What Does Liberal Zionism Mean in 2022?

The following is a transcript of Episode 40 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yossi: My name is Yossi Klein Halevi and I’m a senior research fellow at the Hartman Institute here in Jerusalem. Today is Monday, January 10th, 2022. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Institute’s iEngage Project. Our theme for today is: What is Liberal Zionism? In each edition of For Heaven Sake, Donniel Hartman, the president of the Institute and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world.

And then Elana Stein, Hain director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue.

Today Elana is out sick and like so many of us, she and her family have come down with corona. Thank God they’re on the mend.

And we looked forward to her rejoining us in the next podcast. Since the new government was formed last year political discourse in Israel has become increasingly poisonous. Members of the opposition Likud and Haredi parties have turned the Knesset into an arena for unprecedented vulgarity resorting to nonstop shouting and taunting of coalition members.

Cries of traitor have become the new norm accompanied by accusations of betrayal of the core values of Zionism and Judaism. For its part, the coalition which calls itself, the government of change, seems unable to articulate a clear vision of what exactly that change means beyond replacing Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even when it does the right thing, and this government is establishing a strong record of doing the right thing, especially on issues related to Arab-Jewish equality and religion and state, it frames its achievements in the language of necessity and coalition building. It’s all about political tactics, not values. The language of values has largely disappeared from much of Israeli discourse.

And I would dare say for much of Israeli thinking at this particularly depressing moment in Israeli discourse. We need to take a step back and stop talking only about policy and instead ask ourselves, what is our vision for Israel? What are our animating values at the Hartman Institute? We’re in the process of redefining what we mean by liberal Zionism.

We call ourselves a liberal Zionist institution, but what exactly does that mean? What are its core features, its core commitments? What language and vision can we offer Israeli society that the political system seems incapable of delivering? Donniel, truly a pleasure to be with you.

Donniel: Nice to be with you Yossi. I feel a little car sick. Our roles are reversed today,

Yossi: Yeah, I was wondering if we’re going to mention that or just kind of let it slide-

Donniel: Nah

Yossi: Wait a minute. Is that something new that they’re doing?

Donniel: Oh, cutting edge stuff here, you know?

Yossi: So, how am I doing so far? Is it all right?

Donniel: Not too bad. I think I was a little better, but I think it was not bad.

Yossi: All right, Donniel, first question. How are you feeling? You’re the fourth vaccination, which I haven’t taken yet, how are you doing?

Donniel: Personally, I feel really well. The fourth vaccine was just fine. I’m nervous. There was talk about a third of Israelis coming down with Omicron, but I feel good. Taking the fourth vaccine was a strange experience. The first three. I embraced them wholeheartedly.

It was like Noah’s Ark. This fourth is it’s like putting on a seatbelt. I don’t know how good it is. Actually, I know how good a seatbelt is, but I don’t have a good analogy, but it was, I’m not afraid. I’m not frightened of the vaccines, but science didn’t tell us that this one really helped.

But they were offering it. And I went right away to get it because I and all the 90-year-olds of Jerusalem were elbowing each other to get in line. It was fun. I’m happy I got it, but as distinct from other times, it doesn’t remove my anxiety.

It was sort of more of a luxury than a real medical procedure. You get the idea.

Yossi: Well, it’s so interesting listening to you in the way you frame this, because like you, for the first three vaccinations, I was passionate. How can you not do this? And now I’m hesitant. But I’m ambivalent from the other side. I’m wondering if I’m making a mistake by not taking the fourth and I’m wondering here, whether there’s some opening in the pathological discourse between vaxxers and anti-vaxxers that this ambivalent moment of the fourth vaccination offers us because you’re not certain about taking the fourth.

Donniel: I don’t know. I didn’t want to be like you because I didn’t want to get it and feel bad. So I prefer to be more proactive, but the thing that both of us share as distinct from the vaccines and the anti-vaxxers is we’re not worried about the vaccine, but give me a reason why I have to a vaccine.

So in any event I’m feeling good. I feel I’ve done my share. But it’s all over everything. It’s taking over. We’ll see where it’ll be.

Yossi: Maybe I decided not to take it, to give us a little bit of an interesting opening this time.

Donniel: Oh, thank you, Yossi.

Yossi: And as soon as this podcast is over, I’m rushing to get the vaccine.

Donniel: Yeah, because unless you do, I don’t want to be in the same room with you.

