Israel in 1948 was a manifestation of an ideal at the time it was created. Namely, this meant Jewish self-determination in their ancient homeland, a nation-state like all others, brought about by a liberation movement that worked with and ultimately against the world’s greatest imperial power, and which was the culmination of decades of patient organizing and building, all set against the horrific backdrop of the Holocaust.
But these are among the features—self-determination, nation-state, imperialism and anti-imperialism—that fuel the current argument that founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s Zionism has become a dream that has gone sour. It articulated an unattainable utopia that would never come to fruition because of the inevitable gaps between the idealism of Zionism and the statecraft of Israel that is the embodiment of Jewish nationalism.
Today, 75 years later, this paradox of the ideal against the real is on full display. Is it cause for alarm or celebration?
Historian Shlomo Avineri wrote in his classic study The Making of Modern Zionism:
Israel is thus the new public dimension of Jewish existence, the new Jewish parhessia. As it replaces the old religious-communal bonds that circumscribed Jewish existence in the past. Today, due to modernization and secularization, Israel is a normative expression of this collective existence of the Jewish people, of Klal Yisrael. This may also explain why so many Jews continue to support Israel. It is their symbol of collective identity, even if they disagree with the policies of their government. Support for Israel is not necessarily support for a policy of even an ideology; rather, it is an expression of Jewish self-identity.”
Normalcy and Jewish self-identity have been at the center of Zionism since the beginning, but they have also become part of the struggle for the Diaspora as it comes to terms with what the Zionist enterprise built, warts and all.
Having a state means having the power to create and to destroy—in literal and visceral terms—an unfamiliar condition in the past two millennia of Jewish history. A consistent side effect of the Zionist enterprise is that 75 years after the State of Israel came about is a growing wedge between Israelis and the Diaspora, driven largely by guilt and presumptions of moral superiority. Arguably, at the root of the problem is that too many American Jews are uncomfortable with power.
As the Zionist enterprise began to lay the foundations for statehood in Mandatory Palestine, Jews there began to accumulate power—economic, political and military—that caused other Jews to immediately question the morality of the enterprise itself. Old anti-Semitic tropes came to the forefront; a Jewish state would be based on “exploitation” or even Zionist “world domination,” something that generated non-Jewish hostility and, among a Jewish minority, feelings of guilt. Decades before the state was founded, Reform rabbi and Hebrew University founder Judah Magnes expressed the trepidation: “It is not only the end which for Israel must be desirable but what is of equal importance, the means must be conceived and brought forth in cleanliness.”
But states are never clean, and nations must be watchful of deeds done in their name. Magnes thus subscribed to the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform adopted by the American Reform movement, which among other things stated:
We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state. We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.
No state has or could achieve the desired level of purity, particularly one surrounded by implacable enemies. But armed with “monotheistic and moral truth” powerlessness was (for a small fringe of Reform Jewish leaders) the preferred, even ideal situation.
Still, a century after the Balfour Declaration, the strength of the Pittsburgh statement remains grounded in the moral understanding that Jews are indeed a religious community, a people united by text and tradition with eyes turned towards their place of origin. Its weakness was the uniquely American rhetorical sleight of hand that denied this community was in fact a “nation” deserving of a “state.”
Outside this small and safe circle of American Reform thinkers, however, the necessity of a Jewish nation-state was a foundational premise no matter what their political persuasion. That understanding came to be shared by the vast majority of American Jews, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Today, however, the idea of Jewish statehood is no longer a unifying principle but a wedge issue for American Jews. In the post-colonial era, states accused of being “settler-colonialist” like the United States and Israel are unique villains, and unlike every other state on earth, Israel’s circumstances of birth and human-rights record are deemed to invalidate its continued existence.
That a small but meaningful minority of American Jews believes this represents the substitution of left-liberal ideals, which are unapplied to other states and peoples, for even a rudimentary sense of Jewish community, not to speak of nationhood.
In his address to the Zionist Congress in London on Aug. 2, 1900, Theodor Herzl said:
Zionism demands a publicly recognized and legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people. This platform, which we drew up three years ago, is unchangeable. It must have responded to a very deep necessity, a very old longing of our people; otherwise, its effects would be inexplicable. There is no need of my enumerating these effects at the present day. Everyone knows them, everyone sees and hears them. Four years ago in speaking of a Jewish nation, one ran the risk of being thought ridiculous. Today, he makes himself ridiculous who denies the existence of a Jewish nation. A glance at this hall, where our people is represented by delegates from all over the world, suffices to prove this.
The Zionist enterprise has evolved over the past 123 years but has always been predicated on the re-establishment of Jewish statehood in the ancestral homeland. The collective memory of Jewish statelessness and powerless was vivid during the early decades of the Jewish state. Left, right or center, religious or secular, the founding fathers of Zionism were all motivated by the imperative of Jewish statehood as both a manifestation of the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination and a means of lessening Jewish vulnerability and increasing the likelihood of Jewish survival. Those rights and imperatives remain.
The Zionism of 1948 to 1967 is not the Zionism of 2023; each generation needs to find its own form. But eliminating Zionism in the name of Judaism or in the name of a liberal, universal ethos negates Jewish history, instead of embracing and memorializing it. As Israeli military and political leader Yigal Allon stated: “Zionism is, in sum, the constant and unrelenting effort to realize the national and universal vision of the prophets of Israel.”
Realizing these visions is the central Jewish challenge of the 21st century.
Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).