Liberal Zionism in the Wake of the Flotilla

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Peter Beinart, professor of journalism and political science at CUNY, captures his understanding of the status of American Zionism with these provocative words: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” 

I witnessed the alienation of which Professor Beinart speaks in a discussion among RS Young Friends at one of our Book Club discussions last year.  Although our Young Friends’ perspective was not as extreme as Professor Beinart suggests, they did ask: Is there space in the American Jewish community for Jews who love Israel but hate some things that Israel does?  Is there space for Jews to be Zionists and also to oppose the occupation?

Yes.  There is space and there must be space—sacred space—to love Israel and insist on Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, and also to be concerned with the plight of the Palestinians and advocate for their right to statehood. 

Last month’s flotilla incident highlighted, once again, the struggle of Liberal Zionists—the tension between Israel’s need for security and Israel’s pursuit of peace with Palestinians and with her neighbors.  As a liberal Zionist, I support Israel’s right to defend herself and I understand that every security threat to Israel is an existential threat.  Yet, I also believe that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is a moral existential threat.   Everything that I understand about Jewish values in a Jewish homeland, social justice, being created in the image of God, and basic human dignity demands the creation of a Palestinian State.  The Jewish soul of Israel is at stake.

The struggle between justice and security is illuminated in the commentary of Zionist thinker, journalist and Jerusalem resident Yossi Klein Halevi.  Yossi Klein Halevi submits that Israel must be saved from the moral burden of the occupation—of policy that prevents Israel from moving forward as a democracy.  He embraces the improvements that have been made on the West Bank and hopes they demonstrate to the Palestinians that diplomacy, not violence, is the solution.  Yet, he explains, for as long as a Hamas takeover remains a threat, Israelis won’t support the completion of the Two-State solution.  Yossi Klein Halevi is prepared to make any concession, including a divided Jerusalem, but only once the Palestinian leadership is no longer threatened by a Hamas takeover.  A Hamas-led West Bank would turn the Israel heartland into Sederot—an unlivable warzone.*

The disconnect between progressive Jewish values and some of Israel’s policy has created alientation, some say a crisis, in the relationship between American Jews and Israel.  Professor Beinart expresses concern that American Jews are checking their Zionism at the door.  I am concerned that many American Jews are not even entering the door.  The problem is not that liberal American Jews are critical of Israel.  The problem is that, often times, American liberal Jews are emotionally and spiritually divested** from Israel, experiencing both physical and emotion distance from Israel.  Perhaps, more space for liberal Zionism can help us to acknowledge our problems with Israel and can help us to see a Jewish homeland that has the potential to reflect our Jewish values.  As an American Jew unwilling to check neither my liberalism nor my Zionism at the door, liberal Zionism is critical for my relationship with my Jewish homeland.

A local rabbi from another synagogue recently mentioned that they cannot discuss Israel in their congregation without people screaming at each other!  I am hoping there is a different model!  I’m certain that we can grow, learn, and listen to one another in a thoughtful way.  Whether a liberal Zionist or not, if you would be interested in engaging in study about Israel, or discussing the Middle East with other RS congregants, I invite you to be in touch ( or to share your comments here.

To learn more about Liberal Zionism and current events, visit the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

**Term used by Anat Hoffman, director of Israel Religious Action Center.