The death of Amos Oz is a symbol of the wider demise of liberal Zionism
As Israel's aggressive nationalism reveals itself, an ideology that won over hearts and minds in the West is in crisis
Several years ago, the Israeli magazine +972 published a satirical interview with a fictional liberal Zionist writer called Amos Yehoshua-Shavit. The writer, whose name was a combination of leading liberal Zionist luminaries, including the recently deceased literary icon Amos Oz, captured the inherent contradictions of the ideology by showcasing the hypocrisy of espousing universal liberal values in the service of a nationalist state project.
At one point, Yehoshua-Shavit notes that “it’s the Palestinians who are dying in greater numbers, but at least they’re not suffering from this sense of internal exile, as we do. In some ways, living with this sort of depression is harder than dying.” While it might be easy to poke fun at the privileged insensitivity of liberal Zionism, the ideology is in crisis. As the edifice of Israel’s secular democracy has eroded over the last decade to reveal aggressive ultranationalist roots, the country’s ability to rally support around the world has had to transform. As this transformation unfolds and the idea of liberal Zionism is relegated to the history books, efforts to achieve a just peace will finally start to come into focus.
On a political level, Israel has developed new alliances with far-right politicians from Brazil to Hungary. It is not a coincidence that the American white nationalist Richard Spencer has referred to himself as a “white Zionist” in recent years. A certain strand of populist looks to Israel as a blueprint for the type of nationalism they wish to create in their own societies. In the case of Brazil’s newly elected government, its alliance with Israel is based on shared values and deepened by Tel Aviv’s offer of advanced military equipment designed to control and suppress restless populations. At the same time, Israel has been seeking to make inroads with major Arab countries, propelled by mutual concern over Iran’s growing reach in the region and a shared embrace of the Trump administration.
Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and the domination of Palestinian life factors little in these new relationships. While some countries publicly bemoan Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, there is no practical pressure exerted at state level over Israel’s reckless disregard for international law and norms. As such, there is little reason for Israel to change course vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the short and medium term. With a booming economy, a partner in the White House, and a host of new alliances around the world, Israel can effectively do as it pleases.
On a cultural level, there are also profound changes under way. Israel’s image in civil society around the world has never been poorer. After a decade of social media, people have come to see the conflict and the occupation with new eyes. Even Jewish communities around the world have started to distance themselves from Israel. From this vantage point, the death of Amos Oz is remarkably significant. For decades, Oz represented the Zionist ideal that won over hearts and minds in the West. He eschewed nationalism as a fantasy of strength that appealed to weak people, while compassionately defending Zionism through his tireless dedication to the two-state solution. He was the ultimate “good” Zionist in the eyes of many. The person that the editorial page of the New York Times could point to as the archetypal progressive, peace-seeking Israeli.
For Oz and his intellectual contemporaries, the defence of Israel as a secular and democratic state was paramount in their support of the two-state solution. This understanding of Israel and its challenges has informed the intellectual foundations for mainstream American support for Israel, as evident in press coverage and the general conversation about it.
To be sure, Oz was articulate in disseminating this view of Israel and the broader conflict as a whole. But, ultimately, Israel is not able to maintain its secular democracy while occupying Palestinian land and depriving Palestinian citizens of Israel of equal rights. As Oz’s generation passes, there aren’t any natural successors to their vision. What has emerged instead is a form of Israeli ultranationalism that always lurked under the surface and informed state decisions when it came to the Palestinians.
For those on both the right and left, the unmasking of the nationalist ideology that drives Zionism is a breath of fresh air. Observers and concerned parties are able to see Israel as the nationalist project it has always been, as opposed to viewing the country through the fictional filters Oz and others have created for decades.
Considering the dishonesty at the core of liberal Zionism, it is clear that the ideology would have never produced a lasting solution to the conflict or the larger challenges of Zionism. Instead, liberal Zionism was deployed to drum up support for Israel as it invested enormous resources to entrench its occupation over Palestinian land and life. It has served this goal well.
It is unclear how the ultranationalists leading Israel’s government will handle the challenges of maintaining the occupation going forward, but at least we are no longer under any illusions about their ultimate goals. So, do we mourn the passing of liberal Zionism and the death of the two-state solution? No, and it shouldn’t be a sad farewell. It is a necessary development on the path to bringing about a lasting and equitable peace, whatever that may look like.
Joseph Dana is the editor of emerge85, a project exploring change in the emerging world and its global impact
Updated: January 6, 2019 05:24 PM