How Zionism Keeps us in the Game

Anshel Pfeffer, a very smart guy and one of the few writers that regularly appears in Ha’aretz who is worth reading, does not believe in Zionism. He doesn’t oppose it, he just thinks talking about it is a kind of category mistake:

You cannot be either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, just as you cannot be a veteran of Iwo Jima unless you were born at least 90 years ago and fought in that battle. Zionism isn’t an ideology. It’s a program, or an ideological plan, to establish a state for Jews in the biblical homeland. And that program was fulfilled on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence at the old Tel Aviv Museum. That’s it. Done.

…believing that on the whole, founding the State of Israel was the right thing to do, doesn’t make you a Zionist any more than thinking that Oliver Cromwell was right to overthrow King Charles, makes you a Roundhead. It simply doesn’t matter what you think about long-ago events you didn’t take part in. Israel is a reality and it’s not going anywhere.

As a consequence, he thinks that the World Zionist Congress is a waste of time and money, as are almost all other Zionist organizations, including those like the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund that are closely entwined with the government of Israel.

He’s right about those organizations, but he’s wrong about Zionism. There absolutely is such a thing as Zionist ideology, a set of basic principles that Zionists believe. And here they are:

  1. There is an am Yehudi, a Jewish people (I discuss the concept of a people here). You might think this is obvious, but Mahmoud Abbas denies it, and so do the “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion” crowd, which includes much of the American Reform Movement.
  2. The survival of the Jewish people requires the Jewish state, a state that is more than just a state with a Jewish majority. The precise meaning of “more” differs according to the faction of the Zionist movement to which one belongs, but the Nation-State Law that was passed by the Knesset in 2018 is an example of a secular attempt to explicate that.
  3. Only in the Jewish state can a person fully realize his Jewish identity. You can still be a Zionist if you don’t believe that all Jews ought to live in the Jewish state, but Zionism includes the idea that diaspora life is sub-optimal even when it is not actively dangerous.

Pfeffer points out that there were religious and secular, socialist and revisionist Zionisms, and this was true before 1948, and it’s still true today. But all of them affirm the principles above. The existence of factions doesn’t negate the truth behind an ideology. After all, these are Jews we are talking about.

One needn’t be a Jew to be a Zionist. Agree with the principles above and you are a Zionist, regardless of your own religion or peoplehood.

Pfeffer’s criticisms of “Zionist” organizations are on target: diaspora Jewry no longer needs to subsidize the thriving state of Israel, nor does it need to support bloated bureaucracies that carry out functions that could more transparently and simply be handled by the government, like vetting new immigrants under the Law of Return or planting trees in Israel’s forests. These organizations are vestiges of the pre-state struggle to maintain and grow the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. We should get rid of them.

But he conflates the bureaucratic excrescences of a long-accomplished program to create a state with the ideology that gave rise to the program – and which is the reason for the continued existence of that state. That ideology and that state are under continued attack today. “Israel isn’t going anywhere,” he says, but there are many who would like to see it changed beyond recognition, in particular by denying the part of proposition 2) above which says that the Jewish state must be more than just a state with a Jewish majority.

Attacks on Zionism center on the inescapable fact that no matter how careful Israel is in ensuring the civil rights of all its citizens – which Israel does relatively well, given the circumstances – that insistence on “more than just a Jewish majority” represents a degree of ethnic privilege. There is a Law of Return for Jews and not for Arabs, and it is an essential part of a Jewish state, as are the symbols of the state, its official language, its holidays, and so forth.

It’s not only Israel’s enemies who oppose Zionism. There are patriotic Israelis who love their country, pay their taxes, and have fought in Israel’s wars, who believe that Israel ought to be nothing more than a state of all of its citizens, Jew and non-Jew alike. That is an anti-Zionist position.

Zionism is a form of ethnic nationalism, and in today’s intellectual climate, forged by the European wars of the 20th century, nationalism is considered incompatible with liberal democracy. However, Israel is a special case, because the Jewish people are a special case. The Jews are unique in history for maintaining their identity both in their homeland and in exile from it for several millennia. The Jewish people are the paradigm case that defines our conception of a “people,” and antisemitism is the paradigm case for understanding ethnic hatred.

Zionism didn’t appear from nowhere. It was the considered answer from Herzl and others to such phenomena as the failure of European liberalism to extend emancipation to Jews and to end the scourge of Jew-hatred. The truth of Zionism was emphatically demonstrated by the Holocaust, in which Jews were murdered by the millions by members of what was, in some ways, the most highly developed culture on the planet.

The Jewish people’s historical narrative, expressed in the Torah – which can be appreciated by any educated Jew, even those who do not pray three times a day or even ever set foot in a synagogue – is a story about the relationship between Hashem, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel. This is who we are, the people who were given this land to be their home as long as they behaved themselves. You don’t have to be observant in the traditional sense to be moved by the basic idea. It is the glue that holds us together as a people.

The conversion of the Jewish state to a pure liberal democracy would be a tragedy for the Jewish people even if it didn’t lead to Israel’s transition away from a Jewish majority state. It would rip us away from our narrative and – I believe – begin the final disappearance of the Jewish people from the world stage.

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