The State of Zionism
In the early days of Zionism, two different trends, cultural and political, jostled with each other, as Bernard Avishai reminds us in The Tragedy of Zionism, his magisterial retelling of the movement's development, now available in its second edition. On the one hand, "Zionist theories, institutions, and language...were meant to advance a wide-spectrum revolution: against Rabbinic scholasticism, anti-Semitism, Yiddishkeit, softness." Like Communism and other ideologies to which European Jews flocked, Zionism sought, for better or worse, to transform the whole character of Jewish life. On the other hand, there was the aspiration for a homeland. But on the most basic constitutional question--to be or not to be a Jewish state--opinion was divided.
Thus, in the 1930s, the radical Labor Zionist party Ha'Shomer Ha'Tzair (The Young Guardians) supported a binational state with Palestinian Arabs. Among other Zionists who shared this view were Judah Magnes, first chancellor of Hebrew University, and philosopher Martin Buber. Even David Ben-Gurion, the key figure in Labor Zionism, the man who was to become Israel's first prime minister, "did not at first reject the idea."
With the creation of the State of Israel, proclaimed on May 14, 1948, the die was cast. But it was a crucially ambiguous moment: Was this the culmination of Zionism or its reinvention as a state? It turned out to be the latter. "It would be wrong," says Avishai, "to confuse Israel with the movement that produced it." Indeed, he describes Labor Zionism as "a good revolution that long ago ran its course" and believes that "historic Zionism" has "radically, and for the better," changed Jewish culture. Be that as it may, this confusion between movement and state, in my view, is precisely the "tragedy" to which Avishai's title refers.
The confusion goes both ways. On the one hand, the State of Israel is not just a state; it is the focal point of a movement. Any normal country should be a home for its citizens, enabling them to get on with their lives. But Israel is something more than this for many Jews around the world (and something less for millions of Palestinians who live within its extended borders): It is a transcendent ideal, the "state of the Jewish people," an object of their unqualified love.
On the other hand, the movement turned into a state. Zionist concepts and principles were incorporated into national institutions, public policy and basic laws, notably the Law of Return, which allows any Jew in the world to make aliyah (immigrate; literally "ascend") and automatically become a citizen. This has driven a sharp wedge between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, creating, according to Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel and others, an "ethnocracy": a country that effectively belongs to one ethnic group. Others describe Israel as an "ethnic democracy." For Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state, it comes to the same thing: They are second-class citizens, subject, as novelist David Grossman said at the Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv in November 2006, to a "deeply ingrained institutionalized racism." Some steps have been taken in recent years to mitigate these inequalities. Nevertheless, Israel remains "the state of the Jewish people."
Because of this confusion (or fusion) between movement and state, Zionism was reinvigorated when, after the 1967 war, Israel suddenly found itself in control of new territories, the so-called Jewish heartland of biblical Judea and Samaria. The capture of these territories and the "unification" of Jerusalem were understood as national restitution by many secular Zionists for whom the Bible is a national epic. And as Avishai observes, many religious Jews, such as the leaders of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), "young men with gleaming eyes," believed that "the Promised Land was united and the Messiah was at hand." Within a short time, settlements were being established by religious Jews who viewed themselves as heirs of the original chalutzim (Jewish pioneers)--with a wink and a nod from Israel's Labor government. It was a turning point in the history of the movement and of the state.
I remember the period well. It was as if all of Jewry had linked arms and was dancing the hora together. (For a while I, too, was part of the joyful circle.) But this embrace between the religious and the secular was not merely a marriage of convenience. The bonds were more than skin-deep; they were inscribed in the flesh of the movement by the circumstances of its birth and by the language in which it told its own story.