What do “left” and “right” mean in Israel?

David Newman, a professor of Geography at Ben-Gurion University and the dean of that university’s Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty, has a thoughtful piece in yesterday’s Times of Israel about his fight against the boycott of Israeli academia.


He also defends his position as a “lefty” Zionist, meaning that he recognizes Palestinian national rights and strives for a just solution that can satisfy the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.

It’s appears that in Israel today, and throughout the Jewish world, the terms “left” and “right” boil down to how one stands on the Israel-Palestine conflict as opposed to the terms’ old references to social and economic ideologies.  Back in 1937, when the Zionist movement debated the Briitsh proposal to partition Palestine, some Labour Zionist opposed partition.  They claimed that a small Jewish state would be weak and beleaguered and would devote its resources to the military, not economic development and social welfare.  Were they “left” or “right”?  In the 1990s, Israeli entrepreneurs who favoured privatization of state-owned industry were at times also supportive of a Palestinian state because peace would be good for business.  Were they “left” or “right”?

Left and right have become synonyms for dove and hawk.  The debates about economic ideologies that ripped the Zionist labour movement apart during the state’s early years have long been abandoned.

Is there any logical contradiction between being a dove and a Zionist?  The only conceivable way of arguing yes would be to contend that Palestinians are not a nation, do not have collective rights, and that Jews must control the Occupied Territories forever.  The majority of Israel’s Jews have come to accept, however, that Palestians do in fact constitute a nation and do have national rights.

Israel’s Jews may be light-years apart from the Palestinians regarding the borders of a Palestinian state.  They may not acknowledge the contradictions between support in principle for Palestinian statehood and the expansion of Jewish settlements. Many of them do acknowledge, however, that such a state could and, under the right circumstances, should arise. In sum, many Israeli Jews are doves, or dov-ish, even if they appear to be hawks.



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