The Zionist Achievement
When the French essayist and playwright Edmond Fleg attended Herzl’s Third Zionist Congress in Basel in 1899, he marvelled at the scene. It wasn’t merely the dynamism of the convenor that moved Fleg but the diversity of the delegates. ‘I looked about me. What Jewish contrasts! A pale-faced Pole with high cheekbones, a German in spectacles, a Russian looking like an angel, a bearded Persian, a clean-shaven American, an Egyptian in a fez, and over there, that black phantom, towering up in his immense caftan, with his fur cap and pale curls falling from his temples.’ Fleg saw the sum of Jewish exile in that room. Jews of east and west, religious and secular, wealthy and poor, radical and conservative. A people dispersed by empire to every corner of the globe, tossed hither and thither from continent to continent, just melting a little into their surrounds, adopting local language, custom, dress, before being rudely plucked out and flicked onward by Kings and Empresses, warlords and clerics, to new frontiers and new privations.
The mere staging of a Zionist assembly in Europe had been an eye-catching achievement. To bring together Jews of different colours, nationalities, classes, religious streams and political persuasions under the banner of a single idea was impressive indeed. It had taken a mix of grandeur and old-fashioned community organising. At the First Zionist Congress, also held in Basel in 1897, Herzl appeared at the Stadtcasino meticulously groomed with his deep black Viennese beard and dressed in black trousers, tails and a white tie, really more befitting a matinee of La traviata than a Jewish communal event. In the days leading up to the event, Herzl had sat up with students addressing envelopes long into the night.
At that First Congress, a manifesto had been adopted which succinctly articulated the aim of Zionism. It was to establish a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel secured under public law. Within this simple declaration stood an almighty mission. The Jews hadn’t had a national home for two millennia. The Land of Israel had since 135 CE been known by another name, had seen multiple empires fall upon it, and at that time, had a Jewish population of roughly 25,000.
While the expansion of Jewish settlement and property rights in Palestine through migration and the private acquisition of land was conceivable though challenging under Ottoman prohibitions, obtaining recognition under public international law of the territory as a restored Jewish homeland seemed fanciful bordering on delusional. It would require the support of the Great Powers and the acquiescence of the Ottoman Empire and significant parts of the Arab world, not least the Arabs who lived in Palestine. Moreover, the very idea of an ancient people who were now scattered and acculturated, physically returning en masse to long vanquished ancestral lands, was something that had never been achieved in human history.
It was this dreamy, mystical idealism that gave Zionism a magnetic quality. It animated Jewish youths to throw themselves into the community organising and intellectual rumbles out of which organised Zionism grew. It led to the founding of a myriad of grass-roots Zionist groups like Bilu (an acronym for ‘House of Jacob, come ye and let us go’), whose members actually travelled from Tsarist Russia to Palestine and established agricultural settlements there. It drew Jews like Moshe Lilienblum and Leon Pinsker to another Zionist group, Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), and brought Chaim Weizmann to spend his student days in Germany as a member of yet another Zionist group, the Verein, throwing his meagre stipend into sausages and beer while raucously debating Zionism, socialism, nationalism and internationalism in cafes until the wee hours.
This sense of mission, the daring and purpose of early Zionism is what mobilised the writer Israel Zangwill to lambast the Jewish establishment for their conservatism and stuffiness in seemingly holding back the progress of Zionism to the detriment of the embattled Jewish masses. Zangwill thundered to a gathering of the Jewish poor in London’s East End, ‘we are supposed to pray three times a day for the return of Jerusalem, but, as soon as we say we want to go back, we are accused of blasphemy!’
When this generation of Jewish activists encountered the pamphlets of thinkers like Leon Pinsker and Herzl their minds were instantly seared and permanently changed. How could a vigorous, determined young Jew coming of age in a time of unsparing brutality towards Jews, be unmoved by Pinsker’s illustration of their stateless people wandering the earth as ‘a ghost-like apparition of a living corpse … living everywhere but nowhere in the correct place?’ Or Herzl’s functional oratory that promised that ‘the Jews who wish for a state will have it. We shall live at last as free people on our own soil and die peacefully in our own homes.’