Yossi: Donniel to the matter at hand, I know that you’ve put in a great deal of thought into the question of re-interpreting liberal Zionism for our time, for this reality. And so I’d like to begin by going to the root. Let’s leave aside Zionism’s accomplishments and history for a moment and go, what are the core values?

What are the core principles, Donniel, that you believe lie at the foundation of Zionism?

Donniel: The question is a hard one and an easy one. It’s hard because we have to peel away a lot of the way we talk about Zionism to do this exercise. For so many years, one of the little secrets between us is that so-called at the Hartman Institute we don’t engage in advocacy, but deep down we’ve been defending Israel.

That’s why I love Israel. I want the Jewish people to love Israel. And so much of my thinking and my conversation is filtered through that. Whether I like it, or I don’t, it’s who I am. I can’t take that lens off. It’s a given. And I felt this heavy weight also because what happens when you feel that you have a way to talk about Israel that could actually help.

And so in your question, and in our thinking about today’s subject, I have to peel all of that away. I have to say, Donniel, forget the attacks on Israel. Forget how people are talking. And it’s like, why are you as a Jew, as a person who aspires to live a moral life, what is it about Zionism that excites you?

And what’s the essence. And I was thinking and thinking at the end of the day, I could only come up with one core idea.

Yossi: That’s a good definition of an essence, you know.

Donniel: That’s correct. That would be correct, but not for a rabbi. For rabbis, there are few essences. There are rules and exceptions,

Yossi: And there’s always one last final point.

Donniel: But I actually was able to distill this and completely leaving aside the world it’s just, Yossi, you and I now. Zionism for me is all about justice. What makes my commitment to Zionism and my passion of what I want Zionism to achieve. There’s one core value, which is possibly the most important value in life and possibly one of the most important values in our tradition.

Yossi: Say more. Justice for who?

Donniel: Now comes the rabbi. What are you worried about. Now, it started out of a passion to achieve and to attain justice for my people. Justice is about allocating resources, land, sovereignty, rights. It’s about resources, rights, responsibilities,

Yossi: Self-defense.

Donniel: That’s your –  that’s whatever. It isn’t self-defense. Self-defense is about moral respect. Justice is about fairness. Justice is about having your share of the inalienable rights that should accompany your people and others.

The world is just when everybody achieves their fair share of what is being distributed. And for so long, we Jews weren’t getting our fair share. And my passion for justice, for Zionism, wasn’t a passion to save the Jewish people. There was a deep, moral claim of Zionism way beyond self-defense, Yossi.

In a moral universe, the Jews have a right to a home just like other nations and other peoples have a right to their own. That was a deep – so that was one part. And as I stand here today in 2021, I’d lay claim to the justice that the Jewish people deserve.

But at the same time, justice has defined the essence of the Zionist enterprise. It’s about creating a society where not only did we have a right to claim the goods the gifts and the rights that other people had, but it’s how we have to define our treatment of other people.

And whether it is citizens, non-citizens like in the Torah it says tzion b’mishpat tipadeh. Zionism will be redeemed through justice.

Yossi: Zion.

Donniel: Zion. Zion will be redeemed through justice. For me, the whole Israel enterprise, liberal Zionism, the essence of liberal Zionism, it’s about claiming justice for the Jews and making sure that we dispense justice to all those over whom we have power and authority citizen and non-citizen alike. That’s the essence, for me, of liberal Zionism.

Yossi: I like that very much. First of all, what you’re doing in one definition is encompassing both the rootedness of Zionism and the aspirational nature of Zionism. You’re linking the foundation with the future. And I deeply appreciate that. You know, for me, I would take what you’re saying and translate it into a contemporary idiom or a pragmatic idiom.

And that is that the purpose of Zionism and the aspiration of Zionism is to take responsibility for the two peoples that Zionism has created and recreated. So Zionism recreated the Jewish people –  that was justice for the Jewish people. But Zionism also created a new people and I’m not sure that the founders fully understood the implications of that. And the new people that Zionism created with the Israelis.

Now there’s a fair amount of overlap between these two peoples, but as we well know, they’re not identical. And so, for Zionism to be fully itself, it needs to own responsibility for the wellbeing of these two peoples: for the Jewish people, which is global and for the Israeli people, which is the more specific people that that was created here. And that, for me, is really translating this idea of a Jewish state, a democratic state, justice for the Jewish people, justice for all those for whom we’re ultimately responsible. Does that language resonate?

