Zionism and the changing global structure

American Jews are re-litigating the twentieth century, while Israelis are living the twenty-first.

What comes next? (photo credit: REUTERS)
What comes next?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is nothing weirder than the gap between the American Jewish conversation about Israel, on the one hand, and the real day-to-day lives of Israelis on the other.
American Jews are re-litigating the twentieth century, while Israelis are living the twenty-first.
American Jews ask: will Israel make peace or live forever by the sword? Why does the occupation never end? Will antisemitism destroy us all? Do Jews have a right to every inch of the biblical lands? Will Netanyahu cause a break with American Jews? Will Israel’s democracy be ruined by demography? How will the tiny Jewish state survive against an ocean of enemies? These are questions Israelis have mostly stopped asking, and American Jews cannot understand why.
The answer is that everything has changed. The strategic, economic and cultural opportunities facing Israel have drowned out the existential threats. The old anxieties have been overrun by both Israel’s successes and failures.
Successes: it is now a vibrant and powerful country, and its power has changed the thinking of national governments not just in Europe but also across the Arab world. Today Israel has only one real strategic enemy – Iran, which has been the force behind all of Israel’s wars in the past decade-and-a-half.
Economically, the Jewish state has become a global leader in technology, from agriculture to autonomous vehicles. It has solved its two biggest problems of nature: water and energy. Culturally, it has become an exporter in everything from film to art to wine to architecture to electronic music.
Israelis now count their Nobel prizes the way Jews used to.
But also failures: the Yom Kippur war and the Oslo Accords taught Israelis about the horror that flows from self-delusion. The endless Palestinian terrorism has taught them that not every malady can be cured, that some must instead be managed.
Rabin’s assassination proved the danger of messianic frenzy. Socialism sank in a sea of red ink.
Yet as Israelis are busy doing Zionism – building a prosperous, forward-facing, secure Jewish state – and Americans are wringing their hands about Zionism; nobody is really engaged in new Zionist thought.
The last serious attempt to reinvent Zionism from the Right, as a theological movement built on settlement of Judea and Samaria, collapsed with Rabin’s assassination and the Gaza withdrawal, both so long ago that new IDF recruits don’t remember them. The last attempt to reinvent it from the Left collapsed with the failure of Oslo and the Second Intifada. Failures left only one path forward: just live and succeed and stop trying to explain it all.
The result is a strange combination. As a project, Zionism is roaring. As a vision, however, it is coasting.
Israel has made its choices: security over messianic peace-seeking, capitalism over socialism, pragmatism over utopia. The country exists, and its foundations are now stronger than those of many other developed democracies. American deliberations about Israel’s “right to exist” suggest a surplus of spare time and an absence of imagination. Israelis do not struggle with the questions that grip American Jews because they have been resolved, by choice or by history, or left permanently unanswered, which is also an answer.
More urgent than answering old questions, however, is the quest for new ones.
What should Israel’s role be in the coming century – not just for Jews, but for the world? A century that began with terrorism and the tech bubble, and will likely see economic upheaval resulting from automation and artificial intelligence, and societal upheaval from the shattering of national and communal identities – this is the world that a Jewish state must find its place in if it is to survive.
The new Zionism will focus less on statecraft and more on expansive creativity. Put another way: Zionism’s last century was about creating the conditions for Jewish survival in a sovereign state; its next century will be about thriving, building outward, and sharing with the world.
The next phase of human history will turn on creativity. As machines replace men (there will be no cab drivers, coal miners, or preparers of fast food in 30 years), wealth and power will rest increasingly on humankind’s singular added value: the new thought.
As the global economic structure shifts, new great powers will rise. Smaller countries will be less impeded by their lack of manpower. Larger ones will suffer if they cannot be flexible and make swift changes. The question of national agility will come to dominate the historical ledger. The next phase in Zionism will have to address Israel’s place in this new world.
Westerners have only recently started to feel the heat coming from the creative furnace that drives the Israeli soul.
“Start-Up Nation” opened a window to a different Israel from the one you hear about on the news.
Yet start-ups are only one outward manifestation of what is a much deeper role Israel will play. Israel could more aptly be called the “Creative State”: in everything from social programs and unique nonprofits to music and television and medical and cognitive and culinary sciences, Israelis are everywhere applying their brash, do-it-differently style to endlessly reinventing life.
Israeli culture has no patience for how things have been done in the past. There is no Hebrew expression for “best practices.” The assumption that someone else has figured things out for us in advance is anathema in the Creative State. The affirmation of life requires constant change. Soar, or sink.
Israelis, in other words, are the Jews of the 21st century.
How did this happen? And why now? From its beginning, Israel has lived in a permanent state of “innovate or die.” The knowledge that Jews never have the luxury of a quiet life. That self-criticism does not have to undermine unity; on the contrary, it can be the glue that binds our collective confidence that we are on the best path possible.
That if we are going to beat the odds, we will need to find new ways to build a military, to find water and energy, to absorb immigrants, to speak and think and live.
Today, Israel leads the way in “tikkun olam” as well, even if Israelis never call it that, even if American Jewish kids would scoff at the idea.
