Whatever happened to Zionism?

In the winter of 1954, Jacob Sonntag edited a special issue of THE JEWISH QUARTERLY—number seven—which was devoted to an examination of the youthful State of Israel. Looking back at it, after nearly four decades, from the heights of our 150th issue, that passion for the Zionist experiment and the seemingly timeless freshness of statehood was both self-evident and all-pervasive. The issue contained contributions from Max Brod, Louis Golding and Robert Weltsch, a translation of a fragment of a poem by Natan Alterman, a review of “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” and an article extolling the indefinable spirituality of Jerusalem the Golden. Indisputably Israel past. Another time and another place, a Jewish world attempting to recover treasured values after the horror of Auschwitz. In the Diaspora, there was a deep and great pride in the existence and achievements of Israel. A light unto the nations. An egalitarian society. And despite the ignominious termination of the British Mandate in Palestine, there was a growing admiration in this country for Israel and her achievements amongst non-Jews. It was the land of the kibbutz and the Bible, the blooming desert and the ingathering of the exiles—a Promised Land which promised so much.

In the forty years that have passed, a sort of Zionist rigor mortis has set in. The experience which was gained in those early years seems to have been lost. Not simply a loss of knowledge, but an inability to analyse. As changes occurred, few monitored or were really bothered about the intricacies of Israeli politics and Zionist ideology. They were content to remain with the dream and to serve it. All too often, Diaspora leaders became the yes-men—and yes-women—of successive Israeli governments. Some who attempted to break out of this self-serving circle and to conduct a Diaspora-Israel dialogue, such as Nahum Goldman, were marginalized. People who asked questions were seen as both interfering and dangerous. A sugared nostalgia obscured the really important issues. Ideology was dropped in favour of public relations. The Hasbarah industry transformed the wonder of Israel into bad theatre, a Zionist “soap”. Simple to imbibe, simple to imitate. There was a loss of Zionist vision. No one in the Diaspora dared to contemplate a different Zion, what sort of society could be constructed in Israel. It was a subject best left for the intellectuals and academics. The concept of Heaven on Earth as envisaged by the early socialist pioneers was postponed for messianic times.

The central question of “Who is a Zionist?” was never satisfactorily answered. Indeed, it only became an issue when confronting the New Left’s support for the Palestinian cause after 1967. In this conflict, clichés, slogans and pat solutions ruled the day; mutual enmity was matched only by mutual ignorance. Diaspora Jews defined themselves as “Zionists” only in relation to left-wing anti-Zionists. Zionism as a serious movement was gradually transformed and reduced to straightforward philanthropy and the garnering of political capital in support of the policies of a particular Israeli government. One could now be a Zionist and not actually settle in Israel—or even contemplate the prospect. A shallow pro-Israelism had displaced Zionism.

In part, this was the outcome of Ben-Gurion’s deliberate attempt to enforce the political will of successive Israeli governments over Diaspora organizations. This meant in practice the weakening and emaciation of the Zionist movement. In fact, the official Israeli approach was a tacit acceptance of the fact that a majority of Jews would remain in the Diaspora despite their fervent embracing of the Jewish state. Ben-Gurion himself realised this when, in 1966, he noted that “the title of Zionist now embraces entirely different things among which there is no connection, and to speak of Zionism per se has no real meaning”.

The amorphous labelling of most Jews as Zionists suited the pragmatic needs of Israeli diplomats and the psychological requirements of Diaspora leaders. Yet despite all the passionate rhetoric about Zionism, there was a basic contradiction in all this—while emotional Zionist images were still being projected in the Diaspora to secure both funds and new immigrants, at home in Israel it came to be seen as redundant, having secured the central goal of statehood. No Diaspora leader publicly recognized Israel as a post-Zionist society. Ironically, the greatest success of Zionism occurred in the Soviet Union where the institutionalized “pseudo-Zionism” of the West could gain little access. There, an indigenous movement evolved through an analysis of the Jewish problem in adverse conditions.

Why then has there been this display of pretence? The victory in the Six Day War evoked a wave of tremendous enthusiasm and truly symbolized a revolt against centuries of powerlessness. In the long term, however, it spawned a shallow triumphalism which essentially displaced a proud yet knowledgeable attachment to Israel. At that time, the generation, whose formative years occurred during the 1940s, a time of destruction and rebirth, attained high office in many international Jewish organizations. In trying literally to reverse the tragedy of the past, they remade Israel in their own image. Jewishness was predicated on an unquestioning belief in the infallibility of Israel. The politics of survivalism were constructed in the image of Israel as a fundamentalist creed.

