Word Crimes

Zionism is a more contested than understood phenomenon–a portent of disorder for some, a badge of honor for others. Those enthralled by the notion of Jews seizing control of their political and historical fate are matched by others inflamed by the idea of Zionism as simply another form of colonialism designed to embezzle resources and freedom from the rightful owners of the land of Israel. While some see Israel’s founding in 1948 as proof of Zionism’s unqualified success, others view it as part of a new form of Western hegemony depriving a people of its national rights. On the one side is a romantic belief in what Zionism presumably achieved while on the other what it purportedly destroyed.

Because nothing about Zionism belongs to the settled historical past, it is readily available for fiery arguments over developments unfolding in the present. Most recently, Zionism has weighed heavily over debates about proposed legislation defining Israel’s national identity as if a country’s collective character could be trundled into existence through a law. You don’t need to look far to find examples pronouncing the death of Israeli democracy if the proposed national identity law is passed–many proclaiming the mere desire to craft a bill on such a subject a symptom of the mutation of Zionism into chauvinism and religious extremism. It is worth recalling that if proclamations could produce a national identity, most Israelis would be living in accordance with an ethic that matched the egalitarian vision set forth by the country’s Labor Zionist founders who believed that moving to Palestine lifted Jews up to the possibility of a new kind of solidarity, moral development, and power to shape their destiny.

For by the time, Jews had founded their state in 1948, they already had a historical narrative that presumed to explain not only their Zionist past but also the direction of their national future. In the transition from dispersion to ingathering and from powerlessness to power, Israel’s founders were convinced they were remaking a nation and culture as well as creating a new kind of social order without hierarchy, without exploitation, and with justice and equality for all.

The images so indelibly inscribed in the conventional histories of Israel’s founding tend to confirm the notion that a Jewish nation was remade and a new collective identity formed. A land with no natural resources claimed by a movement possessing too little capital for the tasks it undertook, Israel seems to have been established by a collective act of will. Zionist leaders pushed this notion to its extreme by presenting the agricultural collectives [Kibbutzim]—never encompassing more than a tiny percentage of Israel’s population [under one percent in some years]—as emblematic of the Jewish National Home. These communities were presumably bound together by a shared commitment to the principles of freedom, love of the land, physical labor, and of revitalizing the Hebrew language—all seemingly accomplished by sheer will.

Aiming to transform the structure of Jewish life without totally detaching it from its history and from many of its traditions, Zionism looked simultaneously backward and forward. Preaching rebellion as much against the shackling of Jews by alien rulers as by the agents of Jewish religion, Zionists argued that independence would liberate Jews from the rule of rabbis no less than from that of the Czar, the police, and from that most timeless instrument of persecution—the mob. Religiously observant Jews could not help but feel discomfort with the radical transformative vision projected in classical Zionist discourse until they found their own spiritually inflected redemptive message in the vast territorial changes following the June War in 1967.

Zionist and Israeli leaders may have wanted to remake the Jewish people and produce a new kind of social and cultural order, but a disjunction always persisted between national claims and national realities. Jews who lived outside of Palestine embraced Zionism and its vision of a national home as an abstract ideal. In Palestine, Jewish immigrants understood the national home as an assortment of institutions shaping their lives. In Europe, Zionists could picture the future Jewish society; in Palestine, their daily activities formed it. The differences were profound. Israel’s founders conceived of their mission as simultaneously safeguarding a nation and deconstructing it by casting its human raw material into a fundamentally new form. But it was one thing to imagine physical labor as fulfilling and quite another to experience it. It turned out to be much easier to believe in equality than to live a totally communal life with no separation between the public and the private. And it was much more appealing in theory to do away with religion than to live, in practice, without the warmth of family and synagogue rituals and holidays.

Although Zionists frequently asserted that the new Jewish society in the land of Israel was being fashioned in accordance with their beliefs and not molded by the customs and habits acquired in the countries of their birth, cultural configurations are not transcribed literally from visions, and societies are not founded without the imprint of earlier traditions. The call to fashion a new national identity is more easily issued than actually summoned into existence.

Thus could Zionism not proclaim its mission accomplished when Israel was founded in 1948. Nor could Jewish sovereignty render Zionism irrelevant. And while the establishment of a state in 1948 did not totally complete the Zionist mission, it certainly began to recast it. Zionism’s visions were once defined as markers of social change. Today they provide one of the several signs of assimilation and of the intention to integrate into Israeli society. Zionism once aimed to change the Jewish people. Today, the Jewish people, across the globe, have changed Zionism blending it with religious values and imperatives into a cultural touchstone for Israel. Once Judaism stalked the very definition of Zionist culture; now it invigorates it and helps produce a more coherent set of shared values for Israeli society. Once called on to shed the customs they carried or inherited from the lands of their dispersion, Israelis are now encouraged to preserve them making culture, with its Zionist imprint, an ever more potent political force.

Zionism has been reformatted to fit the times and circumstances. Zionism still provides Israelis with the best version of themselves as tribunes of the oppressed and endangered. But though seeped in a culture of purpose, Israelis also embrace Zionism as a national creed for other reasons as well. Because Israelis see their national identity as a political construct, they have come to view the process of constructing it as one of the central tasks of their politics. National identity not only makes a difference in map- making but also in the distribution of power and resources. Giving expression to a national identity is intended to show people how their interests are best served and how they fit into the larger society where they reside. A reconfigured Zionism may reflect some of the deep divisions of ethnicity and values in Israel, but it also expands the common ground available for new forms of solidarity.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government, emerita at Smith College. She has written books and articles on Middle East culture and politics. Among her most recent is EXILED IN THE HOMELAND: ZIONISM AND MANDATE PALESTINE.
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