Amos Schonfield looks at the history of Zionism, and why the word is changing faces
What have a middle-aged Charedi man from Petah Tikva, a 16-year-old British Jew visiting Israel and a Jewish ‘campus activist’ in Washington D.C. got in common? There are several ideas and beliefs that unite them, but perhaps most powerful of all is that of Zionism. In the 64 years since its creation, Israel has become a centre- ground for people’s religious identity: a 2010 study by Jewish Policy Research (a British organisation) found that Israel plays a central or important role in the Jewish identity of 82% of respondents. But in the ideological melee, the concept of being a Zionist has been fundamentally altered. A dictionary would tell you that Zionism is the belief in the foundation and maintenance of a Jewish state in a portion of the British Mandate of Palestine. However for most, its meaning has now changed to a particular conception of Zionism: a hawkish mentality that values security over liberty and has conservative standards of social norms. This narrowing of the ideology has had a marked effect on the Zionist discourse: a campaign run by American advocacy group J Street asks individuals to proclaim “I am the future of pro-Israel”, not “the future of Zionism”. To those who consider themselves to be ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’, it is becoming increasingly difficult to refer to oneself as a Zionist as that term no longer speaks to them.
Zionism has long dealt with difference. Early thinkers created forms of Zionism touted as ‘religious’, ‘political’, ‘revisionist’, ‘cultural’ and ‘labor’. Some of these were ideologically very different, but were bound in the idealism of the attempted founding of a state. Over a century later, we find ourselves arguing over the same constrained notions of the philosophy despite changes to the political realities. The first generation – or First Wave – of Zionism sought to create a permanent home for the Jews and this project appears to be complete. 21st Century Zionists are no longer worried about the establishment of the Jewish state in the same way as their predecessors.
Today’s Zionists are no longer battling for the state, but rather battling to shape the character of the state. The battleground has moved to the conference halls, the universities and the Internet where any topic is open for discussion – notable Jewish organisations and figures have shown that questioning Israeli government policy is not the ‘airing dirty laundry’ but rather creating an air of (un)healthy debate. This Second Wave of Zionism has seen events such as Operation Cast Lead, as well as witnessing and joining hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets in protest at rising living costs. The fears of these Zionists are different to those of their parents. When they hear of war, they naturally worry about casualties and whether the state itself is under threat, but they also ponder on how much damage Israel will seek to create.
It has become a realistic expectation that the Second Wave embraces multiple Zionisms. This is a necessary step to be taken by a generation who have found their intellectual feet in ad hominem attacks on Facebook and the blogosphere. However, the notion of having multiple models of Zionism is rejected because of the way in which students are taught to relate to Israel. It is a matter of fostering love for Israel over making students literate of Israel’s past, present and future. It is a matter of believing that young people must have an ambassadorial relationship to the Jewish state in betrayal of their Jewish and secular heritage of questioning and analysis. Ultimately, it is a matter of our teachers ignoring the growing majority that believe that there is more to being a Zionist than falafel.
Speaking at the 2012 J Street conference in Washington, D.C. Amos Oz said “we must see Zionism as a surname”. A century ago, Zionism was little more than an offshoot of nationalism. Today it stands as an intellectual movement that is able to cover the entire political spectrum and our relationship with the ideology should reflect that. There are liberal Zionists and there are authoritarian Zionists, religious and secular, aliyah-endorsing and diasporic. But it is a range of beliefs instead of a series of dichotomies. The Zionist discourse is no longer about who is able to ‘own’ the term, but which brand of the belief is preferable.
It is our task to make good on Rabbi Hillel’s famous quotation, “if I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?” We should appreciate one another’s Zionisms as part of a push for a better Israel in the face of external and internal pressures. It’s not an ideology but a dogma if we can’t accept difference, and history has shown Judaism hasn’t been the greatest bedfellow to many dogmatic systems. Lastly, it is not a case of waiting for an easier time, because as Hillel put it in the last line of the aforementioned maxim, “if not now, when?”