Moises Salinas Fleitman

Reclaiming Zionism: Herzl´s Original Vision

Zionism is under attack both externally and internally. These threats have grown exponentially, particularly after the October 7th Hamas terrorist attacks and the war in Gaza. Externally, it is evidently challenged by groups that fail to understand its genesis and nature as a human rights movement and deem it a racist and even genocidal ideology. Internally, it is questioned by Jews who believe it has outlasted its purpose and that its vision is anachronistic to the 21st century. However, to reclaim Zionism and its original vision, we should make a brief analysis of its origin and evolution over the decades.

Herzl’s vision of Zionism was primarily set out in treatise form in his book Der Judenstaat and later in novel form in his book Altneuland (The New Old Land). I suppose that Herzl felt the need to write Altneuland since he understood that if he wanted to bring his project of self-determination of the Jewish people to the masses, it could not remain a social-political treatise but had to integrate intrigue, romance, and drama. The truth is that more than 120 years later, it is a fascinating book to read from a historical point of view, but if you want to read romance and intrigue, I would stick with the books by the Brontë sisters.

First of all, let us remember that Herzl sought the establishment of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state. He was extremely liberal, humanist, and secular, and for him, the idea was clear that the state had to be for the Jews as a nation and not as a religion. The state he envisioned was totally secular, with complete separation of religion and state. His vision also included many other elements that reflected his European modernist-liberal stance of the late 19th century. In his two books (as well as numerous times in his diaries), he speaks of the new state as one in which there will be social justice and democracy (he mentions, for example, a council of jurists), gender equality (he envisioned the right to vote for women before practically any Western country), progressive labor conditions (he even talks about a flag with seven stars symbolizing the 7-hour workday), art, culture, and cutting-edge technology, among others.

For Herzl, the new society had to be an exemplary society representing the most advanced of modern European humanism. But more importantly, Herzl believed that there would be a complete integration of the Arab population of Palestine, which at the time was only a province of the Ottoman Empire. He clearly did not see the Arab inhabitants as an obstacle to the realization of the Zionist dream. For example, one of Altneuland‘s political plots centers on an extremist rabbi’s (Rabbi Geyer) attempt to limit the rights of Arabs (which fails in a democratic election), and even one of the central characters, an Arab engineer named Rashid Bey, is one of the main leaders of the young state. Herzl, a faithful representative of the European modernist vision, thought that the Arabs would be extremely happy and grateful to their Jewish neighbors for bringing the “modern world” to the undeveloped Middle East and improving their economic situation (the visionary was delusional). But Herzl’s main point is that the objective of Zionism, at least in his vision, was not merely to establish a state for the Jews but to establish an exemplary state that would be a benchmark of inclusion and modernity for the nations of the world.

The Three Stages of Zionism

However, beyond his vision, in the pragmatism of reality, it was necessary to aspire to the more “modest” goal of simply starting with establishing a state. With this in mind, at the first Zionist Congress in 1897, the “Basel Program” was adopted, which would serve as a roadmap for the establishment of the State of Israel.

This program centered on laying the legal and practical foundation for the establishment of a state, from buying the land and building infrastructure to attracting Jewish immigration. Together with all the plans and projects that derived from it, it was quite successful in laying the foundations for the creation of a state. In 1948, Israel’s independence was finally declared, reaching the culmination of the aspirations of the Basel Program. But the work of Zionism was not finished. In a second stage, it was necessary to consolidate the young state by, among other things, attracting immigration (Aliyah) and building the infrastructure of national institutions. That is why at the 23rd Zionist Congress in 1951 in Jerusalem, a new roadmap was adopted, the “Jerusalem Program.” This first Jerusalem Program focused on the promotion and absorption of immigration, attracting funds and investment for infrastructure, education, and international political and public diplomacy.

It was also during this second stage that the global relationship towards Zionism changed radically. Until the Six-Day War in 1967, Zionism was largely perceived as a human rights movement, a liberation movement, a progressive movement (many socialists saw Israel as a model and particularly the kibbutz as a great achievement of applied socialism). But after the war, perceptions changed radically, and Zionism came to be condemned as imperialist, colonialist, and racist. Even the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism and discrimination (although this was later revoked in 1991).

