Liberal Zionism is the insistence that there is no necessary contradiction between Israel’s dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state: that Israel can be a national home and refuge for the Jewish people while also embodying universal democratic principles of human rights and equality. Threading this needle, for liberal Zionists, means Israel must adopt a more liberal set of policies — most importantly, a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians that allows both peoples to live with security and dignity.
Prior to October 7, liberal Zionism appeared defeated: broken by the failure of the 1990s peace process and subsequent collapse of the left-wing Israeli parties that stood for its ideals. And on its face, this moment seems like a poor time for a revival.
Israel’s conduct during the war has been nothing short of horrific: slaughtering entire families in Gaza, enabling mass settler violence in the West Bank, and cracking down on anti-war dissent at home. Israel’s most strident defenders see no problem with its actions, placing the blame for all civilian deaths on Hamas. The Jewish state’s harshest critics, by contrast, see these abuses as an expression of what Israel always was: a racist colonial enterprise that must be abolished “from the river to the sea.”
The world seems more neatly polarized than ever into pro- and anti-Israel camps. The term “liberal Zionist” is scarcely used even by those who believe in its ideals; it is more commonly deployed as a leftist slur against more Israel-sympathetic progressives.
But it’s precisely this polarization that has helped produce a quiet revival of liberal Zionist thinking in the Jewish world.
For this group, the October 7 attacks are proof positive that Jews need a strong and robust state of their own. Antisemitic groups like Hamas will stop at nothing to murder Jews, even babies and peace activists, and only a government of our own can protect us. The inability of large swaths of the global left to recognize this has profoundly alienated some Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, from some erstwhile anti-Zionist allies.
But these liberal-minded Jews have not flown to the Zionist right. Many are horrified by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s conduct during the war. They also blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s illiberal Zionist government for the attack, citing policies like pulling troops away from Gaza to help colonize the West Bank and cynically strengthening Hamas to keep Palestinians divided and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state.
I have heard these broad liberal Zionist attitudes expressed again and again by public intellectuals and private acquaintances around the Jewish world. Post-October 7 polling of the Israeli public has shown that, at least so far, the war has not caused a lurch to the right. Rather, there’s been a clear move to the center — and even some cautious signs that liberal Zionism could make a political comeback down the line.
I don’t know if I would define myself as a liberal Zionist. To me, identifying as a “Zionist” of any kind feels antiquated, a 20th-century hangover pounding inside 21st-century Jewish heads. Israel today is not an aspiration but a reality: The question is not whether one supports the notion of a Jewish state, but how we should think about this Jewish state.
But the war has shown there’s a lot of value in the liberal Zionist tradition. Its heirs have offered a better accounting of October 7 and its bloody consequences than their rivals on either the left or the right. This intellectual success may be laying the groundwork for a liberal Zionist political revival — one of the only ways out of this increasingly bloody and terrible conflict.
The deep roots of liberal Zionism
In 1902, the Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl — widely seen as the founding father of the Zionist movement — published a novel titled Altneuland (Old-New Land). The book laid out, in some detail, his idealized vision for what a Jewish state would look like.
In Herzl’s utopia, there’s universal suffrage for all residents of the land — including Arabs. One of the book’s more sympathetic characters is an Arab chemist named Reschid Bey; the leading villain is a Jewish supremacist named Dr. Geyer, who is running for political office on a platform of stripping Arabs and other minorities of rights. Geyer is ultimately defeated — so humiliated by his liberal rivals that he emigrates in shame.
Herzl modeled the Geyer character on Dr. Karl Lueger, a vicious antisemite who became mayor of Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Some of the Geyer faction’s anti-Arab rants are, per Israeli philosopher Shlomo Avineri, virtual copy-pastes of Lueger’s antisemitic tirades with the nouns changed. Herzl foresaw that a Jewish state could contain the seeds of bigotry toward non-Jewish residents, and he urged the young Zionist movement to resist: to avoid engaging in the kind of bigotry against Arabs that Europeans had long engaged in toward Jews.