Donniel: It does. The only challenge, Yossi, with responsibility is that what are the guidelines of that response? I think responsibility for me is almost parallel to is what sovereignty means. Responsibility is not the core value for me of Zionism. Responsibility is the core manifestation of Zionism. The Jewish people are now responsible.

You don’t get to walk through the world anymore and say, oh, you should do that. You don’t get to walk through as the critic. And I think that shift ultimately leads to a value clarification, but I want to push it even further because how do we walk through the world? How is our commitment? And part of what I feel is the message of liberal Zionism needs to be that for so many people, they don’t want to talk about values when it comes to Zionism, because they’re frightened. Because if I talk about values, what are the values I’m not keeping? But even more problematic is that Zionism’s deepest critics speaking the language of values and Zionists speaking the language of self-defense or realpolitik or whatever. I think we have to go back and we can’t be frightened. We’re about justice. And that includes, by the way, a very deep willingness to say, okay, if this is what we’re about, where are we failing? Where are we succeeding?

Because in your remarks, we’re doing all these policy things, but what is guiding you? What is supposed to guide our –  when we go to war and the criteria of war what’s supposed to guide the way we look at various discriminations or discrepancies in Israeli society?

Why should we connect Bedouin houses to the electrical grid? For which the government was called traitors. Should we dismantle the settlement of Homesh? What do we do? How do we think about the various policies that we want to implement? It’s not it’s just being responsible, it’s saying, yes, I want to live by a criteria of justice. Now, can I? Can I approximate it? But liberal Zionism is about reclaiming a moral standard, a moral analysis, and a moral expectation. And I believe it starts and ends with justice. Justice is where it began. Justice for the Jews and justice is ultimately the value on the basis of which we will be tested.

Yossi: That’s beautiful. I think you’ve phrased it so powerfully. And yet I come back – and you’ve helped me clarify what I mean by responsibility because I actually don’t mean that responsibility is a consequence. I see it as the core value of Zionism. The Jewish people took responsibility for its fate.

It stopped waiting for the Messiah. It stopped waiting for someone else to help them. Taking responsibility for yourself is, to my mind, the definition of Zionism which is why my insistence on Zionism taking responsibility for the two peoples that it is entrusted with is actually not just the fulfillment, but the expression of Zionism. It is in fact, the core value.

Donniel: So let’s take a look at what would be a difference. Take Judea, Samaria, Gaza. They’re not Jews. They’re not Israelis. There’s another people here. Does responsibility also go there? Justice says justice has to be applied. Justice, justice shall you pursue. Tzedek, tzedekh tirdof.

It applies everywhere. I want justice for Palestinians. I want justice for Jews. I want to live a life where justice is the principal value that I look to approximate. I don’t live in a perfect universe. So how do you play, Yossi, with your responsibility there?

Yossi: It’s such a terrific question. Let me respond with a story about the moment when I realized that we must go for a two-state solution. It was during the first Intifada. I was my unit was sent to a Gaza refugee camp. It was 1990 and we’re walking through the camp one morning on patrol and this Palestinian boy who was mentally handicapped, joins our patrol and he’s drooling and laughing and tripping over himself. And everyone ignored him. No one, God forbid tormented him. And then he fell behind and that was the end of it. That story haunted me because what I realized is there’s no authority that cares about this boy’s fate. There’s no authority that’s going to take responsibility. If he were Israeli, we’d have institutional care. We’d have a whole social network to take care of him. Who is going to take care of this boy in a refugee camp? We were the occupier. I was an occupier. And yet, if we were not prepared to take responsibility for the well-being of those people, we had no right to rule them.

That was my moment. And that was an essential Zionist moment for me.

Donniel: So Yossi, I would slightly disagree. You and I on this issue, don’t disagree. But I would say methodologically there is a difference. So yeah, I feel very comfortable when someone, like you say, my core value is responsibility because I know the moral sensitivities that you bring to your life. But I know that responsibility devoid of a blueprint that will guide it won’t necessarily lead to the type of practices and feelings and experiences. Because a person could say I’m responsible, not responsible for you. Why should I even care? In other words, you’re bringing to the table a sense of respect, a sense of care and compassion for other humans.

I feel that part of the problem that we’ve had for too long is that we have removed justice as a guiding principle for us. It goes back to what we’ve talked about so many times. If you really care about justice, how are you still an occupier? So I want to ask that liberal Zionism says, you have to ask that. Liberal Zionism says that if you have a solution two-state, one-state, how does justice play itself out? I want us to go back to a deeply religious conversation about values in which we embrace a value. We speak about it. We think about it. And then the process of our life is a process of it unfolding, but we don’t allow our life to limit the values that we yearn.

