POLITICS SEPTEMBER 15, 1997
Nationalism and the formation of modern nationhood pressured Jews to become citizens like everyone else in the state. Down the centuries, they had shared the cultures and languages of other people. Religion alone made them different and constituted their identity. The source of misfortune was thus assumed to lie in the Jews themselves, and the remedy was to do away with whatever was making them Jewish. Emancipation was not enough. In the outlook of anyone enlightened, assimilation of the Jews was so evidently desirable that there was a hint of compulsion about it: assimilate or else. The delegates to the Zionist Congress in Basel had to decide how best to take their fate into their own hands.
Unaware of the gathering political forces, the majority of Jews, rural and poor, continued in the old ways. In cities and small towns, a minority was in a position to respond to newfangled secular ideas. For them, several very different routes led to assimilation, and they were to try them all: socialism, revolutionary communism, the capitalist marketplace, the professions.
The backlash was instantaneous and general. Pan-Germans and Pan-Slavs, the Papacy and the Holy Synod, the accusers of Dreyfus and the Black Hundreds, established that assimilation was theory, not practice. Whatever a Jew might do, the neighbors continued to think of him as a Jew. His own assertion that he had done what was required to assimilate had no significance.
Zionism invited Jews to reinvent themselves. In the manner of Poles under Kosciuszko, or Italians under Mazzini and Garibaldi, Jews were to forge a new identity by means of nationalism and a nationhood of their own. Akin to the impulse giving rise to drama and literature, this was an act of high imagination, not just a changing of the story but a leap into the unknown. It is no coincidence that so many Zionist leaders had a romantic temperament and literary gifts.
Other national movements had been able to count on rallying the whole nation, liberating its energies. Not Zionism, which was unique in that it was certain to divide those to whom it was appealing. Religious Jews could not respond until it was too late and, to this day, some remain hesitant. Zionism also put paid bluntly to any hope of assimilation either through revolution or worldly success. Yet its imaginative perception was true; and events were to evolve as Zionists anticipated. They had caught the advance warnings of the explosion to come. Under Nazism and communism, Jews could not survive by simply continuing as before.
Those Jews who did reinvent themselves as Israelis have had so singular an experience that it seems to be all of a piece with Jewish history--a new beginning that is more of the same. Nationalism and nationhood, it is sometimes held, are exclusive, an abandonment of universal values, and likely to lead to war. Assorted critics, with Israeli "revisionist" historians prominent among them, claim that Zionism is guilty on such counts, amounting to a misguided displacement first of Jews, then of Arabs. Assimilation is again the remedy--but among Muslims this time, it will be far more fraught. A hint of compulsion is still present.
Yet Israeli nationhood saved at least some from persecution and mass murder. Israel is a parliamentary democracy, with the rule of law and the enfranchisement of the Arab minority, now a fifth of the population. Israelis have revived Hebrew to make a strong culture of their own. (For all their literary tradition, the Irish have been unable to do the same with their language.) The Israeli gross national product is about the equivalent of its four immediate Arab neighbors put together. Though it is only a partial national movement, Zionism has liberated Jewish energies, to be a light unto the gentiles, as the Scripture puts it.
If the evolution of America could have been foreseen a hundred years ago, Herzl might reasonably have recommended Jews to emigrate there. Assimilation seems underway in America in a benign process that allows Jews to retain as much or as little of their religion and identity as they choose. For most of them, Zionism is a matter of kinship and emotion, more vague with every year that passes. The Diaspora and Israel may in the end become separate, even alternative, Jewish identities.
Pan-Arabism and Islamic fundamentalism sometimes appear to be imitative local versions of Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism, the Papacy and the Holy Synod, once so threatening to European Jews. But, under the spur of Zionism, Arabs--and above all Palestinians--have been reinventing themselves, too. Constitutions, the rule of law and the liberation of energies are visible on the Arab horizon. Jews in the old Europe were passive subjects, but Israelis are creative agents of events. Reinvention served its main purpose. g
by michael walzer
One of the more problematic goals of Zionism was the "negation of the exile. " In the minds of secular Zionist intellectuals, this had two aspects: first, bringing the Jews out of the lands of their Diaspora into a homeland or state of their own and, second, curing the sickness of the spirit that was said to follow from the exilic experience, manifest in superstition, fear, resentment, fantasy and political irresponsibility. Writing about the exile, Zionists sometimes sounded like antiSemites. Their love of Zion did not extend to Vilna or Pinsk or the shtetlakh of the Pale.
This is a common feature of revolutionary movements: the people whose lives their leaders want to transform are not people whose lives they admire. At the same time, ordinary men and women who join the movement hoping to escape oppression will resist the "negation" of the religion or culture or way of life that they have sustained, often at great cost, in defiance of their oppressors. This resistance sets up the central political conflict of the post-revolutionary years and accounts for the various reactions and restorations that so often follow upon revolutionary success.
Zionism has been an extraordinary success, and it is now in the midst of one of those reactions. Despite the destruction of Central and East European Jewry, and the refusal of most Western Jews to "return," the "ingathering of the exiles" has brought several million Jews from scores of countries "home" to Israel. Those who remain outside do so by choice: it is the involuntary exile that has been negated. On the other hand, the ingathering has not only brought the exiles home; it has also brought the exile home. The Jews of Israel are a multicultural population, and their multiculturalism encompasses every exilic life form. Stubbornly and predictably (though no one predicted it), the immigrants have reproduced the psychology of dispersion and statelessness.
David Ben-Gurion, who had a clearer eye for this problem than most of the Zionist leaders, waged a long campaign for what he called mamlachtiyut. The word is usually translated "statism," but Ben-Gurion, though he was a statist politician in many respects, had something else in mind. He believed that success depended on a psychological transformation that would not come easily to Jews returning from exile. Mamlachtiyut meant the consciousness of having a state, the sense of being a citizen. It was Ben-Gurion's word for civic virtue, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for all those qualities that make for and support statesmanship: realism and responsibility above all.
Exilic life did not produce these qualities--not, at least, before the European emancipation. Jews sought the protection of their gentile rulers by submission, guile and bribery, the only forms of political action open to them. They had no responsibility for the well-being of the state as a whole and no experience of the rights and obligations that go with citizenship. Their communal existence was always precarious; they lived in constant fear of the "others." All this has now come home: the political culture of dependency, the sense of "the world against us" and the purely instrumental understanding of the state. The opposite of mamlachtiyut prevails now, not only in significant sectors of Israel's Jewish population but in the government itself. Imagine the typical Jewish view of the czarist state or of Pilsudski's Poland: that's not far, I think, from the view of the Jewish state held by at least some of its present ministers.
With regard to the full range of Jewish cultural life in the lands of the exile, negation was a very bad idea. Even the changes in political culture necessary to statehood might have been defended in ways that drew on the tradition rather than denying it entirely. But change was and still is necessary, and so the Zionist project is unfinished. A state really does require in its citizens the consciousness of having a state and of taking responsibility for the safety and the prosperity of all its members. It requires a sense of being in the world in a new way, en-stated, a member of the society of states, no longer alone, no longer a pariah. It requires the forms of courage that make for normal politics--the courage to take a principled stand, certainly, but also to form alliances and to make compromises with the "others." Israel today is full of citizens who possess all these qualities, but its government at this moment represents a reaction against them.
Ruth R. Wisse is a professor at Harvard University and the author of Jews and Power.
By Ruth R. Wisse