The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.
I start the course I teach at the University of California, Davis entitled "The History of Modern Israel" by telling the students the story of a Polish Jew who, more than 80 years ago, made the long journey from Poland to Davis, California to study agriculture. What drove him was Zionism, namely his belief that the impoverished and oppressed Jews of Poland were living on borrowed time and that they needed to abandon petty artisanry and commerce (his father's livelihood) and become farmers in the Land of Israel. That young Polish Jew was my father and had it not been for his fervent Zionism, he would likely have ended up a victim of the Nazis, as did his parents and brother.
It is easy today, when Jews are largely prosperous, powerful and secure, to forget that history, to forget that Zionism had its origins and its justification in a time when Jews were among the poorest and most political disadvantaged peoples of Europe and the Middle East. It is also easy to forget that Zionism was at one time an idealistic movement that sought to marry Jewish self-determination with social justice.
Now, things have not worked out exactly the way they were intended. (Do they ever?) Israel has one of the greatest income disparities in the developed world; the kibbutz movement has become largely privatized; Israeli politics and economy are unduly the product of its military. And, of course, Jewish sovereignty was accomplished at the price of the Palestinians (I say this without leveling or measuring blame). The founders of Zionism never thought that a Jewish state would need to deprive others of their sovereign rights, but that's what happened.
Today's Israel is careening toward a binational state, the result of a metastatic settlement policy in the West Bank that may be irreversible. The Occupation is not Zionism; it is a grotesque distortion of Zionism. If Zionism was the quest for a Jewish state, it is the worst of ironies that its most right-wing exponents may be the ones most responsible for destroying it.
We often hear that Israel has no choice since it faces enemies who want to destroy it. But this argument -- often cloaked as a Zionist argument -- is itself the betrayal of Zionism. For what Zionism means is giving the Jews political agency -- that is, the power to change the Jewish condition as well as the power to influence how the enemies of the Jews behave. A state always has choices, and the fact that the State of Israel can make choices -- both good and bad -- is one of Zionism's main accomplishments. But today, Zionism seems to mean surrender to the world as it is or, rather, the world as right-wing Zionism envisions it.
A century ago, there were two possible solutions to the desperate plight of the Jews: Jewish sovereignty or equal rights in a pluralistic society. A minority of Jews opted for the former, the majority (those who emigrated to America and other liberal, Western democracies) for the latter. Today, when that desperate plight is no longer either desperate or a plight, new problems confront the Jewish people. Ironically, it is in the State of Israel that Jews are most physically threatened, even as they are protected by one of the most powerful armies in the world. And in the Western diaspora, where Jews are generally physically secure, their collective existence is threatened by a culture that promotes hybrid identities. So, although the challenges of the last century have largely disappeared, both of these solutions are needed today to reinforce each other. Without the State of Israel, Jews in Western democracies would be more vulnerable politically and impoverished culturally. And without the democratic, pluralistic model to which most Western Jews subscribe, Zionism is in danger of devolving into ethno-nationalism: the domination of one group by another.
I don't think that it's too late to rescue my father's Zionism (and my own). But the witching hour is fast approaching when the movement that came to solve the Jewish problem may itself become the problem.
David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author, most recently, of "Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Secular Jewish Thought" (Princeton University Press, 2010). His earlier books include "Cultures of the Jews: A New History,' which he edited and which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2002, "Eros and the Jews" (University of California Press, 1997), "Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History" (Schocken Books, 1986, National Jewish Book Award) and "Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History" (Harvard University Press, 1979, National Jewish Book Award).