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Revisiting Zionism

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. Herzl believed that it would not be difficult to find a suitable country for a Jewish state. His views were those of a European of the colonialist era during which the French and Italians settled in North Africa and the English throughout Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Herzl was also influenced by the anti-Semitic myth of the unlimited financial power of Jewish banking; he believed that it was possible to buy a country suitable for the realization of Zionism.

Herzl adopted Palestine as the site for realizing Zionism only after he found out that this was the only country for which it would be possible to enlist sufficiently large public support from the Jewish people. Even at the end of his life, Herzl was prepared to abandon Palestine and accept what he believed to be a British proposal of Uganda for Jewish settlement. However, once again, and painfully, he was compelled to realize that most organized Zionists were not willing even to consider a territorial solution except in Palestine. The votes taken at the Sixth and Seventh Zionist Congresses in 1903 and 1905, which rejected the Uganda plan, showed the failure of Herzl’s Zionist vision within the Zionist movement.

Thus the purpose of Zionism was to concentrate all or most of the Diaspora Jews in one country in which a Jewish state would be established. This state would secure their lives from persecution and discrimination, a security which they had not enjoyed, according to the correct Zionist diagnosis, in the countries of Europe. (Just as we first of all think of North American Jewry when we speak of Diaspora Jews today, the Jews were identified with Europe during the early days of the Zionist movement.)

If we examine the practical attainments of Zionism during the last hundred years we can point to a large number of achievements—those inclined to such language would call them miraculous. I will not list them here. The very fact that I am sitting in the garden of my house in Tel Aviv and writing this article, which will appear in a Hebrew daily newspaper that reaches readers from Metullah to Eilat, testifies to the soundness of the achievements of Zionism.* However, the fulfillment of the Zionist idea is not among these numerous achievements. Zionism has not solved the Jewish problem. Despite the changes it has undergone, the Jewish problem continues to exist as before and one of its disturbing manifestations is the problem of the Jews in Israel.

The Jews did not choose Zionism

The major reason why Zionism has not achieved its goal is that the Jews, for the most part, refused to adopt the Zionist idea. Only about one fifth of the Jews of the world live in Israel. The country is very much alive and it cannot be ignored by anyone, but it is not the realization of the Zionist idea. Most Jews did not choose the Zionist solution. This fact is no less important than the existence of the state of Israel and it is particularly grave and astonishing because everything that has happened to the Jews in the European Diaspora since the days of Pinsker and Herzl has verified the Zionist forecast of the fate of European Jewry with astonishing precision. Zionism was right about everything—except about the willingness of the Jews to accept the Zionist solution.

In his autobiography, Chaim Weizmann writes that in 1906, during his first casual meeting with Arthur Balfour, he tried to explain to him the Zionist idea. Balfour listened in astonishment and in the end he asked: “Are there many Jews who think as you do, Dr. Weizmann?” Weizmann replied: “If you go to Pinsk, you’ll find that the streets of the town are paved with Jews like me.” To this Balfour remarked: “If that is true, you are a power and you will get Jerusalem.” The trouble was that Weizmann was wrong. Most of the Jews of Pinsk remained in Russia (until the Holocaust caught up with them); or they emigrated to America.

Believing that the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe were prepared to go to Palestine, the British adopted the Zionist plan at the end of World War I. In 1920, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George told Weizmann in San Remo: “Now is your chance. Take advantage of it quickly. The world is at present in a fluid state. In another few years, the political situation will again freeze like the Baltic in winter. What you fail to do now, you won’t be able to alter later on.” If the Jewish masses from Eastern and Central Europe had gone to Palestine during the early years of the British Mandate and had settled the country (as masses of European emigrants—including millions of Jews—had settled America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), it is possible that Zionism would have been able to realize its program and “solve the Jewish problem.” But it did not happen. The number of Jews who settled in the country in 1920, in the first year of the British Mandate, were only about 10 percent of the number who came to Israel after the Holocaust, during the first years of the state.

Emancipation: The Precondition for Zionism

This is not the place for a thorough examination of all the reasons why most Jews did not become Zionists, but I shall attempt to list a few. The very appearance of the Zionist idea among European Jews in the final third of the nineteenth century indicates that European Jews were then undergoing far-reaching changes. The most important was in the way they looked at themselves. This was more important than the changes, dramatic though they were, in the external circumstances of their lives. It is generally believed that the Hibbat Zion movement arose in the wake of the pogroms in southern Russia during the early 1880s and that Herzl became a Zionist as a result of the Dreyfus case. This is undoubtedly true. However, the really new revolutionary development was not the persecution and the judicial frame-up of the Jews, but their reactions to these events. Ever since the early Middle Ages, European Jewry had suffered far more serious persecution and exile, as well as blood libel, which was inestimably more dangerous than what took place late in the nineteenth century. Why did all these earlier events not result in reactions similar to the rise of Zionism?

The answer is that the Jews living at the end of the nineteenth century differed from the Jews of all preceding generations of the Diaspora. Those who were attracted to the Zionist idea had undergone emancipation or were at least in the process of being affected by it. All the Jewish leaders who conceived and developed the Zionist idea and dedicated themselves to its realization had abandoned the traditional way of Jewish life that had heretofore prevailed. Many of them—the more important ones in particular—had assimilated among the Gentiles; and for none of them did their Zionism include any aspiration to return to the traditional Jewish way of life. Their reaction to the Jewish problem conformed to the behavior patterns of their Gentile contemporaries, among whom they lived, rather than to those of the traditional Jews. Zionism could not have arisen without the national movements which altered the face of Europe during the nineteenth century, without the discovery by the Russian narodniki of the spiritual wealth of the simple people and their needs and problems, and without German romanticism. Kurt Blumenfeld, the important ideologue of German Zionism, said with good reason: Zionism is the gift of Europe to the Jewish people.

Zionism is an outcome of the change in the character of European Jews brought about by the emancipation; yet it is not the last of the changes effected by it. As we are learning somewhat painfully, Zionism is not even an essential stage which every emancipated Jew must go through.

Spinoza: the first modern Jew

  1. *

    This article first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, of which Gershom Schocken is editor.

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