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Author Urges Israel to “Outgrow” Its Zionist Past and Look to a Secular and Democratic Future

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2005

by Bernard Avishai,  
Helios Press,  
369 Pages,  

Current developments in the Middle East have focused renewed attention upon the sharp divisions within Israeli society. While the majority of Israelis appear prepared to give up occupied territories and move toward acceptance of and coexistence with a Palestinian state, a militant minority resists such movement, arguing, from a fundamentalist religious perspective, that God gave all of the land of Israel to the Jewish people in perpetuity and it would be sinful to return a single inch. This latter perspective is something entirely new in the history of Zionist thought.  

In this thoughtful and expansive review of Zionist thinking and contemporary developments in Israel, Bernard Avishai, Dean of the Raphael Recanti International School and a professor of business and government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, argues that the Zionist revolution and the mainstream LaborSocialist ideology on which it was based was a good revolution “that long ago ran its course.” Recent efforts to reinvigorate this revolution along more nationalistic or messianic lines have, he declares, only created an even greater danger to Israeli democracy “by fostering religious extremism and laying the basis for the permanent retention of the occupied territories.”  

Democracy and Nationalism  

From the beginning, Avishai writes, there has been a tension between democracy and Jewish nationalism: “Israel’s founders had only a limited imagination for democracy as an end in itself, acting at critical moments out of sheer expediency. As democrats, they introduced basic laws protecting freedom of expression and electoral protocols. As Zionists, they maintained, say, discriminatory property rights to secure the hegemony of Hebrew labor communes, enacted immigration and residence laws that required theocratic stipulations of Jewish status, and ceded key civil powers (marriage, burial) to the Orthodox Rabbinate. It was impossible to tell, in other words, whether Israel’s founders were building a (mainly) Jewish democratic state, or a (mainly) democratic Jewish state. This confusion was, and is, unsustainable.”  

He notes that, “Notions of Jewish national exceptionalism proved especially disastrous for Israel following the 1967 War. At that critical point, the seduction of resuming the Zionist transformation of the land of Israel became irresistible for thousands of young Israelis with successive Israeli governments, at first merely touched by the zealousness of the new ‘pioneers,’ eventually becoming complicit with them. This, in effect, turned what might have been a temporary military seizure of Palestinian territories into an indefinite occupation, studded with Jewish settlements. The tragedy of Zionism can be marked from that moment of complicity. Its consequences are only too clearly before us.”  

While early Zionist settlers were ideologically committed to Arab equality and modernization, the Labor Party, which Avishai calls “the stepchild of the founders of kibbutzim and other collective settlements,” after 1967 declared that it could be counted on to build settlements in “Judea and Samaria” more efficiently than Menachem Begin’s Likud Party. One Yediot Achronot columnist, recalling the heady time after 1967, wrote that “their vision of Biblical redemption, an enterprise of homecoming to the sites of the Jewish soul, a messianic re-run of the establishment of the Zionist state — of 3 million Jews populating the hilltops of Judea and Samaria — all of these things, have proven to be a lethal parody.”  

Inconsistent with Democracy  

The late Rabbi Meir Kahane argued relentlessly before his assassination that contemporary Zionism was inconsistent with democracy and exhorted West Bank settlers to expel Palestinian Arabs from their homes. Avishai “fears that, inadvertently, he hit on something directionally right, though he took it to absurd lengths: that people who call themselves Zionists today shy away from the grandeur of democracy. They are afraid to compete in a marketplace of ideas. ... This is a great irony. The Zionist writer Achad Ha’am (a particular hero of this book) wrote an early essay in which he made a psychological distinction between the ‘self-effacing imitation’ of assimilationist Jews, who took on the trappings of Western gentile society out of self-loathing, and the ‘competitive imitation’ of Eastern Jews, rooted in Hebrew culture, who (he said) would relish the chance to prove the strength of their culture in open contest. Zionism, he thought, would mean a Jewish people in competitive dialogue with the West, a people resilient in what he called the ‘Hebrew spirit,’ which would have the means to assimilate others, not only be assimilated himself.”  

The question now is whether Zionism’s revolutionary goals can give way to what V.S. Naipaul calls a ‘certain kind of awakened spirit” entailed by democratic civilization — whether Israelis can be confident in the vitality of Hebrew culture and their ability to compete for hearts and minds and markets, to abandon its settlements in Arab Palestine.  

