Even after 125 years, pluralism is the singular vision of Zionism - opinion

Zionism is ingrained in Judaism. It’s not a land grab, as those who wish to destroy Israel remind the world every day.

 THE GREAT hall of the refurbished Stadtcasino Basel was full of Zionists last week. (photo credit: Charles O. Kaufman)
THE GREAT hall of the refurbished Stadtcasino Basel was full of Zionists last week.
(photo credit: Charles O. Kaufman)

As long as Jews strive for excellence and Israel’s enemies seek their destruction, Zionism will continue to flourish. As strange as that dichotomy sounds, both extreme behaviors are precisely why Jews have the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland.

Zionism is ingrained in Judaism. It’s not a land grab, as those who wish to destroy Israel remind the world every day. And that is the core of what must be taught to the Diaspora and recited like the Shema. Zionism is the essence of being Jewish, and that carries the burden of following high standards and a code of moral and ethical conduct reserved for angels. It is an ideal with which people of all faiths grapple.

In the eyes of most antisemites, Jews are viewed through the lens of stereotypes and hateful tropes. Propaganda works as it always has, but today it moves faster than the speed of sound and reaches more people globally at once. Ask the olim from Ethiopia, the Middle East, Morocco, and the Far East whether global Jewry is the domain of “white privilege.” Walk the streets of many parts of Israel and you’ll see that the question need not be asked.

The Zionist spirit inspired by Theodor Herzl endures with countless examples of resilience by people who live to excel, achieve and build. And for that attitude of excelling individually for the benefit of many, the Jewish people were, and are, not only resented but hated.

Throughout history, the eradication of the Jewish people also entails erasing Jewish history. Fortunately, archaeologists, historians and other scholars continue to unearth evidence of Jewish history throughout Europe, even in Basel, where Jews contributed mightily to their countries.

 CHAIRMAN OF the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel addresses last week’s conference on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel.  (credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters) CHAIRMAN OF the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel addresses last week’s conference on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel. (credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

At the recent 125th anniversary meeting, as it was in the days of Herzl, the full array of Judaism and Jewishness was on full display, from haredi Jews to chutzpadik Jews, as were themes such as “unity, not uniformity.” No worries there. The World Zionist Organization delegates and others from 40 countries, more than 1,400 people, embodied the well-known, endearing punchline “two Jews, three opinions” and its sister punchline, “two Jews, three shuls.” Such are also the attributes of Zionist dreamers like Herzl.

Such diversity of thought filled the Stadtcasino 125 years ago, and it filled the very same space at the end of August 2022. When a Swiss official expanded on the self-determination theme of Zionism to reference Palestinians, a pocket of applauding “Zionists” erupted in joy, while the scorn of silent others was far more palpable. The host speaker might have acknowledged how Palestinian leadership over decades has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to make peace and create a state; that opportunities shrink with the passage of time; and that a state “from the river to the sea” means the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Zionist antagonists in the audience would do well to acknowledge, even promote, the efforts of Palestinian Zionists who enjoy the benefits of living in a democracy and integrating with their fellow Israelis. They might motivate their Palestinian friends to urge unproductive leaders to find compromise and, in the meantime, break the paralysis of living in “refugee camps” in Area A in the West Bank and under Hamas rule in Gaza.

Jewish sympathizers would do well to grow beyond making political hay of the propaganda and hit the refresh button with a new Palestinian vision. They don’t need the indoctrination of old; they just need to pursue the truth with facts.

The Jewish people needed unity

HERZL OPERATED in a time when the Jewish people needed unity, a safe haven and a chance for a shared vision. They came to the Stadtcasino in formal attire with a broad range of opinions and left with the same, but with new clarity. Herzl knew the physical problems of a desolate land, but also knew its potential and divine promise.

Since 1897, Israel’s enemies have weaponized the word Zionism, forcing new and deeper divisions within the Diaspora, mostly in the US. Suddenly, fighting antisemitism is in conflict with defending Israel’s sovereignty and guarding against existential threats, notably from Iran and its proxies.

Everyone who calls himself a Zionist, whatever religious or political strain they follow, must understand and celebrate that Israel is a melting pot of the Jewish people – and certainly non-Jews – and a model for a diversity of ideas. They can disagree and protest all they want – and they do and will – and give ground on operations, but Israel must maintain territory that secures a future in its ancestral homeland. Such is the purity of Zionism.

By 1897, Herzl and the delegates at that first gathering understood the winds of assimilation that blew in with centuries of Jewish exile and migrations. Beyond the 40-year trek through the Sinai, Jews wandered for millennia. Today, the Jewish people are more complex and diverse, but all are Jewish in some way. If we don’t accept each other, the Jewish homeland must. Even with all of our differences, we cannot compromise Zion. In a time when it’s fashionable to identify ourselves with pronouns, Jews need only to remember that there is no Judaism nor Jewishness without Zion. It is us.

The WZO’s historic 125th-anniversary meeting validated the many layers of Herzl’s dream. Israel is not only the legal homeland of the Jewish people; it is an innovative, modern country that works tirelessly to improve the world. New chapters in the Zionism story are being written every day. It is a story without end. And we must teach the world the true meaning of the word Zionism.

Educating the Diaspora about the full meaning of Zionism ensures that this homeland will serve to build an advanced, productive and enterprising nation that solves human problems – among them, health, hunger and poverty – throughout the world. Zionism, then, means making the world the best we can make it. With 53 percent of the world’s Jews, Israel is not only a refuge against antisemitism; it is a light unto all the nations. 

The writer is the immediate past president of B’nai B’rith International and a board member of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod.