Would the real Zionists please stand up?

Today, I believe we are witnessing a replay of this rigid self-identification in pro-Israel discourse in the United States, where two primary groups are vying for the title of Zionist.

November 15, 2014 22:53
4 minute read.
israel march

People waving Israeli flags march in a pro-Israeli demonstration in support of Israel in August 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There is an apocryphal story that upon meeting with Ahad Ha’am at the first Zionist conference, Herzl reportedly said to the founder of cultural Zionism, “I am a Zionist.” To which Ahad Ha’am replied, “No, I am a Zionist.” Today, I believe we are witnessing a replay of this rigid self-identification in pro-Israel discourse in the United States, where two primary groups are vying for the title of Zionist.

Although it is always dangerous to create a binary scheme, and lumping people together who differ in their views of Israel, God and Judaism is superficial and misleading, I believe these categories are broad enough to encompass the political stances of much of the pro-Israel world in America without denying that there are people who fall between the two groups.

I call the first group the “Old Guard.” It consists of people who lived through or were young enough to be affected by the Six Day War, and also includes religious Zionists. Broadly speaking, this group is defined by an existential fear that Israel is on the precipice of destruction and an a priori assumption that Israel’s political and social policies are legitimate.

Most importantly, any Israeli success militarily or territorially is a positive thing, either due to a messianic teleology or Zionistic hope. They are more inclined to disregard international opinion and instead focus on Israel’s self-interest, and, as a result, will support Israel as long as its actions fit their preconceived messianic or Zionistic ideal. Any criticism of Israel, therefore, conflicts with the “party line,” at least initially, and is presumed to weaken Israel’s standing.

The second group I call the “New Guard.” They either grew up in the shadow of the wars in Lebanon and Gaza or became disillusioned with Israel’s policies, usually due to a different set of moral standards or having internalized international criticism. In contrast to the Old Guard, the New is critical of Israel’s policies.

While viewing Israel as being in danger, it feels that the danger arises not only from outside enemies, but also from Israel’s own actions. The New Guard is, therefore, more worried about Israel’s international standing than the other group and believes that there exists higher moral considerations in governance than self preservation.

The difference between the two groups derives from the defining moment of their respective movements.

The Old Guard and religious Zionists use a 1967 lens, i.e. Israel is still the small country that all other countries want to destroy, so it must always be on the defensive.

Any action is for protection or redemption. The New Guard, however, either did not grow up in the shadow of 1967 or, if they did, has seen world events change to the point where Israel is now a dominant power in the region with the force to harm and subjugate others. This group grew up with asymmetrical war in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. No action taken by the Israeli government can be assumed legitimate a priori. At best, it is neutral; at worst, it is an act of subjugation.

Both camps share a few common beliefs, however: 1) that Israel is a legitimate state and should exist, 2) that Israel is threatened, and perhaps the most important for this discussion, 3) that the other group is harming Israel’s interests and future.

The problem with the current pro-Israel conversation stems from believing that number three defines Israel advocacy; either you are helping and or hurting – pro-Israel or anti. This, of course, is based on their group’s pre-conceived ideas about Israel. But things are rarely that black and white.

The question, then, is can there be a big tent of pro-Israel between these two groups? I firmly believe the answer is yes, based on three principles: first, that neither group is wrong, per se.

A famous Talmudic dictum teaches “both these and those are the words of the living God” even if they contradict; in the pro-Israel conversation, you can have fundamental differences, but as long as both support a state they should be considered pro-Israel.

Second, Israel is in danger. While each group might argue the other is a source of a danger, they are both fully aware that Israel is politically under siege. Both groups have the same end in mind – a successful Israel.

With so few allies in the world, it makes no sense to alienate those who are working for a strong Israel, even if one disagrees with them.

Thirdly, and most importantly, disagreement is not a weakness but a strength. It shows engagement and intellectual ferment. Only the apathetic don’t argue.

Silencing the other group because you fear it will send mixed messages to Israel’s allies is not good. Israel’s allies remain with her despite mixed messages on specific issues. And if they end up changing their allegiances, it is out of self-interest, not the other group’s voice.

When both groups realize these principles, they will stop viewing the other as a threat to the state, and see each other instead as fellow Zionists and partners in building a better, more sustainable Israel.

The author is a second-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He was an iEngage intern for the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in 2013.

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