“The message of the Geyer episode in Old-New Land is plain and powerful: what failed in Europe — liberalism and equal rights — will triumph in Zion,” Avineri writes in The Jewish Review of Books.
This message is the essence of the liberal Zionist ideal: that a Jewish state is not a divergence from ideals of universal human rights and equality, but an expression of them. Jews deserve a state because we are equal to other peoples who have their own nations — no better and no worse. Once entrusted with a state, Jews are obligated to abide by the same principles that bind every other nation: universal moral rules derived from ideals of human rights, democracy, and equality.
Over time, this liberal vision of Zionism emerged less as a distinct political grouping — the two leading pre-state Zionist factions were socialist and conservative-nationalist, respectively — than as a current running through the entire movement. Liberal ideas were partially and to varying degrees influential on different figures across the Zionist political spectrum; the question was how influential liberalism would prove to be once Zionism willed its dream of a Jewish state into existence.
The rise and fall of liberal Zionism in Israel
Israel declared in-principle allegiance to liberal ideals from the get-go. Its Declaration of Independence announced that the new state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Since then, Israel has consistently held free elections amid robust and contentious public debate. International databases on democracy have regularly concluded that Israel clears the bar.
But while Israel may have long been a high-quality democracy for the Jewish majority, Arabs experienced the state very differently.
During the 1948 War of Independence, Jewish militias engaged in widespread violence that forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes — an event Palestinians call the Nakba, literally “the Catastrophe.” Those Palestinians who remained in Israel were given Israeli citizenship, but also put under a separate-and-unequal military regime until 1966. The year after this military rule ended, Israel took control of an even larger Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank, imposing a new military regime over an Arab population that, this time, was denied Israeli citizenship rights.
The occupation, as this regime is now known, quickly emerged as the central challenge for liberal Zionists. In 1968, the Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz — known for pioneering arguments in favor of the separation of synagogue and state — warned that continued Jewish control over the territories would “effect the liquidation of the state of Israel [and] bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole.”
Specifically, he predicted, ruling over “a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners” would require Israel “to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other.” Controlling such a population would require the creation of a “secret-police state, with all that implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.”
Preventing this dystopia would, by the end of the 20th century, emerge as the central task of liberal Zionism. Its adherents proposed the creation of a Palestinian state for the sake of Palestinians, who deserved to live in freedom and dignity, but also for Israelis, who would not be able to maintain both democracy and the Occupation simultaneously.
In this, liberal Zionism failed.
This was not for lack of effort: In the 1990s, the spirit of liberal Zionism pervaded Israeli politics. The government passed two major new Basic Laws (the Israeli equivalent of constitutional amendments), historic protections for human rights that Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak famously termed a “constitutional revolution.” Around the same time, Israel reached two agreements with the Palestinians — called the Oslo Accords — that created the Palestinian Authority as an interim step toward a full Palestinian state.
But the peace process collapsed into violence, making the 2000s a decade of nearly continuous war with Palestinians. Liberal Zionism was a casualty of these conflicts.
The decade of violence shattered Israeli Jews’ faith in the left-wing parties that embodied liberal Zionist ideals, leading Jewish voters to shift dramatically rightward. In 2014, the New York Times published an essay declaring “the end of liberal Zionism.” In 2020, leading American Jewish intellectual Peter Beinart declared that “the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed.”
Today, an increasingly extreme Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister of Israel for 13 out of the last 14 years. In the November 2022 election that returned him to power after his single year out, the center-left Labor party won four seats in Parliament — out of a total of 120. The far-right Religious Zionism slate, whose leaders openly endorse apartheid in the West Bank, won 14.
By the time Netanyahu returned to the premiership on December 29, Leibowitz’s predictions had come true. Israel had engaged in endless bloody wars with Hamas in Gaza, transformed the Palestinian Authority into a collaborationist entity, ushered fascists into its cabinet, enacted the so-called “nation-state” Basic Law discriminating against non-Jewish citizens, and even attacked its vaunted democratic institutions. The philosopher’s warning — that “the corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel” if it maintained control over the Palestinian territories — had proven to be prophecy.
