It’s hard to write about Zionism. First, it’s a belief system that is so deeply entrenched among many Jews that everyone has a clear and fixed idea about what it is. As a result, it is almost impossible for it develop and change as the need arises. Second, Zionism raises red flags among so many on the left that it is difficult, if not impossible to use the term without immediate barriers rising to obstruct discourse.
Since the Lebanon war, and especially Azmi Bishara’s voluntary expulsion (yes, I mean those contradictory terms to go together) from Israel I’ve been rethinking my own Zionism. No, I haven’t stopped being one. But I’ve expanded my vision of what I think Israel should become to fully realize the vision inscribed in its Declaration of Independence.
Given all of the above, it’s very rare to read a discussion about Zionism that sheds light AND heat on the subject. And it’s rarer still to read a writer who captures my own feelings and anxieties about Zionism. Avrum Burg is a political thinker who always does this for me. To such august company I now add Seth Freedman who, writing in Comment is Free, has expressed my own thinking and my own ambivalences so precisely that he feels almost like a Jewish intellectual brother.
Like me, Seth comes from a mainstream Jewish communal upbringing. Hebrew school, his Jewish youth movement, and IDF military service, all instilled a patriotic sense of Zionist destiny in him. Israel was the embodiment of millenia of Jewish longing for a homeland. As such, the nation represented the highest ideals of the Jewish people. If it ever did wrong, this was a tragic accident but certainly not a consistent policy.
Seth writes that over the past year all this has changed and he’s become a questioning Zionist. One who no longer accepts the bromides offered by our Jewish upbringing or the current Israeli government. Seth’s commentary revolves around the Israeli Occupation and its degrading treatment of the Palestinians.
My own feelings certainly stem from this. But I’ve also been thinking a great deal about the role of Israeli Arabs in the nation’s society. They are, to my mind, the canaries in the coal mine. If they are choking on the dust of discrimination, neglect, oppression and poverty–then Israeli democracy remains unrealized. There must be a way for two peoples to inhabit a single state and live equally and harmoniously together. That is my vision. And yes, it’s still a Zionist vision because Israel would remain a Jewish homeland. But it would also be a homeland for its Arab citizens.
I’m not talking about a bi-national state in the sense there would be two separate nations within Israel. Rather, it would consist of two ethnic groups cohabiting within one state. Each group would have political, cultural and religious rights guaranteed by a constitution. No group, even if it were the minority, would ever have to feel disenfranchised or worse. Yes, there would be political jockeying and one group or another would at times feel put upon. But with a set of ironclad constitutional guarantees, no group should ever feel the need to mount the barricades.
I think Seth has really added to the Zionist discourse with his essay and I urge you to read it and tell him what you think either here or in the CiF comment thread. Thanks to reader David Bloom for alerting me to Seth’s essay.
Note to my trusty readers: I’ll be away from my computer until Wednesday and so not able to update the blog. See you when I return. Maybe peace will break out in the interim! Im yirtzeh ha-shem
M Junaid Khan says
A thought provoking article even for a person like me who is not a jew but Muslim and from a country which still dont recognize Israel. I really appreciate this very thought of change or i may take the liberty of calling it the orignal manifesto that was decided by the father of Zionism back in the 1890’s when the first conferece was arranged with the same subject.
I have always thought that to speak of “Zionists” as being the perpetrators of Israel’s crimes has been too general. For a time I couldn’t find the appropriate way to discuss this. However, my friend Ehud introduced me to the following meaningful distinction: we, all people Zionist or not, must distinguish between “Zionism”–of which many people before and after the creation of Israel had different articulations–from Israeli state policy and Israeli state ideology. Distinguishing between the two from the outside (ie, from a non-Zionist perspective) helps clarify what exactly the root problem is; and, I suspect, distinguishing from the inside (ie, from a Zionist perspective or from an Israeli citizen or a Jewish perspective) can help in understanding the intellectual form of dissent to Israeli state policy and action.
It’s very enlightening to find more and more people questioning what Zionism really means to them in comptemporary society and not in the archaic understandings of the past that enabled Israel to thrive. It’s exclusivism is one that is eroding everything that may (and I stress ‘may’ strongly) have been good back during the colonial times.
“There must be a way for two peoples to inhabit a single state and live equally and harmoniously together”
Sorry friend, the time for that is past.
You cant ethnically cleanse yourself a homeland (I don’t mean by killing – but by expulsions in 1948), then continue the process for 60+ years, and then ask: “Gee, can’t we all get along?”
Unfortunately, Arabs are proud of their heritage and culture, just like the Jews in Israel are. Therein lies the problem….
It’s a powerful article, more so given the life experiences of the writer.
As long as both sides want the other to magically go away, it’s going to be hard to make progress. It’s also going to be hard to make progress as long as both sides see violence as the way to resolve anything.
I lived in Israel in 2002-03, and there were a lot of bombings. I remember following the news (rather painfully — my Hebrew was new and weak) and there was almost a rhythm to it: a bombing in Haifa, retaliations by the Israelis, a bombing in Tel Aviv, more retaliations, on and on and on. Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
A new Zionism that raises questions? Best way I know to go about pursuing that is by supporting organizations like the New Israel Fund, and Rabbis for Human Rights. There are good people out there asking questions, but they need to be voices with credibility (like Freedman’s) and there needs to be more than shouting and/or hand-wringing..
I am delighted to see you have taken note of the blogs by Seth Freedman on the guardian’s CiF. I have been an avid follower (and sometime poster) of his writings about his experiences in Israel and the West bank for quite some time, and, like you, was impressed by his willingness to confront his deeply held zionist convictions. Clearly, he must be doing something right because his columns are some of the most popular among the Cif’s contributors, with a coterie of faithful and some really good commentators. I believe that the journey this once ardent – and idealistic – zionist from the UK is a highly instructive one, especially for those who do not happen right now to live in israel or the the OT’s. Seth is often subject to some major vitriol, just for telling it like it is, but clearly has also a most erudite fan base to defend his take on some of the issues. Seth’s willingness to engage with the commentators to his columns probably contribute to his popularity. But other than being a smart tactic, it’s also commendable as it must take lots of time, reading through these posts (often there are 200 of them). It certainly helps keep the ranks of the faithful both rankled and riveted, depending on which side one is on.
For more excellent musings on what it means to be a good, non-Israel-centric jew, I recommend postings by one named figliomedio. This person clearly an obserbvant and very learned Jew, who also happens to believe in a concept of zionism that is highly universal and non-israel-centric. His posts are laced with talmudic and biblical quotations that are always on the money and are often poignant, even for the non-religious and/or non-Jew. If I get a chance, I’ll post a couple of links where some of his best posts are located. Another excellent poster to watch for is one lennystone, who seems to be a first class debater of all issues relating to the I/P conflict (though he is on a break now, I believe, having OD’d on debates in the daniel barenboim thread (link coming, soon, soon…). There are aquite a few others I have come to know and appreciate. Ask and i shall tell.
I am very glad to see you highlight this talented writer. Kudos to you for all your dedicated hard work for a good cause for such a long time. I can only wish there were more like Seth in Israel and like you (and philip weiss and others) in the US (and the UK). Sometimes I wonder, W-M aside, just how long will it take for a critical mass of the jewish people – both in israel and the diaspora to be brave enough to put some strongly held beliefs to the test, if only by pausing to think a little, and read a lot.
John Howard Yoder, the great Mennonite theologian who wrote extensively and profoundly about the Jewish basis for nonviolence, suggested study of the history of Pennsylvania under Quaker leadership from 1681 to 1756, for insights to contribute towards a nonviolent Zionism.