The Puzzling Matter of the Israeli Liberals

By Ramzy Baroud

Regardless of who may rule Israel, little change ever occurs in the country’s foreign policy. Winning parties remain obsessed with demographics and retaining absolute military dominance. They also remain unfailingly focused on their quest to initiate racist laws against non-Jewish residents of the state, and continue to hone the art of speaking of peace, while actually maintaining a permanent state of war.

Every few years the media become captivated by Israeli democracy. Commentators speak of right, left, center, and anything in between. Despite Israeli elections still being a year and a half away, media pundits are already discussing possible outcomes of the vote against the peace process, economic reforms, social equality, and so on.

In a recent article, Israeli columnist Uri Avnery decried the fact that the main opposition to the right-wing parties — “the Likud, the Lieberman party and various ultra-nationalist, pro-settlement and religious factions” — is no other than the center-left Kadima. The party, led by the “incompetent” Tzipi Livni, is allegedly in “shambles.” Moreover, left parties, such as Labor and Meretz, are not expected to pose a real threat to the right party conglomerate, despite their temporary rise in the polls.

As genuine as he is, Avnery is once again presenting the false hope of a savior emerging to save Israel from itself. Avnery envisions Israel being rescued from its “neo fascists” and returned to the over-romanticized scenario of old, when early Zionists supposedly dreamed of an Israel governed by universal ethics, true democracy, peace and social equality . “I fervently hope that a different kind of new political force will emerge — a center-left party with a clear and inclusive message: Social reform, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, the two-state solution, peace with the Palestinians and the end of the occupation.”

But this is as far as the imagined narrative of a kinder, gentler Israel can possibly go. Many outside Israel struggle to reconcile familiar discourses of democracy and equality with the reality on the ground. True, the ailment is not exclusive to Israel itself, but few other self-proclaimed democratic countries have such a massive gap between mainstream political discourses and actual policies.

Recall, for example, what the media touted as Israel’s own “Arab Spring.” Even those who knew Israeli history hoped for a fleeting moment that the mass protests throughout Israeli cities could actually challenge the political and social status quo in Israel. But not Seraj Assi, a columnist and Ph.D student at Georgetown University. Assi wrote: “The dirty secret of the Tel Aviv protests is that the bulk of those middle-class Ashkenazi protesters are moved by a racist hysteria. They are simply afraid of being moved to the city peripheries and the far less fashionable parts of the country. For when they complain that they only feel at home in Tel Aviv, they explicitly express a racist desire to stay away from the development towns and neighborhoods populated by Arabs, poor Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews.”

Indeed, the protests labored to stay clear of contentious discussions of military occupation, war, and even racial inequality within Israeli itself.

Not even the one-sided war on Gaza, which resulted in the killing of over 1400 Palestinians, was enough to raise the level of mass consciousness to challenge political and military apparatuses in Israel in any meaningful way. Under the title, ‘The Moral and Military Meltdown in Israel’, Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, wrote: “It is not just the worst of the Israelis who (according to a recent poll by Haaretz) condone and actively support the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, but so have their very best, their intellectuals, professors, journalists, filmmakers, novelists and poets, from Amos Oz to David Grossman to A. B. Yehoshua to Meir Shalev and scores of others” (Jan. 12, 2009).

While right-wing Israeli parties are often dismissed as anti-peace and hawkish, the “liberal” Zionists in the Israeli left have been viewed by some as an alternative, capable of writing wrongs and achieving the long-awaited peace. These are mere “delusions,” argued Roger Sheety in a recent article. “Scratch just a little below the surface and you discover that… when it approaches the Palestinian person in particular, (Liberal Zionism) suddenly stops and fully reverses itself,” he wrote (Jan. 9).

Sheety suggests a “clear and concise word for this phenomenon…hypocrisy.” But ‘hypocrisy’ might be too easy a term to explain this very involved trend in Israeli politics, which defined the Zionist movement long before the state of Israel was established in 1948. A most compelling book by Israeli author Tikva Honig-Parnass traces the roots of liberal Zionism from an insider perspective. It is a profound addition to a growing library that challenges “liberal” Zionists’ claim to liberalism or progressiveness.

After reading Honig-Parnass’ book, one is left with a clear impression that liberal Zionists are neither ‘Israel’s best’ and nor is their double-speak a simple reflection of hypocrisy. Liberal Zionists were, and remain at the heart of the problem. After all, the Israeli Right didn’t emerge as a powerful player in politics until the late 1970s. All that proceeded — the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing, the Law of Return, the 1967 war and further colonial expansion, and even the war on Gaza in 2008-09 — were orchestrated by Israel’s Zionist Left leaderships. More, the “systematic institutional discrimination against Palestinian citizens was (also) applied through the strengthened power of the Zionist Left,” Honig-Parnass argues. Even the most ‘radical’ forces in Israel are tainted, as the Zionist Labor movement rallied around racial discrimination against non-Jews before the establishment of Israel; later laws made racial discrimination against non-Jewish laborers the status quo, as is the case today.

To hold hope in the new election cycle in Israel is like waiting for false messiahs. No salvation will be heralded by some imagined center-left party that will bring “an end to the ultra-rightist frenzy,” as hoped by Avnery.

The task will not be easy, but a true shift in Israeli politics can only occur at the foundational level by confronting the country’s apartheid-like political institutions. More, by challenging the “Zionist Left political and ideological perspectives,” a way could open for “progressive forces among Jews and Palestinians to fight together against the Zionist/Jewish state,” as suggested by Honig-Parnass.

– Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

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