It appeared to many that the liberal Zionist dream of reconciling Zionism with equality was impossible: that there would need to be a choice between Zionism and equality. Those who insisted otherwise in the Jewish community appeared increasingly out of touch — living in a fantasy world where the 1990s never ended.
October 7 and the Jewish left’s return to Zionism
The events of 2023 suggest that the obituaries for liberal Zionism offered by its enemies on both the right and the left may have been premature.
The new Netanyahu government’s first major initiative, a radical revamping of Israel’s judiciary designed to bring it under political control, met with unprecedented resistance from the Israeli population. Protests against the overhaul became easily the largest social movement in the country’s history. For months, protesters took to the streets of Israeli towns and cities, chanting for one thing: “de-mo-cracy!” They succeeded in blocking the vast bulk of the original court overhaul package (at least for now).
The demonstrations only stopped when Israel suffered the worst tragedy in its history: Hamas’s massacre in southern Israel on October 7.
Describing that day’s events as shattering for Israelis would vastly understate the case. Killing around 1,200 people and taking another 240 hostage, Hamas had perpetrated the worst killing of Jews since the Holocaust. In Israel, a country with a total population of less than 10 million, nearly everyone was directly affected by the attack or knew someone who was; so did many in the Jewish diaspora (the bulk of whom live in the United States).
In his comments on the tragedy, President Joe Biden memorably compared the Hamas attack to “fifteen 9/11s.” This is true not just in population-adjusted casualty terms, but also in the way that it has changed Israelis’ sense of their own political circumstances.
“Our lives here, as Israelis, will never be the same after October 7,” writes Haggai Matar, the executive director of the left-wing Israeli magazine +972.
At this vulnerable moment, many Jews in both Israel and the diaspora who had become alienated from Zionism began rediscovering some of its virtues. In the left-liberal Jewish intellectual world, there has been a kind of quiet return to Zionism — one that has blossomed for at least two reasons.
The first was the nature of the Hamas attack itself, which in its sheer brutality led to a renewed appreciation of the reason for having a Jewish state in the first place.
“Almost a year we’ve been fighting for our democracy. Now, in the last 10 days, many, many people feel that we’re in a fight for our existence,” Stav Shaffir, a former member of Israel’s Parliament from the center-left Labor party, told me in an October 17 interview.
Even some on the radical left, like Matar, began playing up essential Zionist ideas about Jewish self-determination and protection in a way they didn’t beforehand. He writes:
The new reality will require some realignments. Alongside our commitment to the full realization of all Palestinians’ rights, our progressive, anti-apartheid movement will have to be explicit about the collective rights of Jews in this land, and to ensure that their security is guaranteed in whatever solution is found. We will have to contend with Hamas and its place in this new reality, ensuring it can no longer commit such attacks on Israelis, just as we insist on the security of Palestinians and their protection from Israeli military and settler aggression. Without this, it will be impossible to move forward.
But it wasn’t just the attack itself that brought Jews back to Zionism. It was the indifferent, at times even supportive, response to the massacre from elements of the international left.
Hamas didn’t only slaughter innocents in their homes. They deliberately did so on territory that was one of the remaining redoubts of the embattled Israeli left. These border communities disproportionately drew Israelis who believed in coexistence with Palestinians and wanted to reach across the Gaza border to find common ground. Victims included people like Vivian Silver, the founder of Women Wage Peace, an organization that describes itself as “the largest grassroots peace movement in Israel today.”
For a lot of people on the Jewish left, this attack was deeply personal. Their friends, family, and comrades had just been murdered — and the response from those abroad they saw as allies was, all too often, ruthless support for “decolonization” or a kind of “anti-anti-Hamas’’ response that treated condemnation of Palestinian “resistance” as somehow inappropriate. They felt, as Haaretz news editor Linda Dayan puts it, “truly alone.”
“In Hebrew, I rage against the abusive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, the police’s clampdown on dissent, the calls to return to the Gaza settlements,” Dayan writes. “But the overseas messaging leaves little room for this nuance. Instead, I find myself hawkishly telling my foreign peers that the terror group next door cannot continue its reign, and that a cease-fire that does not mandate an end to Hamas and a return of the hostages is tacit approval for an October 7 redux.”
