Crisis of Zionism

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A founding father of Religious Zionism, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – better known as Rav Kook – said that “if we persevere in fighting for what is close to our hearts, we must avoid becoming fixated on our feelings and know that the world is wide enough to contain feelings contrary to our own”. This underpins the foundation of a democratic society, a society open to debate.

Rav Kook alludes to the need to separate our identities from our political beliefs, to evaluate each and every idea on its merit, not on which political alignment it comes from. This ability to think critically, to separate from our political identity when evaluating ideas is vital to societal progression. We should not be fixed on proving ourselves right, rather we must search for the right answer, no matter from where it comes.

In recent years, however, there appears to be a growing trend to the opposite, in particular when it comes to our connection with Israel. There has been historical consensus amongst Diaspora communities – that support of the only Jewish state has been almost non-negotiable. We may not have always agreed with its government’s policies, but that has never been cause to lessen or withdraw support.

It is therefore extremely concerning to watch increasing tendencies to condition one’s support for Israel on whether one approves of Israeli governmental policies. This belief that one’s Zionism is connected to the government of the day is not only illogical but suggests a lack of complexity in one’s Jewish identity.

A growing number of Jews are defining their Zionism by limiting it to the ‘Palestinian conundrum’. This connection to Israel is no longer grounded in a love for the land, culture and history, our continued presence throughout millennia, or Israel’s achievements in defiance of all odds. Rather it focuses on a newfound obsession with the plight of Palestinians, a ‘preoccupation with occupation’, as some put it. 

This is a myopic view of Zionism that suggests a lack of appreciation and understanding of not only Jewish history, but Middle Eastern too. Whilst there are legitimate arguments from Israeli and Palestinian camps, one needs to develop a genuine understanding of both sides, and not allow oneself to be distracted by one troubling aspect of government policy. Failing to do so not only prevents us from making a meaningful contribution to the discussion but endangers the future of Zionism.

The Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia is known for its large Holocaust survivor population. For previous generations, the suffering of our grandparents has sufficed as motivation for raising a Jewish family. This suffering, however, has failed to resonate as strongly with the younger generation, for whom the tragedies of the Holocaust are not as raw.

Similarly, if our entire Zionist identity revolves around the predicament of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – irrespective of what stance one holds on it – what hope is there for the future? Israel is the only protection against a new wave of genocidal hatred against our people, yet how can we ensure a strong connection to Israel if we fail to view it beyond the lens of one facet of the conflict?

This absorption in one aspect of the conflict acts as a barrier to fully comprehending the very aspect over which it obsesses. Through focusing solely on one issue, not only do we neglect the richness of our Jewish identity and Zionism, but we prevent ourselves from appreciating the bigger picture, and consequently generate a skewed view of the conflict. Partnered with Rav Kook’s fear of an inability to separate our identity from politics, it has created the dangerous situation we are in today.

If our support for Israel is reliant on the government of the day pursuing policy in line with our beliefs, what do we say to those in opposition? Are their hopes and fears any less valid? What does this say about our intellectual honesty? If Israeli government policies disenfranchise you, are you intent on finding the truth, or proving yourself right no matter the cost?

We do not need to believe Israel is perfect in order to proudly proclaim our Zionism. Are we not proud that Tel Aviv is widely viewed as the world’s LGBTQ capital? Have we forgotten that we had a female Prime Minister only 20 years into Israel’s existence, whilst our friends in the ‘land of the free’, almost 250 years since independence, still await a female President? What about Abdel Rahman Zuabi, the first Arab judge to sit in the Supreme Court, or that the Arab Joint List was the Knesset’s third largest faction following the 2015 and 2019 elections?

Do we not take pride in the fact that Israel provided aid to 200,000 Syrians during Syria’s civil war, or that Israeli doctors treated over 11,000 Syrians injured by their own people, whilst the world stood idly by and watched as more than 400,000 men, women and children were killed? How did we lose sight of reality?

Discussion surrounding these issues is often overtaken by extremes on the left and right. That needs to change. It is time for us to come together and have an honest conversation. Our Zionism cannot depend on our approval of Israeli governmental decisions.

As Jews in the Diaspora we have an obligation to harness our beliefs to strengthen Israel and our community’s connection to it, however when this morphs into an obsessive focus on Israel’s wrongs without any recognition of the challenges facing Israel, it needs to be called out for what it is. It is time that we have the nuanced conversation that is so desperately needed. The future of the Diaspora depends on it.

About the Author
Josh Feldman is studying International Relations and History at Monash University. He is currently working with Act-IL and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism - both at IDC Herzliya - on their projects, as well as being actively involved in the Melbourne Jewish community's informal education in youth movements and schools.
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