Not only was Zionism exciting and radical, world events conspired to make it seem a matter of life and death. The treatment of the Jews in Europe and the Middle East at the time ranged from the inhospitable (Jews were forbidden from walking in the rain in Iran for fear that their uncleanliness would wash off to sully Muslim shoes) through to the barbaric (they were looted, raped and slaughtered across in Russian in 1881 and 1905, in Fez in 1912 and in Shiraz in 1910). This turned Zionism from a rising ideal into an urgent humanitarian mission.
The Kishinev pogrom of 1903, while comparatively less bloody than some of the others of the time, was chronicled so graphically that it caused not only mass grief but a deep shame in the Jewish world. The poet Hayim Bialik wrote that ‘in the dark corners of Kishinev, crouching husbands, bridegrooms and brothers peering through the cracks of their shelters, watching their wives, sisters, daughters writhing beneath their bestial defilers, suffocating in their own blood, their flesh portioned out as booty.’ The New York Times ran arresting images from Kishinev and reported that ‘the scenes of horror were beyond description … [as] the streets were piled with corpses and wounded.’ After Kishinev, an editorial of The American Hebrew noted that ‘American Zionism had come of age,’ while a Christian speaker at a Zionist meeting at Cooper Union declared that in the wake of Kishinev, ‘all efforts must be made to establish a Jewish commonwealth.’ Zionism now offered Jews an escape from Kishinev, both psychically and psychologically.
Whatever lingering doubt about the necessity and urgency of Zionism rapidly dissipated as the Holocaust descended on Europe. As David Ben-Gurion noted, ‘what Zionist propaganda for years could not do,’ being to reveal Jewish self-delusion and total vulnerability, ‘disaster has done overnight.’ The surviving Jews, absurdly warehoused in displaced persons camps in Europe several years after the defeat of Nazism, sometimes still wearing their death camp garb and alongside their Nazi tormentors, craved for nothing other than to locate the ruins of their families and try to build new lives away from European antisemitism. ‘Palestine is definitely and pre-eminently the first choice’ for resettlement, Earl Harrison, President Truman’s envoy for refugees, reported.
The creation of Israel in May 1948, with its ensuing euphoria and peril, did nothing to dim Jewish interest in Zionism. The establishment of the state may have been the practical fulfilment of the vision expressed at Basel in 1897 but much work remained to be done. There was the immediate defence of the nascent state from civil war and invasion, the ingathering of exiles, rescue missions for imperilled Jewish communities in the Middle East, the upbuilding of a society, and the pursuit of peace with Arab neighbours once war subsided, a noble goal enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In a sense, the Zionist project had become even more important as the Jewish world unified behind the goal of creating a society worthy of the two millennia intermission and the incalculable sacrifices made in the achievement of the state.
For diaspora communities, there were governments to be lobbied to help achieve recognition of Israel and the establishment of friendly relations with governments and opposition parties, public opinion to shape in favour of Israel, and humanitarian aid to raise. Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund, Women’s International Zionist Organization, United Israel Appeal and a kaleidoscope of others weren’t simply folded into the Jewish State in 1948, they redoubled their efforts. There were trees to plant to reclaim and cultivate the land, university faculties and research institutes to endow, lone soldiers to support, victims of terror to assist, millions of Soviet, African and Middle Eastern Jews to rescue and absorb. All of this contributed to deepen the investment of diaspora Jews in the Zionist project. No one wanted to miss out on history in the making and if Aliyah was impracticable, membership of Zionist organisations, political activism, fundraising, community organising created a sense of national unity and belonging enabling diaspora Jews to feel like active players in the extraordinary story of Jewish rehabilitation and national rebirth.
For the increasing number of Jews who had either lapsed in their religious observance or, like the vast majority of Soviet emigres, were never religious to begin with, Zionism offered the same Jewish communal and cultural pride, feelings of belonging, and opportunities for rigorous learning and debate, previously only to be found in religion.
