What does it mean, to be part of a political movement that ... loses?
Most political organizing, as I understand it, is not primarily about predicting the future. It's about fighting for the future that one wants to see, at a time where there are multiple plausible futures that could come to pass. Given that, it will inevitably be the case that many people will join political movements that are fighting for a plausible, defensible future and who -- fast-forward twenty years -- will have lost.
Consider the Bundists of the early 20th century. They fought for a world in which Jewish equality and self-determination would flower and be protected in the places where Jews already were -- "hereness". Certainly, this is a defensible vision of the world, one that one would be perfectly justified in fighting for in the early 20th century. And yet, as we know, the future the Bundists fought for did not come to pass. They lost their battle, and lost it in the most horrifying manner possible to the Nazis. And so in the future that did come to pass, the Bundists, like all Jews, suffered horribly.
Does this discredit the Bundists? Does the end of the story necessarily mean that they made the wrong choice in what they sought to fight for at the start of the story? Many say yes. I'm unconvinced. It seems unfair -- cruel, even -- to judge an ideology by the consequences of a future that they unsuccessfully sought to resist. The Bundists had a plausible vision of the future that they reasonably thought was worth fighting for. And they did, and they ... lost. Are all political campaigns that are lost thereby proven to have been wrong to fight for in the first place?
It is easy to say they should have known better, with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing how the story played out, of course the Bundists look like fools. But nobody should be so confident in their ability to win political struggles. One can have the best moral judgment in the world, and a will of iron, and a keen strategic mind, and one can in politics still lose. Too much depends on what other people do. You can make all the right moves, or at least defensible moves, and still lose. It is, in many ways, a sign of our own egocentrism that we blame ourselves for "picking the wrong side", as if history's arc would have been materially different if we, personally, had chosen to be liberals or socialists or Marxists or nationalists or pragmatists in the moment of fighting. Any one of us changing sides would almost certainly not change matters one whit. Sure, maybe if everyone had switched sides that would've made a difference. But not even the most powerful and influential among us has that amount of sway. The choices other people make will always be largely uncertain to us. And so while utter naivete about the choices others will likely make is not always excusable, we should not act as if only a fool would not have known how events would play out. The Bundists could not have known that Nazism would end up carrying the day in Germany, and that all their work would be for less than naught.
Liberal Zionism in 2021 perhaps looks much like Bundism in 1931. Make no mistake: we are losing. Perhaps we have already lost, though the revitalization of neo-Bundism today makes me think that no ideology of this sort truly can be said to have lost forever. Maybe in some future world there will be a new set of conditions making Liberal Zionism a winning team again (for example, if we live out the "Czechoslovakia gambit", where a one state solution eventually leads to a two state solution on equitable terms, I can very much imagine a New Liberal Zionism flowering).
But whether one retains faint hope or not about the present or not, there is no question that the liberal Zionist vision is losing. I did not begrudge anyone for cheering Netanyahu's demise, but it is certainly emblematic of how weak the liberals are that Naftali Bennett counts as a savior. Or, for that matter, Benny Gantz, who himself has spoken of the need to preserve Israeli sovereignty over far-flung settlements "forever" and just designated an array of respected Palestinian human rights NGOs as terrorist entities. How excited can we be, when men such as these excite us?
And these are the high notes! On the other side, the far-right is ascendant and makes no bones about its desire to raze liberal rule of law values to the ground. Traditional pillars of liberalism and rule of law in Israel -- the judiciary, cultural institutions, academia -- are under assault from all sides and are slowly wilting. The liberal parties in Israel are moribund, to the point where it's now no longer a given that Labor can cross the electoral threshold unaided. The right surged to victory in the last WZC election and rapidly began consolidating power. With the exception of the Abraham Accords, it is hard to think of any aspect of Israeli life where the liberal ideal has not decayed significantly over the past twenty years (and even the Abraham Accords, as much as I celebrate them, still ultimately represent compacts with largely authoritarian nations -- not exactly a liberal seed).
And things look slated only to get worse. The younger generation in Israel is far, far more conservative than the older one; in Israel it is not bigotry and prejudice that might eventually die out with age, but tolerance and democratic values. Among young Jewish Israelis, levels of hatred towards Arab citizens are staggeringly high; half of young religious Zionist Jews in Israel think Arabs shouldn't be allowed to vote. The larger mainstream Jewish organizations are still stuck in patterns of passivity and obeisance, and will not stick their necks out to actually organize for liberal values in Israel -- in their best moments the most they can offer is to stay out of the way. Seeing groups squabble over something as seemingly mundane and unoffensive as the Two State Solution Act is as disheartening as it is unsurprising. The idea that they will ever have the boldness to pick a stick to go along with their carrots is ludicrous.
And those who are still fighting for liberal values in Israel from a place of genuine attachment to Israel are increasingly alone, and are on the defensive. All their energy is devoted to slightly slowing down the liberal decay; they cannot even imagine what going on the offensive would look like, and they wouldn't have the resources or time to do it even if they could. Elsewhere on the left, there are no reinforcements, but rather cheers for our demise. At best, we have no role in their strategizing. We're non-factors. Just as often, the liberals are seen as nothing more than an annoying set of gadflies standing between the decolonizers and the fascists; the left cannot wait to see us wiped out, and if they see an opportunity to accelerate the process -- squeeze out those beleaguered universities and cultural institutions and academics -- they'll jump all over it.
Even the SunriseDC fiasco -- objectively, a crushing defeat for anti-Israel fundamentalists -- is a sign that we're losing, for SunriseDC would not have tried this gambit if it hadn't at least thought it might succeed. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine a call to expel the NCJW from progressive spaces succeeding. Even in the wake of its failure, one could see the Overton Window shift, and people for whom perhaps this particular play was a step too far start to rationalize how other, similar moves, that also would result in kneecapping Jewish liberal organizations or imposing special litmus tests us to "earn" or "claim" our seat at the progressive table, could be justified, and how a policy of slow strangulation of liberal Jewish political activity could begin anew. The cavalry is not coming. We are losing.
I don't want to say it's hopeless. But we are losing, and losing badly enough that we have to start imagining actual defeat. If we do lose, outright and utterly, we can only hope first that the consequences of our defeat are not as staggeringly catastrophic as they were for the Bundists. Probably they won't be -- actual industrial genocide remains a rare thing. But an unrepentant authoritarian apartheid Israel would be bad enough. Or the eradication of Jewish self-determination in Israel, a return to being a minority at others' sufferance, that would be bad enough. And we will ask ourselves, "could it have all been averted, if we had switched sides? If we had not fought a losing battle?" Knowing the end of the story, does the indict our choices at the beginning?
As with the Bundists, perhaps it will be unfair, to blame us for a future that we fought against, just because we did so unsuccessfully. A small consolation indeed.