Despite the Israeli regime’s increasingly right-wing policies, liberal Zionism still plays a dominant role in Zionist ideology. It fulfills the specific and critical function of providing the Zionist project with the veneer of enlightened, Western civilization and democratic, progressive politics. As a result, the Israeli regime is rarely described in mainstream Western circles for what it is: a settler-colonial state that practices apartheid.
Politicians and media outlets from across the political spectrum in Europe, North America, and elsewhere largely describe Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” sharing Western values that make it a beacon for progressive politics in an otherwise authoritarian and irredeemable region. This rhetoric is then used to justify unbridled Western support for the Israeli regime, including by providing the diplomatic, economic, and military means needed to maintain and expand its colonization of Palestine.
Contemporary liberal Zionism emerges from Labor Zionism—the so-called left-wing, socialist arm of the Zionist movement that emerged over a century ago and played an instrumental role in the formation of the Zionist state. Since the state’s establishment, liberal Zionism has appeared in the policies of successive left-wing governments and in the missions of non-governmental organizations, lobby groups, political parties, and scholarly networks and institutions that promote Israel as a liberal Jewish state. Liberal Zionism enjoyed ideological hegemony for many decades following 1948. As liberal Zionist Yehuda Kurtzer writes in reference to early Zionists: “The triumphant Zionists understood what they were doing as building a liberal political movement. Liberalism was baked into the political Zionism that ultimately led to the building of the state.”
Today, liberal Zionists purportedly support a two-state solution along 1967 borders, and as such they should theoretically no longer be interested in expansion; indeed, they view the occupation as dangerous for the Jewish state project. This is sometimes expressed through a critique of apartheid policies and practices (without using the term apartheid) that expand the Israeli state by unleashing totalitarian power over the Palestinians.
Still, this support for a two-state solution must be understood to be based on their ultimate fear of a one-state solution in which “unofficial” Israeli sovereignty over Palestinians will transform into “official” Israeli sovereignty over the whole of colonized Palestine, leaving Israel with a significant Palestinian population that threatens Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Since liberal Zionism cannot reconcile the Zionist dream of an ethnocratic Jewish state with true democracy, a one-state reality will expose this foundational fallacy. In this way, settler-colonial and apartheid policies are embedded in the liberal Zionist ideology that refuses to face the facts of what Zionism is and always has been.
Fundamentally, liberal Zionism is an ideology that provides cover for and advances the settler-colonial conquest of Palestine in the name of rationality, progress, equality, tolerance, democracy, and even anti-racism. It is, therefore, critical that this ideology be countered across all the spaces in which it operates. This means the rejection of liberal Zionism as a “partner in peace” and insisting on Palestinian decolonial liberation for the whole of colonized Palestine and for Palestinians everywhere.
A decolonial liberation framework is also beneficial for Israeli Jews in the long term. This is what de-Zionization speaks to: it begins with the recognition by Israeli Jews that Zionism never resolved the “Jewish Question” in Europe, but rather internalized it and replicated the Western colonial project in Palestine; it ends in a place where Israeli Jews would no longer be “natives or settlers in historic Palestine,” but rather “immigrants…welcome residents in a historic homeland.” Importantly, this concept means the reimagining of the state, nationalism, and sovereignty away from Western colonial models.
Beyond colonized Palestine, liberal Zionism must be debunked across political parties and institutions, the media, and civil society collectives. From activist to mainstream spaces, people must form intersectional coalitions committed to decolonial justice. These collectives must organize activities such as community teach-ins, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and so on in order to strategize how to confront the inevitable Zionist pushback.