A senior Israeli diplomat once told me that Zionism was his religion. It is the sort of comment that would instantly be misconstrued as amounting to worship of settlements or prayers at the altar of Bibi. But I immediately understood what he meant. He was immersed in the story of Zionism, believed with perfect conviction in its justness and necessity, was inspired by it, and compelled to act civically, positively and humanely by his interpretation of its teachings. He wished to convey the wondrous stories of Zionism to his children – Weizmann’s experiments with acetone, Herzl’s awakening at the Dreyfus Trial, the raid on Entebbe, the capture of Eichmann, the magical moment on 29 November, 1947 when Jews worldwide realised they would get their state. This diplomat wanted his children to imbibe these stories as he had, so that they too would grow up connected to their Jewishness, know who they are, remain strong in the face of aggressors, and proud in the knowledge that they belong to a people of vision and fortitude.
Zionism as a movement and a belief system survived 1948 and indeed witnessed some of its greatest chapters in the 1960s and 1970s. The legacy of that is that today Israel is part of the global economic elite (It has been a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 2010), it maintains a military superiority over all of its foes combined, and it is highly assertive on the world stage. All extraordinary achievements for a state with a tiny population and territory and barely 70 tumultuous years of existence.
And yet for all this success, with the imperatives of state-building, rescue of Jewish communities and urgent defence now seemingly gone, what is there to make a young Jew of Johannesburg, Sydney or Toronto feel connected to a national project playing out on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, and currently devoid of towering figures and spellbinding moments?
The Poverty of ‘Anti-Zionism’
Whereas Israel was created through a true unity of purpose between Jews of the diaspora and those who lived in Palestine, interventions by diaspora Jews today are generally viewed not as an expression of diaspora Jewry’s stake in Zionism, but as intrusions. They are often dismissed as the unwanted pontifications of privileged Jews with no kids in the military, no bomb shelters in their condo blocks, no skin in the game, and therefore no right of participation beyond pro-Israel tweets and deposited cheques.
Anything that could push Jews away from Zionism is deeply lamentable. Given that Zionism is a powerfully binding, inspiring and uniquely Jewish movement, any loss of connection to Zionism would be felt in terms of Jewish continuity and participation in communal life. What is drawing one Jew to another in the absence of a religious or national connection?
Any withdrawal of Jews from Zionism will inevitably see the commensurate advance of anti-Zionist forces, both within the Jewish world and outside it. Indeed, anti-Zionist groups possess a distinct advantage in that they claim to represent something beyond the teetering two-state paradigm and can clearly articulate what it is they stand for, being the defence of the stateless Palestinians and the collapse of a Jewish state in order to achieve a one-state dystopia.
On the other hand, traditional Zionist groups can readily assert what they oppose – BDS, antisemitism posing as anti-Zionism, Palestinian corruption and violence, Iranian terrorism and so forth, but struggle to demonstrate what they clearly support beyond maintaining the status quo.
As Zionism has settled into a comfortable position in mainstream Jewish life and thought, long stripped of the sort of radicalism and scorching oratory that animated it in the early 20th century, it is anti-Zionism that can now claim to be radical, revolutionary, anti-establishment and therefore naturally appealing to the young.
Of course, when analysed deeper, it becomes apparent that the anti-Zionist position is neither novel nor radical. It is manifestly unjust, retrograde and deeply dangerous. Far from offering anything new, it continues the counter-movement to Zionism that has run alongside it like a contaminated stream since at least the Nebi Musa riots of 1920. Anti-Zionism has spawned White Papers that locked Jews in a Europe intent on killing them, Grand Muftis who skilfully fused religious zealotry with Arab nationalism, UN resolutions labelling Jewish emancipation as racist, and an assortment of unsavoury elements such as venal US oil executives and state department desk officers fearful of Arab antagonism, Communist Party henchmen and Islamic supremacists. Anti-Zionists are mere historical revisionists who want to re-prosecute lost cases and reimagine failed invasions.
