After 120 Years, Zionism Still Can't Answer Its Foundational Question

It's not just Netanyahu: From Basel onward, Zionism deferred defining the Jewish state's borders

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a celebration of the 50 years of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Gush Etzion settlement bloc, September 27, 2017
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a celebration of the 50 years of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Gush Etzion settlement bloc, September 27, 2017Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Wednesday evening featured a busy schedule of anniversaries. Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu were shuttled from the festive ceremony in Gush Etzion commemorating 50 years of West Bank settlement to Mount Herzl in north Jerusalem to make 120 years to the first Zionist Congress. The prime minister has the privilege of being wafted past security checkpoints in a convoy that swiftly bypasses the capital’s rush-hour traffic. As a result of the clumsy planning, most other dignitaries had to choose which commemoration to attend.

Netanyahu doesn’t have just an earthly transport advantage. He’s a skilled time-traveler capable of eliding 70 years of Zionist history dividing that first Congress in the concert hall of the Basel Stadtcasino, where secular European Jews in evening dress gathered to discuss a distant Jewish state and the young spartan religious Israelis, the “children of Kfar Etzion,” who three months after the Six-Day War returned to the ruins of their parents’ kibbutz south of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed during the War of Independence 19 years earlier.

The “national event” in Gush Etzion made headlines due to the public refusal of Supreme Court President Miriam Naor to send one of her judges to the ceremony, and because the leaders of the Labor Party were not formally invited. The government was quite rightly accused of having elevated a partisan political rally to “national” status, then using it as a loyalty test for the judiciary and the opposition.

But what if it had acted differently? After all, Kfar Etzion, the very first of the West Bank settlements, was reestablished with the blessing of Labor Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, as were the handful of settlements build there, in the Gaza Strip and on the Golan Heights over the next decade until Likud came to power in 1977. At what point in the last 50 years does a Zionist draw the line when he believes that Israel made a wrong turn by allowing and helping Israelis live across the Green Line?

It’s all well and good to say that you believe in two states and to vote accordingly for center-left Zionist parties, but in doing so you have to accept that at some point in the last 120 years of Zionist history, there was a junction where the endeavor veered off-course. If you can’t say where that was and who made the wrong call, then what business do you have accusing Netanyahu of distorting Zionism when he insists that every Jew living in the West Bank today is there by right and will never be forced to move in the future?

But there isn’t a clear answer. On September 27, 1967, when the young settlers of Kfar Etzion returned to their parents’ land, there was an official ceremony where Eshkol’s senior adviser Raanan Weitz said that “we have not dispossessed anyone by settling here.” They were telling themselves that returning to Kfar Etzion was only a small act of historic justice, not a settlement drive in to the heart of the West Bank. Later that night, as the reborn community held its own private party, the new kibbutzniks, many of them graduates of a more nationalist religious education system, were clear that this was just the start. But even as the new movement began staking out fresh strongholds, many of the nostalgic ideologues of the Labor movement saw them as proxies, fresh versions of their young selves. Meanwhile other, more clear-sighted pragmatists such as Moshe Dayan and later Yitzhak Rabin predicted the trouble ahead.

The dilemma of what to do with the occupied territories and their Arab inhabitants may have begun following the Six-Day War but it was the product of a much wider blind spot going back to those early days of Herzl. His romantic vision of a Middle European Jewish republic in the Middle East included tame rabbis knowing their place in their synagogues and civic-minded officers staying in their barracks, and young cultured men playing football and cricket. It didn’t include a blueprint for relations with non-Jewish neighbors. Even the much more pragmatic David Ben-Gurion, who took the historic decision in 1947 to accept the partition plan proposed by the United Nations, would two years later, after the War of Independence had been fought and won, avoid discussing permanent borders in the cease-fire talks. Just like every post-1967 leader of Israel, up to and including Netanyahu, he preferred a state in undefined borders to having to make the difficult decisions on who and what would be included within the Jewish state.

The next anniversary Israelis will be marking is on Sunday, when thousands will gather in military cemeteries to mark 44 years since the Yom Kippur War. It took the war’s 2,688 Israeli deaths to drive home the simple message that Israel could not hold on to the Sinai peninsula indefinitely and that the Zionist thing to do would be to pull back as part of a peace agreement with Egypt. But 120 years since Herzl convened his congress in Basel, the thorny question of how the Jews can share their homeland with another nation living on it remains unresolved. Until we finally address it, opportunist and populist politicians will continue to use the ambiguity for sloganeering and dividing.

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