Is Zionism a failed ideology? This question will strike many people as absurd on its face. Israel, after all, is a nation with an advanced standard of living, a high-tech economy and one of the most formidable militaries on earth. In a little over half a century, it has taken in millions of people from far-flung corners of the globe, taught them a new language and incorporated them into a political culture that is nothing if not vigorous. If this is failure, there are a lot of countries wishing for their share of it.
But consider the things Israel has not accomplished. In his 1896 manifesto The Jewish State, Zionism’s founding document, the Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl predicted that such a country would be at peace with its neighbors and would require no more than a small professional army. In fact, Zionist settlers have clashed repeatedly with the Arabs from nearly the moment they began arriving in significant numbers in the early twentieth century, a Hundred Years’ War that grows more dangerous by the month. Herzl envisioned a normal state no different from France or Germany. Yet with its peculiar ethno-religious policies elevating one group above all others, Israel is increasingly abnormal at a time when almost all other political democracies have been putting such distinctions behind them. Herzl envisioned a state that would draw Jews like a magnet, yet more than half a century after Israel’s birth, most Jews continue to vote with their feet to remain in the Diaspora, and an increasing number of Israelis prefer to live abroad. Israel was supposed to serve as a safe haven, yet it is in fact one of the more dangerous places on earth in which to be Jewish.
Israel was also supposed to have been the final answer to “the Jewish question,” an issue that is as old as–and has virtually defined–modernity itself. Herzl emphasized again and again that hatred and competition would melt away once Jews removed themselves from their increasingly reluctant host countries, returned to their ancient homeland and took their place as separate but equal members of the international community. Yet anti-Semitism is mushrooming in the Muslim world and, based on anecdotal evidence, may be undergoing a resurgence in Europe and the United States. Is this because the world is intrinsically anti-Semitic and is therefore always looking for an excuse to bash the Jews? Or does Zionism bear responsibility in any way for the upsurge?
There is no doubt that the approach to such questions, especially in the United States, has reached a turning point. The collapse of Bush’s farcical “road map,” the Berlin wall that Israel is building deep inside Palestinian territory, the threats to exile or even assassinate Yasir Arafat and now the extension of hostilities to Syria–the old consensus is crumbling under the impact of such developments, and it is now possible to say things that would have been verboten only a few months ago. In Israel, Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, recently warned that if Israel wishes to preserve what little democracy it still has, it must either withdraw to its pre-1967 boundaries or grant full citizenship to the approximately 3.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, a step that would spell the virtual end of the Jewish state. Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has pronounced the two-state approach “inapplicable” to the problem of Israel and Palestine and is calling for a single binational state based on Arab-Jewish equality. In the United States the historian Tony Judt, declaring the Middle East peace process a dead letter in The New York Review of Books, says that the very idea of a Jewish state has become an “anachronism” in a multicultural world in which citizenship is increasingly separated from race, religion and ethnicity. “In today’s ‘clash of cultures’ between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states,” he adds, “Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.”