1. The dispute with the Palestinians and the Arabs is an important matter, but it is not the defining issue of Zionism. Zionism is about a Hebrew/Jewish renaissance.
2. Zionism was, and continues to be, a response of Jewish civilization to the Emancipation, not only to anti-Semitism.
3. Zionism means engaging in politics, and especially the politics of being Jewish and democratic.
4. Zionism is liberal democratic Hebrew/Jewish nationalism.
5. Zionism is based on an ongoing analysis and interpretation of Hebrew/Jewish civilization in history. History is now an integral component of the Jewish canon.
6. Jewish civilization encompasses Jewish religion.
7. Zionism is a family name, with many first names.
8. The state of the Zionist movement today requires us to “take back our label”.
9. Israel experience is now a central component of Jewish identity.
10. Zionism is identity politics.
11. Cultural Zionism rules.
12. Zionism is a Diaspora movement.
13. Diaspora Zionism requires leadership of ideas.
However, Zionism only developed as a modern political movement in the 19th century, absorbing 19th century concepts of linguistic cultural revival, nationalism, socialism, and organized mass movements. Political Zionism arose from and responded to the reality of the Jews’ situation in the world at the end of the 19th Century: the majority of Jews lived in oppressive illiberal jurisdictions, especially Czarist Russia. In 1900, only a tiny remnant of the Old Jewish community, and a tiny vanguard of new Zionist Jews, lived in the land of Israel.
During the twentieth century, political Zionism achieved almost miraculous success in the realization of its goals: the renewal and revitalization of the Hebrew language, the establishment of the Hebrew University in 1925, the development of a modern Hebrew society in the Land of Israel, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Political Zionism also ran into the unforeseen problem of conflict with its Arab neighbours, and lack of acceptance by the Arab world. This became an overwhelming existential challenge, which has distracted us from the true goals of Zionism: A redefinition and renaissance of Jewish /Hebrew civilization.
Now, more than a half a century after the establishment of the State of Israel, the situation of the Jews in the world has been changed dramatically. The majority of the world’s Jews either live in Israel or are Israelis. The vast majority of Jews live in liberal democratic societies, whether in Israel or in Diaspora communities. And the last 25 years have seen dramatic worldwide change: the fall of Communism, the rise of India and China, the challenges of Islamic fundamentalism, the acceleration of globalism and multiculturalism and the flattening of the electronic and digital world.
In light of these [new] [and other] realities, what principles should inform the articulation of a 21st Century Zionism?
1 The dispute with the Palestinians and the Arabs is an important matter, but it is not the defining issue of Zionism. Zionism is about a Hebrew/Jewish renaissance. Culture is central. Determining the physical borders of the State of Israel is important, but determining the borders of Hebrew/Jewish collectivity, who and what is included in our civilization, is also important. Exclusive focus on issues related to security runs the risk of being the person with 100 pairs of shoes, and two shirts. Should we spend our next shekel on yet another pair of shoes? Or invest in a new shirt?
2 Zionism was, and continues to be, a response of Jewish civilization to the Emancipation, not only to anti-Semitism. If you are granted rights and freedoms, and the officially recognized identity of a passport, because you are a citizen of a state, what does that mean for a people whose national identity was tied up with a religion? As an individual member of a larger collective, we are confronted with certain underlying issues: Community and self-sacrifice vs. solely individual needs; Us vs. I; history vs. now.
3 Zionism means engaging in politics, and especially the politics of being Jewish and democratic. For the State of Israel, as officially prescribed in a Basic Law of the Knesset, the constitutional challenge is to be Jewish and democratic. Therefore one foundational component of 21st Century Zionism is the maintenance and development of democratic practice. [The interpretation of what “Jewish” means is perhaps the major philosophical issue of Zionism.] The challenge of democracy: Israel is a vital democratic society with contested elections, frank and open debate, clear positions and a Knesset that broadly reflects the positions of its citizens. By contrast, Diaspora Jewish communities generally, and the Diaspora Zionist movement in particular, suffers from a “democratic deficit”. This needs to be redressed. And yet Diaspora Zionists dafka have something to add in light of their conflicted position, as nationals of one country, but with an affiliation to Israelite civilization: the experience of being a minority, for one. And, for example in Canada, they have internalized the model of British parliamentary debate, and the concept of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. Although in the Torah, kings, priests and prophets predominate, in the post-Exile Diaspora Jewish tradition, the roots of participatory democracy run deep. For two millennium, with no Pope, no Vatican, no Chief Rabbi, the building block of communal legitimacy was the minyan – any 10 members who recognize each other as Jews can create their own legally valid community. Also running deep are the roots of liberal society: a community based on a rule of law, respect for reasoned arguments, decision-making from precedent/principles.