It is ironic that Zionism, originally a secular movement, has now been embraced, and altered, by religious fundamentalists. Avishai points out that, “There were no Zionists among Palestinian Jews until secular Jewish immigrants founded colonies on the coastal plain during the 1880s ... Eastern European rabbis expelled from rabbinic schools students with secularist or nationalist leanings. The rabbis regularly condemned and obstructed the meetings of secular Hebrew groups, and their animus grew more fierce after 1897, when — following Theodor Herzl’s call for a Jewish state — the influence of Zionism spread rapidly. For the rabbis, this was an imprudent attempt to defy God’s will. The daily prayers stated that Jews had been exiled ‘for their sins.’ Zionism seemed the product of heretical questions. As if to confirm this, many Zionist writers vehemently repudiated traditional law.”  

No Religious Imperative  

The call by the early Zionists for the creation of a Jewish state was not based on any religious imperative. Instead, Avishai writes, “Their claim for a state derived from the conviction that ‘power,’ the exercise of sovereignty, was a kind of psychological therapy for people made unattractive by a want of self-confidence. Intriguingly, political Zionists often accepted as true some of the anti-Semite’s most outrageous stereotypes of the Jew. It was the undignified Jew, after all, who most needed the help they sought to provide. (Arthur Koestler wrote that he had become a Communist out of hatred for the poor and a political Zionist out of hatred for the Yid). Accordingly, political Zionists were often unable to articulate precisely what Jewish principles were to be defended — apart from an assertion that the Jewish people should survive. Political Zionism promoted such things as dueling fraternities, songs and marches, and a rather atavistic notion of nationalism. In some cases, political Zionist ideas were at variance not only with the ideals of democratic pluralism but with the ideals of normative Judaism as well.”  

Political Zionism’s most important thinker and advocate, Theodor Herzl, had almost no connection with Jewish religious life or thought. His solution to the Jewish question, as late as 1893, was the mass conversion of Jewish children to Christianity. According to Avishai, “He toyed with the idea of contacting the Pope and inviting him to preside over such a ceremony at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Herzl felt that honor demanded that he remain Jewish, but the children, at least, would be saved.”  

In 1894, Herzl wrote what he thought was his best play, “The New Ghetto,’ which was full of anti-Jewish stereotypes — lives revolving around social climbing, marriages made for profit, and stock market manipulation. In 1895, Herzl witnessed the growth of anti-Semitism in Paris over the trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and, shortly thereafter, Vienna’s Burgtheater turned down Herzl’s new play, “In a flash,” he wrote, the idea of a Jewish state came to him.  

Minority Rights  

The liberal tradition of the Anglo-American world, in which ensuring minority rights is particularly important, was quite different from the principle of majority rule widely held in Eastern Europe, where Zionism arose. There, such a concept was an idea of considerable novelty. Zionism would be ipso facto democratic, its early leaders believed, so long as Jews outnumbered Arabs in Palestine.  

“While a viable democratic state might have arisen in a climate of peace, without Palestinian refugees,” Avishai writes, the war in 1948 “did underline the latent contradiction between the national Jewish majority envisioned by Zionism and Israel’s secular democratic goals. How could a Jewish state at war with the Arab world — a state which aimed to ‘ingather exiles’ and exert the ‘natural right’ of the Jewish people to be ‘master of its fate’ in Eretz Yisrael — also guarantee the ‘complete equality of social and political rights’ to all of its citizens, including hundreds of thousands of Arab residents who bitterly opposed its creation? There can be no doubt that democracy — at least what Labor Zionism understood by democracy: majority rule, elections, property rights, freedom of speech as was consistent with their physical security — was as heartfelt among the framers of the Declaration of Independence as was the Hebrew national project. ... But was it inevitable that Ben-Gurion would have to put aside the strictly democratic ideals of his revolution whenever these were at odds with the expediencies he deemed necessary to consolidate state power?”  

David Ben-Gurion had promised to convene a constitutional congress as soon as possible. Instead, he worked to establish a firm hold on state power without any further concessions to constitutional principles. He presided over a state of emergency under which 98 ordinances were enacted and the state did not expunge from the judicial code the “emergency regulations” which the British Mandatory government had enacted in 1946 to imprison the leadership of the Jewish Agency and disarm the Haganah. These regulations included preventive detention, censorship, search and seizure, and other potential violations of civil liberty which a formal constitution should have precluded.  

