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Who lost Zionism?

by Philip Weiss
May 29, 2010!+Mail

The latest New Left Review has an important exchange between American-Israeli Gabriel Piterberg of UCLA, author of The Returns of Zionism, and a reviewer of Piterberg`s book, Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell, whose review is titled, `In Defence of Liberal Zionism.` I believe that the erudite Sternhell gets the better of Piterberg in describing the birth of Zionism in Europe as a `radical` form of nationalism responding to anti-Semitism--not a colonialist movement. (As I say, I would have been a Zionist then). But Piterberg gets the better of Sternhell in his assessment of how Zionism has worked out. Here is a portion of the end of Piterberg`s essay (buy NLR, read the whole thing) that addresses Sternhell`s charge, a charge that is becoming familiar on the left, that he is trying to destroy Israel. Note that Piterberg`s argument reflects John Mearsheimer`s assessment at the Palestine Center a few weeks back:

[Sternhell`s] charge that my views are tantamount to a wish for Israel’s disappearance requires rebuttal. I am vehemently opposed to any position that seeks the violent destruction of Israel which, in terms of its foundation, is neither more nor less legitimate than other settler states like the us, Canada, Argentina or Australia. What I would argue for is the de-Zionization of the single state that has now de facto existed between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean for 43 years—more than twice the duration of Israel within the Green Line—so that it may become a modern state based on something resembling universal suffrage, rather than one predicated upon Judaeo-supremacy.

Sternhell belongs to a socio-political formation that is now on the verge of extinction, namely, the Zionist-Israeli liberal left...

Given the ‘realities on the ground’, Sternhell’s hope that Israel, as a Zionist state, may one day roll itself back—or be rolled back—to its pre-67 existence is completely untenable. Indeed, the reason Sternhell is so incensed by The Returns of Zionism lies in his basic decency and honesty. He knows that his dream of a social-democratic Israel within the Green Line borders has been all but shattered and that the Occupation is there to stay for the foreseeable future. More fundamentally, he knows that Zionist Israel is simply irreconcilable with the notion of any remotely equal citizenship for all who are included within it, regardless of whether this is the inevitable culmination of the Zionist project or the nightmarish result of a decent hope gone terribly astray. He knows that with every day that passes, Israel—within and without the Green Line—is becoming more aggressive, more oppressive, more hell-bent on pushing Judaeo-supremacy to unprecedented levels. Sternhell, most crucially, is as familiar as I am with S. Yizhar’s memorable line in his 1948 novella Khirbet Khizeh: ‘We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.’ It is painful enough for an individual as decent as Sternhell to confine the absorption of this line to 1948; the realization of its prophetic extent, as a synecdoche for what Israel would become, is surely intolerable.

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