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My Battered Zionism: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

Posted: 04/26/2012 11:41 am

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

What kind of Zionist? I have been a fervent Zionist, a disappointed Zionist, a proud Zionist, a rebellious Zionist, a fatigued Zionist, a post-Zionist, a pristine Zionist. There are, as I reflect on it, only two kinds of Zionist I have not been: I have not been a disillusioned Zionist, because I have never and still do not regard the highest hopes of Zionism as illusions. And I have not been a Zionist who has cast his daily physical lot with the citizens of Israel, unless we count -- I don't -- vicarious casting as a sort of ersatz aliyah. No, as involved as I have been since roughly the age of 11 in Israel's triumphs and its crises, as considerable the time I have spent defending and protecting Israel from afar, I remain a Zionist who has been present not at the center but at the periphery.

My father was skeptical of Zionism. He saw no reason to assume that the Jews would do better with nationalism than all the others had. Yet he winced only weakly when I joined Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement, which became for the next 10 years as much my home/family as my family home was. So I became, few questions asked, a Zionist.

In the mid-1960s, soon after I finished my book on Israeli politics, Zionism stopped making usable sense to me. It was a doctrine that had been developed in an entirely different time under entirely different circumstances, to address problems quite unlike those that now confronted us. So I stopped thinking of myself as a Zionist; Zionism, having won the Jewish state it had sought, could now be retired.

But when the United Nations, in 1975, declared that "Zionism is racism," my sense of honor revived my Zionism. And a Zionist I have remained, and will. Mine is in the end a simple Zionism: Jews are entitled to a national home -- a sovereign state -- and the only place such a state makes sense is in what was Palestine and has become Israel. That is by no means all there is to Zionism, as I argue below, but those are its twin axiomatic essentials.

I am a proud Zionist. What Israel has accomplished in many spheres -- in agriculture, in hi-tech, in music and theatre, among others and, in particular, in providing refuge and home to Jews from Iraq, Yemen, the Former Soviet Union and dozens of other difficult and often menacing places -- is breathtaking.

I am as well a disappointed Zionist, a troubled Zionist. There is no peace process. Israel's incumbent government energetically pursues a settlement policy that will, before long, render a two-state solution impossible. Israel's status -- and stature -- as an (imperfect) democracy is threatened by a Knesset cadre of Know Nothings with little regard for democratic norms, as also by the decidedly unholy alliance between religious zealots and the political echelon. Democracy and Jewish seems increasingly problematic. Nor was all this foreordained. Israel is in the unhappy place it is these days because flesh and blood human beings (Jews and Palestinians) have made catastrophic choices, again and again. Sovereignty, it turns out, comes with its own set of problems.

Ironically, Zionism offers solutions to some of sovereignty's problems. For my "simple" Zionism, the essential Zionism, came in its mainstream expression with rich amendments, amendments that spoke not merely to statehood per se but to the nature of that statehood. Many of those amendments are contained and others implied in Israel's Declaration of Independence, still others in the ample documentary history of Zionism. All these speak, and eloquently, to the two commitments of the Jewish people -- a commitment to the particular structure and interests of the Jews and a commitment to the universalist ideology of the Jews. These days, the insistent motto of the State is "Never Again." But "never again" tells us only what to avoid; it does not tell us what to embrace. Zionism -- humane, liberal, pragmatic Zionism -- does.

So my battered Zionism remains intact. As against those who want to move beyond Zionism, I believe that to recite Kaddish for Zionism is politically premature and morally spineless. I am a Zionist because Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people in my lifetime, and I will do what I can to help make it work, no matter the odds. And what seems to me needed to make it work is a revival of Zionism's earlier aspirations.

Plus: I know too many -- not enough, but more than a few -- people in Israel who see Zionism and Israel as I do, as an opportunity for the Jewish people to refute my father's skepticism, to develop and embody a different kind of nationalism, and these comrades deserve to be embraced.

The revival of a humane and pragmatic Zionism has immediate political implications: Here in America, we contribute more to Israel's safety and to our own sense of dignity if we let go of the excuses and alibis, put an end to the tradition of endorsing every benighted action of the Israeli government, speak truth to power as best we can and speak truth to our fellow Jews as surely we are able to. In Israel, fatigue cannot be permitted to cripple nor futility be allowed to smother determined, sustained, vocal and visible truth-telling. To speak truth means to assert, again and again, that the settlement enterprise endangers the safety and security of the Jewish State. It means explaining, again and again, that the conventional alibi that Israel has no partner for peace is not persuasive despite its endless repetition, and is in any case not more true than that the Palestinians also do not have a partner for peace, so jingoistic has Israel's government become.

The fact that Zionism these days appears to have been hijacked by expansionists and maximalists, that it too often reduces to thuggery, does not induce me, not for a minute, to abandon the effort. To the contrary: Because the effort is now faltering, because I still believe in the seriousness of the promises made in Israel's Declaration of Independence, because I believe that a state that is both Jewish and democratic, no matter the evident tension in seeking to preserve and extend both those goals, is a worthy and urgent challenge, I remain -- and will remain -- engaged.

Tikkun olam -- the pursuit of social justice -- matters, and Jewish music matters, and Jewish literature, and Jewish prayer, and Jewish language and literacy, too. There are endless points of access to Jewishness. But once on the inside, it is cowardly to evade and avoid the issue of Israel -- of its welfare, of its safety, of its rectitude.

That, in my view, is why this set of essays is potentially so important.

An abridged version of this essay appears in the Forward on May 4. See www.forward.com.

Leonard Fein, editor of this series of essays, is a writer, teacher and social activist. His books include "Israel: Politics and People" (Little, Brown 1966) and "Where Are We? The Inner Life of America's Jews" (Harper & Row, 1987). He has served on the faculties of MIT and Brandeis University, has won diverse prizes, including the JCPA Chernin Award for lifetime contributions to social justice and the first National Foundation for Jewish Culture for achievement in Jewish scholarship. He was the founding editor/publisher of Moment magazine, which he served for 12 years, and he is the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

 
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