It’s the perfect moment in which to re-examine Zionism afresh–and not only because of the recent spate of fighting between Israel and Gaza, the controversy surrounding the SJP national conference held some weeks ago here at UCLA, or the fact that the time between the end of Fall Quarter and the beginning of Winter Quarter midterms offers (some) opportunities for quiet reflection.
Rather, this period in which we cross from one year to the next is always an appropriate time to consider the movement to establish and sustain a Jewish polity in Palestine anew, particularly since in the waning months of each calendar year Zionism has enjoyed both its greatest international successes and faced its single most abject failure.
In uncanny symmetry, on the eleventh month’s second and penultimate days (Nov. 2, 1917 and Nov. 29, 1947) the Balfour Declaration was issued and the UN Partition Plan for Palestine approved.
The former affirmed Great Britain’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”–Zionism’s first great-power endorsement; in the latter, the international community in essence called for a Jewish State in a portion of historical Palestine, paving the way for Israel’s declaration of independence in May, 1948.
But on November 10, 1975, the same General Assembly that had endorsed Jewish statehood now condemned Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
That resolution was ultimately repealed in 1991 (in December, for a change), but the charge has hardly gone away and, if anything, is heard in Western countries–including in various mutations, e.g. “Zionism is Apartheid”–more often today than ever before.
So what is Zionism? Is it a liberation movement for a people exiled from their homeland and persecuted for centuries? A striving to fulfill ancient Jewish longings? Anecessary reworking and renewal of Jewish identity for a largely secular era?
Or is it instead an ideology of colonial domination and dispossession in a post-colonial age? A Jewishinternalization of anti-Jewish stereotypes and a striving for assimilation on a collective level? The second greatest heresy of Jewish history? (I’ll leave you, dear reader, to ponder what might have been the first.)
Each of these possibilities has much to commend it. And,more than that, they may well all simultaneously be correct. In light of this perplexing state of affairs, how might we set out to explore what Zionism is and is not, and whether–and to what degree–it merits our allegiance?
We might do well to commence with the following twin theses.
First, as a political movement Zionism sought the establishment of a Jewish national home–and ultimatelya formal state–in the historic Land of Israel and (that aim having been met) today seeks the preservation and enhancement of the State of Israel, whether in territorial, economic, cultural, and/or moral terms.
Second, as a corollary to this practical aim, Zionism as ideology sought and seeks the nationalization and territorialization of Judaism, asserting that Jewish identity is comprehensible and viable only in terms of national belonging and a collective presence in a specific territory, namely the Land of Israel.
The question of the relationship between these two theses lies at the heart of the fraught relationship between Israelis and American–and other diaspora–Jews.
For most of Israelis, thesis 2 is a necessary corollary of thesis 1 (i.e. 1 only makes sense if 2 is correct). By contrast, while the majority of diaspora Jews subscribe to some degree to thesis 1, they do so without buying into or seeing why they should buy into thesis 2.
Which side is right? Or is this a case–to cite the beautiful words of the rabbis–in which “these and these are the living words of God” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b) (i.e. both perspectives are fully legitimate)? Or are both sides wrong?
I do not wish to take sides here but rather to explore to what degree this second thesis is consonant with or at odds with traditional Judaism.
A comprehensive treatment of this question is of course beyond the purview of this essay, but a few brief comments can definitely demonstrate that–to paraphrase the opening of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–“there was things which [Zionism] stretched,” in some ways quite radically.
Consider the close of the manifesto of the Bilumovement (the name is an acronym for Isaiah 2:5, “O House of Jacob, Come let us go…”), an important, if largely unsuccessful, initiative of Ukranian Jews in the early 1880s to establish agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel:
“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one, and our land Zion is our one hope!”
Here we have a nice “territorialization” of Judaism’s central proclamation. Now you don’t adjust the “Shema” lightly, and not only because it is a perfect haiku (in Hebrew of course).
In raising the specter of competition between deity and territory, this dual formulation hints at the challenges Zionism would pose to traditional religiosity.
Today we can pose the questions: Has Land become the God of the secular (and perhaps not only secular?) Zionist? And is it through settlement that one sacrifices and prays to Him?
Or imagine the JNF children’s map of Israel that hung on the wall of my bedroom when I was in fourth grade.Emblazoned on it was the motto, “Ve-ahavta le-artzekhakamokha” (“And you shall love your land as yourself”), a play on–and again a territorialization of–Leviticus 19:18, “Ve-ahavata le-re’akha kamokha” (“You shall love your fellow as yourself”).
Machiavelli would have been pleased. The Florentine political philosopher once famously declared “I love my native city more than my own soul.” But how do we feel about this re-writing of the Torah?
And then there is the Israeli Declaration of Independence, a beautiful and inspiring document on so many levels, but one whose opening salvo has long troubled the 43% (plus or minus 5%) or so of my soul that is Jewish historian:
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
Wait just a second! Can we hear that one more time, please?
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.”
Are we sure? What about Deuteronomy 26:5, “A wandering Aaramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there [emphasis added] he became a great nation, mighty and populous.”?
“Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.”
Okay, there definitely was “shaping” in the Promised Land, but traditionally speaking the single most important site for the spiritual, religious, and even political identity of the Jewish people is Mt. Sinai, explicitly outside the borders of Israel.
“Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
Fair enough, though many scholars today believe that much of the Hebrew Bible was likely authored in exile in Babylonia. This was certainly the case for the most prestigious collection of rabbinic writings, the Babylonian Talmud, as indeed its name suggests.
Do these “stretches” on behalf of the national and territorial on their own in any way invalidate or disqualify Zionism? Absolutely not!
The modern age has been a radical age, as have all the Jewish responses thereto (each in its own way).
And by all accounts, Zionism has been a remarkably successful ideology: in just over a century it has revived Hebrew as a spoken language, transformed a small Jewish community in the Land of Israel into the world’s most significant Jewish population center, and made that land more productive, innovative, and wealthy with respect to the rest of humanity than it had been for millenia, if ever.
In a world of (ever more) failed and failing states, Israel–for all its faults–seems to function remarkably well.Nonetheless, it’s crucial that we recover the radical nature of Zionism, for only by doing so can we gain true understanding.
So where does this all leave us? It leaves me (and I hope some of you) with urgent, searing questions, with the realization that there are deep puzzles here that need to be solved–or at least confronted, and plenty of sustainedreading and thinking that needs to be undertaken.
Fortunately we have an institution called a university that even in this day and age provides a space in which we are free to wander with our minds wherever they may take us so long as we have the courage to do so.
And, as it happens, I’ll be teaching a course this quarter entitled “Zionism: Ideology and Practice in the Making of a Jewish State.”
I hope some of you will consider joining me in this exploration of arguably the most fascinating trajectory of the modern Jewish experience.
Daniel Stein Kokin is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. He has taught courses at UCLA in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and in the International Institute. In Winter 2019, he will teach “Zionism: Ideology and Practice in Making of Jewish State” and in Spring, “Europe and Israel: The History of a Vexed Relationship” as well as “Settlement in Israeli History.”