We know that life is never going to be perfect, but I feel we’ve reversed the order now. And I think that’s exactly what you see going on in the government today. They have no idea what we’re supposed to do. Each one of them is shooting in a different direction.

A lot of times they’re doing okay. Sometimes it’s not that. It’s okay, but we’re okay with it because it’s not as bad as what could have been. It’s all functional keep this government going, follow the coalition agreement, and don’t rock the boat for four years and it should be okay. We’re missing something, Yossi.

And I think we need that. We need to go back. When I say Zionism is about justice I’m not complementing Zionism. I’m saying that is its goal. Now let’s get to work. Let’s think about all our struggles.

Yossi: You’re challenging Zionism, but you’re not Donniel. We have a government now that really is committed to acting in a reasonably just way and yet, so why is it so hard to frame this in an uplifting language? Why do Israelis have such a hard time speaking about doing the right thing, even when they are doing the right thing?

Donniel: It’s a really interesting question. Yossi, I don’t really know. When you don’t know something, you’ll look for someone to blame. I go, ah, so let’s blame someone. I got him. He’s going to blame him and it’s all his fault and that’s fine. The truth is that Israeli society, I don’t know if it has a very heightened sense of justice, which it talks about on many issues. Towards the poor, it speaks about justice towards. Towards equal rights for women and justice against abuse of women is clear. Justice for the gay and lesbian community is clear. There’s one area where we don’t talk about justice and that’s when it comes to non-Jews. And, paradoxically, do you know how long Jews have begun to buy into somebody else’s distortional view? Because I remember for years, Jews would say we are about deed and not creed as if this was some great advance that the Jewish people were about doing mitzvahs, not about spirituality.

Why? Because that’s what Paul or one version of Paul said. You Jews are about this,  we’re about the law doesn’t redeem you. It’s faith. So, in the Zionist conversation, we don’t feel we could compete. And since we don’t feel we could compete, we’ve given up and they speak about justice. Palestinians speak about justice. Israeli Arabs speak about justice. What do I want?

I want justice. And they’re absolutely right. And why should I disagree? Not only should I not disagree, that should be my deepest commitment. But what happens since they own the category, we gave it up. And the only ones who haven’t given it up are Israel’s critics. So if you use that language, you’re identified with the critic.

So along comes a Bennett who spent a career – He can’t himself even embrace it. And I think we’re lost, Yossi. I think Israeli society is lost and it’s not that everything we’re doing is flawed, but that we don’t have a blueprint for how we want to take responsibility.

Yossi: We don’t have a language, Donniel. This is incredibly stimulating. Let’s take a break. And when we return, we’ll study some Torah.

Okay, Donniel, what text have you brought for us that can help us understand a little bit more about what where we’re trying to go here?

Donniel: Now I’m under real pressure because I’m now sitting on Ilana’s slot. And the way she brings texts always is just, I personally learn and am inspired from it. I was trying to think about when we talk about justice, where does it start? And this is something I’ve been doing a lot of work. I’ve been studying this recently. And you know how it is that when you’re studying a certain text, it’s the lens through which you see things all the time. I’ve been engaged a lot with the book of Genesis. And the Bible starts in a very strange manner.

God creates the world and you assume that God is then going to be the master of the universe. But that’s not the biblical move. God creates the universe. And then in Genesis 1:26, God reverses course. And God says, “let us make you man in our image after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sky, the birds of the sea, the cattle, the whole Earth, and all the creeping things that creep on Earth.”

So what’s going on here? You’re the creator. And now you’re creating and you’re saying, “they.” God is creating human beings in God’s image. What does it mean to be created in the image of God? It means to have the power that God has. Divine image here means power. And God says, I’m creating you in my image so that you will rule the world.

You will rule everything in it. And whether God is leaving, or God is declaring a partnership with humankind and ruling the world, that we don’t know from Genesis one, but we’re placed on Earth to be the demigods, to use our power to rule. Power is an essential divine quality. And that’s what was given to us.

Yossi: This is really the opening though, to the notion of a divine-human partnership. This is the foundation for that.

