As the character Walter Sobchak said in the famous Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski, “If you will it, Dude, it is no dream.”
These words (without the “Dude”) attributed to Zionist leader Theodor Herzl have been quoted repeatedly with the intention of inspiring hope among Zionists and, really, among all Jews. We were supposed to feel empowered by the knowledge that we—“our people”—would do whatever it takes (whatever!) to have a Jewish homeland—if we only willed it. These words — “If you will it, then it is no dream” — that Zionists know in their sleep are, in fact, a euphemism for justifying more and more “facts” being “created on the ground” (another Zionist euphemism for stealing land).
But what the Zionist movement did wasn’t a dream at all for those whose land they were willing away. For the Palestinians living on that land, the Zionist movement’s actions were not a dream but a nightmare — the catastrophe of the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes.
This is where liberal Zionists enter my thoughts. Liberal Zionists have had no problems supporting Israel as a Jewish state, but, today, they are agonizing over Israel’s behavior and the implications of its behavior. They believe the Jewish state has gone overboard. Liberal Zionists don’t support the expansion of settlements, and perhaps in their minds the 1967 land grab wasn’t ok, at least that is their thinking now, many years later; but the 1948 Nakba, where it all began, that doesn’t cause them to agonize.
The nature of this liberal Zionist agony is epitomized in a recent column in Haaretz by Chemi Shalev, “The Loneliness of the Long-distance Liberal Zionist”. Shalev, who identifies as a liberal Zionist, said “They may not all acknowledge or talk about it yet, but many liberal Zionists dread the day, as I do, when they will have to concede that one can either be a liberal or a Zionist, but can no longer be both.” And he added, “This is precisely the strategy of both the anti-Zionist left and the arch-Zionist right, on both sides of the ocean: to force liberal Zionists into a corner where they will be forced to choose.”
Let’s consider this for a moment. They dread the day that one can’t be a liberal and a Zionist? When is that day supposed to come? It didn’t come in 1948 when Israel was created on the backs of the Palestinian people? Nor did it come over the past 70 years when Israeli apartheid became entrenched within the society? What are liberal Zionists waiting for?
Shalev rants recklessly about the similarities between the strategies of the Zionist right and the anti-Zionist left, as if there is an equivalence between those who advocate for expansionism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, and those who advocate for justice for Palestinians and adherence to basic principles of human rights. He tries to create a framework in which the liberal Zionist emerges as the one thoughtful actor, rather than, as liberal Zionism has always been, a fundamental part of the problem.
He writes disdainfully that “the anti-Zionist left views the Israeli refusal to compromise as one more manifestation of Zionism’s original sin, which was the establishment of the State of Israel in the first place.” Leaving aside his contempt, this is one of the only (almost) true statements he makes about anti-Zionists, though the statement is incomplete. Zionism’s “sin” from the beginning was that it established Israel as a Jewish state through the dispossession of the Palestinian people. That does sound pretty sinful (or, in language I’d use, reprehensible) to me.
One of Shalev’s more offensive statements, again referencing both the Zionist right and anti-Zionist left, is that “both groups are growing increasingly intolerant, aggressive and repressive.” Making this kind of parallel yet again between the violent oppressors and those living under a brutal occupation is another example of chutzpah magnified. Furthermore, would he like to explain what is aggressive about the call from pro-Palestine advocates for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) until Israel complies with basic principles of human rights and international law? And intolerant of what — injustice? Yes, that is true, thankfully. And “repressive” is a word that fits squarely with the behavior of the Israeli government, not with those trying to claim their rights to their land.
This brings me back to the folklore around Theodor Herzl’s “if you will it” remark. We need to strongly call out the notion of Israeli Jewish entitlement to a homeland in Palestine that usurped the lands and homes of those living there. We need to understand that willing into being something that isn’t yours is disturbingly entitled and deeply wrong. If liberal Zionists could acknowledge that reality and go from there, giving up Zionism would feel so right. And imagine how it would then feel to be on the side of justice. Now that is something to will!