A Progressive Zionist’s Aliya: Why Now?

A Progressive Zionist’s Aliya: Why Now?

Our new contributor, Alex Stein, is 25, originally from London, has a masters degree in international relations and hopes to start a Ph. D. in about a year. He blogs at http://falsedichotomies.com and wanted us to include his e-mail address: alex.stein@talk21.com .

I have just made aliya. Considering the current pessimism surrounding prospects for peace in the Middle East, this move may surprise many. Given the rise of Hamas and the concomitant entrenchment of unilateralism in Israel, not to mention Iran’s nuclear ambitions, isn’t making aliya a strange thing to do? I don’t believe so. In fact, for anyone who shares my progressive Zionist ideals, now is a wonderful time to be taking the aliya plunge.

We go to the land to build and be built by it. This was the mantra of the early Zionists. Never has the appeal of nationalism towards progressives been stated so succinctly. One pithy phrase articulates the relationship between political progress and self-development. It may seem perverse, but what better time can there be for moving to Israel than this? For now is a time when the destruction is in place, when events are transpiring to make all our goals further away than ever.

In the case of Israel/Palestine, it is best not to believe the hype until the maps have been published, and even then not to believe the maps unless the source is beyond dispute. And although there has been wild speculation over Ehud Olmert’s plans to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank, the precise parameters of the plan are still unclear. (He hasn’t really put it on the shelf: the annexation program continues apace ; he just hasn’t yet worked out the details of how to implement it – this will prove to be an unsquarable circle.)

It seems that Olmert is seeking to annex the major settlement blocs – Ariel, Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim – as well as securing a permanent presence in the Jordan Valley. But this is far from certain. And even if this did constitute the plan, questions remain. Will there be a Jewish presence in Hebron? Will any military bases be left behind? Will Gaza and the West Bank finally be connected? What will happen in Jerusalem? Predictably, though, any suggestion of withdrawal from the West Bank has led to widespread criticism, particularly from the Religious Zionist and Christian Zionist camps. This was inevitable. Giving up one inch is too much for those who value land more life. There can be no satisfying such people.

At the outset, Olmert stated that he wanted to set Israel’s borders by 2010. Following the war in Lebanon, however, the plans have been shelved for the foreseeable future. The reasons for this are obvious. The best that Olmert is prepared to offer the Palestinians do not come close to satisfying their minimal demands. As a result, the Americans are trying to encourage Olmert to engage Palestinian President Abbas, an undoubtedly reasonable man. It seems that a meeting between the two will soon take place, although there is little hope for a significant outcome. Israel will surely soon return to unilateralism. But this should not distract from a basic realization: Israel will not be stable until Palestine is. This should be the progressive Zionist mantra, our response to unilateralism.

My Zionism, however, is primarily personal, not ideological. In other words, I do not aim to impose my Zionism on other Jews in the Diaspora. The decisions we have to take in our lives are terrifying enough without trying to impose them on other people. Furthermore, I do not summarily dismiss anti-Zionism as self-hatred. I believe anti-Zionists to be fundamentally mistaken, but I acknowledge the legitimacy of the position, and welcome the critique. I, however, hold an axiomatic conviction in the right of Jews to self-determination, and the deeply held belief that this does not necessitate persecution of the Other.

‘Progressive nationalism’ is all the rage nowadays, with the increasing realization that people express their autonomy more freely within a national context. Zionism needs to keep up the pace. National movements exist to promote what Will Kymlicka calls a “societal culture.” For progressive nationalists, this culture is necessarily ‘thin’, given that the state should not intervene in matters of religion, values and lifestyles. But it should not be dismissed as unimportant. The Zionist movement has done a tremendous job in resurrecting the Hebrew language and a vibrant Israeli national culture. It now has to make sure that the values of pluralism and democracy can spread far deeper into Israeli society.

Thus, in addition to solving the conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has to resolve the contradictions between its commitment to democracy and its commitment to the Jewish people. Despite what some doctrinaire anti-Zionists might say, this remains a viable goal and many people are working hard at formulating a way forward. Of most importance in this regard is providing Israeli-Arabs with full equality and integration into Israeli society. In addition lays the importance of confronting the religious/secular divide, particularly the status quo which gives the Orthodox establishment such disproportionate influence over the personal lives of Israeli citizens. These tasks may be difficult, but they are certainly feasible.

To dream madly and to imagine all possibilities has always been the Zionist way. As the date of aliya approaches, one should have delusions of grandeur, which should be replaced by humility on arrival. My five months (I need five years) of ulpan has become a time of observation, of re-acquainting myself with the facts on the ground, and trying to imagine how I can possibly fit in and what I can do. As soon as this honeymoon is over, I shall know I have arrived.

The above should suffice as an explanation of my ideological commitment to Zionism and the political context of my aliya. But I am aware it does not go the heart of why I have made this move. In all honesty, answering the ‘why’ question is an extremely difficult one. It would be great if I could reduce everything down to a neat narrative, but life is more complicated than that. I can’t, for example, name the day I finally decided that Israel was the place for me. Like all the best decisions (I hope), there was a rocky road to a gradual realization that I wanted to go.

So despite everything: despite Hamas, despite the worship of unilateralism, despite racism (on both sides), despite Ahmadinejad, despite my unerring commitment to universalism. We can only really achieve a universal order when we value the particular. I remain cynical as to how sustainable Jewish life is in the Diaspora, at least on a serious level where the decisions we take as Jews have ramifications beyond our tribe. Our little job in achieving the dream of genuine universality is to create an Israel where justice trumps ethnocentrism.

Theodor Herzl famously noted that “If you will it, it is no dream.” To refer to this aphorism is to invite the ridicule that is heaped on a bad poet, or someone unwilling to dirty themselves with detail. But it still remains Zionism’s most potent catchphrase, and one which has never been bettered as the embodiment of Zionism’s revolutionary potential. The time has come for Zionism to pave the trail for progressive nationalism everywhere. One of the most tragic aspects of modern history is the constant victory of reactionary nationalisms. Now, at a time of deep-rooted pessimism, is as good a time as ever for this process to be reversed.

By | 2006-10-10T13:25:00-04:00 October 10th, 2006|Blog|0 Comments

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