כ"ז תשרי התשע"ז

Assessing Zionism: Zionism as a Permanent Revolution

Resources » Zionism » Zionism General
Author: Shlomo Avineri

Has Zionism been a complete success story? What makes Israel so central to the Jewish People? Shlomo Avineri looks at these questions and, moreover, how to insure the Zionist revolution continues.

By any conventional standards, Zionism has been a success story. But if one would like to identify more precisely the specific successes of Zionism, one might be hard pressed to find them within the traditional targets of Zionism. The majority of the Jewish people, after all, did not return to Zion; and the reasons for this cannot be attributed in most cases to external forces but have to do with a reluctance, on the part of most Jews, to immigrate to Israel.
The State of Israel has been established, yet its international status is still far from being as universally accepted and regulated as that of France or, for that matter, Egypt. The army of the Jewish sovereign nation is indeed defending the lives of its citizens and inhabitants and has even managed to attain victories that will be remembered by generations to come, not only in the annals of Jewish history but also, in some cases, in the classics of modern warfare. But for all the show of arms of the Israeli Defense Forces, the lives of Israelis are still far from secure and tranquil; and for all its glory, the Israeli army is most heavily dependent for its armaments on external aid. In short, the dream of normalizing the status of the Jewish people through the attainment of political sovereignty is as elusive today as it was on the day Israel was established. Even the peace treaty with Egypt -an almost undreamed-of achievement a few years ago -has, most paradoxically, complicated the position and status of Israel among the nations.
Yet one has constantly to recall that the central Zionist thinkers never believed that the very establishment of a Jewish state would conjure out of existence all the problems traditionally faced by Jews. Some of the more popular propaganda did indeed project such images, yet most Zionist thinkers knew better. Looking at the ideas of such divergent thinkers as Herzl and Ahad Ha'am, Gordon and Ben Gurion, Moses Hess and Rabbi Kook provides ample evidence that none of them held the naive and simpleminded belief that once a Jewish majority emerged in Palestine or a Jewish state was established there, all the ingredients that have made up the anomaly of Jewish existence would disappear overnight. What differentiated the Zionist thinkers from non-Zionist Jewish thinkers was only their insistence that without a territorial base in Palestine and without the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth there the beginning of those processes which could eventually transform the historical anomalies of Jewish life would never have a chance. Zionism essentially always believed -perhaps with the exception of Jabotinsky and his disciples -that the establishment of the state would be only a necessary condition for Jewish renaissance, never a sufficient one.
What then has been Zionism's essential achievement, if any?
It created a new normative and public focus for Jewish existence. In the pre-Emancipation period, religion and the kehilla served as this normative focus. Being Jewish in pre-Emancipation times was not only a matter of religious observance but also entailed being a member of a community, belonging to a public entity. Being Jewish meant not only personal commitment to a set of beliefs or norms but also belonging to a Jewish public. One could not maintain one's Jewishness in isolation from other Jewish people,
It was Graetz who succinctly brought out this political dimension of historical Judaism, which never became ossified in one form but underwent numerous transformations until it became finally institutionalized after the destruction of the Temple. What before the destruction of the Temple was implied by the political institutions of the Jewish polity in the Land of Israel and the political ramifications of the linkages with the Temple itself, later became transformed into the normative meaning attached to the kehilla structure and to the individual's place within it. If the Catholic Church maintained that there was no salvation outside the Church, the precept of Judaism could be formulated to read that outside the kehilla there were no Jews. As Graetz maintained time and again, for Judaism the question never focused on the salvation of the individual soul but on the collective meaning of individual existence.
The Enlightenment and Emancipation utterly changed the status and function of, the kehilla, as poignantly expressed by Nordau in his address to the first Zionist Congress. Instead of a miniature polis, within whose confines public and political life flourished and which was the only source of significance to individual life, the kehilla and the synagogue now became a partial factor, one institution among many others in an open society, catering to limited and carefully circumscribed religious needs. From a total structure, the kehilla turned into a particular function, and from a focus of identity, which determined the place and standing of a Jewish person in the social and even cosmic universe, it became an institution providing merely ritual services. This was the profound meaning of modernization for the structure of Jewish life.
Jewish identity thus lost its normative and public standing -its peroussia or parhessia as it became known in Aramaic and Hebrew. The individual Jew, who became to a large degree emancipated from traditional religious structures in relation to personal beliefs and precepts, found himself without this public aspect of his existence as a Jew and for the first time had to face an external, albeit liberal, world as an individual.
The State of Israel put the public, normative dimension back into Jewish life. Without this having ever been defined or decided upon, it is a fact that to be Jewish today means, in one way or another, feeling some link with Israel. The contents of this relationship may be different from one individual Jewish person to another, and varies greatly from one Jewish community to another. For some, it may mean seeing Israel as the true manifestation of the messianic yearnings of the Jewish people; for others it is the Israeli kibbutz and the vision of social justice so central to many aspects of Zionism that is a specific Jewish expression of a social, universal vision of redemption. There may be persons whose link to Israel is daily and continuous, as in the case of those involved in fund raising and political lobbying on behalf of Israel; and there may be others whose link to Israel manifests itself only in moments of grief and anxiety -or exultation and vicarious pride in the achievements of the Jewish state. These differences may be profound and quite meaningful, but they do not matter. For it is the State of Israel that unites more Jewish people all over the world than any other factor in Jewish life.