Donniel: And this is also, by the way, the foundation of tikkun olam the category, which becomes so central. To be a human being is to be God’s partner in ruling and fixing the universe. The world is your responsibility. That’s Genesis one. It really is remarkable. It’s a revolutionary chapter theologically, how God is, is turning to human beings and giving them – here it is in a monotheistic faith, creating demigods and to partner with God in the universe. And God finishes the creation story and said, “God saw all that God created. And it was very good.”

And then everything falls apart. And at the end, when God in Genesis six decides to destroy the world, what is the reason for God’s deciding to destroy the world?

God says this is not the world that I was planning. Now from God’s perspective, it was great. God’s created everything is good. What was it? It was the way God’s partner used the power that God endowed us with that destroyed the universe. So what happens in Genesis 6:11.

“The earth became corrupt before God, the earth was filled with lawlessness. And when God saw how corrupt the earth was for all flesh had corrupted its way on Earth.”

God ultimately speaks to Noah and says, I want to destroy the world. So what happened? What was the core flaw? We in Genesis we were told to rule the world.

We were not given any mandate to rule over other human beings. That wasn’t part of the divine plan. God figured human beings don’t need to be ruled. They don’t. There was no plan for how we’re supposed to govern each other. There was no political system. There was no legislature.

There was no legislation as to the principles that should govern human interaction. We’re supposed to rule the world. Okay, but what did we do when the world is filled with corruption or lawlessness? That’s because we used our power to control and to dominate other people. So this is the fall.

We used our divine power and directed it in ways that we weren’t supposed to direct it.

Yossi: To go to your original language on Zionism. We did not live up to the divine standards of justice.

Donniel: Now that would be the ending. See, because up until this stage, we don’t have them. There are no defined standards. God didn’t give us any direction up to this point. Does it exist? All God did was give us power. But the rule of human being over human being created a corrupt universe where we were treating other people as means to our own end.

And then there’s two beautiful turns of phrase that I’d like to share with our audience. One is in in Genesis nine, where God takes the principle of being created the image of God, which in Genesis one meant that you have power and God now in verse six, says, “whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed for in his image did God make man.”

The first thing now is we shift what the image of God means. The image of God doesn’t give the human being power. The image of God creates equal value for all human beings. So first we shift Genesis one from being the gift of power and the mandate to be divine partners, being created in the image of God now creates another human being, who can’t be a means to your end.

And then the story is brought to a conclusion. This initial journey is brought to conclusion in Genesis 18, where God says to Abraham, and this is the beginning of the Jewish journey where God says to Abraham shall I hide from Abraham what I’m about to do? And he says, “for I have singled him out.” This is Genesis 18:19

One of my favorite verses in the whole Torah is, “I have singled Abraham out. I have chosen him.” Why? “That he may instruct his children, and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” Now, this is where it comes in. What does it mean to walk in the way of God? To walk in the way of God is not just to have power. To walk in the way of God is to use your power for justice and righteousness

And this is the circle. Now the creation story is ready to begin. And in fact, that’s what Abraham does in this famous chapter. When he turns to God, who’s about to destroy the city of Sodom. And he says to God, no you’re acting like the hamas. You’re acting like human beings. In your creation story that you had enough with.

You don’t get to use your power however you want simply because you have it. That was our flaw. You choose us because we’re supposed to use our power for justice and righteousness. And now Abraham turns to God and says, “will the judge of the whole earth not deal justly.” So this principle of justice and if the world could be destroyed through a failure of justice, Zionism and Israel could be destroyed.

That’s our challenge. Our challenge is to be Abraham. If I would play it on your categories, Zionism gives us the power to be responsible, but how we use that, we either destroy our world or we give it meaning. Are we going to fall or are we going to aspire?

The key is how justice plays out in the story.

Yossi: So to bring it full circle, back to your really foundational point. When we were speaking earlier, you mentioned you quoted tzion b’mishpat tipadeh. It was a Freudian slip. You mistranslated by saying rather than Zion shall be redeemed with justice, Zionism shall be redeemed with justice, but maybe that wasn’t a misquote in the end.

Because really what we’re saying is that the fulfillment of Zionism in our time is to really fulfill not only Zionism’s foundational principle but the Torah’s foundational principle. Who we were when we were launched as a people. Donniel, always a pleasure.

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our shows are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online shalomhartman.org We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show.

You can also write to us at, [email protected] Subscribe to our show in the apple podcast app, Spotify, SoundCloud, or audible, and everywhere else, podcasts are available. See you in two weeks. Thanks for listening. And quick healing to Elana and her family.

Donniel:  Amen. Thank you, Yossi.