She is not alone in this feeling. In mid-November, an open letter signed by over 100 prominent Israeli leftists and liberals — including two former leaders of the left-wing Meretz party and prominent intellectuals like Etgar Keret, David Grossman, and Yuval Noah Harari — condemned both the level of violence employed by the IDF against Palestinians and the callousness of many on the global left.
“Me and many other Israelis were not invested in the concept of Zionism — it is not something that we would defend — until now,” Ran Heilbrunn, a German Israeli writer who organized the letter, tells me.
The sense of loneliness and attendant return to Zionism was, if anything, even more pronounced in the diaspora.
Jews living abroad are always tiny minorities in our home countries and, for this reason, tend to be politically progressive. In the pre-liberal era, we were routinely slaughtered and persecuted. Today, most of us see values like tolerance and equality as not just ideals but cornerstones of our very survival.
When people who claimed to stand for those values seemed to abandon them in their response to Hamas’s attack, something in the diaspora Jewish psychology snapped. Scenes like those at an October 8 rally in Times Square promoted by the local Democratic Socialists of America, in which speakers praised Hamas’s assault and mocked the Israeli dead, created a profound sense of fear and alienation.
The New York Times described the community as “reaching a breaking point” after discovering “that many of their ideological allies not only failed to perceive the same threats [to Jews] but also saw them as oppressors deserving of blame.” My own experiences suggest something similar.
As I’m someone who writes about Israel and global politics professionally, my friends have turned to me during the current fighting to share their fears, worries, and anxieties. Among Jewish progressives, these conversations almost always come back to the way that their allies on the left have downplayed or even justified Hamas’s conduct.
“The explosion of anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence occasioned by the war in Gaza — the stabbing of a Jewish woman in France, the shootings of Jewish day schools in Montreal, the killing of a Jewish protester near Los Angeles — has forced me to reckon with how often anti-Zionism and antisemitism are intertwined. Abhorrence of the Jewish state slips easily into abhorrence of Jews,” writes Michelle Goldberg, a left-wing columnist at the New York Times.
The Gaza war and the flight from the right
In theory, this return to Zionism could have led to a rightward shift among Israeli and diaspora liberals: a sense that Palestinians were incapable of making peace, that the only language they understood was force. Historically, this has tended to be the case: Political scientists have repeatedly documented a direct link between terror attacks inside Israel and increased support for right-wing parties.
But by and large, this hasn’t happened. Jews in Israel and abroad did not suddenly become more approving of continued colonization of the West Bank. Quite the opposite: What we’ve seen in the last month looks like a turn away from the right, not toward it. While there is not yet a full-blown liberal Zionist resurgence in the polls, the dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and his allies has created an opening for its political revival in a postwar reality.
This is true even though international coverage of the war has been dominated by horrific images of Israeli slaughter of Palestinian civilians, its cutoff of water and electricity, and a series of inflammatory statements by the current Israeli leadership. When nearly 18,000 Palestinians are dead, killed by a government where sitting parliamentarians have called for a second Nakba and the use of nuclear weapons on Gazans, can speaking of a move away from the anti-Palestinian extreme be anything but a grotesque evasion of reality?
But the Israeli people are not the same as the Israeli government, and the politics of the present are not necessarily the politics of the future. Nearly every available metric shows Netanyahu and his far-right allies hemorrhaging support after the war — possibly portending a postwar realignment where the Israeli public reverses the country’s 20-plus years of right-wing political drift.
One mid-November poll of Israelis found that, were elections held tomorrow, Netanyahu’s pre-war coalition would decline from 64 seats in the Knesset to just 45 (out of a total of 120). The collapse is concentrated among Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right Religious Zionist party, the latter of which (per another November poll) would lose every seat it currently holds. The opposition parties, by contrast, would surge to 79.
These numbers reflect deep discontent with the political status quo. An Israel Democracy Institute poll found trust in the government hitting the lowest point in its history of gathering data on the topic; a survey from Bar-Ilan University found that less than 4 percent of Jewish Israelis see Netanyahu as a reliable source of information on the war. A December poll found that 72 percent of Israelis want him to resign.