4 Zionism is liberal democratic Hebrew/Jewish nationalism. That is the de facto (facts on the ground) belief system of the majority of Jews in the world today, almost all of whom live in liberal democratic societies. This belief system incorporates what we have learnt from two millennium in the Diaspora, as well as our experience in the last century in building a modern Hebrew democratic society at the core of a worldwide Jewish civilization. Zionism is a “civil religion” of Hebrew/Jewish civilization.
5 Zionism is based on an ongoing analysis and interpretation of Hebrew/Jewish civilization in history. History is now an integral component of the Jewish Canon, added to the Torah and the Talmud, and subject to the same dynamic of interpretation. Arguments appealing to the authority of historical record are used every day, across the spectrum of political discourse, from Bar Kokhba’s revolt to the fate of the Weimar Republic. One of Zionism’s great strengths was its ability to look at the world, the way it is, and call a spade a spade.
6 Jewish civilization encompasses Jewish religion. Halacha reflects Jewish values. But also, Haskala (the late 18th-early 19th Century Jewish Enlightenment) reflects Jewish values. Hebrew/Jewish civilization includes the Knesset haGadol (Sanhedrin) the spiritual and legislative body of the post-prophetic era, numbering 120 Sages which institutionalized important liturgical practices and the foundations of Halacha (reading Torah on Shabbat; reciting the Amidah two times daily; blessings before meals, etc.) – and Hebrew/Jewish civilization also includes the Israeli Knesset, numbering 120 elected citizens, including Arabs, who legislate for the third Jewish commonwealth, drawing on Jewish and world history, British common law, world-wide “best practices”, and the demands of the Israeli electorate.
7 Zionism is a family name, with many first names. Labor Zionism. Revisionist Zionism. Religious Zionism. One dominant but unengaged version is Israeli secular cultural Zionism. Christian Zionism. Muslim Zionism. (You don’t have to be Jewish to be Zionist.) As a political movement, at various times in the past century, different political subsets have dominated. Early on, Socialist Zionism led to the establishment of hundreds of kibbutzim and many significant collective efforts. This was subsumed into a “mainstream” secular Israeli culture, defined during the early years of the state. Currently, religious Zionism, although a minority in Zionism, exerts a powerful influence. But the vast “silent majority”, in Israel and in the Diaspora Jewish world, is essentially secular. Zionism should reflect the majority view, respect minority views, and should be broad enough to be able to include all the citizens of the State of Israel. It is part of a universalistic vision of creating a better world. Like other great civilizations, we are involved in the same struggle - to integrate from the world around us, and from our own past, while defining the borders of our collectivity.
8 The state of the Zionist movement today requires us to “take back our label”. Like Feminism, the Zionist idea is a victim of its own success. Significant progress is taken for granted. The establishment of a thriving, modern democratic Hebrew speaking state in the land of Israel is an achievement of world historic significance. But in the last generation, we’ve lost control of our own label. Like feminists, we have to do the equivalent of “take back the night”.
9 Israel experience is now a central component of Jewish identity. Jewish young people on Birthright trips; Israelis traveling all around the globe; Israel’s reputation for innovation, high tech know-how, military prowess; the fame of Israeli political leaders; the importance of Israeli history and current events to Jews worldwide…
10 Zionism is identity politics. 21st Century Zionism confronts the slippery issue of identity: all the issues of loyalties, cultural analysis, where is culture located, the place of religion, language, politics, aesthetics. Today that also means engaging with the double-edged sword of multiculturalism, and with critiques of multiculturalism. In the Diaspora, this may involve discussion between Jews and Muslims, and addressing the tension between pro-minority rights Jews in the Diaspora, and pro-ethnic majoritarian nationalism in Israel.
