Is It Possible to Be A Left-Wing Zionist?
The ongoing war in Israel is one of the main political topics of conversation all across the globe. These conversations have become hotbeds for mis- and disinformation. As a Jewish leftist, it has been incredibly disheartening to see so many non-Jewish leftists saying things like “all Jews are Zionists” when in their minds anyone who is associated with the term Zionist hates Palestinians and wants them all dead. In actuality, supporters of the idea of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, or even Israel as a country, do not hold one consistent ideology.
The notion that all Israel-supporters agree with all of the actions of the current right-wing Israeli government and do not envision an end to the suffering of innocent Palestinians is inaccurate. It erases both the progressive figures in Israeli history that dedicated their lives to fighting for social justice and furthering the leftist economic policies in Israel, as well as the idea that the Israeli government is capable of changing in the future.
The Israeli government, unlike America’s two-party system, is made up of many small parties that must form coalitions. This means that, in theory, the government can be incredibly ideologically diverse. While it may not be exactly the case right now (see: the ongoing debates over judicial reform), there have been many people in Israel’s short history that have gone against the grain to form progressive parties in the government. A key figure in bringing progressive ideas into the Israeli government was Shulamit Aloni.
Born in Poland in 1927 and raised in Tel Aviv, Aloni had a difficult childhood. Her parents joined the British army during World War II, leaving Aloni to learn to fend for herself in a youth village, where her younger brother drowned at age thirteen. Her rough early life inspired her passion for social involvement. While studying to become an educator, Aloni joined the Palmach, a quasi-military started in the 1940s in Palestine. The Palmach gained financial support and training from the British as the threat of a Nazi invasion of the Middle East loomed. After World War II ended and the threat of Nazis attacking Jews in Palestine subsided, the British became unwilling to grant Israel statehood, and so the Palmach channeled their energy into fighting the British. Aloni served in the Palmach in 1947-1948 during the Israeli War of Independence.
In 1965, Aloni was recruited to serve as a Knesset member by leaders of Mapai, the Zionist-Socialist party, many of whom were also Palmach fighters. In her first term, she was a part of the labor party coalition known as the Alignment. Between 1965 and the 1969 elections, she had become more outspoken about her social democratic ideas, which were seen as too radical, causing her to be dropped by the Labor Party.
In 1973, Aloni left the Labor Party for good and started a new, more progressive party, Ratz, becoming the first woman to start a political party in Israel. Ratz’s goal was advancing the human rights of everyone living in Israel. Ratz was an expressly secular party, and members spoke out against the Labor Party’s collaboration with religious parties. Even before starting Ratz, Aloni was committed to lessening the power of Israel’s rabbinical courts. She worked to help people who faced discrimination from the rabbinical courts, especially women. The government in Israel only recognizes religious marriages, for members of any religion. In 1970, Aloni worked on contractual marriages and actively encouraged couples to not perform religious marriages. Another primary goal of the Ratz party was peace with the Palestinians. The party advocated for the withdrawal from settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. They also called for a peace settlement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Ratz supported a wide range of progressive ideas, such as championing women’s rights and election reform. Ratz merged with other progressive parties in 1992 to form the Meretz party. As of 2022, Meretz no longer holds any seats in the Knesset.
Shulamit Aloni was one of many people who proved that being a Zionist is not a monolithic identity. She, and others like her, fought for the expansion of rights for Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews. She recognized that the way to enact change is not to run away from the structures you disagree with, but to enmesh yourself within them to force change. She never gave up loving Israel just because she didn’t like what the majority of the government was doing and they didn’t like what she was doing. She had a vision of a more equal Israel that she worked hard to bring into being.
It’s vital that Jewish progressives, myself included, follow in the footsteps of Shulamit Aloni and not throw out the baby with the bath water when it comes to Israel. Now more than ever, disagreements with aspects of the Israeli government should not keep us from supporting our Jewish siblings in Israel. But supporting Israel in the face of unprecedented terror attacks can and should go along with thinking change is necessary. While many non-Jewish leftists are quick to suggest that Israel is inherently an unjust and oppressive nation, we have a responsibility to support Israel, not only by defending it now, but by working to realize progressive values in Israeli society, helping the country realize its potential as a safe haven for all different types of people.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.