Discrimination Enshrined in Law  

Discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel was enshrined in the law, “Insofar as the Law of the Lands of Israel took over the estates of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and adopted its regulations, it provided a permanent basis for discrimination against the Arab community ... the JNF leased lands to pioneers in perpetuity, on condition that the land would not be alienated to non-Jews. This was once a defensible principle of Zionist revolutionary struggle. In practice, now, it became the basis to deny about 200,000 Israeli citizens (and their descendants) access to 95 percent of Israel’s land.”  

When the State of Israel was declared, Ben-Gurion had announced to Western Zionists that he was himself no longer a Zionist but a Jew and an Israeli. He insisted that Zionist executives in the U.S. and Europe immediately commit themselves to emigrate to Israel. For American Jews, Avishai points out, such calls for emigration to and identification with an alleged “homeland” completely misunderstood the American experience something East European Zionist thinkers never properly understood. He notes that, “... many more American Jews had died defending America during World War II than Israelis had died in the War of Independence and the Sinai campaign. American Jews had entered their own national life in force during the war against Hitler — in the U.S armed forces, as part of anti-Fascist movements and, ironically, in pro-Zionist groups. ... The persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe were still going to America as readily as they were going to Israel.”  

Indeed, Avishai argues, “Zionism,’ which once implied a national solution to the chronic difficulties of the Diaspora, now seemed to mean that Diaspora Jews should want to participate in solving the chronic problems of the national center. The Diaspora Jew who could not see that his own best possibilities were linked to the Jewish state’s struggle was said to betray a kind of false consciousness ... But as far as American Jews were concerned, that realm was a place that turned one’s children into strangers ... For most American Jews, Judaism now implied a tradition to help them adjust to a public realm of English liberal democracy, a tradition of historical disquisition, ethics and texts — not the aesthetic, legal, and linguistic norms of the Hebrew nation.”  

“New” Zionism  

The ”new” Zionism which has emerged in Israel, Avishai reports, is one that frankly justifies Israeli national rights in terms of Orthodox fundamentalist religious claims. Today, rabbis declare that Jewish law prohibits ceding an inch of the West Bank to the Palestinians. He writes: “The hardening of Israeli attitudes toward territorial compromise brought with it a new Zionist vocabulary of double-think names for occupied territory: Yehuda V’Shomron (Judea and Samaria) for the West Bank; Shechem for the Arab town of Nablus. The Education Ministry quickly issued new national maps of Eretz Yisrael to public-school classrooms, maps without clear borders, or even the ‘green line,’ which had previously divided Israel and the West Bank.”  

Gush Emunim quickly established itself as the essential voice of the new Zionist program. For them, the Promised Land was united and the Messiah was at hand. One leader expostulated: “Amos was here. David was here, he tended his sheep here, everything that makes us a nation happened here.”  

Avishai notes that, “One may learn a good deal about the evolution of Israeli politics merely by noting the artwork on Israeli money over the years. During the 1950s and 196Os until the Six Day War, Israeli lira notes depicted farmers, scientists and industrial workers in fields, laboratories, and factories. By the early 1970s, there were portraits of Zionist luminaries — Herzl, Weizman (even Albert Einstein was on the five lira note) — framed by state buildings. Around the time of the October War, scenes of the Old City began to appear on the currency, until, under Menachem Begin, all the state buildings were replaced by pictures of Jerusalem’s gates. Vladimir Jabotinsky was added in 1980...The lagging transformation in official aesthetics — from Histadrut to statism, from statism to the new Zionism — corresponds to the sea change that has come over Israel’s voters since 1967.”  

Orthodox Influence  

In recent years, the influence of Orthodox religious leaders has dramatically increased in Israel. “The question of civil rights impinges directly on the relationship between religious institutions and the state,” writes Avishi. “Since the time of the mandatory government, rabbinical courts and councils have jealously guarded their acquired jurisdictions in marriage, divorce, burial ... The encroachments of Orthodox Jews on secular life have only gotten worse in the wake of the new Zionism. The Begin coalition passed a law greatly restricting a hospital’s right to perform autopsies. Orthodox yeshivas have been subsidized by the state much more than before, while the daughters of Orthodox families have been exempted from military service. ... In Ramot, a Jerusalem suburb, religious fanatics have regularly stoned cars that pass on public roads near their apartments, and rabbis have refused to marry two people who cannot prove they are Jewish according to Orthodox halacha. ... True, Jews may marry non-Jews by flying off to Cyprus. But this is hardly satisfactory policy ... The proceedings of rabbinical divorce courts put women at a particular disadvantage during custody hearings.”  

