Is Zionism a Feeling, or an Idea?

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Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

My argument about how changes in Israel have weakened the liberal pro-Israel case has made Shmuel Rosner feel bad. And “feel” is definitely the operative word in Rosner’s New York Times op-ed response. “Sometimes it feels as if liberal Zionist critics are trying to ensure that Israel’s deeds do not rub off on them," he writes, citing my work, among others. "At other times, it feels as if they’re trying to clear their conscience of something for which they feel partially responsible.”

"Feels" is a good term to use if you want to describe an opponent’s position without taking on the burden of quoting them or otherwise showing they actually believe the thing you claim they believe. Another good word for that purpose is "seem," as in, from the same op-ed, “They seem to believe that the implied threat that Israel might lose Jewish supporters abroad will somehow convince the government to alter its policies.”

None of the things that Rosner feels about me are actually true, so responding to his feelings is pointless. But Rosner’s feelings lead us to an important intellectual cleavage among Zionists. Here is a crucial passage in his column:

If all Jews are a family, it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin. If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.

I don't think I deserve special attention as a Jew. If any aspect of my identity gives me a claim to special attention, it's being a liberal Zionist. Those are different things — one is an immutable ideology, and the other is an identity. Which is to say, my support for Israel is based on factual conditions. When I defend Israel with arguments, those arguments have meaning. If I were to be pro-Israel regardless of facts, then the arguments I use would be merely decorative.

My Zionism — that is, my belief that the Jewish people, like other people, deserve a homeland where they can live free of persecution — is immutable. My disposition as a defender of Israel depends on the character of the Israeli state. A decade ago, I’d argue, it was a fair reading of the facts to view Israel as a state that mostly desired peace and whose use of force was mostly justifiable. I think that argument has weakened substantially in the intervening years.

To provide a corresponding example, right now I’d describe myself as pro-Ukraine — my analysis is that Ukraine is mostly within its rights, and that the cause of its current conflict lies mostly in the aggressive intentions of Russia. It is possible the world will change in such a way that I no longer regard this as true.

Now, I lack the sort of personal and cultural attachment to Ukraine that I have to Israel. But the emotional component is not all that matters. Israel needs to be able to defend itself in factual terms, because most people in the world are not Jewish. The retreat to pure emotionalism embodied by Rosner is not a defense of Israel but a catastrophic collapse.