Zionism is Over

This is a guest post by Avi Goldblatt, an old school Hebrew stuck in a relatively young man’s body. He is a classical liberal (ie Conservative Republican) which makes him about as popular as transfats in a NYC restaurant and as rare in the Jewish community as women’s suffrage in Dar al-Islam. He can be reached here.

On October 20th, the American Zionist Movement, the regional affiliate of the World Zionist Organization convened a conference entitled Zionism: From Ideology to Action. The conference agenda featured speakers such as Ambassador Ido Aharoni (the Consul General of Israel in New York), Professor Gil Troy, Yossi Klein Halevi, several WZO/AZM officials, and more.

The conference was billed as “exploring” the “centrality of Israel in jewish life,” “loving and criticizing Israel,” and “telling Israel’s story our way.” Conference sessions are entitled Next Year In Jerusalem, Making Zionism Relevant Today, Zionist Theater, and more. Each of the sessions could be done by any pro-Israel organization (save for Zionist Theater – whatever that is), from the David Project to the Hasbara Fellowship there were a number of cutting edge organizations bringing Israel to the public. To understand the motivation of the somewhat obscure AZM, one need only look at the heading of the first email they sent promoting the event, “I’m Pro-Israel – Why the hell do you call me a Zionist?” 

Since at least the Second Intifada American Zionist organizations have been attempting to co-opt the pro-Israel movement and put it under their umbrella. They have failed. This is not to say that many of the employees and volunteers in organizations such as StandWithUs, AIPAC, and the Israel Project do not call themselves Zionist. It is to say that the self-identified Zionist organizations are not the innovative and engaging organizations on the Israel/American Jewish front. Indeed, even when it comes to programs that are less public relations and more direct Israel-to-participant focused such as Birthright and Massa, the Zionist organizations are junior partners or have been altogether bypassed.

This begs the question why? The answer is simply is that Zionism is over and everyone knows it. The unique socio-historical and political situation that existed in the early 1800’s to early 1900’s that motivated the authors of Auto-Emancipation and Der Judenstaat no longer apply. The suppositions of the Zionist forefathers (that generations Jewish leaders) have been superseded by unforeseen developments. Despite Herzl’s predictions, every Israeli leader’s please, and the efforts of Rav Kook Jr.’s Johnny-come-lately religious chalutzim – the Jewish of galus have not disappeared, have not made aliyah, anti-Semitism has not abated and the Moshiach come has not come from settling Yesha.

Zionism was built upon the ancient Jewish longing for the land of Israel but that ancient longing inherent in our prayers, Torah, and traditions is not synonymous with the 19th century nationalist movement which used it as a foundational element. Conflating the two is akin to positing that the foundation of a building is part of the business that rents the 50th floor. Just as there was a structure put in place for the business to exist that is separate from it, so to was there a rich Jewish history of ethno-cultural and national-religious identity that built up to, but is not synonymous, with Zionism.

Undoubtedly many knee-jerk “Zionists” will continue to use the Holocaust as vindication-by-guilt-trip. They fail to take into consideration that before and after the Shoah European Jews overwhelmingly chose traveling to the Golden Medina over building Medinate  Yisrael. Moreover, the entire Zionist theory of Israel as a safe haven for the Jews has been demonstrably false since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons. The argument that we must evacuate the ghettos into Israel to save the Jews has created the world largest Jewish target.

Equally undoubted is Israel’s ability to stand on its own two feet and defend its national interests without patronizing calls from galus communities, with no intention of aliyah, saying that they too are somehow part of the pre-state movement which built the State of Israel.  This specie of historically anachronistic front-running does the Jewish community a disservice by obscuring real issues.  How do we relate to a modern and strong Jewish State that sends money to galus communities while we send money to impoverished Israeli communities? How do we reconcile our belief in Israel as our homeland with the fact that the lions’ share of recent spiritual, cultural, and pedagogic Jewish innovation are products of the galus (Limmud, Moishe House, Chabad, AJWS, etc…)? How do we balance the need to use Israel to keep galus Jews Jewish with the desire to prevent Israel from becoming a country of Hebrew speaking goyim?

Making 20th century Zionism relevant is an impossible task because the questions the Zionist movement attempted to answer are different from those the Jewish community currently faces. The AZM and WZO will not stop the farce of the ahistoric never ending Zionist “movement” until the last donor dies, the State of Israel stops its support and ends the organizational inertia that has been sputtering these and like-minded organizations along for the last several decades. Israel and the galus Jewish community are part and parcel of the Jewish nation and the Jewish community should strive to ensure every Jew considers their self pro-Israel and that we continue to love, engage, identify and dialogue with the State of Israel.

Zionism should serve as a positive example to the Jewish community of what a small band of dedicated thinkers and doers were able to achieve. The Zionists challenged the cultural and historical tide by putting forth an explicit socio-political critique which, with their success at building Medinat Yisrael, should not trap us into re-answering dated questions but serve to inspire us to rise to answer the Jewish questions of our time.

