Alternate Parameters for Discussing Zionism

There are different ways to discuss Zionism, and in this context I think we should applaud the new blog, Open Zion, for representing one effort to have an open and frank discussion about the movement. But as Yoel Finkelman has noted, the problem at Open Zion is that in addition to tilting heavily to one particular end of the spectrum, the conversation at Open Zion isn’t really about Zionism per se, but about Israel and the West Bank.

We might, then, consider other parameters for structuring a discussion of Zionism. In particular, rooting a contemporary conversation in past debates about the movement offers some ideas that can help organize such a dialogue.

Such a discussion would not include anti- and non-Zionists. They might well have important things to say about some elements of Israel or even of Zionist ideals, but because they oppose—or at best are ambivalent about—the very notion of Jewish nationalism, they re-direct the conversation away from trying to figure out how to define the movement today, and how to make it more meaningful to its adherents.

Similarly, then, non-Jews would also not participate in the discussion. Again, if Zionism is about Jews taking their fate into their own hands, it cannot ask non-Jews what they think should be done to the Jews.   

It is necessary to demand to hear the voices of Palestinians (and others) when discussing Israel and its policies. But a conversation about Zionism is most emphatically not a conversation about Israel. Israel is only one manifestation of Zionism, but not the only one. The tendency at Open Zion and elsewhere has been for the non-Zionists and non-Jews to focus on Israel and its policies, because that is their concern. But this is a distraction from a dialogue on Zionism.

If Zionism is a conversation by and for Jews, it would be more effective if it took take place in a Jewish publication. Speaking and writing in a non-Jewish space engenders a reverse-voyeurism, and tempts others to jump in and, again, tell us how we should think about ourselves. If the purpose is to find a place that non-affiliated, uncertain Jewish Zionists can recognize, then it behooves our public intellectuals, educators, and community leaders to help them recognize such places. Elsewhere in these pages I have suggested a reinvigorated World Zionist Organization as an appropriate site.

A contemporary conversation about Zionism would not focus on exile anymore, because Jews are no longer exiled. Today, any Jew can make aliyah to Israel and become an automatic citizen (apart from certain categories, like criminals); at the same time most Jews living elsewhere actively choose not to make aliyah while still proclaiming their Zionism. We need an updated understanding of Zionism that accounts for both conditions.

An effective model would include a direct engagement between Israelis and non-Israeli Jewish Zionists. It’s becoming a tired refrain to note that Israelis and Jews living elsewhere don’t understand each other’s different cultures; but this only makes it more urgent to create a direct engagement between both communities into a common Zionism. But it cannot mean only Israeli MKs and American community leaders visiting one another; there would be people-to-people programs, and particularly incorporating activists from the social movement world in both places.

The conversation should be sincerely open to all Zionists. Early Zionism was a very big tent, and included Zionists with all sorts of ideas, on all sorts of issues. This included on which territories should be the focus of the movement, but also on where the emphasis of the movement should be: cultural, political, agricultural, and so on. No-one should be dismissed out of hand, because everybody has something to contribute to the discussion. 

In the end, a dialogue on Zionism must seek to define the movement as of today, but also to argue about the future of it—and most especially what it should be doing in “real life” terms. Too much discussion of what it is or isn’t reifies the movement and removes the possibility of it doing any practical good for Jews.

The desire to bring Zionism in line with today’s realities should be commended. But the conversation is still drifting and exclusionary. We need more a reasonable and applied dialogue about Zionism if we want it to remain relevant. And those who don’t want it to simply should not be part of the discussion.

About the Author
Brent Sasley is Assistant Professor in Political Science, at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Israel and Middle East politics, and works on the politics of Jewish identity