A lesson in Liberal Zionism, a century removed

With a controversial address given on this day, in 1903, Theodor Herzl launched the Sixth Zionist Congress, the formal legislative body of the national movement that he had founded six years earlier.  Standing before hundreds of delegates convened to pursue the millennial dream of a Jewish homeland, Herzl first affirmed that “the Jewish people can have no other goal than Palestine.”  He then proposed that the assembly explore an interim state in East Africa (near present-day Uganda), three thousand miles south of Palestine.

Despite the jarring preface, Herzl proceeded to build a compelling case for the so-called “Uganda Plan.”  Negotiations to build a state in actual Zion, then under Ottoman control, were foundering, new waves of devastating pogroms were sweeping across the Pale of Settlement and, increasingly, the multitudes fleeing the carnage were being turned away by the rest of the world.  The Jewish people urgently needed a sovereign refuge, Herzl argued, and forming one in Africa could only strengthen the movement’s hand in reaching the Middle East.  Despite Herzl’s logic, however, a strong ideological contingent broke with him, unwilling to accept any deviation from the biblical heritage of the Jewish people.

With the hindsight of history, it is only natural to sympathize with Herzl’s opposition.  While Herzl did go on to secure passage of the Uganda Plan, within two years that plan would be formally abandoned, and just 45 years hence, the seemingly impossible would come to pass with the establishment of the modern state of Israel in its ancient environs.  Given that record, Herzl’s dalliance with Africa might be easily miscast today as a rebuke to any voice that seeks to temper the Jewish aspiration for return with a sober assessment of the facts on the ground.

Understood in its proper context, however, the Uganda Plan is far more notable for its initial adoption than for its ultimate failure.  After all, in the early 1900s, disappointment was par for the course for Jewish nationalism, whether aimed at Africa, the Middle East, or anywhere else.  By contrast, threading the needle between ideological purity and political pragmatism was then – and remains now – an extraordinary feat.  In 1903, it required reining in a group of “true believers” who, despite looming calamity in Europe, rejected even a temporary detour on the road back to Palestine.  In this century, it requires confronting factions who, despite looming calamity in the West Bank, reject even a temporary hiatus in their headlong drive to settle and annex Judea and Samaria.

While Herzl was able to curb the ideological forces opposed to compromise in his time, today, Zionism’s liberal elite unfortunately fails to do the same.  Among the many causes for this, one is clearly self-inflicted.  Whereas Herzl united the Zionist camp by marrying the ideals of Jewish normalization with Jewish return (to the extent that even settlement in Africa was pitched as progress toward Palestine), modern proponents of compromise frame those ideals in strictly either-or terms.  As recently stated in Foreign Affairs by one such proponent, the Center-Left Knesset Member, Tzipi Livni, “if your destination is a secure Israel that is Jewish and democratic, then it can’t be on the entire land.”  (Other liberal voices have been even blunter: Times columnist Roger Cohen once asserted that Judaism’s messianic ideal of reoccupying Greater Israel had to “wither” to make way for peace.)

This posture of open conflict with the principle of return is political poison.  Among other things, it frays the broad-based coalitions that might unite to support peace, exposes its proponents to ad hominem attack, and tends to imbue the movement with a sense of resignation rather than conviction.  In addition, in challenging the viability of the ideal of return, the approach effectively empowers holdout groups to serve as the custodians of a central cultural symbol and to shape it as they see fit.  Finally, in its reliance on security as the primary catalyst for compromise, the approach makes any act of terrorism a potential pretext for scrapping the peace movement altogether.

There is no reason for peace proponents to peddle this noxious brew.  Instead, following Herzl’s cue, they are far better off espousing a long-term vision of territorial expansion, even as they pursue an immediate strategy of territorial compromise.  The critical point is that these two positions are not mutually exclusive.  Nothing about the two-state solution precludes either side from publicly holding out hope or working in a bilateral context to achieve greater territorial concessions down the line.  Yes, it may challenge our sense of decorum to invite Israelis and Palestinians to openly set their sights on one another’s sovereign lands, but, so long as both sides commit to the strictures of bilateralism and nonaggression, peace will benefit, not suffer, from their open expression of national differences.

Of course, as was the case with the Sixth Zionist Congress, critics will undoubtedly argue that the embrace of return is empty if unaccompanied by direct and immediate efforts to achieve it.  However, the significant thing about such a critique is that it boils down to an argument about the tactics of return, not its ideology.  As Herzl understood all those years ago, that is an argument that a liberal can win.  Unfortunately, in this century, it is one that the peace camp has yet to advance.

About the Author
Eyal Dror is a dual U.S. - Israeli citizen who resides in New York, where he has been practicing law since 2007.
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