The State of Zionism

The State of Zionism

Tracing the course of Zionism and the splintered state it has created.


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?

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.

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.

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.

Just as Zionist concepts and principles were translated into Israeli law and institutions, so its passion–its “prayer”–persists as a dominant mindset, shaping national policy and systematically deforming Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. For who are the Palestinians–who are the Arabs?–in a worldview transplanted from the Jewish historical experience in Europe to a region that, for reasons having nothing to do with European anti-Semitism, is hostile to the presence of a Jewish state? Certainly, as neighbors and enemies, the Arabs are real. But simultaneously they are demonic characters in a recurring nightmare: cossacks on horseback attacking the shtetl, jackbooted Nazis enacting another Kristallnacht. It is difficult enough to make peace with flesh-and-blood enemies. But how do you negotiate with ghosts? How can a phantom be a partner for peace?

And what is Israel in this phantasmagorical landscape? Not merely a state at odds with its neighbors but the persecuted “Jew among nations,” as Alan Dershowitz and others argue. The trouble with their argument is that the more it succeeds as a defense of Israel, the more it fails as a defense of Zionism; for if Israel is the old Jew writ large, an eternal victim of an eternal anti-Semitism, then the movement has failed its own test. Herzl’s vision was not to export the so-called Jewish question from Europe to the Middle East but (as Olmert reminded the Zionist Congress) to solve it.

There are, to be sure, critics of Israel who are motivated by hatred of Jews, just as there are Arab and Muslim opponents of the state who have embraced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Holocaust revisionism to underwrite their hostility. But by and large, both the fate of the state and its reputation are more in its own hands than we are led to think by “defenders” of Israel who, lovingly polishing its image as if this were its very being, cannot bear to hear that Israel is ever culpable. Not that they view the Jewish state as powerless in its own defense; on the contrary, the critical difference between the “new” Jew and “old” (as they see it) is that tough Israel does not go like a lamb to the slaughter. But nor (they insist) does it go like the slaughterer to the lamb; not even when the IDF launches airstrikes against targets in densely populated civilian neighborhoods in Gaza or invades Lebanon and lays waste its infrastructure. In the dominant mindset that I am describing, Israel’s hand is forced by hate-filled enemies, and nothing it can do will assuage that hate.

Thus, paradoxically, the reliance that Israel places on power derives from its sense of powerlessness: the conviction that it is condemned to be hated, that every apparent thaw in its relations with its neighbors is a cunning Arab stratagem and that the Palestinians are simply waiting to throw the Jews into the sea. This, mutatis mutandis, is the same conviction about Europe that gave rise to Zionism in the first place. Sticking to its stock narrative of the Jewish past, this state-cum-movement is frozen in time on the shifting “stage of history,” in Olmert’s phrase.

In his recent account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami observes, “Israel could never really decide whether she was an intimidating regional superpower or just an isolated and frightened Jewish ghetto waiting for the next pogrom to happen.” Deep down it is both: the “old” Jew within the “new,” the implacable despair coiled like an incubus inside the Zionist hope.

Yet according to the Zionist script, it is hope triumphant: The wandering Jews have come home, and the Citadel of David has fallen into their hands. In Booking Passage, a study of the “poetics of exile and return” in the modern Jewish imagination, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi locates Zionism on the mental map of a people who, for 2,000 years, have seen themselves as “on the road,” forever longing for Jerusalem. What happens when spiritual longing is replaced by material fulfillment? What becomes of Zion, “the beating heart” (Olmert) of the Jewish people, when it is possessed, when its status changes from poetic center to capital city? Can its heart continue to beat? Or does it atrophy into a trophy that must not, at any cost, be surrendered? The Zion of the Psalms lies on the horizon, where heaven and earth appear to meet. “When this poetic image denies its status as poetry,” writes Ezrahi, “it makes such claims on the political imagination that the ‘final status’ of Jerusalem becomes non-negotiable.”

If in this triumphalist script Arabs in general are the foil to the “miracle” of Israel’s birth, then the 1.4 million Israeli citizens who are Palestinian (about a fifth of the population) are the remnant within. They are “insider outsiders,” a phrase with historical resonance for Jews. (The nearly 4 million Palestinians in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem, neither inside nor outside, are left in limbo.) Thus, the national myth divides the Israeli people against itself. As do the symbols of state. Hundreds of thousands of Arab children in Israeli schools “are expected to sing an anthem that ignores their very existence,” as veteran peace activist Uri Avnery wrote after this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). There are many Israelis for whom “Hatikvah” means despair.

