ו' סיון התשע"ח

A Study in Compatibility: Zionism and Socialism

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Author: Barry Shenker

I know of no society where the meaning of life in that society is as much part of everyday conversation as it is in Israel. Wherever you go, the topic is eventually raised: 'What are we doing here?', 'What is the purpose of our lives?', 'Where are we going?'.

The fact that the subject is discussed at all, never mind the frequency and intensity of debate, reveals an apparent contradiction in Israeli society. After all, for the better part of this century most Jews have argued that the case for an independent Jewish homeland is indisputable. Now, it is one thing to need to convince others, but why 36 years after Israel's birth, nearly 70 years after the Balfour Declaration and 100 years after the first modern Jewish settlement in Palestine, why still spend so much energy trying to convince ourselves?
Two reasons spring to mind. The first is the chronic Jewish incapacity to leave well alone. A singularly important component of the Jewish collective psyche is the sense that, whatever the appearances, matters are always more complex. Whether one looks at the punch lines of Jewish jokes or at the earnestness of Talmudic discourse the underlying theme is the same -nothing is what it seems, everything contains an infinity of meanings, anything can mean its opposite, the world is even absurd. In short, don't take anything for granted.
The other reason is that perhaps, deep down, the Jews are not entirely convinced that their right to a homeland is unquestionable. Israel is unique in that, unlike other newly-independent states, she was created from next-to-nothing. The newly-independent states were formed from whole societies which had existed for countless generations in that very place and whose right to exist was not even a topic for discussion.
But in Israel's case the entire society from which the future state was to be created had to be built from scratch; it certainly was not a natural state of affairs which required no further explanation. For Jews the implication is clear. Jews are there, they have good reason to be there, and they are there to stay -but this does not remove from them the responsibility, the necessity even, of constantly re-appraising that existence. This leads to a chronic state of national angst, but on balance, the gains are greater than the loss. In short then, what the Jews are saying is this: 'Others have no right to question Israel's existence, but we have an obligation to do so. True, our independent existence in our own homeland is self-justificatory, but for our own sakes let us make something worthwhile of it; if not, why did we embark on this enterprise in the first place and why did we make the sacrifices we did?'
What then is the purpose of it all? The definition of Zionism can give us a clue. Zionism is the attempt to create an independent state in which Jewish culture is primary. Zionism means this and no more. After that one begins to argue about what kind of state it should be -a democracy or otherwise; religious or secular; socialist or capitalist; where it should be located; what its borders should be; what principles should govern its relations with its neighbours; and where it should stand in international politics. Hence we have Socialist Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism etc., each with its own answers to these questions.
Nationalism as Anachronism
I believe that Zionism's general goal is completely justifiable. I believe equally that the creation of an independent state is not an end in itself, unless of course we see it as a refuge from persecution and no more. However, if the purpose of creating an independent state is to express a social-cultural goal then the justification for independence lies in the desire of that society to achieve that goal.
It is sometimes argued that nationalism is a divisive force and should therefore be abandoned. However, this argument fails to distinguish between nationalism and the nation-state. Nationalism is a sociological phenomenon -it is a group identification based on common traditions, collective memories, a shared culture and language, an association with a particular piece of land, and a sense of historical process. The nation-state, on the other hand, is an artificial entity. It is a form of political organisation originally based, or presumed to be based, on discrete national entities. The rise of the modern political state was intertwined with the rise of modern nationalism, and the state became a potent expression of that nationalism.
However, unlike the instinct for national identification, the concept of the nation-state is one of history's numerous ephemera. It is barely a hundred years old and may well be dead in a hundred years time. The reasons are simple. Most states today are artificial coalitions of different cultural groups: the idea that political boundaries carving up a geographical region coincide with some natural, social-cultural divisions is a nonsense. Most states are culturally mixed and becoming increasingly so; each has substantial minorities who share little with the dominant culture but are forced to do so because of some arbitrary lines on the map. Further, world society is progressing towards greater international dependence and integration. The notion of a homogenous, independent state in either social, economic or political terms is already anachronistic. For these reasons attempts to shore up and defend one's state are indeed divisive. Even if only on pragmatic grounds, most of humanity would be better off proceeding directly to greater integration rather than clinging desperately to an outmoded form of organisation.
In fact the realisation of this is already underway, albeit haltingly. The rise of the modern state was accompanied not only by the upsurge of nationalism but also by the rapid expansion of capitalism. This unholy trinity has by now spent itself.
Capitalism is nothing if not pragmatic and, having linked arms with nationalism on one side and the state on the other, can now afford to dispense with both; or rather, technological development and the need for expansion require capitalism, if it is to maintain itself, to rationalise, which in turn requires greater internationalisation of capital, hence less linkage to the nation-state. The recession of the seventies and eighties has only accelerated this process. The final outcome could be either a new world economic order or a crash of catastrophic proportions proving that capitalism is either inherently rational and resilient, or is a mass of inner contradictions and unable to function except in a narrow nation-state/imperialistic framework. Whichever the outcome, capitalism's internationalisation can only make the concept of the nation-state yet more redundant.
