Thinking About Reform Jewish Zionism
In the mid-1990s, both of my children participated in the NFTY Summer in Israel program; my son as a bus counselor and my daughter as a student. It must be stated from the outset that the program is an extraordinary experience: well organized, spirited, informative, an altogether powerful source of connection between Reform Jewish teenagers and the Jewish State and its land. In both years that each of my children attended, there was one problem, since corrected. Except for a visit to the Reform Jewish kibbutzim of Yahel and Lotan, the program had virtually no connection with Reform Judaism in Israel. For example, students had a non-programmed Shabbat in Jerusalem, for which their counselors might have taken them to the Wall, or Heichal Shlomo, the synagogue of Israel’s Chief Rabbi. It did not occur to them, nor were they encouraged to go to the Reform synagogues of Kol Hanishama, Har El or the chapel at Hebrew Union College.
This situation bespoke a condition regarding North American Reform Judaism and Israel that persists to this day. It is the disconnect between their understanding of being Jewish and their approach to the Jewish State.
Reform Jews are as involved with Israel as any other Jewish population in North America. The NFTY Summer in Israel, before the outbreak of current spate of violence, has been the largest single youth program bringing students to Israel in a summer. In the last two World Zionist Congress elections, the ARZA slate has collected a significant plurality-47% and 42%-of the total U.S. vote. Reform Jews do indeed care for Israel as much any American Jew, but what are the points of connection?
For the most part, their connection is divided into two parts: social-psychological and institutional. Reform Jews express identification with Israel for the classic Zionist reasons of oneness with all Jews and solidarity with those who chose to settle in and maintain the historic land of our ancestors. Israel is therefore the place where Abraham wandered, Jacob and his children tended to their flocks. Where Solomon built the Temple, and the classic rabbis produced the Mishna. And where Jews began returning toward the end of the nineteenth century in order to drain swamps, and, in the words of the classic slogan, “went to build and be built.” Reform Jews identify with Israel in its historical context, as would most any other Jew, religious or secular.
The second connection is specifically through ARZA (The Association of Reform Zionists of America) as the formal instrumentality for support of Reform Jewish institutions, both economically and politically. In a land where the official establishment is Orthodox, Reform Judaism institutionally must fight for basic recognition. Thus, Reform Jews’ care for Israel is in pressing for a society where the institution of Reform Judaism might have a reasonable opportunity to take root and develop.
All of this is laudable, but the fundamental disconnect remains. In what way does being a Reform Jew actually inform our attitude, understanding and support for Israel? How may Reform Jews identify with Israel that is not merely secular (social and historical), or as a struggle to develop its institutions within the political context of the Jewish State. What, at its heart, is Reform Zionism?
Reform Judaism versus Zionism
“We are all Zionists.” This was the title of an essay written in the 1970s, by Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary. Within the boundaries of its own definitions, the claim was (and is) true enough. Following the wars of 1967 and 1973, both of which contained moments when it was reasonable to fear that Israel’s very being was being held in the balance, principled opposition on the part of American Jews toward the existence of the Jewish State, had essentially disappeared. The proclamation of near universal Zionism within the American Jewish community by 1975, however, also reinforced the fact that at an earlier time, the Zionist enterprise was very controversial. Indeed, for most of the first half of the twentieth century, being an American Zionist was more the exception than the rule.
Reform Judaism’s early opposition to Zionism is well known. “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine.nor the restoration of the laws concerning the Jewish State.” This is formal declaration of the nascent American Reform Movement in its 1885 Statement of Principles, the first Pittsburgh Platform. When rabbis gathered again in 1937, to re-articulate their position with The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism, or the Columbus Platform, the attitude had changed dramatically: “[Judaism]is the soul of which Israel is the body.In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”[i]
The change of direction was hardly sudden. Cracks in the ideology of 1885 had been forming for decades. Indeed, when one wishes to call to mind the foremost proponents of Zionism among American Jews of the first part of the century, three rabbis are often recited: Stephen S. Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, and Judah Magnes. All of them were firmly within the Reform Movement.
On the other hand, the statement made in 1937, or the more explicitly anti-anti-Zionist resolutions made at subsequent CCAR (association of Reform rabbis) Conventions[ii], hardly meant that opposition to Zionism within Reform Judaism had come to an end. The struggle of this half-century, moreover, was not merely political-the effort of one camp to gain the upper hand over another. It was also the emotional and philosophical struggle of Reform itself, a conflict that often would occur within oneself. Understanding the opposing impulses and values inherent in this battle is important, not only for the light it sheds on this period of history, but more for the light it sheds on our efforts to construct a Reform Jewish Zionism today.
