Revisiting Zionism

Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl; drawing by David Levine

The time has come to attempt to take stock of Zionism and to examine to what extent Zionist ideology, whose tenets have been offered to the Jewish people for about one hundred years, has stood the test of fulfillment. This task should be undertaken not primarily in the interest of historical and sociological research, but because of its practical implications. I claim that the numerous contradictions—some of them grotesque—in which the discussions of the fundamental questions in Israel have become entangled largely derive from a mistaken view of the Zionist ideology which guides, or should guide, public and political activities in Israel.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, Zionism has generally been regarded as a success story. The peak of this attitude was reached shortly after the Six-Day War. It somewhat faded with the Yom Kippur War and during the last few years. But, fundamentally, the view of Zionism as a success story has not changed, in particular not among the official Israeli establishment. At most, its members are willing to admit the existence of transitory difficulties, perhaps even serious ones, similar to those which every political movement and every state must face from time to time.

The view of Zionism as a success story is, of course, based upon the existence of a Jewish state with proven physical power and with the diverse trappings of statehood. Notwithstanding its great popularity, this view is erroneous. The purpose of Zionism was not to establish a Jewish state, teach Hebrew, build a powerful army, or develop a productive economy based on agriculture and industry. The purpose of Zionism was to solve the Jewish problem.

The Jewish problem was defined by the fathers of Zionist ideology, such as Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, and Theodor Herzl, as the inability of the Jews in the Diaspora to live safely as equals among equals. They also claimed that this problem would become increasingly severe until the physical existence of the Jews in the Diaspora would be endangered. The solution they proposed was to gather together the Diaspora Jews, or at least most of them, in one country where they could attain political independence like any other normal nation. The assumption was that the minority of Jews who would not want to settle in the Jewish state would assimilate among the Gentiles and cease being Jews (and thus have no problem). Ahad Ha’am’s version of Zionism was different; yet it was not acceptable to most of the movement nor did it stand the test of reality. The Zionist assumption was that living in one territory would grant the Jewish nation a “secure refuge,” one that would be recognized by public law.

Palestine was not essential for Pinsker and Herzl.

Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl, the two most important ideologues of Zionism, did not believe it essential that the Jews settle in what was then called Palestine.…

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