Both businesses and non-profits in Israel are at the cutting edge of everything that makes life better. This is not, as the haters stupidly suggest, a question of branding. Israelis do not leave their families suddenly to jump on airplanes and race to sites of natural disasters around the world for the sake of building their global image. They do it out of a genuine belief that life is good, that with experience and ability come obligation, and that using your mind to offer urgent and effective help, and to build yourself in the process, is just how you are raised.
Little-known fact: Israelis are second only to Americans in charitable giving as a percentage of GDP. And they have a lot less disposable income.
And yes, the Creative State is a Jewish state, and not just because it’s full of Jews. Israel’s creativity emanates from a cultural predilection for restlessness, self-criticism and change that have characterized Jewish life for thousands of years. Israelis are, on the most profound level, Jews. Even, perhaps especially, those who are not Jewish.
The origins of it are deep in the Jewish soul and historical memory – a people that had to rapidly adapt to new situations and changing existential threats, a people who for whom creative thinking and mutual care correlated with survival. A people who, in their most profound and ancient moral teachings, found an organic and intuitive balance between Self and Other, between particularism and universalism, between utopian dreams and dark skepticism.
Already in early Zionist thought, we find the Creative State envisioned. Theodor Herzl imagined a global economic magnet in the Jewish state. Ahad Ha’am saw cultural institutions forming that would spread the Jewish spirit throughout the world. Decades before the political state could become reality, Zionists developed their own swiftly morphing language, their own elite universities, their own poetry, their own agricultural and military innovation, their own creative universe.
The Zionists were following millennia of Jewish traditions about the centrality of creativity and change to man’s place on earth. The Hebrew Bible – probably the first book to reach the masses in any language – did more than any other single work to change the course of human history.
It opens with a Creation story in which God makes the universe, culminating on the Sixth Day in man, formed “in our likeness and our image.”
Man is presented as God-like – but at that point in the story, God is nothing but a Creator of good things.
Similarly Noah, the father of all mankind, is not merely the savior of humanity; he is also described by the rabbis as a great innovator, who made the tools for tilling the soil. (He also invented wine, it seems.) Moses, too, was the paradigmatic agent of positive revolution, leading slaves in Egypt to freedom in their promised land. David wrote Psalms as he envisioned a Temple to God (and sang of the spiritual virtues of wine, as well).
Solomon wrote Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes as he built great cities. The Prophets were about anything but the status quo, articulating a wholly new world order.
The rabbinic tradition, too, was supremely creative.
Even at the peak of their exilic preservationism, the rabbis emphasized aesthetics (hidur mitzva) and creativity in Jewish ritual. They recast Sukkot, originally a harvest celebration, as a holiday about beauty. They encouraged “innovation in prayer” as the highest form of spiritual expression. Rabbinic writings in the middle ages included philosophy, liturgical poetry, and entire schools of innovative legal exegesis – revering the hiddush, innovation, above all – a creative intellectual tradition that was not reserved for the elites.
With the modern Emancipation, Jewish creativity was unleashed to the world in every field, and in the creation of new fields. From Marx to Einstein and Freud, Jews reinvented the physical, psychological and political worlds.
With Zionism, all that creativity was channeled into a space of sovereign freedom and collective endeavor. Although it has taken more than a century for the world to see it, Zionism has always been about the Jews channeling the power of their creative-moral intellect into every facet of human life.
There is, of course, room to worry. Israel’s political, economic and strategic security will never stop being a priority. More important, however, are the core questions of education and parenting, which are the secret sauce. Israelis’ creative- moral impulse cannot simply be counted on to continue forever; it must be nurtured, articulated, explored. Investments must be made. Jews are not superhuman – in Germany before the war, their success often blinded them to the looming threat; in America, their creativity has become diluted, along with their education and identity.
Both of these can happen to Israelis as well.
The absence of new Zionist articulation is therefore a problem, and not just for Israelis. It is, in all likelihood, the real reason for American-Jewish angst about Israel, as well. If “Zionism” feels to them like a worn-out word, it’s because today it represents worn-out ideas. Zionism as a political project has achieved or exceeded Herzl’s and Ben-Gurion’s most ambitious dreams. Yet as a cultural project, it has never really been known by American Jews, who have not troubled themselves to study Hebrew or participate in Hebrew culture. For many young American Jews, thirsty for social justice, Zionism is as stale as last year’s snowfall.
A new phase in both world and Jewish history requires new thought and new thinkers, asking questions of a nation blazing a new path for humanity. Israel will never have the world’s largest army, its most plentiful natural resources, or its biggest factories. But in our new world, a world of AI and automation, it may not need them.
What it will always need – indeed, on this will its survival depend – is clarity of purpose, fidelity to its cultural soul and commitment to the continuity of its multi-millennial creativity that has brought about its successes until now.
What it needs is a new generation of Zionist thinkers and articulators, to help us understand where we are all going, and to remind us why.
David Hazony is an author and editor, and executive director of The Israel Innovation Fund. Adam Scott Bellos is an entrepreneur and CEO and founder of The Israel Innovation Fund.