The ascendency of Revisionism to political power in 1977 actually complemented and paradoxically accelerated this trend. From the outset, Menachem Begin propagated an image of the leader as the embodiment of the national ideal—a humble and honourable man, wedded to his people and their struggle to survive. Vociferous and uncompromising towards his country’s enemies, approachable and accessible to its ordinary citizens. In personal terms, all this may certainly have been the case for Begin, but its political reflection gave rise to a populist mythology which the Revisionist leader cultivated and offered as an ideological religiosity to many seekers after truth in the Diaspora. Begin’s projection of himself as a “Jewish” leader and the fount of national wisdom—all coloured by an autocratic persona—appealed tremendously to many Diaspora Jews who emotionally required membership in a 1930s-style popular movement. An era of dramatic gestures and impassioned speeches to the masses began, of direct contact with “the Jewish people”, all of which replaced serious decision-making.

The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was the turning point for many Diaspora Jews. It marked the beginning of the end for megaphone Zionism and an intoxicating, empty nationalism. The resulting debacle manifested itself, not only as a confrontation between doves and hawks, right and left, but also as an abrupt deflation of Diaspora breast-beating in the name of Zionism. It marked the end of post-war Zionist politics. In 1957, Ben-Gurion commented that “the pseudo-Zionism of today helps Jews to be naturalized and more deeply rooted in a non-Jewish environment and in the processes of assimilation which endanger the future of Jewry in the Diaspora”. Three decades later, the validity of Ben-Gurion’s words began to be realized. In the aftermath of Lebanon, many discovered that pseudo-Zionism or pro-Israelism as a means of self-definition could not, provide for Jewish continuity. It proved unable to stem the haemorrhage of Jewish endeavour through the falling away of tens of thousands of people. The unthinking defence of Israeli government policies by Diaspora leaders exacerbated this tendency. The drop-outs’ rejection of Anglo-Jewry also implied their rejection of the communal imagery of Israel. The impossibility of building Zion—from outside Zion—remained an unalterable truth.

So what is the meaning of Zionism today for Diaspora Jews? Perhaps it is best summed up in a resolution passed by Jewish students nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Zionism is the national and also, by virtue of its territorial aspect, the social liberation and emancipation movement of the Jewish people; it is to be realized in Israel. This goal can only be attained if the national rights of the Palestinian Arabs are considered so that they may be recognized to be a consequence of Zionist ideology (WUJS International Congress, Arad 1970).

Such sentiments were, greeted with venomous derision and an apoplectic fury—and the threat to cut funds. It has indeed been a long road from Golda Meir’s denial of the existence of a Palestinian people to the present peace negotiations.

Zionism—as Ben-Gurion inti-mated—no longer exists in its original, clearly understood form. Many different aspects of activities on behalf of Israel now masquerade under the title of “Zionism”. In one sense, a person can only be defined as a Zionist in retrospect—after moving to Israel, a post-Zionist society. The intention of emigrating to Israel or the fervent advocacy of the Zionist solution to the Jewish problem does not make a Zionist. Indeed, to complicate matters further, there are some who move to Israel who do not even consider themselves Zionists—and this could apply to the multitudes who fled persecution. It’s hard to be a Jew, but its obviously harder to be a Zionist.

Today, Diaspora Zionism exists only as an educational appendage in order to facilitate a close identification with Israel. This may or may not bring about aliyah, but it integrates history and ideology with culture and language. It is dose to the world of Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism. During the crises of the past decade, many certainties which once coloured our perceptions of Israel have collapsed. The 1990s are a period of great transition. The need to spring to the automatic defence of Israel has lessened. Communism is no more, and hopefully an accommodation with the Palestinians and the Arab states will soon be reached.

Therefore if Anglo-Jewry is to survive, there is a deep need to stand back, to rethink and to redefine priorities—and never more so than in our approach to Israel. The idea of philanthropy as a substitute for aliyah or as a means of identification is a state of mind which does little to assist in the creation of an informed Israel-oriented infrastructure in Britain. An investment in education in Jewish schools and a programme of Zionist literacy for adults would—in the long run—be of far greater value. For example, the fulsome tributes to Chaim Herzog which appeared in the Jewish press said nothing about his political views and beliefs—as if a Diaspora readership should regard his membership of Rafi in the 1960s or his attendance at a Peace Now demonstration in 1982 as something bewildering. He was portrayed instead as an apolitical innocent, the very model of a modern national icon.

There is certainly a need for detailed information about the minutiae of Israeli life, and the promotion and the organization of aliyah. But can the same be said for the overblown public relations industry, the overriding aim of which seems to be locating points of difference between Israelis and Palestinians? The recent comment of Shimon Peres that “there is no need for a hasbarah department” in the Foreign Ministry was a breath of fresh air. Is there still a need for directionless top-heavy bureaucracies like the Jewish Agency? Shouldn’t this creaking door be shut as well?

Jewish leaders in the Diaspora proved unable to adapt to changing circumstances. They offered the Jewish world distortion and superficiality instead. The wheel has turned full circle. It is now time to reclaim forgotten ideals and to create a healthier, more positive approach to Israel—warts and all.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1993






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