Progressing beyond Zionism

I consider the song to be holy, having been sanctified by the Jewish martyrs who sang it on their way to British gallows when fighting to free our country from foreign rule.

Israeli flags (photo credit: ELIZABETH APPELBAUM)
Israeli flags
I feel a strong emotional attachment to “Hatikva.” Singing it often chokes my voice. It may actually be more than just an emotional attachment. I consider the song to be holy, having been sanctified by the Jewish martyrs who sang it on their way to British gallows when fighting to free our country from foreign rule.
Yet at the same time I recognize that there are many people between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River who feel alienated by Israel’s national anthem and aren’t able to sing or in any way identify with it. And I recognize that in moving forward toward the next stage of realizing historic Jewish aspirations, we need to dig deeper into our rich ancient texts in order to find an anthem that can resonate with both our haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Palestinian populations while still striking emotional cords within mainstream Israeli society. What we need is an anthem that is simultaneously more Jewish and more inclusive to the non-Jew than “Hatikva.” And this is only one small example of the greater psychological shift necessary for advancing our revolution.
Zionism has arguably been the most successful revolutionary movement to date. In the annals of human history, it is virtually unheard of for a people broken and scattered throughout the world for nearly 2,000 years to return and reunite on its original native soil. It is similarly unheard of for a people to revive a long-dead language to everyday use. The revival of Hebrew as a vernacular used in the marketplace, government, industry and schools constitutes a revolution in itself, the magnitude of which has yet to be appreciated. Other peoples have vainly attempted to revive their extinct traditional tongues. But the Hebrew nation in our homeland speaks and creates in our own ancient language.
And although we are not the only people to ever win a struggle for freedom from British rule (according to official British sources, the empire withdrew from Palestine due to its inability to successfully contend with “Jewish terrorism”), the fact that Jews – as Jews existed in the 1940s – could achieve a military victory over one of that era’s mightiest empires really seems to me a triumph verging on the miraculous.
The situation of the Jewish people today is radically different than it was only a century ago. We have achieved the impossible. And we did so through a very necessary yet narrow Jewish nationalism called “Zionism” that currently appears to have outlived its usefulness.
If we define Zionism (as most Israelis do) not as the Jewish struggle for liberation over millennia but as a 20th century national movement that succeeded in returning the Jewish people to nationhood, we are currently living in a post-Zionist reality where even the majority of self-defined Zionists understand the term to mean little more than Independence Day barbecues and reserve duty once a year. Few still approach Zionism as an ideology with any intellectual depth, because the Jewish people are by and large ready and thirsty for something new.
In order to advance to the next stage, however, we need to shift away from our narrow Jewish nationalism in favor of a uniquely Hebrew universalism that reflects and expresses authentic Jewish values while being more inclusive to non-Jewish groups in our society. We need to dig deeper into the wealth of our ancient sources in order to arrive at policies and structures that will at the same time make our country more Jewish, democratic and inclusive of the “other.”
Hebrew universalism should not be confused with Western universalism but should actually be seen as an alternative to it (more on this distinction in the future). Advancing to the next stage of Jewish liberation doesn’t require that we shrink our nationalism or negate its achievements. The opposite. Our nationalism needs to deepen and expand to the point that it explodes and spills over into universalism, transcending the either/or “Arab versus Jew” paradigm and making the State of Israel, from river to sea, both the fulfillment of historic Jewish aspirations and a genuine light unto nations that will benefit and inspire all humankind.
In exile, we essentially divided human beings into two categories – Jew and non-Jew (with the non-Jew often playing the role of oppressor). But in ancient times, at periods when our people enjoyed political independence, not every gentile assumed the role of an enemy. Just as there were multiple categories of Hebrews (Kohanim and the various tribes), there were also different categories that various gentiles fell under. The biblical narrative even tells us of a gentile heroine who killed the Canaanite general Sisera, ending two decades of brutal oppression. And over 3,000 years later, Jewish parents continue to name their daughters Yael.
Although Zionism’s success has radically changed the reality of Jewish existence, our existential posture toward the non-Jew has stayed the same. Now that we have returned to a situation of power in our own country, we need to transition our thinking away from that of an oppressed people in exile. We need to think like an independent nation on our own soil. And part of our shift toward a Hebrew universalism requires us to realize that for the first time in millennia Jews are ruling over a minority of gentiles, and to define what we believe to be the ideal role of a non-Jew in a Jewish society. Our very reluctance to even discuss this issue has caused untold suffering for both Jews and Palestinians.
And it is crucial to understand that realigning our attitude toward the “other” cannot be accomplished through the narrow vehicle of Jewish nationalism.
Transcending the zero-sum game with the Palestinians requires that we clarify for ourselves what the Jewish people have collectively wanted for thousands of years, and what itch of Jewish history the State of Israel is meant to scratch. We need to ask ourselves whether the State of Israel is the goal of our revolution or perhaps merely a tool with which to accomplish that goal. We have to define what it even means to have a “Jewish” state. Does it necessitate a Jewish majority? Or does it require national policies that express inherent Jewish values (including how we treat the gentile)? What are the genuine aspirations of the Palestinians? Do they conflict with our own? What is the ideal role of a non-Jew in a Jewish state and what gift do we see that state bestowing upon the world? Our generation is challenged with transforming authentic Jewish values into policies that include and empower the “other” yet make our country more authentically Jewish in the process by very nature of the values they express.
Participatory democracy, for example, is not only far more egalitarian than representative democracy. It is also more deeply rooted in authentic Jewish sources (“captains of ten” model).
Until now we’ve had a state that is externally Jewish. Superficial Jewish decorations slapped over a nation-state structured on a European model. But in addition to offending and alienating non-Jews, these decorations aren’t “Jewish enough” for the Israelis most in touch with our people’s authentic culture.
A state with a deep Jewish interior is preferable to one with a hard Jewish exterior. A state structured on the basis of authentic Hebrew values from the ground up would likely possess a confidence in its own “Jewishness” that would make offensive superficial decorations unnecessary while satisfying our ancient yearnings even more intensely.
The specific aspirations expressed in “Hatikva” have been realized. We should proudly recognize where we currently stand on the map of history so that – without any concessions on the achievements of the past – we can advance and direct our energies toward the next stage of our revolution.
The author is an alternative peace activist and frequent lecturer on the subjects of history, identity politics and the Middle East Conflict.