Of course, a turn against Netanyahu does not necessarily mean a turn toward liberalism.
Polling shows that Israeli Jews largely approve of the IDF’s performance during the war in Gaza. It also finds waning support for two-state negotiations, seemingly reflecting despair that any such agreement could be reached during wartime. At present, the primary beneficiary of Netanyahu’s poll collapse is the National Unity party led by former Gen. Benny Gantz — a center-right faction that joined Netanyahu’s government after October 7 on an emergency wartime basis. That means that one of the leaders who has presided over the brutalization of Gaza is also the man most likely to be Israel’s next prime minister.
But a Gantz-led government, while hardly left-wing, would be a significant improvement, from a liberal Zionist point of view. Gantz is a staunch opponent of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul and hostile to the extreme right that Netanyahu has embraced. Moreover, his most plausible coalition partners would come from centrist and left-wing parties, pushing the political center of gravity well to the left of where it is now. Policy toward the Palestinians would likely change accordingly.
“Gantz is no dove, but he’s very different from Netanyahu in terms of the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank,” says Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
So while Gantz’s rise is not a sign that the Israeli public has returned to liberal Zionism overnight, it is clear evidence of a break with the far right that seemed ascendant prior to the war. While previous terrorist attacks pushed Israelis to the right, the worst such attack in the country’s history seems to be pushing them back to the center.
The truth is that most Israelis are neither solidly on the ideological right nor the ideological left when it comes to the conflict. The majority — which Yehuda Shaul, president of the Israeli Center for Public Affairs, has termed “the control camp” — just wants to be able to live their lives in safety and in confidence that their government can handle whatever threats there are to Israeli lives.
After the failure of the peace process, most of these voters felt like the right could do a better job at providing the control they crave. Indeed, Netanyahu leaned so much into this identity that he was called “Mr. Security.” In reality, his governments often subordinated Israeli security to right-wing ideology — taking actions that actually increased the risk of a terrorist attack as part of the crusade to colonize the West Bank.
These actions included propping up Hamas’s rule in Gaza by facilitating payments to Hamas from Qatar, a stratagem designed to keep Palestinians divided and negotiations unthinkable. They included shifting military resources to protect West Bank settlements: On October 7, 32 IDF battalions were deployed to protect settlements, while just two were placed on the Gaza border. They included the judicial overhaul, a policy designed partly to end court interference with settlement expansion — and one that Israel’s intelligence and military leaders repeatedly warned was making Israel seem divided, weak, and vulnerable to its enemies.
All of this and more has been noted by the Israeli public. In the wake of the attack, the far right’s reputation as the protectors of Israel’s safety — the muscular and pragmatic alternative to naive liberal Zionists — has been shattered. Strikingly, one poll showed a significant uptick in the percentage of Israelis who believe that a center-left government would perform better at providing security for Israelis. That included a 10-point increase among self-identified right-wingers.
“After October 7 ... the right doesn’t have an answer to security,” said Yossi Beilin, a leading architect of the 1990s-era Oslo peace agreements with Palestinians.
In the diaspora, long the stronghold of liberal Zionism, there has similarly been no flight to the right — and plenty of signs of a reassertion of liberal ideals.
In mid-November, for example, Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) gave a floor speech condemning what he saw as indefensible killing of Palestinians. “The extent of civilian death and suffering in Gaza is unnecessary. It is a moral failure, and it should be unacceptable to the United States,” Ossoff, who is Jewish, said.
Wartime polling of American Jews confirms that, as in Israel, there has been no groundswell in right-wing sentiment nor any move away from traditional liberal values.
A mid-November poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that support for Donald Trump among Jews has declined since its last poll (taken in 2020), falling from 30 percent to 22 percent. Ninety-one percent believed that it’s possible to be critical of the Israeli government’s policy and still be pro-Israel, while 76 percent said it’s possible to be critical of Israel’s conduct during this war specifically and still retain the “pro-Israel” label.
