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The Abandoned Middle Road: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

Sometimes I feel that I am the last of the Mapai'niks*: a vanishing species of people who had deep convictions about identifying with the Jewish people, about taking responsibility for the destiny of the Jews; about mending themselves as part of a universal movement aimed at making the world a better place, taking care of the weak in society, striving for a more egalitarian society. This dual goal combined national redemption and world redemption, but it was never stated in absolute terms -- it was always qualified: not the absolute redemption, either of the Jews or of the world. Mapai'niks were always wary of all-encompassing utopianism.

While movements to their left and right carried the banners of ultimate goals, stated in high- flown rhetoric, and with strong conviction, Mapai'niks tended to understate their beliefs. In the age of ideology, as was the 20th century until the 1970s, this moderate, qualified stand, and its companion skepticism, were taken for weakness: How can you educate young people with such a sophisticated approach, an approach that takes ideology with a grain of salt, that demands tolerance, that rejects the belief that total redemption is around the corner? Mapai was accused of hypocrisy, of preferring pragmatism to principle, of not understanding the spirit of the changing times. And it was all true. But there were great advantages to this moderate and skeptical approach.

First, it led to the understanding that in order to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, a country of two people, one needed to divide the land. The idea of partition could not have come to be the accepted solution to the unending conflict between Jews and Palestinians had it not been for the activist and pragmatist Mapai'nik school of thought. Partition was a messy solution; it did not have the beauty of a perfect solution, it did not give either the Jews or the Arabs all that they hoped for, but it was a solution that allowed the mass immigration of Jewish refugees and created the opportunity to establish a Jewish and democratic state. A secular state, but with no disposition to provoke a confrontation between secular and religious, did not anticipate a conflict. Nor did the Mapai'niks feel any inferiority complex vis-à-vis Orthodox Jews; they felt secure in both their Jewishness and their socialism.

I became a Zionist the day my family and I arrived in Tel Aviv in the summer of 1947, fresh from Poland and the years of terror. Suddenly I realized that in this city everybody was Jewish. It was a place where being Jewish was taken for granted, and one did not have to conceal or apologize for it. What a liberating feeling, for once not to feel as a minority, but to be among my people! I still believe that the Jews are a people, and they deserve to have territorial sovereignty like any other ethnic/cultural group. Indeed, the Jewish state did not fulfill the Herzlian dream that it would make anti-Semitism vanish, and it did not fulfill the expectations that the Jews would be able to live there safely forever after. Nevertheless, as a historical experience, the creation of the State symbolized the resurgence of the power of life in the Jewish people after the Holocaust. I cannot envision the survival of a Jewish collective after the catastrophe without the mobilizing and invigorating power of Zionism.

My kind of Zionism is very basic, almost too obvious to put into words. I would like a Zionism that looks for the middle road, that recoils from high rhetoric, from all kinds of messianism; a Zionism that does not look for territorial gains, that does not define its meaning via real estate; a Zionism that is satisfied with the minimum essential for the existence of the Jewish state, that does not wish to bring about a revolution but that strives to bring about constant, gradual, progress and reconciliation between Jews and Jews as well as between Jews and Arabs.

I believe in a social democratic Zionism, in which the state does not shy away from its responsibility to its citizens, and its citizens feel committed to their state. My kind of Zionism would promote the feeling of social solidarity and the sense of community. As I see it, the pendulum between individual rights and the sense of collective has swung too far toward the individual, and the expansive individualism is overshadowing the obligation to the collective. But Zionism has always focused on the collective, its assumption being that national redemption would also promote personal redemption. It is high time that we recapture the sense of togetherness we've lost, the togetherness that was the cohesive power -- and gift -- of Zionism.

*Mapai'niks -- supporters of Mapai, Israel's leading political party from 1948-77, the democratic socialist party of Ben Gurion and others now seen as the founders of the state.

Since 1985, Anita Shapira has been a full professor, now emerita, at Tel Aviv University, where she served in 1990-95 as dean of the Faculty of Humanities and held the Ruben Merenfeld Chair for the Study of Zionism. In 2000, she was appointed head of the Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel at Tel Aviv University. Since 2008, she has been a senior fellow of the Israel Democracy Institute. In 2008, she was awarded the Israel Prize in Jewish history. She is currently working on a biography of David Ben Gurion. She has won many prizes and awards, including, in 2008, the Israel Prize.