Terra incognita: Can Israel learn from pre-Zionism?

The opinions expressed on this webpage represent those of the individual authors and, unless clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of TBS

Terra incognita: Can Israel learn from pre-Zionism?

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN  06/17/2014

One of the problems with contemporary Zionism is that it is burdened by the past.

Zionist rally 521

Zionist rally 521 Photo: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

A recent article in an Israeli newspaper claimed that “Zionism is out of fashion in New Zealand.” A website called Jwire in Australia claimed that Zionism had become a “dirty word” among Kiwis. Actually Googling “Zionism dirty word” brings up dozens of articles. One writer claims that “identifying with Zionism is seen as identifying with occupation and Israel’s policies.”

The 92nd Street Y in New York even hosted a session in 2009 with this eponymous title.

An announcement pondered, “How did Zionism, which originated as the national aspiration of the Jewish people, end up being so misunderstood, so mischaracterized and lamented throughout the world?” Alongside the argument that Zionism is somehow tainted exist the concurrent movements “post-Zionism” and “anti-Zionism.”

In a 1998 article in the The Annals of the American academy of political and social sciences Hebert Kelman proposed that since the original goals of Zionism had been met, that a post-Zionist Israel would, “while maintaining a Jewish character and special relationship” to the Diaspora, “focus on advancing the interests of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity.” Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, writing as part of a series titled “Liberal Zionists speak out,” argued basically the same point, saying the post-Zionist “challenge is to become a truly liberal democratic country of all its citizens and work toward peace with a homeland for the Palestinian people in Palestine.”

While post-Zionism embraces more a fuzzy concept of turning Israel into a sort of liberal post-national state, with its supporters looking to Europe as a model, the anti-Zionist sees Zionism as one of the main threats to the world, and believes the Palestinians are a sort of chosen people. Gandhi wrote in 1938, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense England belongs to the English.”

In a sense anti-Zionism is Arab nationalism, but expressed among some Jewish critics it becomes something more strange: a Zionism of the Diaspora that posits that only in the Diaspora are Jews truly Jewish, sort of like the old Catholic concept (abrogated by Nostra Aetate in 1965) that Jews were “cursed” to be in exile.

In contrast to these concepts Zionism soldiers on, burdened, like Samson, by the hardships of years of struggle. (It is not a surprise that Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, once wrote a book about Samson, that quintessential un-Jewish Jewish biblical hero and one who is unsurprisingly considered a problematic figure both in Orthodox and secular circles).

The answer many offer to this parable of Zionism struggling against its illegitimate intellectual offspring of anti- and post-Zionism is to offer more Zionism. It is like giving a coughing patient more medicine in the hope that somehow another dose of something only marginally effective will prove effective.

Maybe it is time for a new theoretical paradigm.

Let’s look to pre-Zionism, in much the same way that the Roman commander Camillus looked to his sword after the sack of Rome in the 4th century BCE. “Not gold but steel redeems the native land,” he is reputed to have said. Gold in this case being the trappings of using current models to inspire.

Pre-Zionism is interesting because it allows for a return to the sources that were the roots of Zionism, the “steel.”

One of the problems with contemporary Zionism is that it is burdened by the past.

Many aspects of Israeli society have gotten tied up with “Zionism” so that to be a Zionist one is supposed to support them without asking too many questions. This manifests itself in numerous ways.

CONSIDER THE outrageous housing prices.

If you ask too many questions about the method of planning and housing in Israel you are said to be trampling on Zionist sacred cows. For instance if you wonder why it is that the 98 percent of the Negev is government- owned land, you hear that this is necessary to complete the “Zionist mission” of “making the desert bloom.”

Supposedly, every Jew who wants to live in the Negev must live in some dingy, overpriced apartment in some “development town” because the government has “plans” for the rest of the Negev. Except that isn’t true. If you propose privatizing the Negev, the refrain is “but that isn’t Zionist, and the Arabs will buy the land.”

What is the pre-Zionist view? Pre-Zionism saw the Negev as part of the Land of Israel, but without the planning concepts that decide that the only way for people to live in the Negev is for almost all of them to live in apartments. Why can’t a Jew live in a single- family home, a home by itself, on some private land? That isn’t “Zionist,” we are told.

But pre-Zionist Jews, who survived as Jews in the Diaspora for 2,000 years, didn’t need planning and apartment complexes to survive.

Only in Israel are Jews forced, almost entirely, to live in apartments. Think about it: Was it Zionism that dictated that the “Jewish” way of life was an apartment? Or was it socialism, which was grafted onto Zionism; one of many burdens it was forced to support.

Other state “systems” that are taken for granted are tied up with the state-centric nature of Zionism. The rabbinate, which aggrandized its power over marriage and conversions in a way that has nothing to do with Judaism, is loathed but also seen as inseparable from the state. Remove the rabbinate, and the state loses a key part of its identity. Pre-Zionist Judaism never had a rabbinate.

And this leads to the related oddity in Israel of the different streams of schooling for Jews and Arabs. What is Zionist about Jews going to Jewish schools and Arabs to Arab schools, so that two peoples living in the same country barely meet one another? The answer is that Zionism didn’t really decide that, Labor Zionism did, in the 1950s.

Post-Zionism would posit that the problem is one of “a country for all its citizens,” but as far as one can tell, this doesn’t envision any sort of de-balkanization of the school system.

Let’s be honest, Arabs from Jisr al-Zarqa aren’t going to be going to a kibbutz high school anytime soon. But pre-Zionist Judaism never had such odd prejudices.

Zionist Jewish youth movements, ostensibly on the Left, that come from abroad preach more of the same, except with a lefty “let’s help the Arabs” face. But there is no reason to perpetuate an education system that is so blatantly ossified. Yet, any attempt to ask why this system still exists is met with the theory that it is “anti-Zionist” to ponder this question.

Maybe it isn’t anti-Zionist, maybe it is just pre-Zionist. One can be Zionist and also accept the fact that a school would not be 100 percent homogenous. Army service, education, housing, the economy; too much of Israel is predicated on a war of words about what is “Zionist” and what is “non-Zionist.”

What it means to be Zionist is often narrowly tailored to exclusivity because of a lack of reverence of the history of the Jews before Zionism. For instance, many on the Left in the Diaspora and in Israel are enamored of the Israeli writer Ari Shavit, who wrote recently of Jerusalem: “The battle for Jerusalem: Haredi students account for 39 percent, Arab students for 37 percent of the capital’s children. Zionists account for only 24 percent.”

This is the “Zio-nonsense” rhetoric of a false Zionism wrapped in Zionist labels that throws two-thirds of the citizens of the capital city off the bus because they didn’t meet his “Zionist” criteria.

I’d like to imagine a return to a pre-Zionism that embraces the capital city, and according to which Jews or Arab citizens can live in a diverse, multi-cultural city freely, whether religious or secular. According to which this wouldn’t mean the “battle” had been lost.

Let’s discover Zionism’s real roots by looking to pre-Zionism, looking to Judaism, in its diversity, looking to the Middle East and its diversity, and looking to values of equality and civil rights as well. Zionism can be a goal; not a fossil civilization. That is what the story of Samson teaches also: be willing to challenge received wisdom.