossession. Perhaps, however, it is not quite strictly accurate to call it a "dilemma," since for the Zionist — liberal or otherwise — there is no doubt when it comes to the crunch question of whether to support or oppose the ongoing colonization of Palestine and the dispossession of its people.

-Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Palestine/ Israel. His website is at and he can be contacted directly at


[1] "There seems to be a pecking order among the dispossessed, and Jews come last," The Independent, 1 September 2007.
[2] Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications (2006), p.110.
[3] "When I argue on the side of Zionism, it is because it seems intellectually right to do so," The Independent, 15 September 2007.
[4] Yakov M. Rabkin, A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, Zed Books (2006), p.77.
[5] Joseph Massad, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, Routledge (2006), p.25.
[6] "Briton suffers with Arabs under Israel demolition law," Middle East Times, 2 August 2007.

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