Understanding Nationalism
Now all-this may seem an eminently sound argument for the Jews not to set up their own nation-state. Why go backwards when the world is moving forwards? This argument fails to take account of certain considerations. The first is that, if this is the case, it is not only the Jews who are going 'backwards'. As noted, many countries have become independent states in only the last 30-40 years. It may well be that what they have created will be relatively short-lived as the world changes. However, just as the child needs to go through adolescence in order to attain adulthood, so most nations want a period of statehood before being prepared to abandon it. So, it appears that each nation has the urge for political autonomy, for a period of collective self-assertion in order to 'complete' its collective identity. Even if other forces are vitiating that autonomy, no-one wants to deny to themselves what has been granted to others.
At any rate, each national grouping believes that it should not be the first to abandon its claim to statehood. Nations, like individuals, are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. If all the world consists of nation-states, there is no point in any small nation attempting to leapfrog historical processes. If the nations of the world are formed into states which are forming into small regional federations which are forming into continental federations and so on, better to become part of the process than to stand aside and be lost, forgotten or simply trampled upon.
Jewish Response
So it is with the Jews. The political, cultural and economic reasons which encourage the formation of nation-states apply to them as much as to other nations. Despite appearances, the Jews sustain all the characteristics of a nation and see themselves as one. Dispersion has not denied them a sense of unity, common historical memories, attachment to a land and a language, a set of shared traditions and a unifying religion. The fact that at some points in history they have not been physically together so that all the world can see their nationalism on display is an irrelevance. It appears too that the Jews as a nation have the same urge to revitalise their roots as do other nations. Not for nothing did Rhodesia rename itself Zimbabwe, the Germans pay astronomical sums for an ancient manuscript or Greece demand the return of the Elgin marbles. This is something which most people see as 'natural' and in many cases as 'progressive': for the Jews the significance is as great as for any other people.
As the world shifts towards regional federations so the Jewish state will join in. I do not believe that statehood is the end in itself. On the contrary, statehood is creating for the Jews costs which are extremely high. Yet the costs of not gaining statehood would be even higher. What the Jews want is the opportunity to express freely their national identity. The only way open to them now is through statehood. As times change so will the means change, but until then the Jews want to have the same opportunities as other nations.
The Socialist Argument
At the same time I believe that the costs need not be as high as they are, and that by enhancing the socialist expression of Zionism the Jews may not only reduce these costs but can also manifest an advanced and more meaningful form of national culture. The reason lies in the fact that some of the arguments for Jewish nationalism coincide with some of the arguments for socialism. The purpose of socialism is simple enough: the complete liberation and fulfillment of the individual. By this I mean that the individual is able to realise his maximum potential, both in terms of his work and creative abilities and in terms of his relationships with others. In order to achieve this, two conditions must be met. One is that the individual has a high level of personal awareness, that is, that he is conscious of his potential and wishes to achieve it. The other is that the structure of society is such that not only is the individual not thwarted in realising his potential but indeed that the social system actively promotes it. This means that collective self-awareness is also a pre-requisite for personal self-realisation.
Now, some argue that in fact capitalism does precisely this, that it allows the individual free rein to realise his potential. The difference though between capitalist and socialist assumptions on this matter is considerable.
Under the former the individual is entitled 'to make it' at the expense of others, while socialism sees human beings as having equal worth. Further, individual 'success' under capitalism is frequently dictated by commercial considerations or are defined in financial terms: the 'successful' artist is the one that sells well, not necessarily the one most admired by the cognoscenti. Under socialism the skill of the artist and his contribution to the aesthetic pleasures of others (which is a contribution to others' self-realisation) are primary. This is not to say that there are no constraints under socialism, only that the total quantity of realised human potential can be greater and the overall distribution more equitable.
At any rate socialism believes that individual fulfilment is a cooperative rather than an individualistic endeavour. Under capitalism competition is the order of the day. It follows that the individual must fight for himself. This means that not only are his resources more limited but that his energy is consumed in trying to compete and survive, rather than in creative activity. 
Socialism on the other hand believes that individual potential is more likely to be realised under conditions where individuals promote the potential of others, and are in turn promoted by them. Socialism is not opposed to the drive, initiative and creativity we have witnessed under capitalism, but rejects the egoism, competition, stress and materialism on which they are based in a capitalistic system. There is no contradiction whatsoever between individualism and creativity on the one hand and socialism on the other, provided people in the socialistic society, both individually and collectively, have cultivated both a high degree of self-awareness and a fine sense of inter-personal sensitivity. The fact that the track record of some countries calling themselves socialistic is poor, if not appalling, does not deny the validity of the above -just as the fact that 90% of available literature is trash does not require one to reject reading altogether. There have been numerous socialist experiments, past and present, which have been reasonably successful and can be applied elsewhere.
