Justice Without Exception: Zionist Narrative and the Crisis of Liberalism

Two weeks after Israel began bombing Gaza, I was messaging with a close friend who now lives in New York. I had long known her to support Palestinian liberation, but now her tone was different. She expressed that too many people on the left downplay anti-Semitism, which seems to be prevalent across the Muslim world. I replied that it does exist, but is also overstated. My own grandmother, I told her, still fondly recalls her childhood in Baghdad’s Jewish community during the 1930s and ’40s–the tail end of centuries of amicable relations between Jews and Muslims there. And during the half-year that I lived in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, I wrote, I never felt the need to hide my Jewishness from anyone.

Then she asked, “Are people obsessed with this conflict because of the money the US gives to Israel?” She added, “I think the left is so over-identified with this conflict. 50,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2009.”

Five weeks later, I had dinner with two Palestinian family friends, a father and his seventeen-year-old son. Half of Gaza was now in ruins, and both the father and his wife had lost multiple family members in the assault. We talked about the 2013 US-backed military coup in Egypt, which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. US support for Israel, I said, means that none of its neighbors are allowed to be democracies. The father nodded and said, “It’s happening here too.”

There are many answers to my friend’s initial question. For one thing, recent events have demonstrated that Palestinian liberation is not a pet project for the North American left; rather, the Israeli assault has sparked one of the largest global protest movements of our century. A second response is that, yes, North American leftists are more interested in the plight of Palestinians than Nigerian Christians because our governments are directly contributing to the oppression of the former. Indeed, the global and US perspectives share a common thread: Palestine has become a galvanizing issue for people around the world because its victimization is endorsed by the globally dominant power bloc. The US has approximately 750 military bases in eighty countries around the world and possesses enough economic power to punish and reward any country as it sees fit. We all, I think, feel rationally afraid when we see the superintendent of the international system endorsing acts of maiming, killing, starvation, and ethnic cleansing. It is not hard for many Indian Muslims, for instance, to imagine what it would mean for the United States to endorse an escalation of Islamophobic violence by India’s government. Nor is it difficult for many Indigenous people in Latin America to see in Palestine’s struggle a reflection of their own, nor for Indigenous North Americans, or African Americans, or Black South Africans, or Irish republicans. Many peoples have won only a bare modicum of human rights after prolonged struggle, and the annihilation of Palestinians sends a message that those rights are subject to nullification.

But I believe that a third, and related, answer to my friend’s question was touched upon in my subsequent conversation: because Israel’s system of violence is supported by an international political structure, secondary and tertiary violations become necessary to buttress the primary ones. Hence Israel’s neighbors cannot democratize, and dissent within its western sponsor countries must be suppressed.

This transnational illiberal edifice embodies a dynamic foreseen by Hannah Arendt during World War II. Of Zionism’s many contradictions and hypocrisies, she observed, perhaps the most profound was that the Jewish state would necessarily be a client of the western empires—societies that are eternally anti-Semitic in the Zionist worldview. In the implausible and inhumane scenario that Palestinian Arabs are displaced to neighboring countries, the Jewish state would be living with a massive refugee population on its borders, and its Arab neighbors would be so disgruntled that it could only survive with help from the US or Britain. For Zionists, then, there would be “no better place politically than the lobbies of the powerful, and no sounder basis for agreement than their good services as agents of foreign interests.” Yet a future in which the Jewish state was an imperial bulwark on the eastern Mediterranean would lock it into a tragic and insoluble conflict. “Only folly could dictate a policy which trusts a distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbors,” she wrote. Today, the campaign to quash anti-Zionism in Europe and North America is symptomatic of the dynamics that Arendt identified. The implausible and inhumane blueprints of political Zionism have been realized, and the result is not peace but a catastrophic militarization of Israeli society and an unending propaganda war abroad.

We All Have a Stake in Palestine

It has been expressed many times in our movement that Palestine matters because none of us are free until all of us are free, and throughout this conflict I have been reflecting on both the truth and the limitations of that idea. If there are shared interests between Palestinians and people like my brother, who insists that he does not want to hear or talk about the conflict, or my grandmother, whose decades-long exposure to pro-Israel propaganda has made her suspicious and callous towards Arabs, then they are failing to apprehend them. Or perhaps those shared interests do not actually exist, and the sense of solidarity that I wish would connect my brother and grandmother to Palestinians cannot be carried by rational self-interest; instead, it must be carried selflessly.

There are two ways that I can see to think through this question. The first relates to individual interests and collective ones. If we view the conflict from the perspective of a North American individual and take for granted that pro-Israel social forces are both powerful and beyond their control, then their interests contradict those of Palestinians because confronting those forces can be costly. This is especially so within the Jewish community, where an individual’s dissent risks alienating them from their family, friends, and congregation. From the perspective of North American or global society, on the other hand, the answer is the opposite: we all have a stake in the universal and permanent protection of human rights.

