POLITICS SEPTEMBER 15, 1997
Modern Zionism, which made its first appearance as an organized political movement at the Zionist Congress at Basel a century ago, was the most significant and successful response to the sustained and repeated collapse of any reasonable expectation that Jews would ever be welcome and feel at home in Europe. Despite the claims of liberal democratic theory and the utopian promises of Socialists and Communists, the nationalisms of the nineteenth century, both West and East, infiltrated all competing political movements and exacerbated and radicalized European anti-Semitism. Zionism gave to many Jews a way of thinking that enabled them to confront the anti-Semite on the street with renewed pride. In their everyday existence, Jews could engage the hostile world harboring the hope that they were citizens of a modern nation in the process of being realized. They would not be condemned forever to being powerless and exceptional.
A century ago, the spectrum within Jewish identity was widening and ranged from Jews who were converts out of Judaism (but still considered Jews), acculturated nonbelievers and well-to-do urban Jews to poverty-stricken rural populations and orthodox Jews with varying traditions. Zionism provided a novel secular platform for unity among Jews. It is ironic that we celebrate the founding of Zionism at a moment when that unity is rapidly disintegrating.
Before Auschwitz, Zionism was more of a movement of political ideas than of practical possibilities. Notwithstanding the claims of anti-Semites that Jews controlled the world in an unseen and unverifiable fashion, the possibility that an independent Jewish state could be realized seemed remote--more of a dream than a reality--despite the remarkable growth of the Jewish population in Palestine. Consequently, Zionism as a national movement possessed a powerful streak of utopianism. In the absence of any immediate prospect for the realization of a Jewish state, Zionism became a forum for the most fantastic schemes for how humanity in the modern Western world could reconstruct society and begin its political processes anew by forming a state that took the best of the Western traditions and discarded the worst. Radical Socialists and committed capitalists worked within the Zionist movement on behalf of a future Jewish state that would be better than anything they had experienced or human history had ever known. The Zionism that came into being a century ago accepted the status of the Jew in Europe as exceptional and turned it upside down. Instead of focusing on how Zionism would reveal the Jews as simply normal, Zionists worked to put Jews into the forefront of a future era of social, economic and political justice.
In terms of its original objective, the Zionist movement born a century ago did not succeed in time. More than 6 million Jews had to die before a Jewish state could be established. Although Zionism helped to unify the Jews of Europe and gave each Jewish community new political organizations that made Jews feel the sense of participation and purpose unique to active and equal citizenship within a political context, Zionism did not prevent European Jewry from being destroyed. But without Zionism Hitler's success would have been even more complete than it was.
After the creation of the State of Israel, the Zionism of the Basel Congress lost, through victory, its purpose. In its place came a new Zionism, the movement to bring Jews to Israel--a purpose whose relevance has not disappeared, as the emigration from North Africa, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union has made plain. At the same time, there are now stable diasporas in the world outside of Israel in which Zionism no longer functions as an ideology of return but a movement of support for Israel. In 1897 and 1939, there was no plausible alternative for a secure life for Jews to the creation of a Jewish state. Only in post-World War II America have Jews developed the sense, as middle-class Americans, that they are not pariahs and are not at risk as they were in Europe. Zionism in the American context has been transformed into the principled allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.
Yet the legacy of the Zionism of 1897 remains with us in two key respects. First, Zionism, even as a code word, is the litmus test with respect to anti- Semitism throughout the world, even in America. The facile rhetorical linkage of Zionism with imperialism and racism is little more than an admission that Jews are uniquely not entitled to be like everyone else and live as citizens as part of a majority in a nation, for better or for worse. Zionism, as mirrored in the State of Israel, has proven the point that Jews are in fact just human. Israel has displayed a full range of human achievement and weakness and of decency and its absence common to all nations. Comparatively speaking, one can make the case that Israel has behaved better, given its circumstances. The anti-Zionist, like the anti-Semite a century ago, does not allow the Jew the privilege of normalcy.
Second, the high aspirations and the unrealistic dreams of early twentieth- century Zionism have left their own residues, particularly within the Jewish community. Such residues are welcome. Now that there is a Jewish state that is powerful and militarily adept and possesses its own minorities and economic and social inequities, it is not unreasonable to ask of it that it strive to do even better than average. Insofar as Zionism appropriated and contributed to democratic and social theory in the past, it must continue to address basic questions. First and foremost is the relationship of religion to a democratic Jewish state. Beyond this question lie those of economic justice, and the mechanisms by which a majority deals with minorities and mitigates the same varieties of intolerances, hate, injustice, corruption, demagoguery and abuse of power that characterized the modern political contexts of Europe from which Zionism first emerged. The future of Zionism among Jews outside of Israel rests in continuing to support Israel and hold it to the highest ideals of the Zionism of 1897. Central to that Zionism was a belief in an inclusive definition of who was a Jew and a firm conviction in the secular, nondiscriminatory, democratic character of the Jewish state.
Arthur Hertzberg is the author of The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader.
By Arthur Hertzberg