Let us return to 1885. Theodore Herzl was an obscure Austrian journalist. While groups of mostly Romanian Jews had already immigrated to Palestine and established communities such as Petah Tikva, the first formally organized Aliyah (immigration to the land of Israel) was still a few years off. It would be another twelve years before the first World Zionist Congress is convened. The rabbis who gathered in Pittsburgh were hardly reacting to a Zionist Movement as it would come to be. Their concern rather was conventional Jewish tradition, such as expressed in a portion of a daily morning prayer: “Gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and lead us to fulfillment in our Land.”
The Reformers in Pittsburgh were reacting against the centuries-old principle of Judaism that viewed the restoration of the Jewish national polity in the land of Israel, with a rebuilt Temple and priestly service, as a fundamental hope and expectation for the future. Thus, the Platform makes clear its opposition to “the restoration of the laws concerning the Jewish State.” This is not the Zionism of the First Aliyah, but the theological Zionism of redemption.
We should note that the proponents of redemptive Zionism, the Orthodox world of the late nineteenth century, were also fiercely opposed to the Zionism that would animate Herzl and his followers. Their opposition was twofold. They felt that the return to Zion would be brought about by a divine act, not the project of settlement and development proposed by the Zionists. Further, they strenuously objected to a Jewish movement in the land of Israel that envisioned a modern society so at odds with traditional (Torah-based) thought and practice.
Thus, at the turn of the century, we have these three fundamental approaches to being a Jew in the contemporary world: Reform, Orthodox, and Zionist. Reform and Orthodoxy are religious articulations of Jewishness, while Zionism is secular. Zionists and Orthodox essentially believe that Jews should not or cannot be assimilated into the larger society, while Reform feel that this is both possible and necessary. Reform and Zionism hold to a positive and progressive role for Jews in history, while Orthodoxy is mostly reactionary. All three claim to be the key for continued Jewish survival.
Now, a hundred years later, the compatible elements of the three philosophies have permitted certain convergences. Reform and Orthodox Judaism have made peace with Zionism, each in its own way. In turn, the fully secular approach to Zionism, either in Israel or in the diaspora, has been relegated to an increasingly smaller minority of the population. Some things change, and other things abide. We know that the only real organized Jewish expression against the State of Israel today is to be found in Orthodoxy. The democratic and secular nature of the Jewish State remains an indigestible pill to swallow. Most of the more stringent Orthodox organizations-Agudas Yisroel and many of the Hasidim, including Lubavitch Chabad-remain, at best, non-Zionist, keeping the principal features of Jewish nationalism at arm’s length, while praying the real Jewish State will someday be reconstituted.
We observe the struggle with Zionism that still animates elements of Orthodoxy. What about Reform?
I think we can say with confidence that Reform anti-Zionism is dead. The Columbus Platform adequately put that issue to bed. Since 1937, the Reform Movement has produced three more documents that formally enunciate its principles. They include two more general platforms-the 1976 Centenary Perspective, 1999 A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism-and a 1997 document, Reform Judaism & Zionism. Each rearticulates in similar words the Movement’s acceptance and attachment to the Land and the State. Each Statement appears to repudiate to the proposition set forth in 1885. In reality, however, I believe it does not.
Let us return and look with care at the words of the original Statement of Principles. Here is the proposition in its entirety:
We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
As noted above, the final assertion regarding “a return to Palestine” was proposed in the context of the traditional understanding of restoration of the biblical kingdom. At no time has Reform Judaism considered any re-evaluation of this principle. The first assertion, bespeaking an extraordinary optimism that the latter years of the century were ushering in an era in which the messianic hopes will be fulfilled for all the world, is far more controversial. Within three decades, the “War to end all wars” was set off in Europe, engulfing the United States a few years later. And, although an armistice was signed in 1918, the blood really did not stop flowing. The twentieth century was filled with war and terror, and among the worst atrocities in history, including, of course, of the destruction of most of Europe’s Jewry. The anticipation of the Messiah’s coming in 1885, proved to be premature.
