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Liberal Zionist Awakening

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) hands the Genesis Award to Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, during the Genesis Award ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater, on Thursday, June 23, 2016. Photo by Kobi Gideon / GPO

Master violinist Itzhak Perlman is one of the most beloved Jewish public figures of the last half-century. His personal story; his ​precocious​ musical mastery and his victory over polio; his skills, modesty and playfulness, have made him an unassailable example of the humane, artistic, thinking Jew.

In a Billboard interview, after the release of the documentary film “Itzhak,” Perlman’s wife Toby said it was “problematic” meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for tea after receiving last year’s Genesis Prize (shown in the movie), but Itzhak Perlman said he felt he must honor the office.

The Genesis Prize is an award of four years’ standing given to recognize outstanding Jews’ “dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.” It aims to inspire “unity throughout the global Jewish community and the State of Israel.”

Regarding a hypothetical invitation to meet President Trump, Perlman said, “My argument about respecting the office? In this case I would definitely make an exception.” Perlman shows that limits can be reached.

The question is, can they be reached for him regarding Israel?

In refusing to appear at a ceremony with Netanyahu to accept her Genesis Prize this spring, Natalie Portman has illustrated that the dilemma of the liberal Zionist remains bleak.

In refusing to appear at a ceremony with Netanyahu to accept her Genesis Prize this spring, Natalie Portman has illustrated that the dilemma of the liberal Zionist remains bleak. The key of liberal Zionism has been to count experiences of Arabs as exceptions to a generally wholesome Zionist project. As Palestinian Arabs find more voice in American media, pretending to that general blamelessness becomes harder.

Jewish Israelis live in a hothouse atmosphere of Jewish nationalism and existential threat. Among younger American Jews, Pew Research Center found there is a big drop-off in belief that support for Israel is important to Jewish identity, presumably due to their experience and practice of coexistence with non-Jews in the US.

There is a divergence between behavior of the older, Zionist-minded donors to Jewish Federations and the mass of American Jews.

It is hard for liberal Zionists to abandon Zionism once they accept it. While they don’t resist acknowledging the unjustness, cruelty, and dishonor built in to the project, they balk when it comes to abandoning the basic concept of “the one and only Jewish state,” as PM Netanyahu evokes at every possible occasion,

Functionally, there is no difference between a liberal Zionist and Netanyahu, a theme that should be emphasized. When the romance of “the one & only” is accepted, the ills are all there, inherent in the imposition of a Jewish state in an already populated land, leading to the recent slaughter of Gaza refugees.

Jewish life is hemmed with prohibitions to help protect human life, and we praise ourselves for our superior ethical nature. We should remind ourselves that history is full of cruel forces that believed they were fighting against barbarism and for civilization.

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Looking to the example of how long it took the Zionist movement to take over Jewish institutions in the last century, the anti-Zionist movement among Jews faces a long fractious struggle to victory. Does that struggle, important in Jewish life, have any relevance to the struggle of Palestinians?

After the IDF began its human turkey shoot at the Gaza border, liberal Zionist Peter Beinartwrote, “Our community’s complicity in the human nightmare in Gaza should fill every American Jew with shame. The first step toward ending that complicity is to stop lying to ourselves.”

The “New Jew,” a proud, confident Jew, was meant to be created in the Zionist movement as a cure for what was diagnosed as the fatal meekness of the “unnatural” scholarly or mercantile Jews of Galut (exile). The aim and slogan was to “Negate the Diaspora!”

Historian Yitzhak Conforti writes that “the idea of the new Jew is an expression of the radical revolution that Zionism aspired to create in the life of the Jewish people.” In political Zionism, “the new Jew is a modern person stripped of historical baggage.”

Not only is the “New Jew” meant to be a proud creation, the state he creates is to be “invincible.” It is legitimate to ask whether we have made ourselves into something shameful, in our pursuit of strength and dignity. Shameful, as recognized early in the first aliyah period by cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) who raised the alarm that political Zionism imagined it could push Arabs of Palestine aside. Lo zeh haderech, “This is not the way,” he wrote.

After Natalie Portman’s startling refusal to be honored by the ”Genesis” Prize, is it unimaginable to think that Itzhak Perlman might honor the Palestine civil society appeal to boycott Israel?

If Mr Perlman is a Mondoweiss reader — not impossible — we may hear from him. He is known to be an avid supporter of social justice causes, and refused an opportunity to perform in North Carolina in protest of the anti-LGBT law HB2 two years ago.

The “major” American Jewish organizations, now anchored in Israel “advocacy,” are paralyzed from action. In a statement deaf to the sentiments of most Americans if not to their donors, the American Jewish Committee weighed in on Gaza: The AJC stands “shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel” and praises the Trump administration.

“We thank Washington for this moral clarity, when too many others suffer from moral fog.”

It is left to individual American Jews of prominence to break the taboo on speaking frankly on Israeli conduct. This will be a sign of the sentiment of everyday Jews making changes the ”major” Jewish organisations have not. Maybe they will carry Itzhak Perlman with them.

abba solomon

Abba Solomon

The movie “Itzhak is in theatrical release, and will be televised in PBS’ American Mastersseries.

P.S. Thanks to commenter Eljay for correction re Perlman’s Holocaust background.