Sunday, March 15, 2020

Will Liberal Zionism Be the Bundism of the 21st Century?

Born in 1907, Isaac Deutscher was one of the more prominent Jewish Marxist intellectuals of the 20th Century. Prior to World War II, his commitment to Marxism caused him to oppose Zionism as antithetical to the cause of international socialism. After the Holocaust, however, he lamented his prior position, writing that "If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were to be extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers."

I'm inclined to think Deutscher was a little too hard on himself. It's not just that nobody can predict the future. It's that many political positions, plausible in the particular historical moment they were adapted, turn out to lead to dead-ends or calamities -- not because of an intrinsic rot in their views, but because of the unpredictable contingencies and choices and events far outside the individual capacity or reckoning of any one person to influence.

There are ideologies that are wrong "in the moment", such that we can justly judge harshly someone who adhered to them without demanding clairvoyance as to the ultimate route of history. But the Jews, such as the Bundists,* who opposed anti-Zionism in the early 20th century because they believed instead that Jewish equality should be fought for "here" rather than "there", are not I think culpable in this way. They believed that equality and security for Jews could come via liberalism and humanist values in any state. Zionists believed they could only be guaranteed in a Jewish state. "In this controversy," Deutscher wrote, "Zionism scored a dreadful victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect." One understands Deutscher's feeling of guilt. But I don't think it was wrong for Deutscher, sitting where he was in 1927, to argue for what he did. His political vision was plausible and defensible. He was entitled to fight for it. But many plausible and defensible political visions, which people are entitled to fight for, do not come to pass -- and this was one of them. History's weave took a plausible, defensible position like Bundism and wrecked it.

Bundism effectively was killed in the Holocaust; only today is it seeing the tiniest stirrings of resurgence in the West. But I wonder if Liberal Zionism -- which I'll summarize as comprising the ideas that a Jewish state in Israel (a) is legitimate as a means of instantiating self-determination for the Jewish people; (b) is compatible with and obligated to secure full democratic and political equality for non-Jews in the state of Israel; and (c) should co-exist side-by-side and peaceably with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza -- will be this century's Bundism.

I don't mean that it will collapse in a historical calamity as grave as the Holocaust (pray not). What I mean is that, like Bundism, Liberal Zionism is I think a plausible, defensible vision which simply may not survive history's weave. Certainly, those who've always opposed Zionism in any form (and often reserved especial contempt for the liberal variety) have been quick to sing of Liberal Zionism's demise, and to deride those who purported to think of it as anything but a masquerade for oppression. But those of us who genuinely held to Liberal Zionism as our vision of the future are today gripped with an unprecedented wave of pessimism and despair, as we find it harder and harder to see a viable path forward to actualize all its commitments. We can squabble all we want over who is to "blame" for its infirmity -- Israeli maximalism versus Palestinian intransigence; Bibi versus Abbas; Trump versus Obama; Arafat walking away at Camp David or Kushner pulling the rug out with his "peace plan" -- but Liberal Zionism's vitality as an achievable political future seems to be shriveling with every passing day.

And so we're left wondering what our legacy will be in a world where a core political commitment of ours simply ... failed. Probably (hopefully) not in such a cataclysmic fashion as Bundism did, but failed nonetheless. Deutscher was left to wonder what might have been different had he not chosen a failed path. Liberal Zionists may well have to ask ourselves similar questions.

History always feels inevitable in retrospect -- we know, after the fact, what the "right" and "wrong" choices were. But as I said, I'm inclined to be more charitable. That a political vision failed does not mean it was baked into the political universe that it was always doomed to fail. Humans make choices; political action always depends on the choices of others and so carries the unavoidable risk that they will choose in such a way as to close off even plausible, defensible paths. The Bundists lost, but they were not shown to be fools or villains -- and they were entitled to at least view their failure as a tragedy.

Perhaps Liberal Zionism will lose too. If it does, those who held to it will not be fools or villains, and we will be entitled to view our failure as a tragedy. And who knows -- like Bundism, Liberal Zionism may see its own resurgence sometime far into the future. Stranger rebirths have happened.

* Deutscher himself did not join the Bundists either, being uninterested in its attachment to Yiddishism.

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