Melanie Takefman posted a Times of Israel blog article on December 17, 2015 with the amazing title, “Human rights organizations ARE Zionism.” Ms. Takefman states that in the past she worked for two of Israel’s well-known organizations that emphasize their concern with human rights, social justice and equality.
I read through her piece, ostensibly about Zionism, looking in vain for at least one mention of the “Jewish people” or “Jewish sovereignty.” No, there was not one. Rather she made the following assertion, “Israel’s vibrant human rights scene is the essence of Zionism. Zionism was initially about building a new society based on democracy and equal rights for all.” She adds, “Now that we have a functioning, modern state, the Zionist mission for me is to fix this country — to make it the best it can be.” However, there is nothing specific to Israel about that mission. Rather, it could apply to many other enlightened countries. Indeed, many North American Jews explain their advocacy of specific social measures for the United States by the phrase, “tikkun olam.”
Ms. Takefman’s knowledge about Zionism is either terribly incomplete or she has suppressed certain things she once knew. She should read some Russian and European history of the 1880s and 1890s, with their anti-Jewish pogroms and the reality of European anti-Semitism. She would read about the Dreyfus affair in France, which profoundly shocked the journalist, Theodor Herzl, and changed his life. Herzl concluded, regarding the much discussed “Jewish Question,” that European society was fundamentally hostile to the Jews who lived there. He wrote “The Jewish State” in 1896. He explained his book as follows: “The idea I have developed in this pamphlet is an ancient one: It is the restoration of the Jewish State.” About pervasive anti-Semitism, he wrote, “In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country. . .”
Herzl was not the first writer in the 19th Century to envision or call for Jewish sovereignty. Such ideas appeared, explicitly or implicitly, in the writings of Alkalai, Kalischer, Hess, Smolenskin, Lilienblum, Pinsker and others. However, what distinguished Herzl was that he was driven to build a political program that would realize this vision. He worked with great energy to convene the first Zionist Congress, which met in Basel, Switzerland in 1897.
Following the Congress, Herzl made the following entry in his diary, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word — which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly — it would be this: ‘At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in five years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’”
Herzl was indeed prescient. It was almost exactly 50 years later on November 29, 1947 that the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which called for partition of the territory of the British Mandate west of the Jordan River into a “Jewish State” and an “Arab State.” Less than six months later, as the British Mandate was terminated, the State of Israel was declared.
A great historical mistake was made by the Arab states in the U.N. at the time, and by the leadership of the Arab residents in the Mandate, who all totally rejected Resolution 181. They simply could not countenance partition and the presence of a Jewish state. Regrettably, the Palestinian leadership today still does not accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
Ms Takefman ought to read the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, issued on May 14, 1948. It starts as follows: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” The expression “Jewish people” occurs 11 times throughout the Declaration. That focus was central to Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel.
The Declaration also includes the following statement: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (Although it is probably implicit, the word “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration.)
Yes, there is a place for organizations devoted to human rights to promote the achievement of these ambitious goals. But, human rights objectives are not the essence of Zionism. Such a claim is simply false and a distortion of history. Rather, the sovereignty of the Jewish people is the essence of Zionism. Eschewing any mention of the “Jewish people” or “Jewish state” is more a characteristic of Post-Zionism or Anti-Zionism than of Zionism.
Melanie Takefman is correct when she wrote in her article, “We have enemies within and beyond our borders.” Those enemies strongly reject Zionism and the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty. True to the spirit of Resolution 181, opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution. However, true to the essence of Zionism, Israel’s political leadership would only agree to such a solution were Jewish sovereignty not to be seriously threatened as a result.