Opinion | Confessions of a Liberal Zionist


By Steve Mendelsohn

I am a knee-jerk liberal.

I am in favor of women’s reproductive rights, in favor of universal health care, in favor of gun control, in favor of protecting the environment, in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana, in favor of consumer protectionism, in favor of gay marriage, in favor of immigration, in favor of a livable minimum wage, in favor of sanctuary cities, in favor of civil rights and equal rights and in favor of a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, not just DACA participants.

I am against the wall, against the deregulation of the banks, against defunding Planned Parenthood, against the death penalty, against the privatization of schools and prisons. I believe that black lives matter, too. You name a liberal or progressive cause, and I’m almost certain to be in favor of it. I wear the badge of “knee-jerk liberal” with pride.

Like every good knee-jerk liberal, my natural inclinations are with the underdog. Liberals favor migrant farmworkers over corporate farmers, minimum-wage workers over Wall Street bankers, immigrants over protectionists, the polluted over the polluters, the disenfranchised over the disenfranchisers. The weak over the strong.

In other words, David over Goliath.

I am also an ardent Zionist. I believe that the Jewish people have the right to a homeland and that that homeland is the modern state of Israel. As a Zionist, I am pro-Israel. That doesn’t mean that I automatically agree with every policy of the Israeli government, but it does mean that I support Israel in its struggle for existence against its enemies.

Before March 26, 1979, it was much easier to be both a knee-jerk liberal and an ardent Zionist. From the founding of the modern state of Israel on May 14, 1948, until March 26, 1979, Israel was the underdog.

Before March 26, 1979, the Mideast crisis looked like this: It was little Israel against the vast and powerful Arab world, including its immediate neighbors Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Libya and Tunisia and Morocco and Algeria and Yemen and Kuwait and on and on. Israel was David, and Goliath was the entire Arab world.

I was born in the late 1950s and grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. I remember my jubilation after the Six-Day War in 1967 as well as my fear during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In those days, it was relatively easy for a knee-jerk liberal to be an ardent Zionist.

All of that changed on March 26, 1979, when Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt, the most populous and most powerful Arab country. Without Egypt, there was no way that Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world were going to threaten Israel’s existence.

Since March 26, 1979, the Mideast crisis has looked like this: Israel went from being David to being Goliath, and the Palestinians became the new David.

Some knee-jerk liberals who became ardent Zionists before March 26, 1979 stayed true to their Zionism and became less liberal. That partially explains the increase in the number of Jewish Republicans over the last few decades. Other knee-jerk liberals who became ardent Zionists before March 26, 1979 stayed true to their liberalism and became less Zionistic.

But there are still some of us who have struggled to stay true to both our knee-jerk liberalism and our ardent Zionism. And, frankly, it hasn’t been easy.

To the ardent Zionist in me, there are housing projects in liberated Judea and Samaria. To the knee-jerk liberal in me, there are illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

To the ardent Zionist in me, Israel withdrew its army and forcibly evacuated Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. To the knee-jerk liberal in me, Gaza is still effectively, if not physically, occupied (by Israel and Egypt).

To the ardent Zionist in me, Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people. To the knee-jerk liberal in me, East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian Arab country or at least maintained as an international city.

To the ardent Zionist in me, the Law of Return, which grants every Jew the right to citizenship in the state of Israel, is what Zionism is all about. To the knee-jerk liberal in me, it is a discriminatory policy.

The latest challenge for us liberal Zionists is intersectionality: the growing alliance between traditional liberal groups whose core issues have nothing to do with the Mideast crisis and anti-Zionists. Anti-Zionists have done a masterful job co-opting and, frankly, duping many of my fellow knee-jerk liberals.

As a knee-jerk liberal, I have been no fan of conservative political adviser Frank Luntz, the coiner of the term “death tax” to incite ignorant people against estate taxes and the term “climate change” to tranquilize the ill-informed about global warming.

But as an ardent Zionist, I have a newfound appreciation for Luntz, who explained to a crowd of Zionists at a recent Zionist Organization of America event that the way to counter the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is to talk the language of liberals.

Don’t call them anti-Semites. Those who are anti-Semites are probably irredeemable. But many BDS supporters are not. Many of them are just my fellow confused knee-jerk liberals who need to be educated about Israel being the only country in the Middle East that protects free speech and religious pluralism and ethnic pluralism and gay rights and women’s rights. With that information, maybe more of my fellow knee-jerk liberals will understand and appreciate that knee-jerk liberalism and ardent Zionism are not incompatible after all. 

Steve Mendelsohn is a patent attorney at the Philadelphia intellectual property law firm of Mendelsohn Dunleavy, P.C. He is a vice chair on the local board of the Anti-Defamation League.



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