Yet, is the assertion that we are moving closer to “the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope” wrong, or merely impatient? Reform Judaism-one might argue that it is a guiding principle of Judaism from its inception-believes in the possibility-No! the certainty!-of redemption. Further, that humankind, in general, and Israel, in particular, have a vital role in carrying out God’s purpose, that is, indeed, “the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men.” This principle of optimism, I would suggest, has never been overturned. Even in the darkest times of the past century, it was possible to look for signs of redemption. By the beginning of the new millennium, not only had the age-old dream of a people returned to its ancient homeland come true, but also with emigration from Ethiopia, Iran, Arab lands and the fall of the Soviet Empire, there were no Jewish communities anywhere in the world living under the boot of oppression.
I think it is hardly appropriate to declare that now we are on the verge of a messianic age, but we can conclude that the principle enunciated in 1885, still holds true for Reform Judaism, although we have learned to state it with greater humility.
This leaves the central assertion of the proposition, that “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” The language echoes a philosophical and political concern of reformist Jews that reached back into the late-eighteenth century. Jews had always been considered an alien body within the larger Gentile (Christian) community. In France, they were not French, nor German in Germany, British in England, and so on. Enlightenment thinking in the 1700s, tended to promote an equality of all humankind, which led to the question: in just what way are the Jews different? The prominent philosopher and Jewish apologist, Moses Mendelssohn, produced a reply: The Jews are in no way different, except in their beliefs as a religious community.
For those Jews looking for a way into general society while still maintaining their rituals and practices, Mendelssohn’s formulation was valuable. Jews, contrary to medieval notions of being a race or a nation, were simply the adherents of a religion. Roughly a century later, in 1885, the assertion remained a powerful fundament of the Reform Movement. And sometime in the twentieth century, it changed. Reform Jewish leadership recognized that the bonds that held Jews together could not be reduced simply to one of confession of faith. It was more complex than that. Jews cared for each other as Jews, regardless of precisely what they believed. Even, if they chose to pursue a national course and resettle the ancient land of Israel.
If Jews, however, were not merely adherents of a religion, and their bonds to each other went beyond that, what exactly were they? The subsequent platforms in Reform Judaism hardly suggest that they are a race or nation. The operative word is rather, “a people.” And what are a people, if not some form of community: “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”
The problem with the 1885 Platform is not that it is wrong or outdated. It is rather occluded. From the standpoint of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the visionaries of 1885, stood on firm ground regarding Reform Jewish principles, but simply could not see far enough. Further, they could not fully appreciate the ramifications of their own language. Jews do constitute a community, but it is hardly a community formed out of some theological like-mindedness. This first Platform nevertheless established a foundational self-understanding for Reform Judaism: that it is primarily grounded in God and Torah, and not in the Land. As subsequent Platforms attest, the Land can no longer be ignored, if for no other reason than a portion of the people chose to settle there. We are still a long way from articulating a Zionist position. Indeed, this analysis was undertaken in order to reinforce that the tension between Reform Judaism and Zionism still exists. If we are going to reduce (I do not think we can ever remove) that tension, we focus now on Zionism itself.
Jewish religious reform drew its origin from the circumstances of the end of the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment philosophy and political emancipation brought Jews into civil society. The Reformers took these circumstances as a gift from God, and optimistically plotted a Jewish future that could be fully integrated into general society.
Zionism draws its origin from somewhat later events, particularly from the failed revolutions in Central Europe in 1848, and the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, ushering in a reactionary regime in Russia. Quite unlike the Reformers, Zionists saw these circumstances, not as a gift, but rather as a warning. Jews, they concluded could not ever expect to be integrated into a general society. They were the eternal Other. Rather than bemoaning this situation, or continuing to beseech God for relief, their solution was to become fully what the rest of the world already thought they were, a nation. Thus, they would set out to be a nation on their own land.
Through the second half of the nineteenth century, the Zionist impulse was exhibited in two ways. There were the initial ideological writings, setting out a philosophical underpinning for the very idea of a return to Zion. And there were the pioneers: groups of Jews, first from Romania and then other locations in Eastern Europe, who picked up and traveled to a sparsely populated Palestine, where they set up mostly agricultural settlements. A critical turning point for Zionism took place toward the end of the century, when the ideological expression and disorganized, underfunded immigration project were brought together with the establishment of a World Zionist Congress. Political Zionism was created.
The Jewish State, founded just over a half-century after Theodore Herzl convoked the first Zionist Congress, certainly could not have come into being without this political effort. Money had to be raised. Support from powerful interests had to be garnered. Disparate and clashing visions had to be reconciled. To a great extent, without the mediating effect of the Congress, there probably would not have been enough unity of purpose with which to tackle the funding and organizing problems. The success of the Zionist Movement, however, should not obscure the fact that there have been profound differences of vision regarding the Zionist idea, differences that persist to this day. We need to be aware of the overall outline of those differences, and, more important, what was the consensus that the Movement worked out. In doing this, we may be able to discover what ways the competing visions of Reform Judaism and Zionism can be mediated as well.