13 thoughts on “Zionism is Over

  1. The problem here is that you are taking a 100-year-old definition of Zionism and claiming that anything that doesn’t meet that definition isn’t Zionism. This is ridiculous. Words evolve… particularly words about complex topics. It’s like saying Judaism is fundamentally different from what it was 100 years (or 2000 years) ago therefore Judaism is dead and everyone knows it.
    What it means to be a Zionist has evolved in pretty much every decade since the term was coined. This includes some radical changes in secular compared to religious Zionism. The fact that many people and successful organizations label themselves Zionist (regardless of how you define it) is a sign that Zionism is far from dead.
    You get at one real issue with, “It is to say that the self-identified Zionist organizations are not the innovative and engaging organizations on the Israel/American Jewish front,” but this has little to do with Zionism or Israel. Legacy Jewish (and non-Jewish) organizations are having trouble adapting with changing times. You do not explain why legacy Zionist organizations that are having trouble adapting is uniquely because they are Zionist.

  2. I second Dan’s critique – the definition of Zionism has certainly evolved. I look towards the work of Young Judaea in this regard. At their summer camps, the conversation is not so much about how we in gallus should be focused on Zion but on how we are forging a new, reciprocal relationship between gallus and Zion that is connected to land, culture, language, history, and, yes, religious life. In many ways, Gallus is sanctified alongside Zion. This is a new Zionism, for sure, but it is a good example of a legacy organization re-inventing itself.

  3. Dan & Dan the mistake you both make is that of historical revisionism, you can not unmake the definition of Zionism the same way one can not unmake the definition of what a suffragette is. Calling one Zionist today is akin to a female (or male) critical of the patriarchy today calling them self a suffragette. They may be a feminist, or philo-feminist, and are undoubtedly a supporter of women’s continued suffrage but calling one a suffragette would be incorrect as it arose in response to a specific set of socio-cultural and historical circumstances. The same with Zionism.
    Regarding Judaism, it is the conceptual box the Jewish people have traveled in – ie the religion of the Jews. The religion has changed but the claims of the tribe who have practiced it has not.Zionism was a political movement and was a response to a political problem, Judaism is the catchall for the practices of our tribe.
    PS I went to Young Judaea year round and camp and there was a major emphasis on aliyah as the ultimate zionist goal as well as a heavy dose of ameliorated versions of the Zionist thinkers writings. It’s where I began to read Jewish national thought. Glad to see Judaeans arguing about our national identity 🙂

  4. I agree with the train of conversation here, that American Jewry is moving away from “protection and preservation” as a motivational force towards “meaning and impact.” Zionism was about protecting Jews from harm, but now Avi is right to point out that protecting us from harm is (largely) accomplished. I can’t say that the legacy institutions have caught on yet, because they can’t seem to articulate what usefulness Israel/Zionism has in the lives of Jews who don’t need saving.
    I would argue that Israel could have tremendous, positive impacts on the world for the better. But it means looking beyond Israel as just an instrument of Jewish identity-building and more as an instrument of Jewish power in global Jewry’s toolbox for making the world a better, safer place for all peoples.
    I’ve seen younger Jews already asking questions along these lines: “What usefulness is Israel to global problems of poverty, inequality, and structural injustice? If it is useful, how do I participate in that project? Is my participation in that project the most effective use of my time and energy?” In that sense, yes, the definition Avi invokes is outmoded. God willing, both the establishment and the meaning of the movement will catch up to the times.

  5. @Avi, I am not unmaking the definition of Zionism. I’m saying that the definition of Zionism always meant different things to different people (safe haven, socialist utopia, anti-religious communist utopia, reaching the Messianic age, etc). There were, obviously, similarities, but as the status of Israel changed over the years, what people meant when they called themselves “Zionist” also changed, but they kept identifying with the term.
    The definition of a sufragette remained fixed because people stopped calling themselves sufragettes. Similarly the definition of Whigs was fixed. Republicanism also “arose in response to a specific set of socio-cultural and historical circumstances.” Those circumstances have changed a lot, but no one would say there aren’t Republicans today. There might be significant disagreement about what it means to be a Republican, but few would argue that because the circumstances underlying it’s initial founding are gone, the Republican party is dead.

  6. Dan Ab – So terms can mean anything anyone wants them to be? Doesn’t this means they are everything to everyone? And that nothing than has actual meaning?
    The Republican Party was founded as the liberty party, their roots go to an opposition to slavery. In fact an old slogan from around the founding of the party was “fee labor, free land, free people” which is not unlike the “free markets, free people” slogan used today by many in the party (free land was in reference to large monopolistic/oligarchical land owners turning everyone into what would become sharecroppers). One can argue (incorrectly I believe) that the GOP has gone of the derech (path) of liberty but one can not argue that in the mind of GOPers they (we) are arguing the same philosophical pov as the party was founded on.
    In the “Zionist movement” the philosophical critique has completely changed and every self proclaimed “Zionist”, yourself included, has admitted this. It’s has no relation to what the zionist forefathers of every type from Herzl, Kook, or Ben Gurion where positing. It doesn’t even try to answer the same questions because they are dated and make no sense in today’s world.

