Zionism is dead, long live Zionism

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The ideal was out of date almost from the first day; that is why it is eternal; for whatever is dated is doomed.”

Theodore Herzl 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Theodore Herzl 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When the word “Zionism” gets pronounced by Israelis these days, the usual cadence is one of weariness and disillusion. And it hardly seems a passing mood. Every day, in numberless cafes, army barracks and university classes, someone insinuates, or (it being Israel) shouts: “do we really still need this Zionist burden? And, after all, isn’t there an easier way, a better way?” Di kvar! Enough already!” Zionism’s popular unpopularity among Israelis would certainly be a happy development for Israel if Zionism were a spent force, or a stubborn obstacle on the road to a better world. If moving beyond Zionism meant sweeping away entrenched corruption, far-sighted Zionists themselves might applaud it. But what the far-sighted Zionist notices in all this is that “Zionism” remains the unique, inescapable and indelible name for the idea – whichever idea – of Israel as a Jewish state. In the end, abandoning Zionism always means abandoning this great cause.
In a recent column (“Can Israel learn from pre-Zionism?”), Seth Frantzman accuses contemporary Zionism of declining into doctrinaire support for long-entrenched Israeli policies. Like the post-Zionists, he aims to escape a Zionist “burden of the past.” But he proposes, provocatively and paradoxically, to find new political and social inspiration for Israel rather in “pre-Zionist Judaism.”
The aim of reviving Zionism through the Jewish tradition (and non-Jewish sources as well) is altogether praiseworthy. But once we stop to recall that long and very painful history through which “pre-Zionist Judaism” actually gave rise to Zionism in the first place, it becomes obvious that this word game really adds up to another post-Zionism.
There is really something at stake among all these words. Consider the institution of separate educational systems for various communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Respect for all the national and religious groups in the Jewish state and equal funding for their schools was always the Zionist ideal, if too rarely the practice. Consistent post-Zionism, on the other hand, must support a single integrated and post-national school system.
Before deciding the issue and calling in the soldiers to integrate Israel’s schools, it would be wise to consider not only Jewish, but Arab Israeli sentiment regarding the prospect of studying most of the day in Hebrew rather than Arabic.
The very idea of subjecting Arabs to a curriculum celebrating Jewish history and the Bible seems not only provocative, but illiberal.
The only other option is to accommodate both sides by removing Jewish history and content from the national curriculum. On this issue, Zionism stands for pluralism.
But there is another deeply inconvenient truth about Zionism which is disagreeable to Israelis and Palestinians alike. It is that the Zionist movement created the conditions under which the Palestinian nation came into being. Zionism bears responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the sense that it is responsible for those nations existing at all. This is why the idea of peace and goodwill between Israel and the Palestinians has to be a Zionist idea.
This is why Zionism tolerates a separate education system for Israeli Arabs. It is because Zionism contains the idea of a unified Jewish nation dwelling at peace with its neighbors. Post-Zionism hopes for something else. It hopes for a peace, no longer of nations, but of cosmopolitan citizens.
What of “pre-Zionism”? Is it the elixir to cure the Zionist burden? There was of course the late 19th century pre-Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau; the pre-Zionism of assimilated Europeans of Jewish descent. It did not however entirely outlast the shock of the Dreyfus affair.
A century prior, “pre-Zionist Judaism” was the way of life of the whole of unassimilated European Jewry. This was the Jewry emancipated by Napoleon, and of whom he wrote in 1804, “[It is necessary to] reduce, if not destroy, the tendency of Jewish people to practice a very great number of activities that are harmful to civilization and to public order in society in all the countries of the world. [...] to prevent it, it is necessary to change the Jews.”
Pre-Zionist Jewry was insular and suffered persecution for most of its history; it dwelt in tight communities, and Judaism formed the rich horizon of all its hopes and fears. If any Jewish ethos forms the model and ideal of today’s post-Zionists, it is hardly this. It is at times only implicit, but the true post-Zionist model is always 20th century American Jewry. And this is because American Jewry is the most post-Zionist of Jewries. Admittedly, Mordechai Kaplan’s attempt in the mid-1930s to solve the problem of assimilation in the form of Reconstructionism is an example of genuinely American pre-Zionist Judaism (though Kaplan was a sort of Zionist). But after 1948, no Jew in America remained “pre-Zionist.”
American Jewry has fully absorbed the moment of renewed Jewish sovereignty into its self-understanding. A certain troubled relationship to Zionism, troubled by post-Zionism, animates AIPAC and Birthright as much as J Street. The contemporary American Jewish community, where it is not actively Zionist or anti-Zionist, or totally disengaged, is every bit a post-Zionist Jewry.
How could it possibly teach Israel to be a Jewish state? It looks to Israel for its own identity. But if post-Zionism offers no quarter, are Israelis alone stuck with a Zionism that “soldiers on, burdened, like Samson, by the hardships of years of struggle”? The short answer for a Zionist must be: if necessary, yes. It is not, however, Zionism that is burdened by the past, but the State of Israel.
Zionism is burdened rather by its hopes.
Israel is burdened by 70 years of violent struggle and entanglement. No ideology can solve its problems; but only time, sacrifice and moral renewal. Zionism is just the ideal of an independent Jewish state, living happily and at peace with its neighbors.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The ideal was out of date almost from the first day; that is why it is eternal; for whatever is dated is doomed.”
Zionism, it seems, is dead again. And yet whatever comes next for Israel will still be Zionism.
The author is a freelance writer and PhD student in Political Science at Boston College.
He holds a BA in Jewish Thought and an MA in Philosophy, both from the Hebrew University.