This blog has been submitted as part of a wider campaign, which is being run by the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) entitled “Theodor & I – Zionism and Young European Jews”. Being launched on Yom Haatzmaut, the campaign seeks to start a discussion on Zionism, towards challenging the existing conversation surrounding the concept and ultimately highlighting the plurality of Jewish European identity and Zionism.
“Don’t enjoy it too much, we want you back in Austria.” This was one of the last sentences our parents told us at the airport, before we passed the check-in barrier and boarded our plane to Israel, where we would spend a whole year on “Shnat Hachshara”. We are Samy and Willi, both raised in Vienna. We spent several years in school together, but above all we grew up in the same youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. Last year, we were honored to work as the Shlichim of the Ken in Vienna, which means that we were responsible for the education and well-being of almost 100 Jewish youngsters on a weekly basis and also took 40 of our members to a three week long trip to Israel last summer, which for many is their first interaction with Israel and therefore a crucial moment in their education.
The fact that we had a decisive role in organizing and making the trip for our Chanichim*ot put us in front of a dilemma. Since we grew up in the European Movement we knew that it succeeded in shaping our loving bond to Israel over the years, but what also was clear to us, after spending a year in Israel, was that the education we received in general wasn’t sufficient in providing young Jews with the tools necessary to critically deal with the complex situation on the ground. The main thing that we learned, engaging with Israeli society and its conflicts for a year, was that Israel is an unfinished project with broken parts which needs repairing, and we could help fix what’s wrong. As socialist-zionist Jews there are two other central principles which are crucial for our personal understanding of Zionism:
– Firstly, we believe in “Tikun Adam – Tikun Olam” which means that as we are improving ourselves and our surroundings, we are also helping to change the world.
– Secondly, Zionism needs to be in solidarity with all other people’s struggles for justice and freedom, if it wants to be a movement for liberation, most importantly this means being in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
The importance of the latter point is underlined by a dilemma Theodor Herzl himself encountered a century ago, namely the importance of keeping a Jewish majority, in order to keep Israel democratic and Jewish. Although it’s an understatement to say that the situation in Israel is highly complex, the options the future holds for us, depending on our actions, are simple and clear: 1) Israel remains Jewish and Democratic, which means the Palestinians have a state of their own next to ours. 2) Israel will annex the West-Bank and must refuse millions of Palestinians the right to vote to keep the Jewish majority in power and thus Democracy dies. 3) Israel will annex the West-Bank and give all citizens equal democratic rights in which case Zionism dies.
“Those who see Zionism as an invitation to supremacist ideologies are, to me, not only morally repugnant but strategically short-sighted, without a coherent vision for the long-term sustainability of Jewish self-determination. It seems they are not really concerned with the liberation of the Jewish people at all.” (Daniel Roth. 2014) Israel is the center of Jewish life around the world, which doesn’t mean it’s more important than other Jewish communities, but it rather means that Israel’s actions, positive or negative, affect us all, we the Diaspora sustain Israel politically and economically, therefore we should have a say in Israel’s future as well! Critical Socialist-Zionist education must be at the forefront of the fight for a better Israel, because it can provide us with critical tools needed to better understand the contradictions and complexities surrounding the issue.
As Europeans we know from our own history that even after centuries of destructive war and hate, we the people, can still come together with our neighbors and form a peaceful partnership for a better future. That can also happen in Israel and Palestine. For us personally we can say that we won’t be willing to morally support an undemocratic Israel, because it would contradict our highest moral value, that people are equal and deserve equal rights. Therefore, we must act now and do everything in our power to fight for the Israel we love, a democratic one and not be afraid to critically challenge ourselves. We can learn a lot from the past of the Zionist movement, but our actions now and in the future are the ones that matter and determine if the Zionist project can succeed as a movement for liberation and how we will eventually view ourselves in history.
This piece was co-authored by William Elgan.
William is 24 years old, from Vienna, a political science student, former Madrich in Hashomer Hatzair and former Shaliach Hashomer Hatzair Vienna.