Where is Zionism going?

June 25, 2010
Richard Kuper

cifThe debate within the Jewish state

Recent strident trends in Israeli nationalist ideology mask a more complex and potentially fruitful dialogue on the future of Zionism

Antony Lerman, 25 June 2010

Israel may show all the signs of being a typical westernised, post-ideological society. But in response to growing international pressure over recent years and with the country’s centre of political gravity drifting to the far right, Zionist ideology appears to be playing an increasingly important role in decision-making and in determining the face that Israel presents to the world. But does this represent an irreversible trend?

The ideological surge is being led by, variously: the ultra-nationalist, religious and messianic settler movement; organisations like Im Tirtzu, which calls itself “a centrist extra-parliamentary movement that strives to strengthen the values of Zionism”, and which has been at the forefront of attacking Israeli human rights organisations; influential thinktanks like the Shalem Centre, which aims to reverse Israel’s “ideological degeneration”; and Knesset members who claim to be promoting Zionist values by proposing laws demanding all citizens take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state, outlawing commemoration of the Nakba and demanding recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. And whatever language the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, may force himself to use to appease the American administration, he is instinctively at one with this ideological revivalism.

Prominent leaders in major Jewish communities are also offering support to Israel of a kind that seems to dovetail with the more assertive Zionist message. Citing a recent speech by Mick Davis, head of the UK United Jewish Israel Appeal, David Newman argued:

“Many diaspora Jewish organisations have become more outspoken, less apologetic and more ‘Americanised’ in the way they defend the Jewish state from afar.”

Abe Foxman, who heads the US Anti-Defamation League, has always set the pace for this approach and displayed it in his response to a much-discussed article by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, which severely criticised American Jewish leaders’ blinkered support for an aggressive Zionism in which the majority of young American Jews show no interest.

But these developments mask a more complex reality in which, first, from within the Zionist camp, voices are being heard that question some of the cherished assumptions of Zionism, and second, the perceived renewal of Zionist ideology is a distortion of Zionism’s fundamental aims.

The first trend is evident from a recent article by Moshe Arens, a former Likud defence minister, who has argued that a one-state solution for Israel-Palestine should be seriously considered – in the form of Israeli citizenship being conferred on the population of the West Bank. Aware that the demographic balance would change, he still thought it was a challenge Israel could face. Arens certainly hasn’t embraced binationalism, but even entertaining the possibility of a non-Jewish majority in the Israeli state clashes with the dominant Zionist ethos of the last 10 years.

Arens’s trial balloon was preceded by the passing of a resolution by the World Zionist Congress endorsing a two-state solution and a West Bank settlement freeze. The significance of this vote, by the formal guardian of Zionist ideology, can be judged by the fact that it promoted a walkout by opponents. And when the full congress passed the resolution, protestors mounted the stage and sang the Israeli national anthem. You may not find either Arens or the WZO ready to concede that Zionism no longer occupies its once undoubted unifying role among most Jews worldwide or to admit to Zionism’s mistakes. But only a few years ago, an acknowledged authority on the history of Zionism and nationalism, and a staunch Zionist, Professor Hedva Ben Israel, reluctantly said:

“All forms of Jewish existence continue to exist, and some extreme forms are getting stronger. The Jewish people is more split than ever on nationalism and Jewish universalism. History triumphed over Zionism and not the other way round.”

As for the Zionist revivalism of Im Tirtzu and other groups, in writing about “the absurdity of the concept” of “Arab-Israelis” (in a Hebrew language pamphlet), Im Tirtzu’s founder rejects the inclusive concept of citizenship that Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, envisaged for the Jewish state. “Those who today exclude this fundamental element from Zionism are left with a chauvinist and non-Zionist version of Jewish nationalism,” writes the historian of Zionism Dimitry Shumsky. This negation of basic Zionist concepts has, for some years, been at the heart of the settler movement. The settlers’ rabbinic leaders, in opposing demands to cease settlement building and military orders to evacuate outposts, in effect declared war on the Zionist state’s institutions: “the laws of the state, the Knesset, the government, the courts and the law enforcement authorities.”

The proposed laws introduced by ultra-nationalist Knesset members intent on entrenching an exclusivist nationalism, take Israeli Jews back to the perceived ghetto mentality of diaspora Jews that Zionism was meant to eradicate. The demand that Israel’s Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab states publicly recognise Israel as “the Jewish state” epitomises this trend. But as leading Israeli novelist AB Yehoshua trenchantly insists, this is unnecessary. The choice of “Israel” in 1948 as the name of the state, as in the biblical term “people of Israel”, was a conscious rejection of any adaptation of the narrower term “Jewish people”, which did not appear until hundreds of years later.

It would be wrong to conclude from this necessarily brief presentation of trends that the true picture of Zionism is one of a political ideology rapidly giving way to new thinking that will soon open new paths towards achieving a just Israel-Palestine peace. Nevertheless, the ideological surge is by no means irreversible and Zionism is in a sufficient degree of flux and turmoil to suggest that attitudes on the Israeli side can undergo radical change. Political and ideological positions are not as entrenched as at first appears.

It will take courage for Israelis to continue to open up an already lively debate, especially in view of the increasingly repressive measures the authorities are using against Israelis and Palestinians expressing dissident views. (The right is now even trying to label criticism of illegal West Bank settlements as “delegitimisation”.) And Jews outside of Israel also need to heed Peter Beinart’s words that “comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication”.

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