It is Time for a Zionist Renewal

It is time for a Zionist renewal. But not the one that you think.

Since 1967 Zionism has slowly been simplified and redefined in narrow partisan terms. What was once a diverse historical movement of national and cultural renewal has been reduced in contemporary discourse to a narrow political platform. Among an increasing number of contemporary Jews, Zionism is understood along the lines of kahanism, though not all admit it. They understand it as the belief in the establishment of a Jewish quasi-democratic theocracy between the river and the sea. Oddly, this is how Hamas and much of the international anti-Israel left understand Zionism.  In the debates in recent days regarding the Jewish State bill, PM Bibi Netanyahu has insisted that Israel’s commitment to being the nation state of the Jewish people, and only of the Jewish people, is of equal importance to its commitment to being a democratic state that extends full civil, political, and economic rights to all of its citizens regardless of their national identities. Netanyahu, like many Zionists, argues that there is no tension or conflict here. At least not of necessity.  Both nationalism and liberalism (in the classical sense) can be equally constitutive bedrock principles of the State of Israel. But we all know that for Bibi, and for most Jewish citizens of Israel, when these commitments do indeed conflict, and there are certainly junctures when they do, Jewish nationalism will almost always trump democratic liberalism. One might even see the discrete instances where it doesn’t as providing a veneer of plausibility that obscures how often and commonplace are the instances when it does. They are exceptions that both mask and prove the rule.

It’s an issue of apposition.  For the vast majority, “Democracy” qualifies the “Jewish” State; “Jewish” does not qualify the “Democratic” state. The minute one grasps this the jig is up with regard to the equality between these principles as equally definitional of the State of Israel. Indeed, the entire debate about the nature of the state takes place between these poles. The farther left one is, the more emphasis on democracy and Israel’s commitments to equality; the farther right one is, the more emphasis on nationalism and its commitments to protecting (and privileging) Jews. So Bibi’s rhetoric does indeed represent the center here, though much more in theory than in practice. It is an abstract and imaginary center. Perhaps even a self-delusional fantasy of an impossible center. For in practice, Bibi will always choose nationalism over democracy, as will most Israeli Jews, and he will do so more immediately and with more extremity than those to the left of him.

But…this abstract, illusory centrism, this absence of aspirational vision, is precisely what reveals Bibi Netanyahu’s deficiency as a Zionist. And we desperately need Zionist leadership.

Historically, Zionism included a wide range of ideological variations. There were Zionists who did not prioritize statehood and thought that pre-mature statehood would be a disaster. They wanted to emphasize gradual settlement, the establishment of Jewish communities in the Land of Israel, as both a political project and a cultural practice. If we were to read the writings of these Zionists on the floor of the Knesset today, we would likely be branded non-Zionists. We might find ourselves most welcome ideologically in Hadash, the non-Zionist joint Arab-Jewish democratic socialist (post-communist?) party. Other Zionists supported a bi-national future alongside Arabs in a culturally complex joint national community. They would be considered anti-Zionists today, far to the left of Hadash. But representatives of both of these streams would insist on their Zionism. There were even Zionists who saw the entire endeavor as fundamentally a cultural movement that sought to influence, as opposed to negate, the diaspora. We have streets named after people who held all of these positions. And it was frustration with these movements that led Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky to champion a revision of Zionism, not as an alternative but as a return to what he believed was the only authentic Zionism, the vision of Theodore Herzl who asserted the establishment of a Jewish state as the essence and central goal of Zionism.

There’s no question that if one looks at contemporary Israeli political discourse, as well as discussion of contemporary Israeli politics around the world, that Jabotinsky won. Though, as I noted above, many inside Israel have wedded his ideology to a theocratic desire for a religious state and disavow Jabotinsky’s commitments to civic liberalism, which Netanyahu champions at least theoretically and perhaps only superficially. The adherents of this ideology, which I think can properly be called kahanism, argue that theirs is the authentic Zionism and is free of the contradictions and impurities of all others. At the same time, the last secular Jabotinskyites are no longer influential in the political party that ostensibly reveres him. One is Ruby Rivlin, now President of the State of Israel and thus supposed to be above partisan policy disputes. Others include Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who are out of politics altogether. One might consider Tzipi Livni a Jabotinskyite, and she certainly considers herself one. But she is now the leader of a much less ideologically coherent and politically influential party.

But if Bibi still holds Jabotinsky’s Zionist positions, he lacks Jabotinsky’s Zionist disposition. For what bound the once diverse Zionist movement together, even across the revisionist breach, was commitment to one general goal in conjunction with a general historical disposition. The former is the easy and obvious aspect, a recognizable shared commitment to the building of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. We must note here that these Zionists did not share the exact same understanding of either Jewish life or of the borders of the Land of Israel, though there was certainly more consensus with regard to the latter. And Bibi certainly is still a Zionist in this regard. (So is Zahava Gal-On, leader of the left-wing Zionist Meretz party. It’s possible to understand non-Zionist Dov Khenin, of Hadash, as also holding this commitment).

