With Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s 65th Independence Day, around the corner [April 15], these are some thoughts about the significance of Zionism today.
There are frequent complaints, usually on the center-right of the American Jewish political spectrum, about the poverty of ideas in modern Zionism. I agree; I don’t see how anyone could maintain otherwise with a straight face. There are no great ideas because – surprise! – the Zionist movement has been gone for well over 40 years, although few Israelis (or American Jews who care about Israel) have wished to recognize its departure. As my grandmother used to say, “It’s like cupping a corpse” to try to find new ideas in and for a movement that had a glorious life, but is now our past, not our future.
The State of Israel and the Jewish people should hold a grand, if belated, funeral and move on. Unlike the vast majority of political, let alone ideological movements, Zionism succeeded in its basic aim of rejuvenating the Jewish people in its ancient homeland. Along the way, it revived Hebrew, allowed the Jewish people to recover from the Holocaust, revolutionized the internal and external perception of Jews individually and collectively, and laid the basis for Israel becoming a regional superpower. Most other ideologically based movements either never achieved power, or collapsed after 12 or 70 or so horrendous years. And despite our enemies’ rhetoric, it was not evil – though serious mistakes and misjudgments were made, and remain. In many respects, Zionism was astoundingly successful.
Of course, if it ceases to cling to the Zionist crutch, Israel will have to become more k’chol hagoyim, like the other nations, in many respects. It will have to come to terms with being a normal state but also with problems of considerable scale, most inherited from its entry on to the world stage in an unprecedented manner. But it will have to recognize there is no “Zionist solution” to today’s problems, since they are completely different from those faced by the early Zionists, whether intellectuals or chalutzim (pioneers) or both. The issues of daily life, whether of an individual or a society, can rarely be solved with heroic means.
Zionism quietly died some time after 1949, and was certainly gone by the Six Day War. After its demise, the state it had created proceeded to make its own way, pretending it was being guided by the heroic ideas of the deceased. But every child has to move beyond his or her parents’ solutions and recognize that eventually they die, or have died. Israel has not yet done so.
So, of course there are no heroic ideas. A state is cumbersome, has many competing interests, and is run by politics, all of which are anti-heroic. There are no more worlds or even lands to conquer; rather the question is what to give up in order to create normality with the neighbors, and especially with those who were displaced by Zionism’s eruption onto the world stage, something we have yet to come to terms with. It is also time to give up some of the illusions that allowed the heroism to flourish, such as the myth that we are always innocent victims. One of the goals of Zionism was to rid ourselves of our victimhood, but many still cherish it.
But giving up land and recognizing illusions are not usually seen as heroic, essential as they are. Success in withdrawal will be denounced as surrender by many of those who hold on to the past. Paradoxically, only failure will be cheered by those who believe they can resurrect Zionism’s golden age. Failure means more war, and the hope of those who want peace to fail is that another heroic war will change everything. But it won’t. The last heroic war was in 1967, unless you count 1973, which was heroic only in that Israelis fought desperately to prevent defeat. But, later, we found out that even our enemies didn’t expect to defeat us; Sadat made war in order to make peace. A heroic war for him, perhaps, but not for us; except for the heroism of individual soldiers.
Every few years one organization or another announces a renewal of Zionism and invites a new group to make aliyah. Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) is a concept that predated Zionism and will survive it. There are a variety of reasons that Jews make aliyah, ranging from honest enthusiasm for the task of building a Jewish state (religious or secular) to hope of economic improvement, to out-and-out flight for one’s life. But aliyah is now a personal decision; Israel does not need aliyah to survive, as the Yishuv did in earlier times.
So there will be no more great ideas coming from the Zionist movement. Rather, we should borrow an idea from the Irish and, instead of sitting shivaand mourning, we should have a wake and celebrate the magnificent life of the deceased, though not forgetting its faults and mistakes. Then, we not-larger-than-life Israelis and Jews can try to struggle out from Zionism’s shadow. Zionism R.I.P; Long live the State of Israel!