Let me repeat what I said about the origins of Zionism; that it developed out of the various failures for Jews to be welcomed unambiguously into the modern European nation-state. The result of these experiences was a combination of disillusionment and opportunity. How bitter the sense of disillusionment, and how optimistic the perception of opportunity are important components in the creation of one’s Zionism. With this in mind, we can consider in broad strokes the different visions. They are normally characterized as: socialist, religious, cultural and general political. Within each of these broad categories, one can also describe certain competing ideas.
I will begin with the last mentioned, the general political. This approach can be understood in two closely related ways. First, it conceives of the Jews in political terms, as a nation. Thus, it strives to engage in nation-building, the creation of institutions and activities that may ultimate achieve the establishment of a Jewish State. Second, it frames Jewish relations with non-Jews within the same political category. Thus, it views interaction between Jews and Gentiles, whether for good or for ill, as a politically freighted encounter between two states.
Political Zionism naturally contained within it a spectrum of opinions similar to the political spectrum in any country. Its moderate expression, normally associated with Theodore Herzl and his ideological successors, was highly pragmatic. While the very idea of a Jewish State was visionary-“If you will it, it is no dream,” in Herzl’s immortal phrase-the steps required to get there would very well require negotiation and compromise with various centers of power.
A more assertive form of political Zionism became known as Revisionism. Herzl saw Jewish social achievement being attained through the vehicle of a Jewish State, while the revisionists felt that a State was necessary for sheer Jewish survival. They were far more willing therefore to engage in violence and military tactics. After all, this was a war, with the existence of the Jewish people at stake. Political maneuvering and negotiating with world powers was simply not enough.
Whether mainstream or revisionist, political Zionism tended to understand Jewishness in fundamentally secular terms. Jews are a historic nation, exiled from their land, but never losing their national character. Differences in religious practice and thought were immaterial in this approach. A Jew was not a Jew by virtue of keeping Shabbat on Saturday, laying t’fillin, or eating matzah during Passover. A Jew was simply a Jew, in the same way that a Russian was a Russian, a Canadian a Canadian. Practice and thought were secondary to sheer identification.
A second, a more far-reaching element of this type of Zionism was found in its attitude toward the settlement of the land of Israel. The slogan of the Movement was “a people without a land for a land without people.” Of course, Palestine did have people! The Zionists were not that blind. The non-Jewish settlement of the region was quite sparse. Jerusalem was a tiny city, mostly bound within the fifteenth century walls constructed by the Ottomans. Other population centers-Jaffa, Haifa, Ramla, Nazereth, Hebron, Beersheva, etc.-were smaller. Most of the local population was rural, herdsmen and subsistence farmers who often worked the lands of absentee owners. By the 1870’s, when the first construction went up outside the city walls, Jerusalem had a plurality of Jews. The Jewish population was larger than either that of the indigenous Muslim or Christian community. Tel Aviv was founded as a Jewish city on the outskirts of Jaffa in 1909. By the 1920s, it had completely eclipsed the old port as a population center.
Demographics were only a part of it. “A land without a people” also belied this Zionist concept of people. “People” referred to an independent or politically identifiable entity. The non-Jewish settlers in Palestine had no such status. In the decades before World War I, they were under overall Ottoman Turkish authority. As Arabs, however, they more appropriately fell within a political subdivision of the fast collapsing Empire whose center was in Syria. Yes, the Zionists understood to themselves, these Arabs were a people. But they were a people who had roamed far from their own land.
Even when Jewish settlers were confronted with violent Arab protest to their nation building, such as the Hebron riots in 1921, 23 and 29, these were not seen as an indigenous national opposition, but rather as a geo-political conflict being directed by Arab centers in Damascus, Baghdad or Ammon. The revisionist wing viewed these attacks as part and parcel of the overall war for survival. The pragmatists sought lines of least resistance. Hostile Arab communities were to be avoided and contained.
Socialist Zionism is often identified, not inaccurately, with the kibbutz movement. The kibbutz, called by Martin Buber, “the experiment that did not fail,” both served to solve a certain problem with respect to the settlement of the land, and to promote certain ideals. The problem was the development of appropriate Jewish labor.