George Orwell once noted that the word “freedom” in English immediately suggests freedom in the individual sense of private rights and property. In classical Hebrew, the word for freedom is “cherut.” The nuances of this term, Avishai declares, “have been evolving since records were made of the exodus from Egypt, when the people of Israel passed from slavery to freedom, ‘me’avdut le cherut,’ The point of that freedom was an implicit common desire, what Rousseau would have called the ‘general will’; to strive after the sacred, to worship God — hence, keep His law — and to build the Promised Land ... Significantly, there was never a word for democracy in the Hebrew tradition, except for the borrowed word ‘democratia.’ ‘Cherut’ directly implied national freedom ... it promised freedom for the Jewish people to practice Judaism.”  

What this means in terms of civil rights and liberties for the Palestinians is less than clear. When asked if the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza should be given the right to vote in the event of annexation, only 31.5 percent of Israeli high school students said yes. The poet laureate of Gush Emunim, veteran songwriter Naomi Shemer (who wrote “Jerusalem of Gold”) stated that if the choice must be between peace and Eretz Yisrael she would choose the latter. Since 1967, young Israelis drawn to Gush Emunim have dismissed democratic arguments as warmed-over pleadings of ghetto Jews intent on showing Gentiles that the Jewish nation is still ‘elect’ ... That Hebrew democracy has not yet come fully into being is Zionism’s tragedy, not its requirement. In any case, revolutionary Zionism completed its work long ago ... Shemer is instinctively right to suggest that her new Zionist commitment to Greater Israel is deeply at odds with Israel’s potential to become a democratic state.”  

Moral Independence  

Author A.B. Yehoshua has compared the West Bank to a tar baby, arguing that the more the Israeli government strives to subdue Arabs, the more it sacrifices its own moral independence. Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, says that most Israeli Jews have become accustomed to living in what he calls Herrenvolk democracy, with first-class citizenship for Jews and second-class citizenship for Arabs, “Since 1967.” Avishai writes, “there has been polarization, a coarsening of political rhetoric, the stirrings of racism ... Over 60 percent of young Israelis believe Arabs should not be accorded full rights in the state ... Significantly, the West Bank is ruled under British emergency regulations from 1946, which one former Israeli Justice Minister, Yaacov Shimshon Shapiro, has called Fascist: preventive detention is common ... Under Sharon there was no freedom of the press on the West Bank, no freedom of assembly, no freedom to organize political parties. Nearly every elected mayor was deposed by the military government. Instead of enjoying municipal government, the towns have been firmly controlled by IDF patrols.”  

Before the October war of 1973, one well-known Israeli political scientist suggested that Israel could remain immune to the militarism which seemed to go along with military government in other countries. Israel, he said, could be the Athens of the Middle East ready to fight but culturally free. Bernard Avishai believes that, tragically, Thucydides’ cautionary evocation of life during the Peloponnesian War is also in many ways a depiction of trends in Israeli political culture since the 1967 war: “Words had to change their ordinary meanings, to take those which were now given to them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice. Moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent, a man to be suspected ...”  

“Only Democracy”  

While Israel often proclaims itself, and is proclaimed by others to be the “only democracy” in the Middle East, and while for its Jewish citizens it is indeed a democracy with healthy debate, a free press, and a dynamic parliamentary system, for its Arab citizens it is something far different. “Israeli citizenship is of no advantage to Arabs who want to live in Israel,” Avishai states, “so long as the governing apparatus does not reapportion the power held by the semiofficial Zionist institutions established during the years of the Yishuv. These bureaucracies — the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, the organized rabbinate — have routinely violated the democratic standards which must be upheld for the Arabs if they are to gain anything like equality. The crucial reform would be a written constitution, through which the Israeli Arabs could obtain judicial relief. ... The question is not whether good Zionism or bad Zionism will prevail in Israel, but whether democratic tendencies — some of which, to be sure, were inherent in historic Labor Zionism — will prevail against the anachronistic institutions which Labor Zionism once made; prevail against the new Zionist ideology of a Greater Israel. An Israeli need not be a Zionist of any kind to want democracy for his or her country. For Israeli democrats, Arabs included, Zionist ideas are at best a distraction, at worse, an invitation to authoritarian forces to set the terms of national debate.”  