Yet Palestinian citizens of Israel (“Israeli Arabs”) are not just figments in another people’s narrative. As Ezrahi points out, they are themselves “narrating subjects” with a stake in the country they call home: Israel. In an eloquent appeal for inclusiveness, she refers to “the Arab voices that have begun to be heard.” Yet there is reason to think that Azmi Bishara, the leader of the Arab Balad Party and a former Knesset member who is now in exile to avoid prosecution on charges of treason, is being pursued for “aiding the enemy” during the most recent Lebanon war primarily because he has promoted the view that Israel should become a “state for all its citizens.” Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet security service, has reportedly gone so far as to describe Israeli Palestinians as a “strategic threat” to the state. And recent documents calling for recognition and equality, such as the “Future Vision” report by the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel, have largely fallen on ears deafened by fear.

These documents are not the last word on how Israel should reconfigure itself. But the fear they inspire inhibits open debate. Au fond, it is Israel’s fear of abandoning its Zionist script; fear of being a normal country, one that is home to all its citizens; fear of equality, of an inclusive and open-ended society that evolves into something that is and is not Jewish. But if Israel cannot give up this fear, what hope is there for the future? A state that does not believe in its own possibility, except as a perpetual interloper at odds with its neighbors, has no future.

For forty years, Israel’s occupation has dominated the national agenda and the international perception of the state. In one way, this has been a distraction from the deeper question of the national myth and how the state defines itself. But ultimately it concentrates the mind, for as Avishai argues, it is “the persistence of Zionist principles–or at least over-simplified versions of them–which engendered the political climate in which the West Bank settlers took up their cause.”

Zionism is not all of a piece. There are Zionists strongly opposed to the settlers and the occupation. But the momentum of the movement has brought it to this pass; the line that began in Basel has led to Nablus. It is time to cut the cord and begin anew. For the sake of everyone concerned, whether there are two states or three states or one, Israel needs to shed the burden of Jewish fears and hopes and become its own state pursuing its own good for its own people–all of them equally.

Jews around the world need Israel to do this too. They certainly do not need the kind of “protection” given by Olmert, who during the Lebanon war last summer said, “I believe that this is a war that is fought by all the Jews.” He implicated the whole of Jewry in a military campaign that inflamed the opinion of millions of people around the world. Is this the “solution” to “the Jewish question”? Is this Israel coming to the rescue of Jews in distress?

The Zionist doctrine that the State of Israel must be the “center” of Jewish life, or that “every Jew in the world” (as Olmert said to the World Zionist Congress) must make aliyah, or that Jews are self-hating if they do not show “solidarity” with the Jewish state, or that Jewish identity in the Diaspora is incomplete–all of this prevents a normal conception of life, as a Jew, outside Israel. The very term “diaspora” is misleading. Israel certainly has one: At least 350,000 Israelis living in the New York area are part of it. But I (a British Jew or Jewish Brit), for example, am not.

At the heart of the crisis of Zionism is the axiom that Israel and the Jewish people are central to each other’s identity. How do you pry apart a knot as closely knit as this–a Gordian knot that has no ends? Partly by remembering the venerable idea of the Jewish people as centered on a book–the Torah–and not a state; partly by observing how Jewish life, secular and religious, is flourishing in ways that are not focused on Israel; and partly by looking in an unexpected place: The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, where the principle of equality, like a shining light, burns a hole through the middle of the document.

The text proclaims “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.” If someone wants to say that this is what they mean by Zionism, they are welcome to the word. To adapt a remark of Wittgenstein’s: Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the light. But on the whole, it is better to let go of the word along with the illusion. Jewish ethnic nationalism is no solution to the problems we face today, while the name “Zionism” evokes as much fear and loathing as love and pride. We cannot formulate today’s questions in yesterday’s language.

It is time to move on. I like to think that forty years from now, under the aegis of full civil equality, Arab and Hebrew cultures will thrive and mingle together in the area currently called Israel and Palestine. It seems like a pipe dream. But a phrase of Herzl’s comes to mind: “Wenn ihr vollt, Ist es kein Märchen“–If you will it, it is not a dream. His motto gives us hope.

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