Meanwhile, the notion of a binational state which has been recently exhumed by anti-Zionists and laundered into respectability by supine Jewish liberals, has also been visited numerous times and suitably rejected. The United Nations General Assembly Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) considered it intensely and rejected it in favour of two states for two peoples. As the UNSCOP report recommending partition observed: ‘regardless of the historical origins of the conflict and the rights and wrongs, there are [two distinct peoples now in the land] who are dissimilar in their ways of living and separated by political interests. Only by means of partition can these conflicting national aspirations find substantial expression and qualify both peoples to take their place as independent nations.’ At the time, Ben-Gurion saw through the intent of the binational state and dismissed the idea as a ‘denial of our age-old connection with Palestine’ that would result in ‘Arab precedence in all things’ and ‘an Arab State in the false feathers of bi-nationalism.’
If Zionism loses a clear purpose and direction it also creates an opportunity for those on the hard-right to fill the void and assert that the fulfilment of Zionism is bound up in the redemption of biblical lands and requires permanently holding onto territory in the West Bank. Zionism of course never demanded specific borders and the territorial needs of the state were determined by questions of absorptive capacity and security, not by religion. Max Nordau made this point, though perhaps too bluntly: ‘Zionism has nothing to do with theology; and if a desire has been kindled in Jewish hearts to establish a new commonwealth in Zion, it is not the Torah or the Mishnah that inspire them, but hard times.’
Unless Zionism can assert why it still matters, it will be swept away by more emotionally gratifying offerings, which have the capacity to deliver only absolute ruin.
The Renewal of Zionism Today
The solution is a deeper understanding of what Zionism is and what it truly represents. Zionism, at its core, has always been about rights. Yes, Zionism sought a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel secured under international law. But why? To protect the most fundamental right of all, the right to live. Zionism remains, both through its support for a strong Jewish state and its ethos of Jewish resilience and self-help, the greatest bulwark against antisemitism, an evil which has accompanied and tormented the Jews all of their days. Zionism sought to attain recognition that the Jews are a people and thus possess the right to live in their own land. As Churchill asserted in 1922, ‘the Jewish people should know that they are in Palestine as of right and not of sufferance.’
The most basic and self-evident rights extended to other peoples, have to be boldly asserted, hard won and fiercely defended when it comes to the Jews. The right to live in a country of one’s choosing without expulsion. The right to practise one’s faith without forcible conversion. The right even to live. If the United Nations General Assembly could assert that Zionism is a form of racism a mere 28 years after the same chamber endorsed the aims of Zionism through the Partition Plan, it should remind us that the right to a national home is equally precarious.
Zionism represents that bundle of rights that the Jews have secured and are unprepared to ever relinquish. The right to a place of refuge and shelter from murderous hatred. The right to a national centre for the preservation and enlargement of Jewish cultural, scholarly and scientific achievements. The right for Jews to freely determine their own political status. When expressed as the embodiment of Jewish rights, Zionism soars above party politics and the minutiae of policymaking in modern Israel, and it correctly presents anti-Zionism as a campaign to strip Jews of their rights.
The creation of Israel as the fruit of Zionism, a wildly ambitious movement of emancipation, ingathering and rehabilitation, should be a source of pride and admiration. But to penetrate deeper into the Jewish consciousness, maintain its relevance, and reclaim its capacity to unite Jews of the left and of the right, religious and secular, and in Israel and the diaspora, Zionism can no longer be seen through the prism of Basel and a time when the Jews were stateless. Framing Zionism as mere support for the existence of a Jewish State, something that is both self-evident and complete, will neither inspire nor unite. Instead, Zionism should be seen for its underpinnings in Jewish peoplehood and connection to land, and for its defining purpose, which is to win and safeguard the equal rights of the Jewish people. While the diasporic connection to the state itself may be tenuous due to practical differences of language, culture and distance, the connection to its foundations and its guiding purpose should be unwavering. It merely needs to be framed and understood in this way. Zionism created Israel and yet Zionism survives Israel because the struggle for equality and security for the Jewish people is perpetual.