The gut-wrenching split between Israel and the bulk of world Jewry over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to renege on his promise to implement pluralistic prayer arrangements at the holiest of Jewish sites, the Western Wall, and about the authority to conduct conversions, is not just another spat over the definition of Judaism. It is first and foremost about the meaning of Zionism and its future, and therefore touches on the core of the contemporary Jewish experience.
The nationalist Zionism represented by the current Netanyahu government has deep messianic roots. It diverges dramatically from the patriotic Zionism (still embraced by many Israelis and subscribed to by most Jews elsewhere) embedded in the universalistic and Jewish tradition as ensconced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The abandonment of the liberal elements of traditional mainstream Zionism plays directly into the hands of those who question the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise in its entirety.
Nationalism, according to Timothy Snyder in his powerful new pamphlet, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), differs markedly from patriotism. “A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best.” Nationalists prey on power, success, defeat and resentment; they do not come to terms, because of their relativism, with the challenges of the real world, nor are they driven by a value-based vision that they seek to fulfill. For the past few decades, Israeli leaders have magnified nationalist propensities and honed a new definition of Zionism that is slowly supplanting key tenets of the Jewish intellectual and moral tradition.
Contemporary Zionist nationalism — with all its messianic fervor — has become synonymous with a narrow, ethnically-rooted and religiously-based view of the universe, dividing it neatly between enemies (whether real or potential) and friends. Constantly on the defensive, nationalists have distilled the purpose of the Israeli enterprise into one word: survival. This objective explains not only security directives and the continued rule over millions of Palestinians, it also guides domestic policy. Criticism and dissent are depicted as nothing short of betrayal and their spokespeople are hounded, discredited and consistently harassed.
In this worldview, diversity, by its very nature, undercuts the quest for uniformity, which has come to replace a social solidarity that acted in the past as the critical adhesive that supported unity. In this context, appeals to religious orthodoxy have become critical to cementing both power positions and a monolithic mindset. Nothing demonstrates these propensities more forcefully than the latest constraints on pluralistic prayer and conversion.
Binyamin Netanyahu, backed by his partners (and sometime competitors) in the coalition and within his own party, has unabashedly promoted nationalist fervor particularly when he senses threats to his political durability. When he does so, however, he contributes directly to the further alienation not only of many Israeli citizens, but also of the majority of world Jewry, which has thrived in democratic settings since before the creation of the State of Israel. These Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Liberal and secular Jews firmly believe that liberal values are an integral part of their Jewish identity. They identified with Israel in the past because they truly believed that it embodied this liberal and democratic worldview and will continue to do as long as it does precisely that.
These are the present-day Zionist patriots. They want Israel to live up to its ideals and be the best that it possibly can. In Snyder’s words, “A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well — and wishing that it would do better.”
Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are basic civil rights in established democracies. These liberties are part of individual rights — such as freedom of speech, of association, of dissent — which are the backbone of robust democratic societies. These fundamental rights — along with a staunch belief in equality, justice and tolerance for the other — have enabled Jews to develop and flourish over the years (just as their absence has wrought untold horrors on Jews and other minorities). They have allowed Israel, in all its heterogeneity, to achieve incredible accomplishments during its short history.
This record, however, cannot be sustained if the values at its base are allowed to wither away or are purposefully ignored by those at the helm. Patriotic Zionism is at risk. Jews in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and much of Europe live in a dissonance that forces them, too frequently, to choose between their values and an Israel which diverges from these norms. Younger Jews — removed from the memories of the Holocaust — find it increasingly difficult to identify with the nationalist Zionism of official Israel.
They, in particular, are constantly exposed to voices that define Zionism today in colonialist terms. Anti-Zionist sentiments have been fueled for decades by Israel’s continued rule over the Palestinians against their will. The ongoing occupation, as many Zionist patriots maintain, is anti-democratic by definition. It flies in the face of liberal values and truly threatens the existence of Israel. But many Jews outside of the country, especially when they see their own Jewishness questioned and belittled by Israeli authorities, have little incentive to engage in the struggle to better their second homeland.
Mercifully, some still care enough about the Israel envisaged by the founders of the state to continue their involvement. They, together with Zionist patriots within Israel, are determined to revive the vision of a decent Israel that treats all its citizens equally and they work towards making this goal a reality. That is why they continue to champion religious pluralism here. This is also why they understand that these issues cannot be divorced from matters related to the ongoing occupation nor from the multi-faceted struggle to defy efforts to close democratic spaces within the country.
Zionist patriotism is the only workable, moral and Jewish response to both Zionist nationalism and Zionist detractors. It’s not just about religion; it’s about what Israel can and should be. Ultra-nationalism has repeatedly wrought democratic failure and political collapse; only patriots willing to fight for human freedom can prevent it from happening here.