Today is Israel’s Independence Day. When I was a kid, attending a secular Zionist day school, this was a fairly substantial holiday. We would all dress up in blue and white, the choir would sing at assembly, etc. I still remember the songs we used to sing; I get a nostalgic twinge thinking about them. And I get that twinge watching my son, who attends a liberal but not secular Jewish day school, head off to school in blue and white this morning.
But if you ask me, “am I a Zionist?” I’d have to answer: “what’s a Zionist?”
An “-ism” is an ideology. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive ideology – you can be a monarchist in the sense of being a partisan of monarchy when the question of republicanism is alive in a specific political context, without holding to some organic ideology about the nature of monarchy. But, at a minimum, holding to an “-ism” means holding to a particular ideological perspective on some large-scale political question.
So what’s the question?
“Zionism” is Jewish nationalism. The Zionist movement was a movement aiming at the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people through the establishment of political sovereignty in the historic Land of Israel. That, I think, is a description that subsumes all the varieties of Zionism, from Ahad Ha’am to Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Inasmuch as the latter has been achieved – Jewish political sovereignty in the historic Land of Israel is an accomplished fact – it would seem that “Zionist” is a term of historic interest only.
But people still use the word – and not just people who are hostile to the State of Israel; there are innumerable self-avowed Zionist organizations out there. So what does the word mean?
I’m not sure that the people who use it are clear about this. For many of them, “Zionist” seems to mean, “partisan of the State of Israel” – but that’s not an “-ism.” You don’t call someone who supports the Greek position on all outstanding political questions a “Hellenist.” “Zionist” should, if it has meaning, refer to some living ideological question. So what is that question?
I can think of two questions to which it could possibly refer, but neither is entirely satisfactory. One is the relationship between the State of Israel and its non-Jewish (and especially Arab) minority. The other is the relationship of diaspora Jewish communities to the State of Israel.
Zionism, as I say, is Jewish nationalism, and the State of Israel represents the satisfaction of Jewish national aspirations. Inasmuch as it does so, it makes sense (from my perspective) for the State of Israel to continue to use Jewish symbols as emblems of the state, teach Hebrew as the primary language in schools, favor Jews in its immigration laws, etc. This is all extraordinarily common among states with an underlying ethnic basis, which is to say a great many states in the world today. But Israel, also like many states, has discrete minorities – in particular, a discrete Arab minority that, for good historical reasons, has difficulty collectively identifying with the state as currently constituted. There are more liberal and more illiberal possible approaches to this problem, but I don’t see any reason why “Jewish national aspirations” require failing to recognize the problem, or trying to solve it by means that involve granting that minority greater collective recognition, including the designation of national minority status (which would imply some degree of territorial autonomy) or even, in the extreme, bi-nationalism. There are practical objections that could be made to any resolution of the problem of Israel’s relationship with Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, but I don’t see how any serious proposal needs to denigrate or deny Jewish national aspirations, and therefore why any such must be classified as “non-Zionist.”
As for the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewish communities: an affirmative designation of oneself as a “Zionist” by a non-Israeli Jew would seem to imply some kind of recognized obligation owed to the State of Israel by diaspora communities. But what obligation? How, again, does that perceived obligation differ from the obligation that, say, Greeks in Astoria feel toward Greece? How does it extend beyond the traditional obligations to the Jewish people as a whole that Jews have asserted (and, at times, denied) for as long as there has been a Jewish people? Self-professed Zionists would argue vociferously that any such obligation does not imply anything like dual loyalty. But if it doesn’t, then how does it differ from the sentimental attachment to the ancestral homeland that is common to numerous diaspora groups?
The more I think about it, the more I think that contemporary use of the word “Zionist” is pernicious. It is used by self-professed Zionists to narrow the terms of debate – to imply that such and such course of action or political perspective is tantamount to rejecting Israel’s “right to exist.” And it is used by self-professed “anti-Zionists” to keep open a question that was settled 64 years ago: whether there would be a sovereign, recognized State of Israel in the first place.
Israel is a complicated place, with an exceptional history among contemporary states. It’s creation was an extraordinary achievement, and something the Jewish people should be proud of – and that I am proud of – without being blind to its flaws and failures. But the creation is complete. People who still think of themselves as Zionists, for the sake of the state they hold in reverence, need to recognize that the job is done, and act accordingly. “Post-Zionist” is not an ideological perspective – I can’t really imagine what a “post-Zionist” is supposed to believe – but it is an accurate description of historical reality. There remain Israeli questions; there remain Jewish questions; and those questions are inter-related. But there isn’t really a question anymore to which the label, “Zionist” supplies an answer.
Ironically, if I had to label myself, I’d reach back to a period before the advent of political Zionism for the proper term. Hovevei Zion, or “Lovers of Zion,” was the name for charitable organizations in the Russian Empire that promoted the development of Hebrew, promoted Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel, and so forth. These groups, originally non-political, were absorbed into the political enterprise of Zionism with the First Zionist Congress. That political enterprise having accomplished its goals, but the other goals of the poorly termed “cultural Zionism” being, like all cultural projects, eternally incomplete, the political cord should be resolutely cut. The ongoing relationship between the Jewish diaspora and Israel should be characterized not by political allegiance, but by love.