Protesters in London holding 'Free Palestine' signs.

Israel is the home of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of three great religions. Liberal Zionism is nothing but a fiction. Above, activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign march in London. Credit: CreativeCommons / James_London

Prime Minister Netanyahu has finally removed the mask. “If I am elected there will be no Palestinian state,” he said in the clearest possible terms. Netanyahu, of course, was merely publicly aligning his words with what have long been his actions. Throughout his entire political career he has done everything possible to thwart the emergence of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s barely coded racist remarks about Palestinians “coming out in droves to the polls” demonstrates there is no place for Palestinians in the Israeli Zionist polity.

The two state solution is officially dead and it is time to give it its proper burial. The truth is that under both Likud and Labor governments, negotiations with the Palestinians have long been nothing but a theatrical production as Israel continued to seize more Palestinian land and build more settlements even as it proceeded with the negotiations. Netanyahu is simply acknowledging what has been true of all of Israel’s leaders, whether of the right, left, or center. For the past 22 years all have been misleading the world, pretending to seek peace with the Palestinians while pursuing policies to ensure there will never be peace and never be a Palestinian state. Had the Zionist Union prevailed, it would have simply tried to restart the same moribund negotiations that have served as a cover for Israel to talk peace while destroying its prospects by building more colonies.

It is time for American Jews to face the fact that liberal Zionism is nothing but a fiction. It is time to sit shiva to mourn its passing. It is time to confront the fact that a Jewish state that maintains a brutal and illegal 48 year occupation over millions of Palestinians and privileges the rights of its own Jewish citizens above those of its Palestinian citizens is incompatible with any reasonable understanding of liberalism. This latest election was essentially a referendum on the peace process and the two state solution and the outcome was clear. Israelis have rejected both. For American Jews the choice is clear: Israel can either continue to embrace its Zionist underpinning in which case it will remain a Jewish state but not democratic state or it can abandon its Zionist underpinning and become a democratic state but no longer a Jewish state.

Whatever understandable nostalgia many Jews have for the origins of the Zionist movement as a response to centuries of Jewish discrimination and persecution, we must face up to the kind of state Zionism has created. Israel today is not a democracy but a militaristic ethnocracy infused with racism and xenophobia.

All of this brings to mind a forgotten but essential piece of recent American Jewish history. In 1919, in anticipation of the Paris Peace Conference, some 300 prominent American rabbis and community leaders sent a letter to President Wilson opposing the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine. My beloved grandfather, Rabbi Samuel Goldenson, was among them. According to the American Jewish Year Book of 1918, American Zionists at the time represented a small proportion of the Jews living in the U.S., approximately 150,000 out of 3,500,000.

The signatories to the letter viewed Judaism as a religion and not a nationality. While they where sympathetic and supportive of efforts to create a refuge for Jews in Palestine or elsewhere, they were absolutely opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. Their reasons were prescient and should be instructive for us today.

First, they believed such an outcome would not be democratic in that the number of Jews living in Palestine were a small minority and Palestine was a home for many non-Jewish peoples—Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, and other ethnic groups—and was therefore a land “filled with the associations sacred to the followers of three great religions…”

The text of the letter read: “At the present juncture in the world’s affairs, when lands that have hitherto been subjected to foreign domination are to be recognized as free and independent States, we rejoice in the avowed proposal of the Peace Congress to put into practical application the fundamental principles of democracy. That principle which asserts equal rights for all citizens of a State irrespective of creed or ethnic descent, should be applied in such a manner as to exclude segregation of any kind, be it nationalistic or other.”

Elsewhere in the letter they disputed the Zionist assurance that “the rights of other creeds and races will be respected under Jewish dominance,” insisting instead that “the keystones of democracy are neither condescension nor tolerance but justice and equality.”

Second, they were concerned that if a Jewish state was created in Palestine, it would endanger the claims of Jews for full citizenship and human rights in lands where those rights were not secure because of existing anti-Semitism. At the least it might invite repressive legislation against Jews and at worse invite retaliation, harm, or even expulsion.

Third, the establishment of a Jewish state would bring suspicion and charges of dual loyalty against those Jews who choose to remain where they are living rather than live in the Jewish state.

Fourth, it was not clear just what the boundaries of Palestine were and this would inevitably be a contentious issue and “evoke bitter controversies.”

The letter concluded with this clear and powerful statement: “We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state, to be governed under a democratic form of government, recognizing no distinctions of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to protect the country against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish State.”

That bold and clear statement stands in sharp contrast to the statement made by Prime Minister Netanyahu some 96 years later. Maybe, just maybe, it will open up a much needed debate in this country and particularly in the Jewish community, about the role of Zionism and whether Israel can ever be a democratic state.

With respect to its deep-rooted institutional discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens and the brutal apartheid regime it has imposed on the Occupied Territories, Israel is fast becoming a pariah state. Right now the Left in Israel is weak and marginalized. It alone cannot turn Israel away from the dangerous and destructive path it is on. The change that is necessary cannot come from within Israel. It must be aided by outside pressure such as the BDS movement if the Palestinians are ever to be free and if Israeli Jews are ever to live in peace and security. Time is short and now that the two state solution is dead, we must find another way forward.


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