There is hardly a city or town in Israel's Jewish sector without a street named for Shaul Tchernichovsky, and his picture is on the 50 shekel bill. Currently we hear several times a day that this is the 140th anniversary of his birth, with frequent renderings of his poetry in words or song that express principal themes of the Zionism associated with the founders of this country. In English, it sounds like

 "Rejoice, rejoice now in the dreams
I the dreamer am he who speaks
Rejoice, for I’ll have faith in mankind
For in mankind I believe.
For my soul still yearns for freedom
I’ve not sold it to a calf of gold
For I shall yet have faith in mankind
In its spirit great and bold
That will cast off binding chains
Raise us up, hold high our heads
Workers will not die of hunger
For souls – release, for poor folk – bread. . . . " 

". . . And in the future I still believe
Though it be distant, come it will
When nations shall each other bless,
And peace at last the earth shall fill." 

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What is here and elsewhere in the work of those who have earned the title of Israel's founders are the themes of awakening and redemption of a repressed nation, along with the humane and international values of care for the weak, and the inclusive opening toward other people. Herzl saw western educated Jews bringing enlightenment to the Middle East, and welcomed by Arabs seeking the advantages.

Realities have been more complex. Zionism is one of those grand ideas conceived in a state of powerlessness and Utopian vision. Its components ain't so easy to realize in the gritty world of mixed populations and actual responsibilities for governing in the context of domestic and international disputes.

Zionism has been transformed by Jewish as well as Arab dissonance.

Well before the arrival of independence in 1948, the Jews who came to the Land of Israel had to accommodate one another. Disputes emerged early on between those who sought freedom from the closed and ritualistic conventions of traditional Judaism, and those who saw religious law and customs as primary. Encounters between Europeans and Middle Easterners featured differences in language (various dialects of Yiddish, Arabic, and Hebrew) as well as culture. Once mass immigration came with Independence, both from the residue of Holocaust-stricken Europeans and Middle Easterners fleeing Arab mobs, the newly empowered officials had to cope with profound problems of economics and security, where political allies and opponents had different notions about priorities.

Subsequent jolts came with the wars of 1967 and 1973, a great immigration from the crumbling Soviet Union from 1988 onward, and the growing realization that Arabs of Israel and surrounding Israel were nowhere near the Zionist dream of mutual enlightenment and accommodation. .

Israel's aspirations as defined by those who composed the Declaration of Independence feature a state that is both Jewish and democratic. Today Israeli centrists find that combination hard to defend against leftist Jews, Arab and international critics who emphasize the imperfect nature of the country's democracy, as well as religious Jews who see too much consideration given to non-Jews, and the country's evasion of religious law.

What we see in the problems of Zionism can be applied to other political ideals. They are all vulnerable to politicians who must cope with different perspectives. This is true of Israelis who bend to the political weight of settlers and ultra-Orthodox, without whose support it is seldom possible to create or maintain governing coalitions. It is also true of Barack Obama, who could not enact his landmark health reform without the support of politicians beholden to profit making health insurers, and a host of other considerations that produced a 2,200 page bill whose implications are still being discovered.

We can quarrel if Israel is better or worse than the ideals imagined by Herzl, Tchernichovsky, and numerous others, down to contemporary politicians, activists, writers, artists, and professors who claim to express their ideals.

Politics is a messy business. Democracy does not tolerate ideals. Its essence is deals between contending forces with different demands having immediate priority, and different readings of essential national norms and needs. There is always a priority for dealing with conflict now, somehow, and leaving the leftovers and nasty implications for another day.

Politicians may express the highest of ideals in their campaigns, but when it comes down to the details of public policy, there is a priority of what's good for me and mine.

Readers who insist that the essence of democracy is high ideals should listen to the haggling that occurs around the essence of government, i.e., defining each year's budget. 

Israel does it as well as any country, especially when viewed with the different perspectives of secular and religious Jews, and non-Jews who comprise the population, and the threats always in the environment. Most Arab politicians of Israel rule themselves out of the inner circles by their obsession with nationalistic goals buried under the dust and casualties of several wars. International figures compete among themselves to condemn isolated act of Jewish terror, while ignoring daily acts of Arab terror. 

Currently Israel is dealing, more or less openly, with countries that had been enemies. Heading the list are Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. A spurt of  ugly domestic violence against Arabs, resulting in the death of a child, and against gays, resulting in the death of a teenage girl, have produced tensions across two different vectors. The settler/Orthodox community that is chronically antagonistic to Arabs, and ultra-Orthodox Jews who can be ballistic on the issue of homosexuality, have brought condemnation from the secular mainstream, and exposed problems at the heart of the government coalition.

It ain't the utopia that appears in Tchernichovsky's poetry or Herzl's Altneuland.

Problems among Jews, and from overseas Jews, extending to support of some for BDS is part of the Jewish tradition. Sharp, and even deadly conflict have been with us at least since the the actions of Judah Maccabee in the Greek era about 2200 years ago, and what Josephus described in the Roman era two centuries later. It's who we are. We quarrel among ourselves, often at high volume, but we kill one another less frequently than more violent cultures. 

In this is a place we have the opportunity to achieve our potential. less hindered than elsewhere by the restrictions, preferences, and suspicions of others. In that limited sense, Zionism is relevant.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

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