Towards the end of the 20th century, once again, an important paradigm shift occurred. After the mass Aliyah of Jews from the former Soviet bloc countries in the 1990s, there were no longer vulnerable Jewish communities left in significant numbers. Today, the large Jewish communities of the diaspora are in North America or Western Europe, developed and democratic countries from which it is unrealistic to expect large waves of migration. Additionally, Israel was no longer an underdeveloped state with significant social or infrastructure deficiencies. On the contrary, by the late 1990s, with the technological revolution, Israel became “the startup nation” and surpassed the per capita gross domestic product and social well-being of many European countries. Also, the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, as well as geopolitical and regional changes, made the existential military threat against Israel much more remote. And finally, both inside and outside Israel, a movement began to grow called Post-Zionism, which questioned the contemporary relevance of the Zionist movement and considered it obsolete and anachronistic. All these factors taken together forced the movement to rethink the objectives and goals of the Zionist movement to keep it relevant. To that end, once again, the World Zionist Organization revised its roadmap and adopted the 2004 Jerusalem Program. Unlike the 1953 program, this second iteration focused on more intangible issues like the unity of the Jewish people, the promotion of Jewish education, the strengthening of Israel as a Jewish-Zionist and democratic state, and most importantly, its modeling as an exemplary society.

As we can see in these three versions of the Zionist movement’s roadmap, its central focus has changed significantly throughout its more than twelve decades of existence. From its founding in 1897 to Israel’s independence in 1948, the central objective was clear and concrete: the creation of the state. From 1948 until the end of the 20th century, the movement’s objective was less focused but no less important: the consolidation of the state through the immigration of the Jewish diaspora and the construction of national institutions. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, with a strong state and a much less vulnerable diaspora, it becomes more complex to redefine the purpose of Zionism in the post-modern era. However, in my opinion, the key to the continued relevance (and frankly survival) of the Zionist movement can be found both in Herzl’s original vision and in the third clause of the 2004 Jerusalem Program:

  • The strengthening of Israel as a Jewish-Zionist and democratic state and its modeling as an exemplary society possessing a unique moral and spiritual character based on the mutual respect of the multifaceted Jewish people and on the prophetic vision that aspires to peace and contributes to the betterment of the world.

Therefore, we can clearly divide the history of Zionism into three qualitatively distinct stages: The first from 1897 to 1948 with its focus on the creation of the state, or as we will call it in Hebrew Hakamat Hamedina. The second from 1948 to the end of the 20th century with its focus on national consolidation and the attraction of immigration for the gathering of diasporas, or in Hebrew Kibbutz Galuyot. And finally, from the beginning of the 21st century until today, where the purpose must be the construction of the Model State based on the values of Herzl’s vision, will be the stage of Medina LeMofet.

Why do I argue that Zionism’s continued relevance into the 21st century depends on shifting its focus to this purpose of building an Exemplary State? It’s very simple. Not only is it necessary for the Zionist movement to have a clear, coherent purpose to be attractive to new generations, but it is instrumental so we can reclaim its purpose as a human rights and self-determination movement.

The 21st century is historically marked by postmodernism, a movement that questions the basic principles of modernism from which the Zionist ideology originally started. I am not going to do an analysis of postmodernism (we leave that to the philosophers) beyond mentioning that it is characterized by a skeptical and relativist vision of reality and a questioning of social and cultural norms and ideologies. In practice, phenomena such as globalization, cultural diversity, the questioning of nationalisms, post-colonialism, and intersectionality, which significantly influence the ideas and beliefs of young generations, are aligned with postmodernism.

Let’s put it another way. According to Forbes magazine, the predominant values among the new generations of Millennials and Centennials (young people born after the eighties) are pragmatism, diversity, skepticism, personal entrepreneurship, collaboration, care for the environment, and social justice. Given the decline in the perception of Israel in the world, it is no coincidence that young Jews are increasingly distant from it and Zionism. For example, a Pew Center study found that the level of identification with Israel has fallen dramatically among young American Jews: in 2020, only 48% of people ages 18 to 29 reported having an emotional connection to Israel compared to 60% in 2013.

The vision of the new generations is not an idealistic vision but a pragmatic vision, and Zionism must align itself with this vision if it wants to remain relevant for them.

21st century Zionism must, first of all, be honest and transparent, recognize Israel’s failings, and be open to constructive criticism. It must integrate a diverse and open vision: to different religious branches of Judaism, political currents, and social movements. It must reject nationalism and embrace and value social justice and diversity; gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origins. And above all, it must emphasize Israel’s strengths such as democracy, inclusiveness, entrepreneurship, technology, and sustainable development. In my opinion, it must put Herzl’s original vision of an exemplary state with social justice, peace, and equity back at the center. Only then can we reclaim Zionism and argue that it remains valid and relevant in the digital and globalized society of the 21st century.

About the Author
Moises Salinas Fleitman is Rector of ORT University México and former Chief Diversity Officer at CCSU. He has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and is recipient of the Herzl Award by the World Zionist Organization in 2004. Former president of the Hartford, Connecticut Zionist Federation and president of Partners for Progressive Israel. Today he is vice president of the Zionist Council of Mexico. Author of numerous books and articles including "Planting Hatred, Sowing Pain: The Psychology of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict" (Greenwood/Prager) and "Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Perspectives on the Peace Process" (Cambria Press).
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