On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, it is time to take stock of what has unfolded so far. The ongoing Zionist revolution is one of the few from that era that has actually succeeded in effecting radical change, all the while as it continually evolves to meet the challenges of the day.
It transformed the Jewish people and saved it from gradual dissolution into a group of Orthodox zealots and a fringe of assimilating Jews. It brought the Jewish people back into history as a nation that can stand on its own two feet and shape its future.
The Zionist movement faced a multitude of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. After all, its vision included the reestablishment of national sovereignty for the Jews without meeting the prerequisites: a functioning people, a living national language and a concentration of Jews in the desired homeland. On top of all that, there was active opposition to the effort by the locals.
Only a small minority of the Jewish people played an active part in this revolutionary vision. Only a tiny minority, including among its many supporters, were willing to step up and take action. The majority of rabbinical leaders opposed it and some even rejected the idea of returning to Zion, saying it was akin to blasphemy. Most of the Jews who did gradually take up the cause were unwilling to place their own skin in the game.
The Zionist accomplishment is unique not because it overcame external opposition, and not even because it managed to convince a small cadre of determined idealists. Its stellar success is rooted mainly in that it managed to convince Jews who had been attracted to it for non-Zionist reasons to convert their passions into the genuine Zionist fervor that made pre-state Israel a reality.
The overwhelming majority of Jews arrived here out of necessity, not because of their Zionism. They could not stay in their host countries, and upon leaving, they could not reach the destinations they had sought. The ultimate test faced by Israel—its Zionist test—was to integrate them despite the many hardships they faced and to convince them and their descendants to stay here by choice and make it their home.
The challenges that lie ahead
By far the most important accomplishment of the Zionist movement was its success in making Israel the home to the largest group of Jews in the world (close to a majority of Jews now live in Israel) and making it—almost from scratch—the place where the continuation of Jewish peoplehood is guaranteed. Thanks to this enterprise, the Jews returned to their historical homeland as a functioning people, their national language was revived and their historic sovereignty was reasserted.
The bridgehead established in the Land of Israel by a minority with a radical vision became the vibrant center of Jewish life. What began two generations ago as a poor and weak Third World country inhabited by only 6% of the Jews, was transformed, thanks to the dedication and talent of later generations, into a democratic regional power with a thriving economy and a host of splendid accomplishments.
More important than the successes of the past is ensuring continued progress. It is almost inevitable that Israel will continue to be the focus of Jewish life, at the expense of the second-most important concentration of Jews—North America. The widespread assimilation there in younger generations, coupled with declining birth rates, compared with almost zero mixed marriages in Israel and a very high birth rate ensures that Israel will be the epicenter of Jewish life.
The major challenges within Israeli society are much more dangerous than the threats posed by Iran and its proxies. Israel has a great track record of successfully weathering tough times, as it did for example after both the Yom Kippur War and the Second Intifada.
What should worry us is the radicalization of some Haredi groups and the continued control over millions of Palestinians. Those two trends threaten the democratic and pluralistic nature of the Zionist enterprise that has made it so successful over the past 125 years. Unless these vital characteristics are nurtured and preserved, Israel will devolve into a backward, authoritarian state that could threaten the future of the Jewish people.
Dan Schueftan is the head of the International Graduate Program in National Security Studies at the University of Haifa.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.