Conventionally, this is described as the inverted triangle. Jews in Europe were urban and mostly engaged in small entrepreneurial activities. Further, while some developed manual skills in the needle trades (tailoring or clothing manufacture), most gained their livelihood in tasks that required skills like writing and computing. They were in sales, or clerks, brokers, or possibly such professions as law, medicine, teachers and, of course, rabbis. This is not the best-suited workforce to go out and develop a land from scratch.
Through Socialist Zionism, Jews were induced to participate in a fundamentally communal fashion in the common activity of working and building up the land. The dignity of working the soil with one’s hands was emphasized, and so was the notion that no one should ever be in a position to exploit the work of another. Thus, the highest aspiration was not the manager, because this was a position of extra responsibility but no extra reward. Management would thus rotate; it was, after all, a burden. No one, therefore, would ever feel embarrassed or demeaned for spending a day doing the absolutely necessary work of digging ditches, weeding fields, or cleaning out the stables.
Socialism was a strategy for Jewish nation building. It also represented a vision of Jewish self-sufficiency. Jews would work collectively in order not to exploit each other, and they would work for their own needs in order not to exploit their Arab neighbors, either. In this approach, it was not a “land without a people,” but the people who were there were bracketed out.
In laying out the tension between Reform Judaism and Zionism, I have already touched upon the general problem of a religious Zionism. Since the exile to Babylonia at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., a substantial Jewish community has existed outside of the Land of Israel. By the third century of the Christian Era, this exilic community was the dominant force in the development of Judaism for the next 1600 years. The centrality of the Land remained a theological constant, firmly established in the daily worship, but in day-to-day reality, Jewish existence was sustained by Torah and family. The Land was distant and abstract in everyday lives.
As the Zionist Movement became well established, the reality of the Land confronted the theological image. It was disorienting, thus quickly rejected by many traditional Jews. Some religious leaders, however, were far more conflicted. They were drawn, like many others not so religiously inclined to the Land, and they were impressed by the spirit of the pioneers. It was a spirit that they felt was both a communion with the Land and other Jews, and with the divine. The result of this interaction became an explicit formulation for a Religious Zionism: the return to the Land and its resettlement, even by Jews who had forsaken the dictates of Torah, was nonetheless an indication of the imminent coming of the Messiah.
Religious Zionism is thus a strategy by which the traditionally religious individual can also feel Zionist. The formula, by the way, is not limited to Orthodoxy. In the prayer book of Israel’s Reform Movement, Avodah Shebalev, the State of Israel is called reisheet tz’mihat g’ulateinu [the beginning of the flowering of our redemption]. The emphasis, however, is on “religious.” The Zionist enterprise fits within an overall theological schema in which the State, as currently constituted, is ultimately obliterated. The religious Zionists are therefore precariously perched in their Zionism. In the last analysis, one’s faith is in faith itself; more than the people, more than the Land.
Just because you bring a bunch of people into a house to live, does not mean you have a family. Cultural Zionism proceeded from this premise: coming to settle on the Land, even if there are agencies to facilitate the settling, does not make for a nation. A nation needs a national ethos; that is, a culture.
One should not underestimate how important this insight was in the founding of the Jewish State. The Jews who were coming to the Land were: socialist atheists from the Ukraine, Yiddish speaking pietists from Lithuania, Ladino speakers from Morocco, Arabic speaking mystics from Yemen, Judeo-Persians from Iran, and acculturated Jews from France, England and North America. Not only did they speak different languages, and have different attitudes toward religious practice and thought, they also differed in food preferences, concepts of family and community, appreciation of music and art, and in virtually every other indicator. All they appeared to have in common is that they thought themselves to be Jews, and that they wanted to be in the Land of Israel. Is that enough on which to build a nation?
The cultural Zionists were therefore concerned in developing the points of commonality that could draw such a diverse population together. Chief among them, no doubt, was promoting a common language of Hebrew. They also focused on education, the arts, and the establishment of community centers where Jews of different backgrounds could interact and find their own points of commonality.
In Cultural Zionism, peoplehood was primary, more important than nationhood. The cultural Zionists were therefore also more sensitive to the peoplehood of those who already inhabited the Land. It was never “a land without a people.” As a result, they tended to accept accommodation in terms of national aspiration with the indigenous Arab population. The more radical among them were uncomfortable with the vision of an exclusive or primarily Jewish State. For them, such a State was either impractical in face of the fierce local opposition, or a corruption of the Jewish spirit.