This, then, is what distinguishes Israel from other Jewish communities. Other Jewish communities are merely aggregates of individuals, and as such they have no normative standing as a public entity. Israel, on the other hand, is conceived not only as an aggregate of its population, but its very existence has immanent value and normative standing.
Israel is thus the new public dimension of Jewish existence, the new Jewish parhessia. As such it replaces the old religious communal bonds that circumscribed Jewish existence in the past. Today, due to modernization and secularization, Israel is the normative expression of this collective existence of the Jewish people, of Klal Yisrael. This may also explain why so many Jews continue to support Israel. It is their symbol of collective identity -even if they disagree with the policies of its government. Support for Israel is not necessarily support for a policy or even an ideology; rather it is an expression of Jewish self-identity.
This emergence of Israel, the historical outcome of the Zionist movement, as the public dimension of the Jewish people is indeed a far-reaching revolution in Jewish life. The Zionist movement started as a minority phenomenon among Jews, and until the 1940's it could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be viewed as the mainstream of Jewish life. Orthodox and Reform rabbis, bourgeois assimilationists, and socialist revolutionaries, Bundists and Jewish communists alike -all of them viewed Zionism as a marginal phenomenon, an aberration soon to disappear; and indeed, in its beginnings Zionism was nothing more, both in terms of its normative standing among the Jews as well as in terms of sheer numbers.
Today the situation is totally different. The question is not whether or not Jews around the world who support Israel are Zionists; this, to a large extent, is a semantic quibble. Clearly they are not Zionists in the traditional sense of the word -they do not emigrate to Israel nor do they intend to do so. But they view Israel and their identification with it, as being more central to their own identity and self-definition as Jews than any other factor involving their lives. Israel not only is the focus of identity for those Jews who live there but also defines, more than any other factor, the Jewish identity of those Jews who do not live there but view it as central to their own self-definition as Jews. To turn Israel for American Jews into what Ireland or Italy has been for Irish-Americans or Italian Americans, is a tremendous revolution. In fact it goes beyond that: American Jews have become, on the whole, much more involved in support of Israel than Irish Americans or Italian-Americans are in support of their countries of origin.
In the 1930s most Jewish public and philanthropic institutions around the world had very little identification with the Zionist effort in Palestine; today there exist only a few very marginal groups who identify themselves as Jewish but divorce Israel from their concerns (Naturei Karta and their American ultra-Orthodox counterparts would be among these highly marginal groups).
This is certainly one of the more perplexing dilemmas governing the relationship between world Jewry and Israel: Israel can continue to be the normative focus of identity for Jews abroad only if it is different from Jewish life in the Diaspora. If Israel becomes only a mirror-image of Diaspora life, if it becomes, for example, just another Western consumer society, then it will lose its unique identification for world Jewry. If an American or French Jew discovers in Israel only those qualities which he already possesses (and cherishes) in his own society, then he will not be able to raise Israel to that normative pedestal with which he would identify. An Israel that is a Mediterranean Brooklyn or Los Angeles or Golders Green can not serve as a focus of identification and self-definition for Jewish people from Brooklyn or Los Angeles or Golders Green.
This is, of course. not only ironic but also, to a large extent, quite hypocritical. Nevertheless, this is a characteristic of all identification that has normative dimensions. People do not endow normative standing to a mere mirror image of their own situation: anyone looking for normative identification does so to transcend his own existence and raise his sights to a horizon -different and more sublime -than his own mundane and quotidian life. So it is in religion, so it is in ideology.
For this reason much of what Ahad Ha'am, Gordon, Rabbi Kook, and Ben Gurion thought regarding the nature and quality of Jewish life in Israel is so relevant today and will remain so. This is also the unfinished dimension of the Zionist revolution, and some aspects of it might have even witnessed a regression in the last years.
Zionism is a revolution against these trends in the Jewish people, which enabled the Jews to accommodate as individuals even to the harshest realities of Exile in situations of almost total powerlessness, yet perpetuated Exile as a way of life for the Jewish people as a whole. Zionism is an attempt to bring back into Jewish life the supremacy of the public, communitarian, and social aspects at the expense of personal ease, bourgeois comfort, and good life of the individual.
For this reason building a Jewish commonwealth in Israel always entailed -and will always entail -strong elements of hardship. For this reason Zionism is, after all, also a revolution against Jewish history, not only against the gentile world. Laissez faire economics -so well attuned, as Milton Friedman pointed out, to Jewish existence in the West cannot be squared with the ethos of social responsibility necessary for nation building in Israel, and the attempt to erect such an economy in Israel will always have catastrophic results for the social cohesion of its society. Laissez-faire in an Israeli context means bringing Exile back to Israel.
Therefore Zionism has ultimately no chance unless it constantly revolutionizes Jewish life in Israel and stops it from coagulating into the traditional historical molds of Jewish social and economic behaviour. Israel can, therefore, remain for the long range the normative centre for world Jewry, only if it will remain a society different from Jewish Society in the Diaspora: the struggle for maintaining this difference will have to continue as the central facet of the permanent Zionist revolution.
This is the challenge facing Israel today.
From: The Making of Modern Zionism
Print Version   |   Send to Friend
Delegitimation of Israel kav Israel Education  kav  Zionist Education  kav Delegitimation of Israel  kav  Israel Education  kav Zionist Education 

The World Zionist Organization is a global organization with the support of the Keren Kayemet Le'Israel, Keren Hayesod and the Government of Israel.


Shlichut | Zionism | Mount Herzl | Shlichim | World Zionist Congress | World Zionist Organization | Zionist Activities in the Diaspora | Zionist Young Adult Movements | Making Aliyah 2013 | Activities in Israel and Countering Antisemitism | Israel Advocacy | Delegitimation of Israel | Israel Education | Zionist Education | Herzl