  7. I think anyone who self-identifies with a term has the right to say what that term means to them. Others have the right to tell the person they are misusing the term, but it takes a special type of person to tell a few million people that they are all misusing a term. Most widely used terms have some common agreements on the core meaning of the term, but some variation too. It’s not like Herzl, Kook, and Ben Gurion were in unity on how they viewed Zionism.
    By saying “in the mind of the GOPers” you seem to be taking the same position as me. The people who use the term today have their own definitions and their own understandings of how it fits with the historical meaning of the term. Even if a modern GOPers said the party’s philosophical point of view had changed (e.g. state’s rights vs federalism), would they be required to stop calling themselves Republican. Are Democrats not Democrats because they used to support slavery and now don’t?

  8. Majorities to do not make something right or wrong. Nor do poorly crafted points that make states right and federalism different things when they are in fact the same. Aside from the fact our system of a constitutional federal republic is predicated on the lions share of government taking place under the umbrella of the states the fact remains that Herzl, Kook, and Ben Gurion all believed all the Jews should make aliyah and that a Jewish State wold end anti-Semitism. This they all agreed upon and called Zionism. Now current day “Zionists” can only agree that the term has meaning and disagree on what that meaning might be.
    You miss an important qualitative difference in the GOP example. You want to continue misuse language by having people redefine Zionism and acknowledge that in this conceptual “zionist” wonderland today’s the present “Zionism” has little in common with yesterdays. But in the example of today’s GOP, the current Republicans posit that they are a continuation, not a revision, nor change, of the same philosophy since the parties founding.
    You are clearly stating Zionism changes its underlying philosophy, its aims, and MO while in the example the GOP is not.

  9. I’m very far from an expert in Kook’s writings, but where exactly did he write that a Jewish State would end anti-Semitism? For that matter, where did he write that the state his secular Zionist peers were envisioning would even provide Jews a unique amount physical safety. Would Kook have been happy with a Jewish state in Uganda? Like I said, I’m not an expert in this, but if these were Kook’s clearly stated those positions, feel free to educate me.
    In language, usage defines the meaning of words. No many how many times you repeat it, definitions of words aren’t inherently fixed by history.
    Taking a step back, I think you have a good point that some long-time Zionist organizations are having trouble figuring out how to be effective and resonate with people today. Others have adapted quite well and new ones, like Birthright, are thriving. If you stop fixating on what is or is not Zionist, there’s a lot to be examined on what mission changes kept organizations relevant.

  10. I would argue that Israel could have tremendous, positive impacts on the world for the better. But it means looking beyond Israel as just an instrument of Jewish identity-building and more as an instrument of Jewish power in global Jewry’s toolbox for making the world a better, safer place for all peoples.
    Beautifully put, KFJ.
    @Avi Godblatt
    You seem to be using the argument that I usually hear from black hat yeshiva students: Because the modern state of Israel has not developed in the exact manner advocated by Theodre Herzl 117 years ago, in one book, then therefore Zionism is dead.
    So, if you are defining Zionism as singularly the vision of Herzl, articulated in a book he wrote over a century ago, then you are correct in declaring Zionism dead.
    However, you might also want to consult your Conservative siddur, because there are not a small number of references to a return to Zion in the prayers therein. What would you call that: federalism?
    the fact remains that Herzl, Kook, and Ben Gurion all believed all the Jews should make aliyah and that a Jewish State wold end anti-Semitism.
    Really? Please provide relevant references.
    I would agree with you, though, that Zionism in its current carnation is dead or is dying, due to what has transpired in Gaza and the West Bank since 1967.

  11. Actually, women’s suffrage is quite common in Islamic countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh among the more populous ones. Thanks for outing yourself as a bigoted ignoramus in the first paragraph, sparing me from having to read the rest of this drivel.

  12. I did like Dan Ab comment ,yet stating that all jews are Pro Israel in my view is naiveas for Hebrew speaking Goyim in Israel that is also a narrow view and if living in Israel has taught me anything its that both the jews in the galut and jews in Israel have a desire to be affiliated and understand the differences coming from the distances of unaffiliated communities. And yes there are Hebrew Speaking Goyim in Israel and some of themeven speak Arabic…Yet Hebrew is the language read by Jews in the Galut many whom do not understand the words they read, yet the Hebrew speakers of Israel learn different languages and understand their heritage. Might I suggest you read in depth the Declaration of Independence the words of a David Green 1st PM.

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