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Estranged But Committed: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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

I am a Zionist; it is a major aspect of who I am. My Zionism defines my identity, my core beliefs, my historical perspective, my own private history, the language I speak, my way of life, the place I live in, the issues that irritate me, my hopes, my fears, my pride and shame, as well as my dreams.

I never chose to be a Zionist. I was born into it, yet I did not use my right of exit; I stayed when I could have opted for another way of life. Once or twice I was tempted to leave -- the world outside seemed so wide and open, so full of exciting opportunities, but I was always drawn back. Or maybe I never allowed "exit" to be more than a momentary temptation, a brief encounter with a life I could have had, but will never have. A theoretical encounter with the "road not taken."

Nevertheless staying was a constitutive choice. Was it a free one? Not really, it was grounded in my childhood experiences: the lullabies my parents sang to me (Anu banu artzah, "We have come to the land to build it and be rebuilt by it) and the stories told in family gatherings: my grandfather's memories of his journey from Rostov, his home-town on the Black Sea, to Tel-Aviv, my father's scars from the war of independence, my mother's pride of our family being part of the Israeli Mayflower. I took the role ascribed to me by my forefathers. They set the ground and I willingly took upon myself their mission -- to be a Zionist.

Did I take upon myself an idle mission -- defending a dying ideology, serving a God that failed? Not at all! Zionism is here to stay as long as some of us are still trying to make it work. In other words, while the gods we worship die with us, as long as we -- skeptical believers, disillusioned lovers, resentful followers -- carry them in our minds and hearts they exist. In this age of confusion most ideologies fail their believers; as long as this failure hurts they are still relevant.

We love drama. It sells well, it is photogenic and exciting. This is true in the theoretical sphere as much as it is true in every other sphere of life. Theoreticians are therefore eager to create drama even where there is none. Hence, too often they are ready to declare the death of political eras and political ideologies even when such declarations are premature. Slow changes are boring, hard to notice, tedious to follow. Death is much more heroic; one can write brilliant obituaries, weep for the deceased or celebrate their departure, mark anniversaries, summon memorial ceremonies and convene conferences to disect the body.

It is therefore not surprising that so often we come across titles such as the End of History, the end of ideology, the death of Communism, Capitalism, Libertarianism (if it ever existed), the nation-state or the collapse of the welfare state. We are invited to declare the emergence of a new era -- the era of post-ideology: post-modernism, post-feminism, post-nationalism and post-Zionism. This is a theoretical fallacy grounded in the assumption that ideologies cannot survive critical reflection and change -- hence they either remain constant or die out. Yet ideologies rarely leave the world stage slamming the door behind them. In fact they very rarely leave at all. They move from center stage to the periphery, they change costumes, rewrite the text. Yet despite these changes they survive -- and sometimes return to center stage.

Like other "post" claims, the claim that we have entered a post-Zionist stage is, at best, inaccurate. In asking whether we have entered a post-Zionist age we must first define Zionism. If Zionism was only about state formation, then post-Zionism must have started in 1948. Yet, if Zionism ended with the establishment of the State of Israel it is, or rather was, a very peculiar nationalist movement. If nationalist movements would have expired once the nation-state they sought was been created, then nationalism would have been the ideology of stateless people and stateless people only. If, however, national movements continue to play a public, political and cultural role even in the nation state era, why should Zionism be any different?

The reason nationalist movements outlive the formation of states is that for nationalists the mere establishment of a nation state is hardly enough. National movements aspire to see their states safe and prosperous. If, as I believe, this was the target of Zionism, it has hardly been achieved. A state has been established, but few will argue that its existence is either safe or secure.

Moreover, Zionism, like other nationalist movements aspired not only to establish a state; it also had a humanistic and a cultural vision. It sought to create a new society and a new person. Whatever the essence of this cultural task was, it assures the continuing relevance of Zionism, as humanistic-cultural tasks are never totally fulfilled. And, indeed, never was the unfinished nature of the Zionist task clearer than it is today. In endless discussion groups, reading groups, study groups, seminars, conventions and private talks -- Israelis and Jews around the world (and some non-Jews, foes and friends alike) -- debate the classical Zionist question: Can Israel become the State it was meant to be?

Alas, the honest answer to that haunting question is "yes, but..." And recently my "yes" has become more and more feeble, while my "but" is becoming more and more meaningful and complex. Hence I am a doubtful Zionist, neither a conservative Zionist, nor an anti-Zionist or a post-Zionist. I believe criticism is the true mission of the loyal nationalist -- criticism meant to reflect on the past and the future of the nation, an attempt to improve rather than destroy the national vision. And yes, there is much to improve.

My best definition of myself is that of a sad nationalist who knows that fewer and fewer fellow nationals share her dream of peace, equality and justice, and therefore feels estranged in her home-land, estranged but nonetheless committed. I am, as I wrote at the outset, irrevocably a Zionist.

Yuli Tamir, president of the Shenkar College of Design, was among the founders of Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) in 1978. She was Minister of Immigrant Absorption in the Ehud Barak government from 1999 until 2001, and later served in the Knesset from 2003 until 2009. She was Minister of Education under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from 2006 until 2009. She is the author of Liberal Nationalism.