The State of Zionism
On June 20, 2006, at the thirty-fifth World Zionist Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert welcomed the delegates--representatives of Jewish organizations from around the world--to "Jerusalem, which is Zion, the beating heart, and the object of yearning and prayers of the Jewish people for generations." Recalling the first congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in 1897, Olmert said, "There is a straight line between Basel and Jerusalem, the line of political Zionism, whose aim was the return of the Jewish people to the stage of history as an independent and sovereign nation, which takes its fate into its own hands, in the Land of Israel, the heritage of our forefathers."
Herzl's seminal 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat, better translated as "The Jews' State" or "The State of the Jews") was subtitled "An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question." The indefinite article is misleading. Herzl wrote to Bismarck, "I believe I have found the solution to the Jewish Question. Not a solution, but the solution, the only one." Decades later, Nazi Germany pursued its own "final solution" to the Jewish question: extermination. This gruesome project and its grisly success--the murder of roughly two-thirds of European Jews and the destruction of Jewish community life on much of the Continent--propelled Herzl's proposal to the foreground of international affairs. Within three years of Hitler's defeat, the State of Israel was created. But has this settled the question?
Not according to Olmert. In his address to the World Zionist Congress, he declared that the question will not be resolved until "every Jew in the world" comes to live in Israel and "all the peoples of the region" accept Israel's "right to exist as a Jewish state." Since neither condition has yet been met, "we must gather to discuss the 'Jewish question' here at the thirty-fifth Zionist Congress as well."
Must we? Or must we, on the contrary, stop giving legitimacy to the question itself, which tends to insinuate that we Jews are a problem people, like a problem child? And even if the question was inescapable in Herzl's day, even if Europe forced it on Jews by alternately offering and withholding emancipation, and promoting or permitting anti-Semitism, is this the question that faces us--Jews and non-Jews--today? Or is it not Herzl's solution that is in question?
Every element in Olmert's address to the Zionist Congress is questionable, beginning with the slide from Zion, ancient religious and poetic heart of Jewish dispersion, to Zionism, modern political movement for the liberation of the Jewish people. Could it be that Zionism, "whose aim was the return of the Jewish people to the stage of history," is caught in a time warp? Could Israel, under its influence, be continually undermining itself, while millions of Jews who have no say in the matter are implicated in its policies? (Is this what is meant by a nation "which takes its fate into its own hands"?) What, in short, if our "liberation" entraps us in an illusion?
Furthermore, contrary to Olmert, the line that leads from Basel to Jerusalem has been anything but straight. Since its birth more than a century ago, Zionism has veered from secular to religious and from left to right, with tangents that have not altogether disappeared. It has led, on the one hand, to a fight against British imperial power, while it has resulted, on the other hand, in the dispossession and dispersion of Palestine's indigenous Arab population. And the Jewish state created by the Zionist movement has become increasingly woven into the tangled web of Western influence in the Middle East, with Israel now serving as a Mediterranean Fort Laramie in America's "war on terror."
Tragically, the same line has led from the walled ghettos of Europe to the West Bank barrier, separating Jews from the surrounding Arab population; and it has failed to secure Israel's integration into the region--to the point where Israel fashions itself as a "villa in the middle of the jungle," in Ehud Barak's revealing image. Not that integration is entirely within Israel's control. No modern state could adapt sufficiently to satisfy the extreme demands of radical Shiite fundamentalism, and no prudent state could disregard the bellicose pronouncements of Iranian president (and Holocaust denier) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nonetheless, Israel's existence has been accepted, however grudgingly, by most of its neighbors. In March the Arab League reiterated its commitment to peace and normal relations if Israel withdraws from the land it has occupied since 1967 and agrees to both the creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for displaced Palestinians. Yet Israel has largely dismissed the Saudi peace initiative since its launch in 2002 and persists in behavior--inside and outside its (still undeclared) borders--that entrenches its isolation.
In his speech to the Zionist Congress, Olmert affirmed "the unification of the Jewish people with the State of Israel." This is the nub of Zionism: a Gordian knot of seamless identity. But with the fortieth anniversary of the occupation this month, and one year after a landmark war in which Hezbollah fought the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to a standstill, not only is Olmert waging a desperate battle for his political future but Zionism, the official ideology of the Jewish state, is in crisis. The crisis threatens the future of Israel as a "normal" state, deepens the oppression of the Palestinians, fuels conflict in the region, feeds Muslim-Jewish tensions abroad and (as recent controversies in the United States, Britain and elsewhere demonstrate) rancorously divides Jew against Jew. For all these reasons, we need to understand the trajectory of this movement. Where did it begin? What has it become? And can the Gordian knot at its heart be untied?