The strength of modern Zionism 120 years after first WZC

The strength of modern Zionism 120 years after first WZC

Some six years ago, while in Jerusalem, I found myself discussing with colleagues whether we should drop the term Zionism from our lexicon because it had become so toxic, especially on university campuses. I think of that experience as we approach the 120th anniversary of the first World Zionist Congress, which took place in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1897.

To shun Zionism is to ignore an important chapter of modern Jewish history. Also, it is a gift to our adversaries, those who — despite the repeal in 1991 of the infamous UN General Assembly’s resolution equating Zionism with racism — continue to delegitimize the Jewish people’s right of national self-determination. 

Rabbi David Levy, the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey regional director, agrees. “Just as we would never consider finding a new word for Jewish in the face of anti-Semitism, we must not allow others to cause us to do so for the word Zionism,” he said. 

My favorite go-to person on Zionism is Professor Gil Troy who, in 2001, wrote the book “Why I Am a Zionist.” 

“I have learned from my African-American, feminist, and gay friends on campus to take back the night and not to let our enemies define us, label us,” he told me. “I refuse to retreat because it doesn’t ‘poll well.’ Rather, I embrace it more enthusiastically.”  

Troy will publish an update of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic Zionist anthology, “The Zionist Idea,” in the spring, though he will be adding “s” to “Idea” to invite people both on the left and right of the political spectrum, religious and non-religious, to find their way into the conversation.

If the goal of the Zionist movement, as proclaimed in Basel 120 years ago, was to establish for the Jewish people “a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine,” as we approach Israel’s 70th anniversary, what is the meaning of Zionism in 2017?  Troy asserts, and I fully concur, that the current goal of Zionism is to “perfect Israel, to make it fulfill its highest ideals.” 

So where do we find those highest ideals? 

One source could be the 2004 New Jerusalem Platform, the official platform of the World Zionist Organization and current successor text of the 1897 Basel Program, which, according to the American Zionist Movement’s website, “now relates more to the nature of the Jewish state as a growing and evolving society, as opposed to previous versions more focused on the establishment of the state.” There are six clauses in the platform, one of which is “strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multifaceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace, and contributing to the betterment of the world.” Of all the clauses, this resonates the most with me because it blends Jewish particularism and universalism 

Another source of Israel’s highest ideals is its declaration of Independence. This magnificent document asserts that the newly re-established, once-ancient sovereign Jewish nation will be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” and that Israel “extends its hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.”  

The democratically elected government of Israel will make the war and peace decisions that directly affect the security of the country’s citizens. Yet, I believe we, as American Jews, have a right and a responsibility to encourage Israel to actively, courageously, and demonstrably pursue peaceful relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. It is not for us to get into the nitty gritty of permanent borders, security arrangements, etc. These issues demand judgments that appropriately can be made only by Israel’s political and military leadership. At the same time, there is a clear-cut organizational American Jewish consensus favoring the two-state vision of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace. It is the arrangement that, in the long run, will best enable Israel to remain largely Jewish, democratic, and secure. Thus, it is incumbent on us to express support for Israeli policies that extend a hand in peace by preserving the viability of a future two-state arrangement — hopefully soon — when the political stars are sufficiently aligned to achieve it. 

The Declaration of Independence also asserts that Israel will “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all…. It will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” After two millennia of living as a minority within Christian and Muslim societies, often persecuted and accorded second-class status, Israel has an opportunity to show how they will treat a minority within the Jewish state. 

While Israel’s Arab citizens fully participate in the country’s political process, there is a large gap between Jewish and Arab Israelis in terms of education, government services, and economic development. Commendably, the current Israeli government has started taking important steps to narrow this gap, which require full and expeditious implementation.  

In a related development, the Knesset currently is considering a bill that would enshrine as a basic law — one of the laws intended to become part of a future Israeli constitution — Israel’s identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. In principle, this is not a bad idea, especially considering the vicious international campaign underway to demonize Israel. However, the law should also express a fundamental commitment to democracy, to “complete equality,” and to “equal citizenship,” as stipulated in the Declaration of Independence.   

The document calls for “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” In my mind, one of the meanings of this phrase is that all Jews — with no regard for whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or without any religious affiliation — should feel respected and accepted by the State of Israel. In my previous column, I explained that Israel’s electoral system has produced a legal structure that denies non-Orthodox Jews equal status in family and personal status matters. It won’t be easy, and it will take time, but we must summon the political will to vigorously and consistently seek to change that status quo.  

The Declaration of Independence asserts that Israel will seek to advance justice as envisaged by the prophets. It can provide moral leadership to the family of nations by addressing the needs of the most vulnerable segments of Israeli society; maintaining a high level of respect for human rights and civil liberties in the face of daunting security challenges; exercising responsible stewardship of the environment; and responding to crisis situations and suffering occurring in other parts of the world. These and other endeavors all will determine whether the Jewish State is up to the task. 

The Jewish people have come a long way since the first World Zionist Congress.  While we certainly are entitled to take great pride in the State of Israel, there is much more to be accomplished. Zionism in the 21st century means fulfilling the explicit and implicit ideals articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and serving as an Or laGoyim, a light unto the nations. We must never allow Zionism to be dropped from our lexicon, or from our mission.

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