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Opinion

Universal vs. Zionist values

Both sides must listen to each other and unite over their common values, rather than allow the continued division of the Jewish community.

Crowds of Israelis wave flags at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Crowds of Israelis wave flags at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.

Throughout world history, from the first fight between Cain and Abel to America’s war in Iraq, most world conflicts have been fought over competing values. Nations with different ideas about how the world should operate, people should be governed and citizens should manage their personal lives battle each other in the hopes that, by winning the war, the people of both nations and eventually the world will lead their lives according to the winner’s values. This is one of humanity’s worst dysfunctions.

One prominent example of this kind of conflict was the half-century-long Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. The Cold War was not an all-out total war like World War II, but it often broke down into violence and conflict. Battles over Korea, Vietnam and Cuba were not about land or domination, but about democracy versus communism. Sadly, millions of people died in these wars even though it is now debatable if any of the values they fought over were advanced at all.

The battle over values extends to the Jewish community as well. Thankfully, very few of these battles became violent, but many lives and communities were shattered by the divisions they caused. There were Pharisees vs. Sadducees, Rabbinic Jews vs. Karaites and Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim, among others.  

Today, divisions in the Jewish community are just as prominent; in particular, the divide between Jews who place universal values over Zionist values or vice-versa. Between the Holocaust and the turn of the century, the global Jewish community was firmly Zionist and stood behind the State of Israel. This is not the case today. Fewer and fewer Jews prioritize Zionist values over universal values and many Zionists have prioritized Zionist values over universal values.

Universal values focus on equality and basic rights for all human beings irrespective of where they live, who governs them or their race, gender and nation. Zionist values emphasize the Jewish people’s right to determine their own future in their historic homeland and advocate policies that will ensure Jewish safety and security.

Certainly, Zionism embraces many universal values, but it fights first and foremost for the rights of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Many Jews, however, only support a form of Zionism that emphasizes universalism and thus recognizes Palestinian demands, placing them on an equal footing with Zionism.

Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi has written that, in Israel, after decades of national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation has dissolved into competing narratives. One is founded on memories of persecution, genocide and a bitter struggle for survival. It is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews and believes only in Jewish power and solidarity. The other narrative is nourished by a secularized messianism and the enlightenment idea of progress. It has a deep sense of the limits of military force and a commitment to liberal-democratic values.

There is a generation gap regarding these competing narratives. Older Jews tend to place Zionist values over universal values. Younger Jews emphasize universal values. Older Jews keep the Holocaust and Israel’s wars of survival at the forefront of their minds. They prioritize Zionist values because they fear that tragedy could strike the Jewish people if they do not prioritize their own safety. The younger generation maintains that Israel is stronger than its enemies and its security can be taken for granted. Thus, they prioritize universal values, especially regarding Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

This divide is one of the Jewish community’s greatest challenges today. Unfortunately, it seems to be only growing wider and more pronounced. Clearly, both sides must listen to each other and unite over their common values, rather than focus on their differences. They must acknowledge the need for both Zionist and universal values. These values are not mutually exclusive and the divide between them is not black and white. Today’s world has become polarized, but a Jewish community beset by external enemies cannot afford the luxury of division.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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