But equally unifying the field of Zionisms was a shared disposition toward history. This is what lent Zionism its political force and its revolutionary character. Prior to Zionism, Jewish communities largely accepted history as it came, even and especially when it hurt, as it often did. If they were active on behalf of particular communities, they generally did not try to address the historical situation of world Jewry. Jews as a transnational diasporic community evinced a passivity with regard to the course of historical change and an acceptance of its vicissitudes, a patient waiting for history to become, largely through supernatural intervention, more hospitable. I admit here that I capitulate to a generalizing tenet that marks Zionist historiography. Indeed, the complexity of Jewish history contains all sorts of examples that contradict this generalization, and we might spend some very enlightening hours discussing the degree to which they were either exceptional or representative of a more complex and fluid historical disposition. But even if this generalization doesn’t hold, it certainly is necessary to understand Zionism immanently, that is, from the inside.

Zionists rejected historical passivity, whether more real or more imagined. All Zionisms had in common the goal of [re]establishing Jewish cultural life in the Land of Israel as a vision that required them to place their hands on the wheel of the vessel of Jewish history and turn it, regardless of wind and current. Zionists of all stripes were derided as crazy, impractical, delusional, romantic fantasists who might be well-intentioned, but often did more harm than good. Of course, all these Zionisms melded utopianism with pragmatism. Some established Art Colleges and Universities, some established farming communities, some built and/or expanded Jewish neighborhoods and towns and cities. Some built Zionist synagogues and yeshivas, even if they often distinguished themselves from Zionism at the time. Some focused on the revival (though not, as commonly misunderstood, the resurrection) of Hebrew as a contemporary linguistic vessel for literature, academic study, technological creativity, and daily life. But all these pragmatic if also at times unlikely and intermittently failed endeavors served and were guided by a huge, heroic, idealistic vision.

And Bibi is no Zionist. Not in this sense.

Critiques of Bibi’s leadership, or more properly lack thereof, are as common as popsicles at the corner shop these days. Bibi even exceeds his mentor Yitzhak Shamir as a genius at staying in place. Full throttle in neutral was how we once described Shamir. Whether with Bibi this represents an ego-driven focus on his own political position or a political disposition that sees small, tactical, reactive moves as the best way to keep the ship afloat is beside the point. Whether it’s a mode of operation that focuses on placating coalition partners or whether it’s a genuine moderation that is incapable of addressing conflicts with an eye to resolution or transcendence isn’t important. There is vast agreement that Bibi’s vision is short term and very very small. He’s a virtuoso at treading water, suggesting that this can be done infinitely. He’s a sort of Israeli Candide who sees the status quo as the best of all possible worlds. He is fundamentally passive in the face of history, waiting for some unforeseen and unforeseeable moment when it will become more sympathetic.

And so, as such, Bibi is no Zionist.

And we need Zionist leadership. Bibi’s government pays lip service to diplomatic negotiation and even the goal of a two state solution. But it’s clear to most of us that he isn’t really interested in either, even were circumstances more hospitable. He doesn’t embrace a single state solution as explicitly as he did back in 1978 when he called himself Ben Nitay ( But he does support building projects across the 1967 border that will certainly impede the establishment of a Palestinian state and that certainly makes the diplomatic environment even more inhospitable.

So we are being backed into history. We are tossed upon currents and hoping that things will turn out OK, either by natural progression or supernatural intervention. This is not Zionism.

My hope is that in the next elections, we will elect a Zionist government that will champion a revival of the Zionist revolution against real and/or perceived Jewish historical passivity. We cannot and should not continue to hang on to a situation that is sort of one-statish and sort of two-statish (it even sounds a bit like Yiddish when put that way) and wait for history to decide our future and our fate. We need a referendum election in which Zionists put forth contending Zionist visions for our future and programs for their accomplishment. Then we can decide, or find points of genuine common ground that are productive and not mere compromises bound to extend the status quo.

Those who want One State, which includes those who simply don’t want Two States or any form of territorial compromise, need to articulate a vision of what that means. How do we deal with the conflicts between democracy and nationalism that Bibi tells us simply don’t exist? How can we both maintain our commitments to Israel as a Jewish cultural and historical project and strengthen our democracy if we become a state of all its citizens? How do we come to an arrangement that will promote moderation and productive co-existence with our non-Jewish minority? If you support population transfer, how do we accomplish this in a way that is both practical and ethically/morally justifiable? If you support some form of limited autonomy, how do you ensure it doesn’t become Apartheid and how do you convince the prospectively autonomous non-Jewish communities to accept this?

Those who want Two States need to explain how we address the anti-Semitic incitement that is all too intertwined with Palestinian resistance to our rule over them/our administration of them/our military occupation (take your pick how to characterize it)? How do we ensure that regional and international support for such a solution doesn’t prove fickle and leave our security situation even more compromised? How do we make sure that this truly enables the continuation of our de jure democracy and improves its de facto operation? How do we make sure we aren’t just pushing off the vexations of our marriage of nationalism and liberalism by manipulating a demographic situation that will remain in flux?

We need a real debate. We need a Zionist debate. We need the chutzpah of our forebear Zionists who decided, precedent be damned, to try to take Jewish history into their own fallible and fumbling hands, arrogantly, heroically, paradoxically at times and pragmatically at others, and steer this ship through inhospitable currents, currents that do not promise any future hospitality, towards a better place.

About the Author
Ori Weisberg is a writer, editor, and translator. He holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at academic institutions in the US and Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three very attractive children.