In many parts of the world, especially among the younger generation and in the Arab countries and among their supporters, Zionism is equated with colonialism or ultra-nationalism. That is a deep misunderstanding of our national movement, confusing it with unacceptable Israeli occupation policies.
I am an Israeli of the Left – a so-called peacenik – yet a fervent Zionist to my bones who perceives Zionism as the Jewish yearning for an independent homeland in Zion (Jerusalem), the legitimate national movement of the Jewish people. I can often see bewilderment in the eyes of my Palestinian friends when I tell them about my Zionist passion. It equals their passion for Palestinian nationalism, I tell them.
Zionism is the only solution to the Jewish predicament, both in reaction to our tragic history in the Diaspora, and as the realization of the historical link to the land of our forefathers.
Theodor Herzl, the founding father of our modern Zionism, was the first to define our yearning for Jerusalem in national terms. In his words, “The Jewish question [in the Diaspora] is not a political or social one, but a national one.” In the era of the growth of nationalism and the nation state, Jews too must have the right to a national homeland and must act upon it.
He also came to the conclusion, during the Dreyfus trial of 1894, that anti-Semitism could not be cured and that the only way to overcome it was the establishment of a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland.
It is interesting that Zionism grew in Europe at a time of Jewish emancipation and assimilation.
As Jews, especially in Western Europe, became part of society, and yet anti-Semitism kept haunting them, it became obvious that even equal rights as a minority would not solve the Jewish predicament.
More important, the Jewish bond to the Land of Israel proved its strength and authenticity through two millennia of history.
Jews remained the people of the Bible, and lived by its commandments and prophecy.
Hebrew remained the original and common language. Tradition and prayer were similar in all corners of the globe with Jerusalem as the center.
The successors of Herzl, from Max Nordau to Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, sought to realize the dream through activation of the Jewish masses and convincing the international community of the Jewish right to a homeland.
Weizmann, our first president and foremost Zionist diplomat, played a critical role in convincing the British government to issue the historic Balfour Declaration in 1917 recognizing the right of Jews to a national homeland. Together with Ben-Gurion, he accepted the first British partition plan, the Peel Commission’s, in 1937, sharing the land with the Arab inhabitants; the ancestor of the 1947 UN Partition Plan.
As Ben-Gurion said: “Better a Jewish state on part of the land than all of the land without a state.”
Weizmann argued strongly against Jewish martyrdom; the aim was independent life and better relations with the world. As he said: “Masada for all its heroism was a disaster in our history. It is not our purpose or our right to plunge to destruction in order to bequeath a legend of martyrdom to posterity.
Zionism was to mark the end of our glorious deaths and the beginning of a new path leading to life.”
These statements by Weizmann and Ben-Gurion crystallize the Zionist legacy – independence on part of the land, better relations with the world and a protected life for the Jewish people in their homeland.
With their pragmatic activism and more centrist Zionism, Ben-Gurion and Weizmann had the upper hand over the Zionist Left of Ahad Ha’am and the Zionist Right of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. They saw in their lifetimes the beginning of the realization of their vision – independence, Jewish well-being in Israel and better relations with the world.
Yet their Zionist dream is still challenged today, from within and without. The Arab world has not yet come to terms with the legitimacy of a national Jewish movement in its homeland.
The Arab world has come to terms with Israel as a fait accompli. Israel’s legitimacy can be recognized regionally only as part of a peace deal that reconciles the clash between the two national movements over the same land – peace between two nation states: Israel and Palestine. That will also strengthen the legitimacy and support for Israel (and Palestine) from the international community.
The challenge from within to pragmatic Zionism comes mainly from the ideological Right, those who still believe in a Greater Israel. The vision of the Israeli settlers, still very much backed by the current government, would prevent us from being a Jewish democracy and cause us to become a minority again, this time in our own land. The Right, paradoxically, with radical elements on the Left who believe in a binational state, contradict our Declaration of Independence, which is based not only on our historical right, but also on the notion of equality for all and the support of the international community.
In the years to come, our leadership and people will have to decide the very identity of Zionism – if we are to adhere to the legacy of the founders of Zionism and Israel, or to sacrifice our national identity for a more messianic vision. Where will the Zionist dream be in 2020, or rather, where should it be? Zionism’s character in the year 2020 will depend on how Israel advances in relation to its Jewish, democratic identity, to peace in the region, to its place among the nations and to its fundamental values.
The dilemma posed by Ben-Gurion of a state on part of the land, or all of the land without a Jewish state, stands before us today in the most dramatic manner. To have a renaissance of real independence of a Jewish- majority state, we must divorce in peace from the Palestinians. Only a realistic twostate solution based on the Green Line will ensure our identity. The alternative will endanger a dream of millennia.
This must come about not only by waiting for John Kerry or “Godot,” but by our own policy initiative. We have to internalize that we are finally independent and strong; dependent on our own decisions and wisdom.
We have one of the strongest armies in the world and an advanced, technology- based economy. Yet we still act as perpetual victims. Our strength must be translated as it was intended by the founders of Zionism, to create a fundamentally new relationship with the non-Jewish world.
We must begin with the region in which we live. We are strong enough to recognize reality – that in the conflict between two national movements, no side can fully win.
We must compromise with the Palestinians out of mutual recognition of two nation states. Being strong must translate to being wise, and not to being arrogant, so that we can compromise in a way that satisfies both sides.
Strength must force us to know the limitation of power. The Palestinians are a nation, as we are, with legitimate yearnings, and they too must compromise. The hubris that took over our national psyche after 1967 endangers our perspective on how to master our own destiny.
Strength must be coupled with modesty and the recognition of interdependence within the region and the world. A strong Israel is not necessarily effective in its military capacity, as it has become more difficult to defeat even weak terrorist groups, as we found out in Lebanon and Gaza.
Our main strength is in our cultural, scientific and technological capacities. This can be translated, given a two-state solution, into a new regional relationship of economic cooperation.
In parallel, we must translate a new relationship with the Palestinians into a stronger relationship with the rest of the world.
The international community will not acquiesce to a lingering conflict, and is ready to inflict a plague on both our houses, rejecting occupation and terror.
It is now, in these very days, in our own hands to dramatically strengthen our bond with the United States and to improve our relationships with the European Union.
America can remain our main strategic ally, Europe our main trading partner. If we make peace, we will be able to upgrade our status with the EU to the highest possible level, with major ramifications for our economic and scientific institutions.
We can also improve relations with the other continents, as business partners with Asia and as contributors to Africa.
Strength, peace and compromise can fulfill the ultimate vision of modern Zionism – to change, fundamentally, the relationship with the non-Jewish world. We are no longer a dependent minority, but a majority in our own country. Anti-Semitism persists but cannot endanger us; it is the problem of the anti-Semites, as all racists are bound to be defeated.
Jews throughout history excelled in weakness; now the challenge of modern Zionism is to excel in strength. Such excellence can come about through wise policy and good humanitarian values. We must return to upholding the values of our declaration of independence. Our national rebirth and triumph must be coupled with the values of equality for all, irrespective of nationality, religion and gender and with respect for minorities.
As Jews, we were victimized as a minority within many societies; we must not commit the same sin. In this, modern Zionism is not only the healing of our relationships with the world, but also a healing of ourselves.
We must transform ourselves mentally, not only physically. We must stop seeing ourselves as having the monopoly on being victims, being right, and being good, and stop believing in being a light unto the nations and xenophobic at the same time.
We can by 2020 safeguard a secure place in the region and among the family of nations, internally thriving based on the values of equality and mutual respect and remembering the teaching of Chaim Weitzman: not to aspire to martyrdom, but to guarantee life.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.