The Principles of Zionism
These were the forces and ideologies that animated the Zionist Movement. They were the objects of speeches, pamphlets and books, of arguments, debates and occasional fistfights on the floor of a World Zionist Congress assembly. Yet, when the most radical expressions were bracketed out, certain basic common features could be found. I want to suggest that there are two foundational concepts that describe a mainstream Zionism:
1. The Jewish People are intimately connected by history and covenant to the Land of Israel. It is their historic homeland and the natural place of any Jewish polity. Yet, as a practical and pragmatic matter, the State must be founded on whatever portion of the Land the people can adequately secure, develop and defend.
2. The Jewish People are a historic and dispersed nation. Their dispersal has been a problem both to the Jews and to national entities in which they have settled, thus creating a history of sorrow and dislocation. Both the Jews and the rest of the world benefit from the people being restored to their own land, where they can take rightful place among the community nations, and simply be a normal nation among nations.
The first principle reflects both the primacy of the Land of Israel, and the practical understanding of what was necessary in order to bring a Jewish State into being. Any of the efforts to promote or create an independent Jewish community in some location other than the Land, could not possibly work. Only Israel has the emotional and historical appeal to attract Jews to the daunting tasks of settlement and building a homeland. Yet, it was not a “land without a people.” The security and stability of a Jewish State would always be dependent upon a territorial compromise with both the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Land and their backers.
The principle has defined the nation building of the Jewish State. It underpinned the decisions to accept the UN Partition proposal in 1947, and the Armistice Agreement establishing the “Green Line” following independence in 1949. It was also behind the efforts to keep Jordan out of the 1967 crisis that became the Six-Day War. Even in the radically changed circumstances following that War, the principle has remained a guiding standard. Proponents of holding onto the West Bank territory captured in 1967, more often than not press their arguments in political terms: that the land is needed for security, that the other side are not prepared to give anything substantial in return for withdrawal, etc. Yes, there are those who promote the idea of holding onto the territory regardless of all other considerations, simply because it is the Land. This argument continues to remain only on the edges of the general consensus.
The second principle has its origins in the beginning of the Zionist project itself. Zionism was initially born in the shtetls and ghettos of Europe. It was an unreal experience of oppression and persecution, for which an escape had to be found. The liberating societies of the West appeared to be a solution, but the rude shock of endemic anti-Semitism exhibited in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, suggested that real freedom for Jews there and in similar nations could only be illusory. For Zionists, the Jews in the West might be free, but they were not normal. The real goal of the Zionism was normalcy.
Within the reigning political philosophy of the late nineteenth century, normalcy was being a coherent nation on a historical homeland. And through the first half of the twentieth century, one of the more forceful arguments on behalf of a Jewish homeland was how natural it was. The Jews are a nation, and a nation is a people with a land and a language. The language is Hebrew; the land, Israel.
Unlike the first principle, this one has not held up so firmly over the past fifty years. The hostility of Israel’s neighbors, often explicit and vituperous, or, in the case of Egypt and Jordan, more truculent, has not ebbed. The very existence of the Jewish State remains the subject matter of polite conversation in Western society. Following more than fifty years of independence, the Jewish State has hardly achieved any sort of normalcy. And in the context of the unbroken hostility of all its neighbors, the ghettos of the last century have been replaced by a new larger ghetto of the entire country.
Some Jews within and outside Israel, have come to accept the current situation as Jewish normalcy. Others still hold to the original Zionist dream that the Jewish people on its land can become a natural part of the Middle Eastern landscape. More needs to be said about the viability of this principle later on.
There is one other principle that needs to be enumerated. It was not necessarily an intrinsic element of the Zionist ideal. Rather, I would suggest, it was one employed out of sheer necessity. It is the principle of democracy.
The Zionist Movement was democratic, in great part, because it could not be otherwise. As clearly noted in the previous section on competing visions and ideals, there was hardly any unanimity among its participants. Further, there was no single individual or faction with enough resources or support in order to force dissenting groups to adhere to one program. The very survival of the Movement, much less any success in moving toward its goal of a Jewish State, depended upon a willingness to engage in negotiation and mediation among the competing factors.
I do not wish to suggest that if it were possible, Zionism and the subsequent Jewish State would have inevitably been undemocratic. Although all of the early principal Zionist leaders and theoreticians came from autocratic societies, there is scant evidence that they were undemocratic themselves. The key point is, whether Zionists wanted to forge a democratic society or not, they really had no choice.