Jewish and Socialist Values
What has all this to do with Zionism? One of the most striking things about Jewish culture is the fact that it shares many values with socialism. Jewish life and tradition has always emphasized communality, mutual obligations, communal responsibility for all members of the society, solidarity, individual fulfillment through the community, caring, social justice, a sense of history, a concept of mission and an 'identity of fate'. These values and perceptions are as integral to socialism as they are to Jewish culture.
It follows that if the Jews have created a state in order to express fully their national culture, then the social structure adopted must be concomitant with Jewish values; and these, as it happens, coincide with socialist values. Indeed it is no coincidence that Jewish settlement in Palestine so easily adopted the socialistic practices it did. The rapid development of the Histadrut, not just as a trades union but as an educational force, a health service and an industrial producer, is one example. Similarly, the development of the kibbutzim and moshavim was not only a response to necessity, but sprang quite naturally from an inbuilt set of assumptions which the Jews carried with them.
Once again, a lack of total success does not prove failure or the inability to achieve more in the future. Israel today is decidedly not a shining example of socialism in practice (which country is?) but it has developed enough socialistic forms to indicate the potential. At any rate, so long as the nation-state/capitalist system dominates the international scene no country can become truly socialistic. To achieve this will require a breakdown of state boundaries with a devolution of power towards smaller social and economic units which are then federated in broad regional groupings. Socialism and the modern nation-state are contradictions in terms, but socialism on the basis of local autonomy and regional co-operation is quite feasible. Under the latter conditions the Jews, like other national groupings, will have the means of expressing both their national identity and their implicit socialistic propensities: indeed, they can even be trailblazers, as in some respects they have already been -either as individuals (the prominence of Jews in socialist thinking is no coincidence) or as a nation (Histadrut, kibbutz etc.).
Socialist Pluralism
There is another aspect in which Jewish nationalism and socialism coincide. Socialism, as said, is about human freedom, which means the fullest realisation of one's personal and social potential. To realize one's potential is to engage all facets of oneself in a process of exploration and development. And if being Jewish (or Hindu or black or left-handed) is an important dimension of one's 'total being', so that without it one's being is not complete, then a means has to be found for expressing one's Jewish (or any other) identification. It therefore makes complete sense from a socialist point of view that Jews should be able to express their collective identity in a way which extends and satisfies their lives as Jews. If the Jews choose to do it by means of concentrating themselves in a particular region and living in a predominantly Jewish culture then that is their prerogative. If socialism is about individualism within societies then it is equally about pluralism between societies.
It should not be assumed for one moment that actual implementation of the above principles is easy. Two general difficulties arise. First, there are the external forces that affect Israel's existence (relations with the Arabs and with world Jewry, Israel's strategic significance and place in superpower rivalry, the effect of international economic processes). And second, there are the contradictions inherent in Jewish culture for example, some aspects of the Jewish religion, such as the kind of male-female relationships it prescribes, are anathema to socialism.
A further and extremely important issue is the question of how the Jews set about expressing their national identity. Socialism, as already stressed, believes in equal opportunity of all members of a society for the maximum expression of their total being. If socialism believes in equal individual opportunity and in cultural pluralism then the same principle must apply to nations i.e. that there should be equal opportunities for all national groupings and that they are morally bound to assist each other. In short, however valid the Jewish claim to national self-expression and the desire to express it at this stage by means of a political state, that claim cannot vitiate the claim of others to do the same, nor can its implementation be achieved at the expense of others.
Wider Responsibilities
In particular this refers, of course, to Israel's relations with the Palestinians. This is not the place to indulge in historical accusations or mea culpas. However, if the foregoing is valid then it follows that the Palestinians have as much claim to a national state as the Jews. All the arguments waged against this -the Palestinians are not a nation, they already have a country (Jordan), they've never had it so good as they do under the Israelis, etc. are irrelevant, even if they were accurate. The Palestinians see themselves as a nation, they identify with a particular piece of land and want to create their own state. They are claiming for themselves the rights already achieved by others. Both the logic and experience of Jewish socialists must lead them to conclude that the Palestinian claim is justified. Both the Jews and the Palestinians need their respective states, and it is conceivable that not long after they exist side by side they will begin to work together and proceed ultimately to a flexible relationship between them -the kind of local autonomy cum regional co-operation mentioned earlier. (In any event the geo-economic structure of Israel-Palestine will necessitate close cooperation between them.) Hopefully there are enough progressive socialist forces among each of them who are willing to take the lead, by example, in jointly implementing socialist forms of organisation e.g. in trades union matters. At present it appears that only the genuinely socialist elements among the Jews and Palestinians are able to demonstrate that the Jews are not simply one nation of militant-racists and the Palestinians not simply one of terrorist-racists. Reactionary forces on both sides and their respective supporters are making every attempt to undermine a coalition of progressive forces but with determination that coalition can come about and have a significant influence.
Socialism and Zionism are not only not incompatible -they are ideologies which complement each other. A proper synthesis of the two can lead to justice and fulfillment for the Jew and can give momentum to socialism in both the region and beyond.
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