Let’s talk about Zionism. Ever since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, when Theodor Herzl launched the concept of a homeland for the Jewish people, Zionism has met with criticism. There were those who labeled it a colonial movement, even though colonialism involves a large power making money and extracting raw materials from a colony under its control, a far cry from the struggles and poverty of the early Zionists. There was the infamous United Nations resolution of 1975 that branded Zionism as racism, a travesty spurred on by Yasir Arafat and not repealed until 1991. And just a few weeks ago, an article appeared in the Forward that linked Zionism and anti-Semitism. While it was aimed mostly at the extreme right, it maintained that, like anti-Semites who historically wanted to get rid of the Jews by sending them off to some distant place, Zionism posits that Jews need to live together as a majority in a single land and not spread themselves throughout the world.
But do any of these attacks reflect the true nature of Zionism? Certainly not. Like the Zionism of the earlier pioneers (“Lovers of Zion”), the Zionism that Herzl advocated had at its core the concept that Jews are a people, a nation, and not only a religion. To end the persecutions Jews had suffered in many countries through the ages, they needed to establish their own state. The intention was not to take anyone else’s space — the early Zionists paid for all the land they acquired from the Arabs. Nor was it to force all Jews to live in that state. The intention was to give Jews sovereignty in a country of their own, so that they would never again be overpowered by anti-Semitism. The most natural land for such sovereignty was the historic homeland of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel.
In his new novel “Judas,” Amos Oz portrays an idealistic character who had opposed establishing a Jewish state because he believed that Jews and Arabs could simply live together harmoniously without the “scourge” of nationalism. But the novel’s protagonist makes a counter-argument: Why should the Jews be “the single nation in the world who did not deserve a land of their own, a homeland, self-determination, be it only a small part of their ancestral land…?” And, he continues, even if, ideally, nationalism were to disappear in the future and a perfect stateless world become a reality, “at least so long as every nation had bars on its windows and bolts and locks on its doors, was it not also right that the Jewish nation should have a small house with bolts and bars, just like all the others?” Was this not especially true, he asks, after a third of the nation was slaughtered because they did not have a house “or a piece of territory of their own?”
Zionism offers Jews a house of their own for those who want to live in it and one that stands as a bastion of safety for all Jews.
A Zionist I admired and loved, Marlin Levin, said that living in Israel had been the right choice for him, but he made no judgment about others who chose to live elsewhere. Born in Harrisburg, Pa., he made aliyah with his wife Betty in 1947. He remained in the land for almost 70 years, until his death at 94 this past December. Betty is still there. A journalist, Marlin had worked for the Palestine Post, later the Jerusalem Post, before becoming Jerusalem’s Time-Life bureau chief. For my own research and with enormous generosity, he made his personal archives available to me — dispatches, letters, unpublished notes that trace his life and that of the state. On Feb. 1, 1948, he was in the Palestine Post office when it was car bombed and exploded in flames; he escaped death only because, coincidentally, he had changed his seat that night from his usual one opposite a window. After the U.N. partition of the land into Jewish and Arab states, the Arabs laid siege to Jerusalem and Marlin chronicled what it felt like to be thirsty and starving, “one bucket of water” a day per person and “an occasional sardine, a half loaf of bread, a few noodles.” He interviewed David Ben-Gurion before the Suez War of 1956, covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961 and reported on the Sadat-Begin meetings of 1977.
Marlin understood the complexities of Israeli-Arab relationships and longed for peace based on fairness for both sides. But he also lived a Zionist life because he believed that Jews had a claim to their land from their earliest history, and despite all the attacks against Zionism, and all the struggles of the Israelis themselves, the Zionist enterprise built a new and vital world for Jews everywhere.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her new biography of Golda Meir will be published in October.