In a second perspective, rather than drawing concentric circles outward from the individual, we draw them outward from the societies impacted by the conflict. At the epicentre is Israel’s violence against Palestinians. A second circle can be drawn around Israel-Palestine’s immediate neighbors, all of whom must be kept in a state of either Washington-aligned dictatorship or effective military subjugation. Tertiary circles might be drawn around multiple other countries, where defenders of Palestine clash with their own governments and employers, or with Israel-affiliated transnational businesses. At every level, the project of Israeli ethnocracy imperils the same liberal freedoms that we have long been told form the bedrock of the American-led global order. In North America, denouncing Israeli war crimes must become a fireable offense. It becomes hate speech to utter the plaintive, aspirational phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Boycotting Israel must be criminalized. In this perspective, all of us do share a common cause with Palestinians: if it is not the right to due process, or the right to equality before the law, or the right to vote, it is, at a minimum, the right to speak truth.

A Crisis for Liberalism

This is why Zionism’s expansive repercussions pose a crisis for liberal ideology. Israeli ethnocracy contradicts the liberal defense of human rights, as well as the liberal belief that in a rational society, people’s interests are symbiotic and not conflictual.

On the first of these themes, Francis Fukuyama writes that liberalism asserts the moral primacy of individuals in their rights to autonomy and speech; it asserts that all individuals have equal moral standing; and it is universalist in encompassing the entire human species. For these values to prevail, there must be rule of law, such that the state’s power is constrained and these basic principles are always upheld. There has been a long-standing leftist critique of liberalism: that its application has often been selective, and the idea of liberalism has run cover for its own worst violations, like slavery, colonization, and genocide. There is truth in this, Fukuyama admits, but these historical instances do not highlight any problem with the doctrine of liberalism; they highlight instances of too little liberalism, rather than too much.

On the narrow point of rights it is hard to deny the truth in Fukuyama’s argument. It is not meaningful to observe only that a case like Gaza “proves” that rights “are, in fact, ‘alienable.’” The bigger point is that every facet of politics should be designed to protect human rights, because human rights form the baseline of what we believe politics can and cannot be. This is what Arendt was getting at when she wrote, “Equality, in contrast to all that is involved in mere existence, is not given us, but is the result of human organization insofar as it is guided by the principle of justice. We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.”

Cass Sunstein encapsulates a second core theme in the liberal worldview: “Liberals abhor the idea that life or politics is a conflict between friends and enemies. They associate that idea with fascism and with Dachau and Auschwitz.” In other words, any framing of a social problem in conflictual terms leads inevitably towards irrational scapegoating.

I believe this rose-tinted perspective is at the heart of liberals’ most blinkered positions. In economics, for instance, they insist that there is always a way to grow the pie rather than redistribute it, and any class struggle generates conflict where none need exist. Yet because Zionism calls for the displacement of Palestinians and the establishment of Jewish ethnocracy, it inherently generates excessive conflict. Some Zionists admit this, albeit without sympathy toward Palestinians. “We have come here and stolen their country,” said David Ben-Gurion. “Why should they accept that?”

Narrative and Exceptionalism

The simplest and probably the most accurate explanation for centrist liberals’ defense of Israel is that pro-Israel forces in the US, Canada, and Europe are more powerful than their critics. And if most self-identified liberals lack the courage of their convictions, they will prioritize their individual interests over their own ostensibly enlightened worldview. But the question remains: How do they justify ethnocracy to themselves?

The best answer I can find is that Israel’s defenders prioritize narrative over principle. Arendt writes that when the doctrine of human rights first emerged amid the French Revolution, those rights “were regarded as being independent of history and the privileges which history had accorded certain strata of society.” Conversely, it is fair to say that Zionism is a narrative of national redemption that was independent of human rights. The Jewish Holocaust is the only true genocide that has ever occurred, and so, as Naomi Klein writes, “It was as if the quest for equality were being reframed not as the right to be free from discrimination, but as the right to discriminate. Colonialism framed as reparations for genocide.” The very historical fact of the Holocaust becomes so overbearing that as Nadia Abu El Haj has written, “The racist character of the Israeli state…becomes unintelligible, perhaps even unspeakable, for much of the Euro-American world.” With Palestinians virtually erased from the history of suffering, every Zionist act of displacement is framed not as terrorization but as national liberation, as Joseph Massad observes. “Tragedy is power,” said Ben-Gurion, “if channelled in a productive direction.”

This means that when Zionist narratives clash with the principles of law—national or international—it becomes necessary to declare a state of exception, so that the rule of law is suspended or annulled. The concept of the state of exception is primarily associated with Carl Schmitt, the German legal theorist whose ideas, first emerging in the 1920s, would justify the indefinite suspension of the Weimar Constitution in the subsequent decades. For Schmitt, the principle of sovereignty meant that rulers must necessarily have the right to exert absolute and unrestrained power, especially in the face of threats to the nation. Constitutional restraints on state action are a mere legal fiction before the material fact that the state holds a monopoly on violence. In that sense he held the opposite position of Hans Kelsen, the Jewish legal philosopher who authored the 1920 Austrian Constitution. For Kelsen, the purpose of law is that it be treated as law without exception. Constitutional principles should therefore be as reliable as the law of gravity. Indeed, the law’s social value is not to constrain the behavior of people but to constrain the behavior of the state. That value is annulled if the sovereign can suspend the constitution, whether on the basis of a real emergency or, as Agamben points out, in the scenario of an invented or exaggerated emergency. I believe that today the left needs to rehabilitate Kelsen’s understanding of the law and defend it as a framework of justice without exception.

