On Wednesday, April 29, J Street U, in conjunction with Wesleyan’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the University Government Department, hosted a debate titled, “Is Progressive Zionism Possible?” Director of Programming and Development at Partners for Progressive Israel Maya Haber and Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University Zachary Lockman participated in the debate, moderated by Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the University’s History department Jeremy Zwelling.
The event was primarily organized by Yael Fisher ’18 and Ella Israeli ’17.
“We try to hold at least one speaker or panel a semester,” Israeli said. “For example, last semester we co-sponsored a talk by Gershon Baskin, one of the negotiators between Israel and Hamas, which was really exciting. I think events like these are really beneficial because they are not only informative, but [they] also [present] the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a larger audience beyond those that come to our meetings.”
The debate began with Teter, who provided background on the origin and evolution of Zionism. She detailed Theodor Herzl’s contributions to modern political Zionism.
“His vision of a state for Jew[s] was not a Jewish state,” Teter said. “His work, written in German, is often mistakenly translated as the Jewish state. In fact, Der Judenstaat [translates to] the state for Jews or of Jews. He saw [this state] as a liberal democracy that everyone would be able to enjoy. ‘Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.’”
Lockman spoke of America’s ties to Israel. He stated that he believes that American citizens are deeply implicated in the conflict, calling the United States is Israel’s chief enabler. He further provided additional information on the early Zionist movement.
“Zionism, because it has been a movement of migration and settlement, on necessity, had to be a settler colonial movement which sought to bring large numbers of Jews from where they actually lived to settle in Palestine,” Lockman said. “And the land, and this is a critical fact, was already inhabited by another people.”
He went on to say that even the most liberal Zionists, such as Herzl, knew that a necessary condition for Zionism was the seizure of Palestinian land. Now that this land is largely under Israel’s control, non-Jewish citizens are treated as second-class. He expressed his belief that the actions of the Israeli government have greatly contributed to new kinds of anti-Semitism.
“Israel is not a liberal democratic state in the way we think of in the Untied States,” Lockman said. “In principle, all U.S. citizens are equal in front of the law. Israel defines itself not of a state of its citizens but as a state of all Jews everywhere.”
Lastly, Haber spoke of her experience growing up in Israel and her concerns about the country’s political direction. She cited statistics from the 2014 Israeli Democracy Index Survey. For example, 74 percent of Israeli Jews think decisions about peace and security should be determined by a Jewish majority, and 46 percent of Israelis think that harsh criticism of Israel should be forbidden.
“I think the major roadblock we are dealing with when it comes to what we call progressive Zionism, is that Zionism is just not progressive,” Haber said. “Israeli society is just not there. They don’t believe in it [democracy]. You hear awful things when you are on the street in Israel, and this is the most difficult roadblock to any kind of change.”
The debate ended with an open discussion session in which students were able to ask the speakers questions regarding the debate.
“I really enjoyed it; it fit in with a lot of my own opinions,” Israeli said. “I thought the discussion of current Israeli society was especially intriguing and important, but also somewhat disheartening. Similarly to the panel at the National Conference, I liked how it took a more ideological than political approach. I was also pleased with the turn out and the discussions I heard among students afterwards.”