The Jewish return to Zionism during wartime is thus no simple shift to the right. It is, at the very least, a flight to the center: not an urgency to make peace yet, but at least a refusal to fall into the abyss of Netanyahu’s extremism.
Can liberal Zionism win the future?
If the Jewish left’s return to Zionism and the Israeli public’s flight to the center create the conditions for a liberal Zionist revival, there remains one significant barrier: the lack of a potent political vehicle.
The traditional liberal Zionist political parties in Israel, Meretz and Labor, are still polling poorly, netting around five seats combined in the Knesset in current polling. Their recent history of electoral failure has led many to concur with the Palestinian writer Amjad Iraqi’s assessment that “the only place where that Zionist left, or liberal Zionism, really exists is in segments of the Jewish diaspora.”
But liberal Zionism has never been something that would live or die alongside a single political faction. It is a part of the Zionist ethos, one whose influence has waxed and waned throughout Israel’s history. Its institutional collapse in the 2000s and 2010s was the result of paradigm-shifting events on the ground, ones that seemingly discredited the liberal Zionist vision for the conflict. On the global left, forms of anti-Zionism seemed better equipped to explain events; in Israel and on the global right, illiberal Zionisms flourished.
The October 7 attacks and the war in Gaza have the potential to shift the paradigm of Israeli politics once again. But this time, it’s liberal Zionism’s rivals who have been embarrassed by events. Their theories of the conflict seem, at least to many Jews, especially ill-suited to make sense of post-October 7 reality. This is the reason liberal Zionism is already making something of a comeback — one that could lead it to regain more power politically in Israel down the line.
The process began with the pro-democracy protests earlier this year. It has quietly continued in wartime, even as the government repressed anti-war speech and protests. One survey found a majority of Israelis now support amending the exclusionary nation-state Basic Law to include a provision guaranteeing full equality for non-Jewish citizens, reflecting a renewed sense among Jews that the country’s Arab citizens are equal members of the polity that was attacked on October 7.
Moreover, new poles of opposition to the far right have emerged — ones with real political potential.
Yair Golan, a 61-year-old retired general and former Meretz parliamentarian, threw himself into the fight on October 7 — picking up a gun, traveling to southern Israel, and rescuing countless Israelis while battling Hamas. His heroism has given him moral credibility to make the liberal Zionist case to security-minded Israelis; he is expected to lead Meretz in the next elections, possibly giving the embattled left-wing party a new lease on life.
The families of Israelis killed and taken prisoner on October 7 have also emerged as outspoken critics of the Israeli government, headlining the largest government-critical protests during the conflict. When a Likud parliamentarian called for Gaza to be “annihilated,” hostage relative Gil Dikman issued a stinging rebuke to her face, calling on her to recognize the plight of both Israeli captives and Palestinians suffering under Hamas rule.
“My cousin is there. My cousin’s wife is there. There are babies — Jews and Arabs, by the way — who are there,” Dikman said, in testimony that went viral on Twitter. “You speak in such slogans...to erase, to annihilate, to flatten. Who are you flattening? Human beings you’ve abandoned.”
Gil Dikman's relatives were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas on October 7th.— @benzi.bsky.social (@BenzionSanders) November 13, 2023
Today he went to the Knesset and heard Likud MK @GalitDistel call for Gaza to be annihilated.
Please listen to his response. pic.twitter.com/lNRFQtjzuT
Anshel Pfeffer, a prominent Israeli columnist, calls the anti-government activity “the stirrings of a nascent movement that will almost certainly evolve into something much larger when the hundreds of thousands of reservists are discharged and the existing protest movement against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul also return to politics.”
The foundations of Israeli politics are shifting in liberal Zionism’s favor. This kind of tectonic change takes time, but there is clear evidence that it is happening. Liberal Zionism’s reemergence in Israel will be encouraged by the many influential voices in the Jewish diaspora who have remained true to its ideals.
For all these reasons, you are starting to hear something rare coming from Israel’s peace camp: hope.
“What I feel is that there is a new opening,” Beilin tells me. “The two-state solution is back in town.”