Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

American Opinion and the Israeli Left

Sometime friend of FPW Noam Sheizaf has a short post at Promised Land in which he puzzles over ‘the strange American obsession with the return of the Israeli left.’ Money section:

I can’t help but think that those American who are so obsessed with this question recognize “their Israel” in a certain image that the Israeli left has projected, one which very rarely had anything to do with its politics. Like a constant search for something that was never there. After all, you won’t see so many stories in American press about “a return of the revisionist Right” in Israel, or about Shas.

It’s time to face facts: Rabin’s second government was an historical accident, no more. This was the only time in 35 years that the left won a Knesset majority – and even then, it wasn’t even close to a majority of the Jewish public. Liberalism, in the American sense, never took real hold in Israel.

To expand on this a bit, I think there’s analytic and taxonomic work still to be done tracing the ideological currents of what I’ll imprecisely label “American Zionism,” that is, the generalized identification with Israel and the Zionist project that has been especially acute in the United States, even when compared with other Western, generally Israel-friendly countries. There’s been a decent amount of recent interest in the strains of Christian Zionism that exist on the evangelical right, which stem from a conflation of the modern Zionist project with Biblical End Times narratives, as well as, more obviously, the orientation of American Jews toward some kind of Zionist framework. I do think, though, that the broader affinity of American secular/semi-secular liberalism with the Zionist cause requires some further exploration.

I’m thinking, to an extent, of my own background and education on these issues. I grew up in a relatively secular liberal household, and didn’t get much exposure to the politics of Israel and various Israeli-Arab disputes until I went to high school. My high school was Catholic, and as such invested neither in Judaism/Jewish culture nor in evangelical Christianity, yet the perspective given on Israel was very, very Zionist. The image of Israel with which my classmates and I were presented was that alluded to by Noam: a liberal democracy, a necessary haven for Jews worldwide desperately trying to do right by its neighbors while occasionally, sometimes, veering ethically astray in its policies and tactics, and then only in response to far greater atrocities from its enemies. This was right around the turn of the Millennium, as Oslo was collapsing (completely the fault of Arafat’s intransigence of course) and the Second Intifada was just beginning, so at the time the news rather unproblematically reinforced this view. Still, it was there ready-made, an image of a kindred Israel that American liberals could adopt without contradicting their own underlying principles.

I think the “obsession” with the Israeli left in the U.S., particularly as expressed in outlets like the New York Times which are exemplars of this broadly American liberal Zionist orientation,* has a lot to do with the cognitive dissonance between the image ‘Rabin’s Israel’ and the actual evolution of Israeli behavior and political trends. Psychologically, it’s much easier to look for reasons that reality might still fit within one’s predetermined conceptual framework than it is to change the framework itself. If there’s an Israeli left worth talking about, even in the form of some untapped silent majority, then Netanyahu, Sharon, Lieberman et al. can be dismissed as unfortunate aberrations produced by an otherwise-kindred political system. Christian Zionists have no circle they need to square; their commitment doesn’t require Israeli politics to be liberal. Jewish Zionists have far more complex issues (about which I’m not really qualified to opine). American liberal Zionists, though, need Israel to act liberally, or to at least produce evidence that it would so act if given half a chance. I’ll let Noam and others who understand Israel’s internal politics better debate whether this desire is just off-base or utterly ridiculous, but that’s the psychological and ideological foundation from which it stems.


*If there are any West Wing fans in the audience, the Season 5 episode “Gaza” is another relevant example here, with establishment liberal Leo McGarry confidently asserting that “nobody serious” within Israel still talks about securing Greater Israel as a policy objective.

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  1. @ Matt – As a progressive American writer who, admittedly, has been analyzing the protests, looking for signs of a re-awakened “Israeli Left,” I found both your post and Noam’s piece to contain many truths.

    However, as I Tweeted Noam’s colleague at 972, Lisa Goldman, Americans aren’t the only ones who seem to be gazing upon these protests with an aspirational eye toward a rebirth of the left. Gideon Levy is doing it. Akiva Eldar is doing it. And while their motivations and angles are obviously different, I think it would be a mistake not to see that, while Americans (with their liberal, progressive lenses) may be looking for something based upon images of Rabin’s government, progressive Israelis can perhaps be blamed for gazing upon the protests with an eye toward the labor movements that are really at the heart of the Israel narrative.