Sunday, May 10, 2009

Celebrating Zionism

A (belated) guest post by DANIEL

Today is Israel's birthday. In recent months I have become notorious among my friends as an often-harsh critic of Israel. But, even for those who bitch about Israel 364 days a year, today is a day to celebrate. And indeed, there is a lot to celebrate. The establishment of Israel 61 years ago was the culmination of the Zionist dream. From a cultural perspective, Zionism is perhaps the single most important movement in Judaism's long history. Zionism allowed Jews to re-create a national culture in their ancestral homeland. Zionism revived the once-dead Hebrew language. Zionism promoted for the first time in two millenia the establishment of Jewish institutions such as universities, hospitals, and theatres. Zionism fostered outstanding contributions to mankind in science and in the arts. Zionism gave downtrodden and oppressed Jews around the world a fresh reason to hold their heads high. Zionism brought Jews out of the ghettos and into all facets of life. Zionism provided a central address for Jews of different backgrounds and traditions, separated for centuries, to embrace a common ground. Zionism gave Jews, the world's perpetual refugees, a place to call home.

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Today is about celebrating these accomplishments, but also about reflecting on them. In Israel, independence day is linked to remembrance day for fallen soldiers for precisely this reason. The accomplishments I listed are all of a cultural nature - from a cultural perspective, Zionism was an unparalleled and indeed a vital success for the Jewish People. Yet the movement is fraught with internal divisions, inherent contradictions, and even today lacks clear definition. What is Zionism? Today the term is used to denote political support for the State of Israel, but historically it referred to a movement for the re-establishment of a Jewish "homeland" in Palestine. The World Zionist Organization was formed in 1897, but as late as 1919 its general secretary emphatically denied that the creation of an independent Jewish state was or ever had been a part of the Zionist programme.[1]

Clearly then, there is more to Zionism than the idea of a Jewish State. Most of the great Jewish minds of the last century - including Einstein, Freud, Kafka, Arendt, Chomsky, Buber, Ben Yehuda, and Ahad Ha'am - saw in Zionism the potential for a Jewish social and cultural revival, but opposed Herzl's idea of an ethnically Jewish state.[2] In fact, Herzl is in many ways the antithesis of everything positive that Zionism has achieved. Herzl saw Jewish culture as inferior. He initially favoured assimilation over nationalism, and promoted mass conversion to Christianity as the answer to the "Jewish question."[3] Only after the Dreyfus Affair did Herzl realize that assimilation could not succeed and he began to advocate for a Jewish state. To Herzl, Judaism was an ethnicity and nothing more. The state he envisioned would have nothing to do with Jewish culture or religion - it would be a colonial German-speaking state in Argentina or Uganda modelled after secular European culture.[4] He even saw anti-Semites as his allies in driving the Jews out of Europe.[5] Herzl's Zionism was not in any way a product of Judaism (it was the furthest thing from it), but of European ethnonationalism. Ethnonationalism is about building military strength, seizing land, and preserving the dominance of one ethnic group. Yet this dangerous and discredited ideology has shaped Zionism since its inception.

I am proud of Israel, not for the strength of its army or the resilience of its economy, but for the cultural renewal it brought to the Jewish People. Zionism might be one of the most important movements in the history of Judaism, but the key is to never forget that as a Jewish movement Zionism should be subservient to Judaism, not the other way around. We must not redefine our 4000-year-old religious and cultural identity to conform with a 110-year-old political ideology. Early Zionists tried to blur the lines, couching their secular aims in the language of divine redemption and commodifying religious artifacts like the Western Wall (which Yeshayahu Leibowitz referred to as the discotel)[6]. The tragedy is that Jews have begun to define themselves according to Zionism, rather than defining Zionism in terms of their Judaism. Striving for exclusive political sovereignty over the land of Israel is not a part of Judaism - we are not crusaders, duty-bound to liberate our holy sites from the hands of infidels. For most of our history, we lived in exile, and even when we were in our homeland we were usually ruled by foreigners - Romans, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, etc - the Davidic dynasty reigned for only a few generations, and hardly defines who we are as a people. Clearly, exclusive Jewish political sovereignty is not a requirement for our cultural and spiritual fulfillment.