Israel, as Ronit Lentin, Noura Erakat, and others have observed, attempts to enforce ethnocracy through a permanent state of exception. Within Israel, policies of racial exclusion are sometimes justified in their own right, and sometimes in the name of security, with no constitutional framework to impede them. The vast majority of Israeli land claims have been deemed legally impervious to Palestinian counterclaims. And in order to assert its control over the territories while excluding Palestinians from citizenship, Israel has claimed that its national security predicament is sui generis—unlike any other, and thus exempted from all legal precedent. International law therefore plays the opposite role in the Palestinian national narrative, as an aspiration rather than a threat. As Samera Esmeir notes, Palestinians’ historical appeals to international law has meant that “international juridical grammars inhabit the struggle itself, and offer it vocabularies, means, projects, sensibilities, and a telos. Internally metabolized, these grammars provide orientation and destination.”

Israeli propaganda, or hasbara, must assert the principle of exceptionalism in ways that become increasingly confusing, and increasingly narrative, with each step of escalating violence. Susan Hattis Rolef, who has worked as a researcher in the Knesset, attempts to answer the question of why, despite the horrors of October 7, Israel is “encountering difficulties in hasbara.” “The real problem,” she writes, “comes from people who purport to follow the doctrine of liberalism, but who are either misinformed, or fail to understand the complexity of a reality to which certain liberal principles are inapplicable or unworkable.” What follows is a disorganized litany of events centering on Hamas’s attacks. Each is intended to render the picture so complex that the concept of legal principles fades into the background, and she concludes her defense of collective punishment with a wave of the hand: “All this is very difficult to explain, and sometimes even to justify, to those who see the world in black and white.” But Israel’s actions are measured and justified, she assures the reader, even if it is impossible to see why.

For this reason, perhaps the smartest sign I’ve seen at the protests in Toronto was one that read:

“It’s complicated”



Hypocrisy Without Limit or Justice Without Exception

If our political leaders defending Israel in the name of liberalism are hypocrites, the next question becomes, is there any limit to their hypocrisy? How can we contend, for instance, with members of the Democratic Party who denounce Russia’s bombing of hospitals yet effectively defend Israel’s? If there is a limit to their hypocrisy—whether moral suasion or political accountability—then there is a chance that some of Israel’s defenders and detractors might agree on first principles, in which case discourse can at least potentially play a role in this struggle. If there is no limit to their hypocrisy, then we are living in a world in which might—and only might—makes right. In the latter case there would be little hope for enforcing basic rights in Palestine or the circles of global society impacted by its victimization. Liberalism would lose its universalist character and become, at best, a rarefied creed governing university HR departments and little else.

Samuel Moyn argues that this was essentially the situation during the Cold War, when “liberalism’s relationship to emancipation and reason…disintegrated. Expectant hope now felt naïve, and the aspiration to universal freedom and equality was denounced as a pretext for repression and violence.” Here, the Soviet threat was perceived to be so severe that a permanent state of exception should be declared on the world stage. The intellectual elite still cherished liberal values, of course, but these values could only be maintained at home, and only most of the time. Though Cold War liberals like Isaiah Berlin would denounce nationalistic violence and colonization, they celebrated it in the case of Zionism. Indeed, writes Moyn, “their Zionism most vividly captures the contradictions in their renovation of the liberal creed.”

Today, amid rising anxieties about the resurgence of ethno-nationalism, and persistent liberal hypocrisy especially on the question of Palestine, we risk entering a new phase in which governments relinquish any pretense to universalism.

Yet the political dynamic we have seen on the world stage in the past two months reverses the one imagined by Cold War liberals, in which the sacred flame of liberalism was guarded by a small clique of American elites. Rather, we have seen American elites defend Israeli exceptionalism, while the rest of the world defends a morality once thought to be comprehensible only to the enlightened. On November 5, for instance, protesters numbering in the millions walked through the streets of Jakarta. The next day a friend of mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, sent me a video of hundreds of people marching through their tiny, snow-covered community carrying Palestinian flags. Two weeks later, at a karaoke bar in Toronto, I saw a white guy in a letterman jacket and a crew cut finish his song by yelling “Free Palestine!” into the mic as the crowd erupted into cheers. These are some of the images that I hold onto in moments when I observe the immensity of the repair that must be done both to Palestine and to our sense of human solidarity, or in moments when my two closest comrades share videos in our messaging thread of the atrocities in Gaza and in response I can only write, “There must be justice. There must be justice. There must be justice.”


Thanks to Yukiko Tanaka and Nicole Dufoe for their editorial guidance. 

Niko Block

Niko Block is a PhD candidate in political science at York University and a member of Independent Jewish Voices. He has written for The Guardian, Jacobin, The New Internationalist, Canadian Dimension, and covered news in the West Bank for Palestine Monitor.