Is Zionism still alive in Israel in 2015?

A fresh perspective

April 22, 2015 16:27
Independence Day

Independence Day BBQ in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Those who followed the news in Israel over the past year must think it is a schizophrenic society.

On the one hand, the news described an unprecedented rise in public solidarity and national allegiance during Operation Protective Edge.

On the other hand, for weeks, the news spoke of a campaign of Israelis calling on everyone to leave the Jewish state and move to Berlin – because the price of chocolate pudding is lower there. Such reports painted Israel as a tired society, empty of idealism.

On the one hand, this election campaign was one of the most divisive ever run in Israel. The personal attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, reached an all-time low; the negative attacks against the Left were also often distasteful. Israel looked like a divided nation.

On the other hand, how can one forget the incredible unity demonstrated by the nation throughout the kidnapping and murder by Hamas terrorists of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel? Solidarity rallies were organized spontaneously, as were social media campaigns with the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys, taking over the Internet. Unprecedented crowds came to the funeral to mourn the victims who had become everyone’s children. Israel had never looked this united.

What is telling is that the events showing Israel as a dispassionate and divided country were the creation of a small minority here. The “Moving to Berlin” campaign never picked up, even after receiving unprecedented and unwarranted media attention; people simply did not join the campaign. The past election campaign’s discordant tone was also heavily influenced by the media, with citizens from both sides of the political divide calling for a more conducive discussion.

It seems Israel is at a crossroads. On the one hand, there is a growing sense of national pride and a strong sense of national unity, especially outlined in challenging times. On the other hand, a small post-Zionist elite, well-connected with the various centers of power, pushes an agenda at odds with these values, trying to highlight despair, divisiveness and loss of national pride.

The Im Tirtzu revolution In 2006, shortly after the Gaza disengagement, Ronen Shoval, Erez Tadmor and Amit Barak created an organization called Im Tirtzu (“If you will it”). The name was based on Theodor Herzl’s famous phrase, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

The group’s goal was simple. At the time, Zionism seemed to be on the decline. The post-Zionist Left was gaining ground, questioning the very foundations of Zionism and rejecting its premises. These feelings were especially strong in the elites making up the centers of power we described previously. Many started to claim that the main goal of Zionism, which they defined as the creation of a safe haven for Jews, was an utter failure; after all, Jews were much safer in New York than they were in Israel.

On the Right, a different type of post-Zionism had started to develop. With the great disappointment the disengagement brought, some on the Right started questioning the validity of Zionism itself. A few stopped celebrating Independence Day, progressing to a complete opposition to Zionism. Others claimed that secular Zionism had ended its role in history, and that it was time for a “new” form.

Im Tirtzu entered the ring of public discourse with one clear goal: To reinvigorate the image of Zionism, and to bring back the pride behind this word. One should not be ashamed, rather proud, to call himself a Zionist. Their method? Fighting for more representative elites to represent the majority of Israelis who were still strongly Zionist.

Today, nine years later, one can clearly see that Zionism has returned to its former greatness. In the past election, the Left called its party the Zionist Union, trying to claim that it was the true supporter of Zionist values. The Right fought back, claiming many members had in the past expressed opposition to Zionism.

While both the Left and Right had previously tried to dismiss Zionism, both were now fighting to prove they were the true Zionists.

Zionism is once again in vogue.

The foundation of Zionism While Zionism has returned to fashion, there are still serious challenges to it today. To understand them, we must first better understands the goal of Zionism and the reasons for its creation at the beginning of the 19th century.

With the start of the Age of Enlightenment, the idea of individual freedoms came to light. The argument was made for all individuals to be able to rule their own lives according to their own will, and thus receive personal freedoms.

The Jews then also entered a period of Jewish Enlightenment, known as the Haskala, in which they attempted to gain personal freedoms. As all individuals were granted liberties, the Jews also wanted to receive those rights; yet very quickly, it became clear that in order to get them, they would have to sacrifice their Jewishness. Various models toward this end were presented, such as “Be a Jew inside your home, and a man on the street.”

However, they all failed – since Judaism is not a religion like Christianity that one can confine to their personal home. Rather, it touches all aspects of one’s life – including national, historical and cultural identity.

It is almost impossible to be fully Jewish while keeping one’s Jewishness “inside,” and many Jews were not willing to sacrifice this.

Therefore Jews, now thirsty for this freedom, continued looking for other ways. Some considered complete assimilation, but Zionism quickly became one of the alternatives.

The most important goal of Zionism was thus to provide a framework for Jewish self-determination and freedom, in its historical homeland, by reviving Jewish nationalism.

Challenges to Zionism on Israel’s 67th birthday As we move forward from Israel’s 67th birthday, there are still some serious challenges threatening Jewish self-determination in Israel. Some of these challenges are internal, while others are external.

As mentioned earlier, many Israeli centers of power are controlled by a small elite that does not represent the country’s citizens. This is true of the courts, where judges are selected in a way unique to Israel – and is truly unrepresentative.

It is also true of the media, as was so clearly seen in the past election, when the media unsuccessfully took sides against Netanyahu. Finally, it is also true in the academia, the legal adviser’s office and many other unelected centers of power.

The problem is that these centers of power have an unprecedented influence on policy-making in Israel.

For the Jewish state to truly enable Jewish freedom and self-determination, it must be a representative democracy where the will of people is what defines policy.

As long as these unelected elites have such heavy influence on policy-making, and stay unrepresentative of Israeli society, true self-determination will not be achieved. This is a true obstacle to Zionism’s vision.

Another obstacle comes from foreign forces intervening in local policy-making. Foreign governments offer high funding to left-wing NGOs who also push to intervene in the policy-making process in order to further their own interests. These interests are often at odds with those of Israel, but their funding enables these small NGOs to gain influence and power over policymakers. This foreign intervention in local politics is also a blow to Jewish self-determination and as such, remains an obstacle to Zionism.

On a military and diplomatic level, Israel is still very dependent on the US. Israelis should be immensely grateful of the foreign aid Americans provide to Israel, but should also worry about the cost of such assistance.

If the cost of the aid is too great, and if it comes with an expectation of Israeli submission when there a policy disagreement between the countries, then this is very dangerous to the Jewish people’s self-determination.

The recent tensions with the Obama administration should be a wake-up call for Israel to look for ways to stand on its own two feet.

Zionism moving forward The century of the various “isms” has passed, with almost all of them completely disappearing. Communism is almost gone, Fascism and Nazism left Europe, and even nationalism as an ideology has greatly weakened.

Only Zionism has survived. Not only did it survive, its results are almost miraculous.

If one were to tell a friend 100 years ago that in a century, the Jewish people would live in their land, in a Jewish and democratic state, with a strong military and a strong economy, that friend would surely call him messianic at best – or completely crazy at worst.

One can only hope that the next 100 years will be as surprising a success for Zionism.

■ The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Coalition Chairman in the Knesset. He previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.

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