The State of Zionism | The Nation


The State of Zionism

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Zionism is a hope born of despair. Taking ethnic nationalism as its rubric, it is a child of its times. But fundamentally, it is the stepchild of anti-Semitism. As Jacqueline Rose observes in The Question of Zion, "no discussion of Zionism can make sense" if it does not start here. Only then can we begin to understand the hold that Zionism has over its adherents and its resistance to any whisper of self-doubt. As Rose writes: "How do you begin to address...the problem of a political identity whose strength in the world...relies on its not being able, or willing, to question itself?" The title of her book (an homage to Edward Said's The Question of Palestine) can be heard as an elliptical expression of a wish: Would that Zionism could become a question! The question of Zion is a desideratum.

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Brian Klug
Brian Klug is senior research fellow in philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford and member of the Faculty of Philosophy...

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In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, a former socialist and anarchist, founded an organization that was novel in two ways.

Rose's conundrum can be put this way: How do you address an identity when people fear they will fall apart without it? How do you ask them to be uncertain about something they affirm precisely because it relieves them of uncertainty: the predicaments and insecurities of existence as a Jew? "We are a nation now, and there's an end to it!" says the collective voice. How do you get a hearing when this voice is so insistent and when you are unsettling an idea that was supposed to have settled the issue once and for all, an idea that is practically sacred: Israel, seen not merely as the "solution" to "the Jewish question" but (recall Olmert's opening words to the Zionist Congress) as the answer to a Jewish prayer?

I say "prayer." Call it a hope, if you will; but when hope is conceived in the midst of despair, then it amounts to prayer, even if it is not addressed to heaven. It becomes, in Rose's phrase, "a secular prayer." "I am totally secular," said David Grossman in his Rabin memorial speech, "and yet in my eyes the establishment and the very existence of the State of Israel is a miracle of sorts." A miracle (of sorts) in answer to a prayer (of sorts): The hold of Zionism, with Israel as its expression, is not intelligible unless it is seen in this light.

Zionism arose from disillusionment with European modernity, or more precisely, with Europe as the site of the modern. (In a way, when Herzl spoke of a modern solution, what he meant was this: "If we Jews cannot have Europe in Europe then we shall have it in another place.") The foundations for despair had been laid for centuries. But the sense of betrayal had become unbearably acute by the late nineteenth century, with the intensification of pogroms and the rise of anti-Jewish legislation in Eastern Europe; the formation of openly anti-Semitic political parties in Western Europe; and the Dreyfus case in France. And none felt more betrayed than secular, assimilated Jews such as Herzl.

On the face of it, the ambitions of early Zionism could hardly be more different from--even opposed to--the age-old messianic hope in Judaism for divine intervention. The "wide-spectrum revolution" of which Avishai speaks was, by and large, aggressively secular. This implied not only rejection of religion in general but also a specific quarrel with Jewish particularism: the idea of the Jews as a people apart, quietly existing as am hasefer (people of the book), patiently suffering until the coming of the Messiah in God's good time.

For this reason, as Yakov Rabkin explains in A Threat From Within, rabbis generally spurned the new movement. (Some strands, especially among the ultra-Orthodox, still do, as Rabkin meticulously documents: a useful reminder at a time when it almost seems as if Judaism has converted to Zionism.) It is true that, virtually from the outset, there was a small religious presence within the Zionist movement in the form of the Mizrachi Organization, and that Rabbi Abraham Kook, the spiritual ancestor of the post-1967 religious settlers, gave the movement his blessing. But the aim of the Zionist revolution was, in large part, to put an end to the old way of life, not just to create a new future for Jews but to craft a "new Jew" for the future. The new Jews would not speak Yiddish, much less Arabic or Ladino, but Hebrew, a properly "national" language, the language of the ancestors. Jews would be like other people; they would be normal. This sounds like a Jewish joke. But normalization was the hope that animated the mainstream of the Zionist movement.

However, as Rose perceptively points out, "messianism colors Zionism, including secular Zionism, at every turn." This coloring affects its most basic vocabulary. In the Bible "Zion," initially the name of one of the hills of Jerusalem, refers poetically to the city itself and by extension to the whole of the Promised Land--indeed, to the land as promised in the context of an eschatological narrative of return. "The very name of the movement," the late liberal rabbi and scholar Arthur Hertzberg observed in The Zionist Idea, "evoked the dream of an end of days, of an ultimate release from the exile and a coming to rest in the land of Jewry's heroic age." So, too, did "the very name of the nation," as Rose points out. Calling it Israel (rather than, say, Western Palestine) conjures up the eternal hope of an eternal people in an everlasting covenant with God. Moreover, the rhetoric of messianism--"ingathering of the exiles," "redemption of the land"--is part and parcel of the political lexicon of this movement-cum-state.

This is not to deny that Zionism gives this vocabulary "a radically new meaning," as Hertzberg insisted. Of course it does. But the phrases have a life of their own. The genius of Zionism is that it speaks the familiar language of tradition with a revolutionary accent. This makes its message ineluctably poetic: It constantly stirs the waters beneath the surface of its words, arousing emotions that, in their ambiguity and volatility, unite left and right, religious and secular--even when, like mishpocheh (an extended family), they are at each other's throats. In unison, all rise to sing the national anthem, whose title, "Hatikvah," means precisely "the hope." In short, Zionism at heart is, as Rose writes, a "collective passion," an authentic reaction (one among several) to anti-Semitism, one whose flexible language has enabled it to evolve after 1967 from secular left to religious right. Its variety has not disappeared, nor are the differences between the various camps immaterial. But they are apt to merge with or adapt to each other as circumstances change and as passion dictates.

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