Today, on the day of celebration of Zionism's fruition, we need to contemplate what Zionism means to us. Zionism as ethnonationalism, as systemic inequality against Israel's Arabs and military oppression of the Palestinian people, is something that I will continue to fight at every turn. Zionism as Jewish cultural rebirth is what I choose to celebrate. We must be careful not to conflate the two, as many have done and many continue to do. I take offense when I see symbols of my religion confused for symbols of occupation. We should not accept the status quo. We need to question the defunct ethnonationalist premises of Herzl's Zionism. I adhere instead to the Zionism of Buber and Ginsberg. Why should the ideals that our ancestors fought and died for - separation of Church and State, universal emancipation, the abolition of ethnic quotas - apply in all other states where we live but not in our own.

Could Zionism have achieved its cultural victories without its ethnonationalist element? Probably - many of Israel's great cultural institutions, like Hebrew University, Hadassa Hospital, the Technion, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, numerous theatre and cinema companies, the modern Hebrew language, and the city of Tel Aviv, were established long before Israel's political independence. Until the outbreak of violence in the 1920s when ethnonationalism became official Zionist policy, local Arabs could be persuaded to cooperate with Zionist objectives, including the mass immigration of European Jews, and govern Palestine jointly (see for example the Faisal-Weizman Agreement)[7]. If early Zionists had not chosen to pursue ethnonationalism - the establishment of a state exclusively for Jews on shared land - then perhaps cultural renewal could have been attained without touching off a war of civilizations that will last for generations. Without consigning millions of Palestinians to live as refugees, millions of Jewish youths to military service, tens of thousands on both sides to death, and trillions of dollars to warfare.

But we should focus on the future, not the past. The Jewish State is here to stay. It has done a lot of good and it has done a lot of bad, and one does not cancel out the other. The positive things that Zionism has brought to Judaism and the world exist independently of the bad things it has brought; we can and should celebrate the good and at the same time address the bad. Currently the two-state solution is the most realistic framework for moving forward. Let's work on continuing to steer Zionism toward the ideals that guided us in the past, the ideals of liberalism and justice. There is no principle more quintessentially Jewish than "love your neighbour as yourself,"[8] and I contend that Israel cannot be a truly Jewish state until it embraces this most basic tenet (not in a hippy let's-hug-our-enemy way, but in a treating-the-other-as-human way) in relation to its Palestinian neighbours, who are currently commemorating their nakba under one of the most oppressive military occupations of the modern era. Though we acknowledge their suffering, let us celebrate the incredible achievements of Zionism even as we recognize the enormity of the work that remains.

Happy Independence Day.

[1] Nahum Sokolow, History of Zionism 1600-1918 (London : Loggmans, Green, 1919) at p. xxiv. I wasn't sure what to make of this when I came across it online, but I checked the primary source and it is legit. Sokolow, who was then general secretary of the WZO (and was later its president) wrote explicitly that Zionism did not call for an independent Jewish state and that this was merely a fabrication propagated by anti-Zionists to discredit the movement.
[2] Cultural Zionism is a movement largely credited to Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg) which called for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine while respecting the rights of its native inhabitants and opposing a Jewish ethnocracy. For more detailed sources relating to the figures named above, ask me, but for the sake of brevity I will only quote Einstein: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state... My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power... I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain.” (
[3] Daniel P. Hadley, Catholicism, France and Zionism: 1895-1904 ( at para. 11, note 12. Herzl went so far as to try to enlist the Pope's help in converting Jews en masse to Christianity. See also: note 5.
[4] Wikipedia it. See also: note 5.
[5] The movie referenced can be watched here:\english\Herzel-eng.wmv . Warning: the sources it uses are all reliable and academic, but the movie has a very extremist religious agenda. Some pretty shocking stuff, but worth a look.
[7]!OpenDocument especially art. iv.
[8] According to tradition, the scholar Hillel referred to that sentence as comprising the entire Torah, and all the rest as merely commentary.

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