Sunday, November 15, 2009

This ain't your grandpa's Zionism

While volunteering in Israel, working with kids ranging from ages 7-17, me and my fellow volunteers are always asked the same questions: why do you love Israel so much that you are living here, bascially: why are you here? The answers vary, some think Israel is a beautiful country, some are enticed by the free trip we're on, some think Israel is an interesting place to spend 5 months, some want to learn more about Israel and Judaism, and some are considering making aliyah. But for me, the question has always been somewhat obvious: I'm here because I'm a Zionist. But as I keep spending more and more time in Israel, my definition of Zionism and my identity as being one, has become blurry- and by this I mean I am constantly struggling and redefining what I mean!!

As a Jewish history major, it was always easy for me to identify with 19th and early 20th century Zionism: you know, LoveofZion-Bilu-BenGuirion-BerBerochov-Weitzman sort of Zionism. (and a little Herzl) As a politics student I understood the position of post Zionists, or post modern Zionists, but I was too ideological in mind to really face these ideas... as Amos Oz writes in a perfect peace "the eternal and tragic conflict between high ideals and gray realities". Obviously I chose high ideals. I was stuck in this whirlwind obsession and love for the ideal of the Jewish state. Especially when my studies focus on the Holocaust, my emotions and my passions pointed to the obvious need of the state. So basically my Zionism was old and outdated. I wanted to work the land, become a new Jew, contribute to the Jewish state- as if it really needed me. I know this basic picture has been many times complicated by history, but the romance of loving Israel in this simple way is defiantly charming. The lure of a people getting their hands dirty, and redefining themselves for a fresh start, despite attractiveness, is over. We are no longer the people huddled over our radios claiming victory on November 29, 1947- foaming over our prospects of new beginnings. World history has gotten in the way- and in order to re-evaluate our Zionism, we must include this in our definitions.

So- starting from the beginning: what is Zionism for me? I guess the most basic I can get is, the belief in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. However, is this task not over? Have we not already established a Jewish homeland- the state of Israel? (True, that for some this definition is still in progress- the struggle to establish the Jewish homeland includes the West Bank; Judea and Samaria. Jewish settles claim to be settling the land which will become part of the state of Israel, therefore they believe they too are settling the land, much as Jews did pre-1948) However, the existence of the Jewish state complicates our vision of basic Zionism. If the state is established then what does it mean to be a Zionist? Does love or support for Israel, as a Jewish state, become the new definition? How do you support Israel- is it enough to simply believe in it`s existence? Does the state of Israel really need us, in the way it used to need Jews when it was still establishing itself, or is the current population enough to support it? Further, we can get into the question of 'sure the state is established now, but do we like the way it`s established'; how can we change it to create a better state? How does democracy fit into this as well- so yes sure I support a Jewish state, but is it only if it`s democratic as well... and once you get into that you get into questions of how to balance ideas of democracy and Judaism. Is there truly such a thing as both Jewish and democratic? (EX. Is it democratic that a Jew can`t marry a non-Jew in Israel? It`s by ``Jewish law``, but this sort of thing wouldn`t fly as democracy in the US or Canada) And now we can dip into the questions of Palestinians, or Arab Israelis. Are you less, or more of Zionist if you believe in land for peace? People would say both; by giving up land you are sacrificing the state, and then you don't even have a 100% guarantee for peace. Yet on the other hand, maybe you are less of a Zionist if you don't want to give up land because you are endangering the peace efforts of Israel, dooming it in the future. And what about the idea that Zionism was created as a safe haven for the Jews- is it really this now?? Maybe you could argue that Jews in North America are safer; antisemitism is low in places like New York, and they don't live with the threat of suicide bombers or Iran's nuclear threat. What does it really mean to say you are Zionist? What are you saying- what are you inferring?

This blog has become more of a forum for questions; I've put alot down on the plate, and could probably keep going for days. And so how do I answer all these questions? Well I don't have all the answers, that is forsure. Struggling with them means struggling with the answers as well. Hopefully I can get into some of these answers a bit more in later blogs, but really I guess the important thing for me now, is knowing that I'm asking. I don't want to say that the beginnings of modern Zionism were simple, because that too we can write page and pages on, but I think that those complications are still present, and more have appeared. For me, this means I can no longer just believe I am a simple Zionist, but understanding the layers that involve calling myself a Zionist and knowing it's a journey of struggle.

Feel free to post comments- I want to know what you`re thinking.


  1. It's really a great observation you made about Zionism, Judaism and Democracy. I think that its hard to view the Jewish state in its current iteration as a true democracy -- what are the sacrifices in Jewish law that the we have to make in the name of democracy and vise-versa, what are the sacrifices that we need to make as proponents of democracy to make a Jewish state....and what is more important? As Jews, of course we say Judaism, but as North Americans (who are taught to value to the underdog and the underrepresented) its hard to reconcile the two.

    Yes, in Israel, we are the majority- but this is the only place in the world where that is true, but there are still populations negatively affected by our existence.

    The good news however, is that Judaism (well...Judeo-Christian values) provides the basis for the values and laws in Western society...the bad news is that Western laws aren't always that appealing to the rest of the world (or us for that matter!)....

  2. Thank you for this comment. I'm actually focusing my next blog post exclusively on the connudrum of the Jewish-democratic state, so this post is just in good timing. i will try to hurry that post up.