What is actually taking shape in Israel at the present time, Avishai believes, is a competition between two wishes: “The first — pristine, outrageous, yet resonating with the classical Zionist dream — is the wish to wake up one morning in a state of Jews, occupying the land of Israel without challenge, a kind of Jewish Japan. ... The second wish, more immediately realistic, but tangible only for a narrow group of Israelis, is that Israel must join the world, become like Singapore a constituent of the democratic, global village.”  

Bernard Avishai urges Israel to move toward a secular future in order to save its society “from itself.” He urges American Jews who, he laments “have made what they call Zionism the center of their institutional life,” to speak out in behalf of those Israelis who want to preserve democratic ideals.  

Early Romance  

Writing in Harper’s (January/February 2005), Avishai recalled his own early romance with the Zionist idea: “In the summer of 1967, I fell in love with the Jewish National Fund — the old Zionist holding company which formally owned the land on which most of Israel’s farming collectives had been built. I was 18, and had just finished my first year at McGill University. In what still seems to me an exhilarating rush of events, I arrived in Israel about a week after the end of the Six Day War and wound up volunteering to work on Kfar Yehoshua, the moshav (collective farm) of an indomitable couple whose close neighbor had been killed early in the war.”  

As time went on, Avishai became concerned about the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens. He notes that, “On a visit with my cousins to the new campus of Tel Aviv University, I noticed huge posters with a puzzling map, which seemed exactly like the Arabic map of Palestine in which Israel had been effaced, only this was a Hebrew map of Israel on which the West Bank and Gaza were effaced. The posters ... were from a new organization, the Whole Land of Israel Movement, which opposed returning any part of the conquered West Bank, even for peace, since (their statement read) ‘no government in Israel is entitled to give up this entirety, which represents the inherent and inalienable right of our people from the beginning of its history.’ The clear implication of this statement was that the West Bank should now be settled by Jews. Even then, this prospect struck me as oddly greedy, and provocative ...”  

Avishai recalls that, “Thinking back to 1967, certainly it is obvious that the settlers’ ideas and stridency did not just grow out of thin air. Both emerged from a revolutionary Zionist logic, and a powerful Zionist bureaucracy — right for their time, in the 1930s and ’40s, but terribly wrong once the state was firmly established, after 1967 — a Zionism that automatically assured Jews privileges that other people, non-Jews subject to Israeli sovereignty, could not get ... When I finally moved to Jerusalem in 1972, I was given a virtually interest-free mortgage to buy an apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill, a new neighborhood that the state ... was putting up next to Mt. Scopus in Arab East Jerusalem. All I had to do was prove myself a Jew by birth ... I did not think of the apartment complex as a ‘settlement.’ I did not think it strange that I was moving into a neighborhood stringently segregated by the very Zionist laws, dreams and management I had come to identify with liberation.”  

Association with EU and NATO  

What of the future? Avishai points to the fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares it “a Jewish state,” but also promises to ensure the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex ...“ A hopeful future for Israel, he suggests, might be some kind of association with the European Union or NATO: “Israel would still be a ‘Jewish state,’ whose national literary and artistic masterpieces, created in Hebrew, would be open to the cultural and scientific currents of the developed world. But it would also be a country in which any citizen of the EU could choose to work ... and eventually go through a defined process of naturalization ... Israel would have to replace the Law of Return, but it could still have laws that prefer immigrants who are Diaspora Jews or the victims of anti-Semitism.”  

While Avishai admits that such a scenario may indeed be a “pipe dream,” he is certain that Israel must resolve the tension between Jewish nationalism and democratic principles. He fears that the recent transformation of Zionism along more nationalistic and messianic lines has created an even greater danger for Israel’s future. He urges American Jews to help Israel advance toward genuine democracy, not defend its actions when they fall short of such an ideal.  

The Tragedy of Zionism is essential reading for those who would understand the intellectual currents now so sharply at odds in contemporary Israel. Bernard Avishai has issued a much needed call to reconsider Zionism’s classic questions — the tension between religion and secularity and between the particular needs of the state of Israel and the moral claims of others.

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