Some Thoughts on Zionism Today

Some Thoughts on Zionism Today

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!
By | 2013-04-14T16:33:00-04:00 April 14th, 2013|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Ralph Seliger April 14, 2013 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    This is a very charged issue. I prefer “retirement” as a metaphor to a funeral. In my reading somewhere, I recall that Ben-Gurion himself wanted to retire the Zionist movement after Israel survived the war of independence.

    There’s a parallel with what Sen. George Aiken (the liberal Republican from Vermont who passed away in 1984) is supposed to have said during the Vietnam War: that the US should declare victory and bring its troops home. Ben-Gurion was basically saying that Zionism should declare victory and fold up its tent, as it has succeeded in founding a viable Jewish state, and is now no longer relevant in an organizational sense. This is close to what you are saying.

    The bonds of kinship, affection and concern still exist between Diaspora Jews and Israel (which one may or may not call Zionism), but the organized Zionist movement (e.g., the World Zionist Organization) is a shadow of its former self and almost devoid of meaningful functions. While Zionism as an ideology is more meaningful to anti-Zionists, who believe that Zionism is more coherent as an ongoing ideology and movement, defining it with hostility as dictating “an exclusively Jewish state” (a term I only hear from anti-Zionists). This ignores the historic and continuing diversity of views within the Zionist camp.

    We as progressive Zionists are still in the process of questioning the meaning and usefulness of our abiding links with the official Zionist movement. But even if we were to decide to withdraw from the American Zionist Movement and involvement with the World Zionist Organization, anti-Zionists would still regard us as “Zionist” for supporting Israel as a Jewish-majority state.

  2. Paul L. Scham April 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,
    I can’t really find anything you wrote to disagree with. The Jewish feeling for Israel goes way beyond the concept of Zionism. But I don’t think it’s just semantic or organizational. A going state doesn’t need a movement to keep it going. Rather that state – as unique as it thinks itself – should behave as a state does. It should remember its history but not be enslaved to it.

  3. Jerry Blaz April 15, 2013 at 1:22 am - Reply

    Zionism and its meaning have changed continually from its inception as an idea in the 19th century when it was reawakened by the Europeanm national movements to identify nationhood in an ethnic direction. The very core of Zionism was its liberating affect upon Jews who found that modernism and the liberation of people went hand-in-hand, and Zionism became the liberation movement of the Jewish people, a paragon never acknowledged to this day by many nations which have arisen to become independent states since Israel became a state.

    The meaning of Jewish nationalism has continually changed. At one time, socialism accompanied Jewish nationalism was the leading aspect of Zionism, and later, partisanship and the circulation of a newer elite accompanied by the routinization and relaxation of the older elite gave rise to a Zionism that emphasized the nationalist component over the socialist component, and we are still struggling with the results of this newer elite, which itself is works toward a goal of a hyper-national state.

    Is this still Zionism?

    Many will see it as a perversion of the movement that no longer liberates, but subjugates others. After all, lest we forget that we were minorities among the nations, we must give our minorities the same rights Jews have in Israel. Until we stop asking whether it is Zionism or not, we have to state simply without attempting to say that “our Zionism” is true and any other version is a corruption of the term, we have to look to see what kind of society has been built in Israel.

    In terms of building a humane society, with a seamless attitude of of working toward social equality,I believe we have fallen short. And this goal of creating equality, at least of opportunity, is our new starting point.

  4. Lilly Rivlin April 15, 2013 at 2:04 am - Reply

    I hope others will read Paul’s piece. I agree with the analysis. It is difficult saying goodbye to the nomenclature that I grew up on and held on to. On the other hand we don’t have a name for the next stage. I hope that this will stimulate young people to come in on this, for example some of the young Shomrim. We could also think about the garinim in the cities who have taken the values of the kibbutzim and applied them to neighborhoods in the cities that need idealists to do socially responsible organizing against racism, blight, etc. I would like to open up this discussion and not just leave in the hands of old timers like us.

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