Even if You Will It, This Isn't Zionism

The State of Israel is not Altneuland, for the term 'Israeli' is far from being ethnically and religiously neutral.

In 1902, Theodor Herzl published "Altneuland," in which he expounded his socio-political vision for the Land of Israel after masses of Jews had settled there: an autonomous civil society made up of both the Jewish and the non-Jewish inhabitants of the country.

Moshe Yaalon speaking at an Im Tirtzu meeting in 2009
Tess Scheflan

The coda of the book was "If you will it, it is no dream."

Recently, a pamphlet in Hebrew entitled "If You Will It: A Star from Israel, A Manifesto for Zionist Renewal" appeared. It was written by Ronen Shuval, the founder and chairman of an organization called Im Tirtzu ("If you will it" in Hebrew ), which defines itself as "acting for the renewal of thought, culture, and Zionist ideology in Israel."

The name of the pamphlet in English is "Herzl's Vision 2.0" implying that it is an updated version of that vision. However, if you search Shuval's list of recommended reading at the end for the work from which both the pamphlet and the movement took their name, you will not find it.

This is no coincidence, for this is what our new Herzlian writes, in a chapter entitled "The nation-state problem":

"Just as in the United States one may hear today terms such as 'Italian-American'... here we speak of 'Arab Israelis'. It is difficult to exaggerate the absurdity of this concept. Israel is the name of our patriarch Jacob, and 'Israel-ness' is the culture and the consciousness of Jacob ... and what does an Arab, even if he lives in the Galilee, have to do with all this?"

Could there be an opinion further from the worldview of the author of "Altneuland?" The fundamental political principle upon which the Herzlian community in that book is based is separation between ethnic-religious identity and civil-territorial partnership. This is reflected first and foremost in the choice of the ethnically neutral name for the land of that community - the Old-New Land.

The Jews are the majority of the citizens of the community, but because the concept Old-New Land is not exclusively identified with Jewish people, it is structured to encompass both Jews and non-Jews in one "Altneulandic" civil nation. That includes Rashid Bey, the Muslim politician from the Galilee, who has nothing to do with "the culture and the consciousness of Jacob."

The State of Israel is not Altneuland, for the term "Israeli" is far from being ethnically and religiously neutral. However, thanks to the territorial-civil element in it, it is a relatively flexible term, which can serve as a focus of identification also for those who are not numbered with "the seed of our patriarch Jacob."

In fact, a survey carried out this year by pollsters Maagar Mohot found that about half of the Arab youth in Israel feel that they are Israelis. This is one sign, still isolated and insufficient, of the fulfillment of Herzl's civil vision, a sign that Shuval would like to erase.

The intolerable ease with which an educated young person is capable of naming a blatantly anti-Herzlian pamphlet "a renewal of Herzl's vision" is powerful evidence of outrageous alienation from the history and the fundamentals of Zionist nationalism.

Modern Zionism was born out of the basic failure of European states to include Jews in their civic life. Out of a desire not to repeat such a failure, the founding fathers of Zionism created a variety of concepts of nationhood, with the inclusion of other cultures as something to be taken for granted.

These inclusive concepts of citizenship, with the Herzlian Altneuland vision the most clear-cut of all, were a cornerstone of Zionist ideology no less than the ethos of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and the principle of Jewish self-determination.

Those who today exclude this fundamental element from Zionism are left with a chauvinist and non-Zionist version of Jewish nationalism.


The writer lectures on Zionist history and modern nationalism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.