We have recoiled in horror and disgust over recent events in Israel and the occupied territories, in which Jewish terrorists caused the deaths from burns of a Palestinian infant and his father, and an ultra-religious fanatic took the life of a young Jewish girl at a Gay Pride parade. Sadly, these crimes, with the backdrop of decades of human rights abuses and wrongdoing in the name of Israel and Zionism, have caused many to earnestly question the meaning and validity of Zionism.
In 1997, one of several times I participated in a World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem (probably three, but I’ve lost count), I had halfway hoped that the World Zionist Organization would emulate the putative suggestion of an old United States Senator George Aiken (R-Vermont) regarding Vietnam, that “victory” be declared and that we “go home” — that the WZO finally declare its purpose done, on the centennial of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, and close up shop. So I have some “post-Zionist” sympathies, but from the perspective of Zionism as a positive historical force for the Jewish people.
In fact, I have long seen Israel’s peace camp as struggling for the ultimate Zionist goal, to “normalize” Israel’s circumstances by finalizing its acceptance in the Middle East as a legitimate neighbor, and thereby helping to normalize and stabilize the status of Jews around the world. The rocky and violent road that has tragically not achieved this end (due to a complex of misdeeds and errors of judgment on both sides) has led to a renewal of assaults on Israeli/ Zionist legitimacy. Yet the Z word covers too broad a sweep of virtues and sins to dismiss or extol as one undifferentiated phenomenon.
I recall being at a meeting of the World Union of Meretz, ten or more years ago, where we were addressed by the writer A.B. Yehoshua. He defined Zionism as a “common platform” rather than a single ideology.
By way of contrast, anti-Zionists like to define the pre-state bi-national strains within the Zionist movement (as represented by the likes of Buber, Einstein, Arendt, Magnes, Hashomer Hatzair) as other than Zionist. For example, Fred Jerome (a former leader of the neo-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party) even wrote a preposterous book a few years ago, claiming that Einstein was not a Zionist — maybe a “cultural Zionist,” but not a “real” Zionist.
Even Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist or right-wing Zionism, had a liberal side, which we hear today in the voice of Israel’s current president Reuven Rivlin. We don’t know how Jabotinsky would have impacted Israel and its right-wing factions if he had lived beyond 1940; in 1995, I reviewed The Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream (revised in 2002) by British scholar Colin Shindler, in which he indicated that Jabotinsky regarded Menachem Begin as a hothead. And I know that Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson of the Bergson Group), along with his colleague, Jabotinsky’s son Eri Jabotinsky, both left Begin’s Herut party as sitting Members of Knesset, because they felt that it was not promoting Jabotinsky’s belief in equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens.
When Herzl wrote his pamphlet, The Jewish State, in 1896, he was addressing the crowned heads and elected leaders of the imperial powers of Europe at that time, desperately attempting to win support for the Jewish colonization of Palestine. And so he wrote in terms we’d never use today, of Jewish Palestine as “an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” Anti-Zionists have pounced on this and other selected quotes from Herzl and other Zionist leaders to “prove” their “racist,” “colonialist,” “imperialist” or otherwise odious intentions.
Herzl’s true agenda, however, was humanitarian rather than hateful: a mass escape of Jews from what he prophetically knew would become a caldron of Jew-hatred. He was a Central European 19th century liberal with socialist leanings, who wrote in terms that were common to that time and place, and not with phrases that we would consider acceptable today; to sharply condemn him for being a product of his time is to commit the analytic fallacy known as “presentism.” We also do Herzl a disservice in forgetting the storyline of his futuristic utopian novel, Old-New Land, in which an anti-Arab nationalist political party is defeated in an election by genuine liberals advocating equal Arab and Jewish rights of citizenship.
Hence, I only entertain “post-Zionist” ideas that do not repudiate Israel’s Zionist past; rather I wish to see some reforms to secure Israel’s place among the nations as a beacon of democratic values — safeguarding the rights of its non-Jewish citizens, while still being recognized as the ancient Jewish homeland, with a hallowed link to Jews around the world. It’s hard to see how this will happen currently, given the present political constellation, but Israel still has much more of a liberal and democratic base to build upon than any of its Arab neighbors, who have made such a tragic hash of the Arab Spring. I know that one doesn’t relate directly to the other, nor excuse wrongdoing in Israel, but one wishes that Israel’s most vehement critics and foes would temper their barbs with regional comparisons.
Finally, I feel a moral obligation to defend the fact that my kin, who have been Israeli for four generations, have the right to live there in peace and security as Jews and Israelis. They owe their very lives to the success of Zionism. If we retire the Z word, let’s do so because it’s fulfilled this noble purpose of rescue, not because our political foes on the right and the left have infused this term with meanings and purposes we deplore.