Why Zionism matters

Zionism represented - and still represents - the most successful movement to 'resurrect the living'.

kotsker rebbe 88 (photo credit: )
kotsker rebbe 88
(photo credit: )
Menahem Mendel of Kotsk was one of the great Hasidic masters of the 19th century. One day, according to legend, a Jewish freethinker living in the shtetl confronted the rebbe with a provocative question. He brazenly asked Menahem Mendel, "Do you really believe in the resurrection of the dead?" The rebbe thought for a moment, then exclaimed: "I believe in the resurrection of the living!" The rebbe's answer to the freethinker was not a negation of Menahem Mendel's belief that God would resurrect the dead at the end of time. The Hasidic master certainly believed in resurrection of the dead as a central tenet of Judaism. Rather, the rebbe was making a point meant to provoke the questioner into thinking about what he had asked. Yes, many people are living their lives, maybe for many years. But are they really living? Menahem Mendel was confronting the tragedy of human life being wasted in the pursuit of money, fame, sex and material gain. A life without spirituality, belief, and ethical behavior - a life without higher purpose - is a life that is truly death. WHILE MENAHEM Mendel of Kotsk lived a century before the rise of the State of Israel, his answer to the freethinker is one I always associate with Zionism. In the late 19th century, the Jewish people were in crisis. In Central and Western Europe, the granting of equal rights to Jews as part of political emancipation seemed to be failing. The fact that Frenchmen were screaming "Death to the Jews!" in the streets of Paris during the Dreyfus Affair, one hundred years after the French Republic emancipated the nation's Jews, alarmed the Jews most assimilated into European society, including essayist and journalist Theodor Herzl. In Eastern Europe the situation of the Jews a century ago was also perilous. The Czars confined the Jews to the Pale of Settlement. Russian peasants - with the backing of the government, the newspapers, and the intelligentsia - attacked Jews in vicious pogroms. Many Jews in Eastern Europe lived in poverty. As a result of all these factors, traditional Jewish leadership in the shtetl failed, with many young Jews leaving the Jewish fold for revolutionary movements or Christianity. Jews were certainly alive in Europe a century ago. Yet, even a generation before the Nazi destruction of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War and the Stalinist repression of Jewish expression in the Soviet Union, the situation for many Jews was one of a "living death." WHILE IMMIGRATION to America, attempts at assimilation, the Socialist Bund, and traditional Judaism provided Jews with an answer to the crisis of European Jewry, the Zionist movement represented - and still represents - the most successful and persuasive movement to "resurrect the living.' The traditional Jewish theology that demanded Jews wait for a messiah to redeem them was a strategy that worked in the Diaspora for many centuries but began to fail more than a century ago. This theology bred a passivity that turned out to be deadly to those Jews who chose to wait for the Messiah to arrive. The Zionist movement awoke Jews from this slumber and agitated for self-redemption and rescue. Early Zionists also challenged the slogan of Jewish reformers in Germany that "Berlin is Our Jerusalem!" and the 19th-century Reform movement's claim that there was no national component to Jewish life, only one of religion. The Zionists were prophetic in their call for Jews to create a state and a cultural center for world Jewry in the Land of Israel. Zionism transformed the image and psychology of the meek Jew of the shtetl and the assimilating, self-hating Jew into a reality of Jewish pride, self-reliance, self-defense, and sovereignty. Today, Israel has become central to Jewish life and thought throughout the world. One of the great beneficiaries of the Zionist project has been Judaism -from the Reconstructionist to the ultra-Orthodox. It is well likely that had not the Jewish State come into being in 1948, the disaster of the Shoah would have demoralized Jews the world over and resulted in a devastating decline of Jews and Judaism. The hope of Israel's national anthem is not an empty slogan or the propaganda of jingoists. It is a living reality for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. NO DOUBT, Zionism has been a movement that is a child of national liberation movements in Europe of more than a century ago. But Israel is more than a nation-state populated by a Jewish majority from all over the world, including many Jews from Arab and Islamic lands. It is a Jewish State and a Jewish Nation. There are Israelis and Jews throughout the world claiming that Israel should be a "state of all its citizens" with no Jewish content or character. These "Post-Zionists" argue that Zionism is a form of European nationalism and imperialism that is no longer relevant to the world and is even harmful to civilization. In their eyes, Zionism is chauvinism and racism. This "Post-Zionist" worldview is a wasteland of resentment, self-hatred, and human denial. It is the answer of defeatists and pessimists who distort history and refuse to face the challenge of what it means to be a Jew in the world in the 21st century. The reality today is that Zionism remains a vital movement that still must deal with challenges that were important to the Jewish people one hundred years ago - and remain so today. How do Jews define a Jewish nation? What is the relationship in Israel between religion and state? Does the traditional concept of a Jewish nation based on a divine covenant bear any relevance to a modern Jewish nation-state? Should Zionism reject 2000 years of Jewish history in the Diaspora or attempt to incorporate aspects of the "galut" into a mosaic of Jews of different ethnic backgrounds and origins? Is Israel a harbinger of the coming of the messiah and "the first flowering of our redemption?" What is Israel's relationship with those Jews living today outside of Israel? How can Israel thrive as a Jewish state with a sizeable Arab minority while retaining its character as a modern democratic nation? What is Israel's role in the world community in the face of Islamic extremism and an expansionist and nuclear Iran? How will Israelis be able to make peace with a divided Palestinian Authority, dominated by Hamas terrorists? These questions remain unanswered. It is the responsibility of a new generation of Zionists to face these questions and find the difficult answers. The future of Zionism is one of many challenges Jews face today. Without a modern State of Israel, the Jewish people might not have survived the persecution of the 20th century and the eroding factor of assimilation in today's America. Indeed, Zionism has resurrected the living. Zionism matters today and will matter for future generations of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida.