The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 created a haven from persecution for Jews and restored Jewish national sovereignty after 19 centuries of dispersion. Coming just three years after the devastation of the Nazi Holocaust, it was greeted by people and governments around the world as a humanitarian watershed. For most Jews, including many who had long dismissed Zionist nationalism as contrary to Jewish ideals, it was an emotional, even redemptive moment. For one swath of humanity, however, it was a not a triumph but a tragedy: the Muslim world, and particularly in the Arab world, and most specifically for Palestinian Arabs.
Zionism, the modern political movement for Jewish statehood, arose in the late 19th century in the Russian empire. Heavily influenced by the rise of nationalism among the captive nations of Eastern Europe, it was really several movements with different ideologies but an overlapping goal: reestablishment of Jewish nationhood in a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. From its founding, the World Zionist Organization, which led the campaign for Jewish statehood, was actually a confederation of more than a dozen ideologically disparate organizations. When Israel became a state in 1948, those organizations’ Israeli branches became Israel’s main political parties.
Most Zionist organizations advocated the in gathering of Jews in a Jewish state as a way to end anti-Semitism. But not all: some doubted a Jewish state would end anti-Semitism but believed it would revive Jewish culture and end the threat of assimilation. Some expected the Jewish state to replace the Jewish Diaspora, while others believed it would strengthen Jewish life in the Diaspora. Some believed the Jewish state must be socialist, while others believed it could thrive only as a free-market society.
Several groups on the Zionist left did not favor creating a sovereign Jewish state at all, but rather a Jewish homeland within a binational Jewish-Arab state. Much of the Zionist right believed the Jewish state must encompass all of historic Palestine between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—or, for some, beyond into today’s Jordan. Most came to embrace the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, as the United Nations decreed in 1947, though the right remained largely unreconciled.
What united all Zionist factions was the goal of building a viable Jewish society in Palestine. Once Israeli independence was achieved in 1948, the factions began diverging, leading to the sharp political and philosophical divisions within Israel today.
Most of the world community, left and right alike, accepted Israel from its founding and sympathized with it in its struggles against Arab rejection. The Six-Day War in 1967 changed Israel’s position, however. It became an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinian nationalist movement began to win sympathy, particularly on the left, as a legitimate liberation movement, despite its adoption of gruesome terrorist tactics. The Israeli left, however, was increasingly isolated from its former allies in other countries. It accepted the premise of Palestinian national self-determination and ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but it rejected the Palestinian goal of dismantling the Jewish state.
Ever since 1967 the standoff between Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism has left Jewish progressives caught somewhere in the middle. Many, perhaps most, identify emotionally with Israel but fault it for not committing itself to Palestinian national rights. A smaller but growing group believes that the continuing occupation has weakened Israel’s claim to legitimacy.
Many Jewish progressives believe they have a duty as Jews to struggle for a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Even for those who do not feel emotionally or morally bound to the Jewish state, the role of America as Israel’s superpower protector, and of the Jewish community as an influential force in American politics effectively thrusts them into a position where their views and actions matter.
The challenge for Diaspora Jewish progressives is complex: finding the tools and strategies that can make a difference in the conflict, negotiating the difficult relationship between progressives and the organized American Jewish community, defending their own place in a larger American and world left that too often dismisses Israel and its allies, including even progressive Jews who identify with Israel, as enemies.
Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews confronts progressives with a variety of challenges. One of the most pressing is marginalization by Israeli authorities of the liberal streams of Judaism that many progressives identify with. Additionally, many American progressives are active in a range of Israeli social and economic justice issues.