11 Cultural Zionism rules. The Israeli citizen, engaging in a pre-election debate with a colleague, watching Israeli television, telling jokes in Hebrew, enjoying the Adliyada parade at Purim, getting Pesach gifts baskets from his employer, are all reflections of the achievement of cultural Zionism. But even in the Diaspora, Zionism has transformed the Jewish conception of self. For many Jews, certainly, going to synagogue, or having a Passover Seder, has a religious component, perhaps even a spiritual component. But for the majority, even of observant Jews, mostly Judaism is their culture. The Passover Seder, or going to the synagogue (whether for a Shabbat service, a bar mitzvah, or an adult education lecture), is more an expression of cultural Zionism: being with others who share elements of a common cultural identity, hearing Hebrew, hearing the reading from the Torah, participating in a little bit of peoplehood. Orientation to Israel is an important part of Diaspora Jewish identity. Reconceptualizing Jewish religion as an element of Hebrew Jewish culture. Here, Diaspora Jews have something of value to contribute, because the voluntaristic religious strand of their identity is a component of their own internal Israelite multiculturalism.
12 Zionism is a Diaspora movement. Ahad Ha’am’s early 20th century vision was probably closest to how things turned out: Israel is the centre of a world Jewish civilization. And the Diaspora still exists. What is the future of the Diaspora? What’s the Diaspora’s part in Israelite civilization? What does it mean when there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis living abroad, from Toronto to Tibet? As they say in the computer business: if you can’t eliminate the bug, feature it. Israelis abroad should be actively embraced. (Israelis are largely invisible to the organized Zionist movement.) 21st Century Zionism needs to reconceptualize the Diaspora in light of current realities. The Diaspora has been an integral aspect of Hebrew/Jewish civilization. What we call the Jewish calendar – Tishrei, Kislev, Adar, Tamuz – came from Babylon, the very archetype of exile. The word Sanhedrin – and afikomen – came from the Greek. Twentieth century Diaspora Zionism integrated Western nationalism, technocracy, urban planning, mass movements, and created Israelite versions of them. We must continue to integrate what we are learning from the Diaspora into Israelite civilization, and “Diaspora Zionists” can help to do this intellectual reconceptualization. But Diaspora Zionism is not intellectually vital. The Diaspora imports speakers and thinkers from Israel; we are passive listeners. Israel has a vibrant debate, vibrant political culture. Diaspora Zionism is a weak reed: it lacks leadership, and new ideas.
13 Diaspora Zionism requires leadership of ideas. A vanguard versus consensus. Historically, the Zionist movement began as a minority position in the Jewish people. It succeeded as a vanguard intellectual movement, propelled by ideas. Diaspora Zionists provided insightful, critical analysis of the place of the Jews in the world and in history, and provided leadership by offering a recipe for reconceptualizing both. Now Diaspora Zionism is either defensive (how to counter media bias) or blaming (the problem is with them, the Palestinians, the anti-Semites) rather than insightful self-criticism. It flows from a weakness of leadership. Leadership in the Diaspora is now based on fundraising – not to gainsay fundraising, which does important things, like support Jewish days schools, Israeli social works, etc. But leadership based on fundraising means leadership based on consensus. If you want to raise money from community members, you don’t want to risk alienating them, so the level of discussion is based on consensus, which means platitudes about “we are one” and pictures of cute Jewish children. The dumbed down “consensus Zionism” of the Diaspora says simply: we are pro-Israel. But what kind of Israel are you for? You can only move forward if you have a vision of where you are going. We need to resurrect vanguard thinking. What is the nature of Jewish/Hebrew collectivity? In our Internet world, what are the new modalities for participation, leadership, identification, and influence? Should our response to globalism involve a realignment of Hebrew/Jewish civilization towards India and China? Diaspora Zionists need a competition of ideas. We need a more thoughtful and dynamic national discussion.
eBenBrandeisTorontoYom HaAtzmaut/ Lag Ba’Omer 2005www.zionistparty.com