You may have heard that for the last week there’s been an election going for the World Zionist Congress. You could even have voted already – that is, if you identify as Jewish, are willing to pay a small fee and agree with something called “The Jerusalem Program,” a set of rather vague principles regarding the connection between the Jewish people and Israel. But if you haven’t, and are still thinking of doing so before the March 11 deadline, let me try to persuade you not to vote.
It’s not that there isn’t anyone to vote for. If you’re Jewish and don’t totally detest Israel for being an irredeemably racist endeavor or believe that it is a heretic abomination and only the Messiah should be allowed to establish a Jewish state, then you’ll probably find at least two slates that appeal to someone like you. Right-wing, left-wing, progressive, Mizrahi, Orthodox, Reform – they’re all there.
But if you genuinely care about the future of Israel as well as successful Jewish communities in the Diaspora, then you have no business contributing to keeping alive an obsolete organization. Your time, effort, thoughts and money are needed elsewhere.
I’ve explained before in this column why Zionism is an archaic and misleading term in our day and age. But in the past, I’ve done so in response to the interminable and useless debates on whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism and the repetitive “why I’m no longer a Zionist” diatribes that are a rite of passage for a certain type of frustrated lefty Jew. Now I’m going to try to explain, to people who insist they are Zionists, that the same rule holds for them.
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You cannot be either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, just as you cannot be a veteran of Iwo Jima unless you were born at least 90 years ago and fought in that battle. Zionism isn’t an ideology. It’s a program, or an ideological plan, to establish a state for Jews in the biblical homeland. And that program was fulfilled on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence at the old Tel Aviv Museum. That’s it. Done.
We can have fascinating theoretical and moral arguments over whether the program was justified. Or debate whether Ben-Gurion should have gone ahead that day and could Israel have been founded in different circumstances, and not at the expense of exiling hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Palestinians. But believing that on the whole, founding the State of Israel was the right thing to do, doesn’t make you a Zionist any more than thinking that Oliver Cromwell was right to overthrow King Charles, makes you a Roundhead. It simply doesn’t matter what you think about long-ago events you didn’t take part in. Israel is a reality and it’s not going anywhere.
Fortunately, Jews today can decide to live in Israel or they are free to choose to live in nearly every country around the world. Their choice doesn’t make them Zionist, or non-Zionist. It’s just a personal choice. What matters is what they make of their lives and how they work to either make Israel a better place or to make their Jewish communities in the Diaspora, should they choose to belong to one, viable and meaningful. Zionism doesn’t come into it, because Zionism ceased to exist nearly 72 years ago.
What is called Zionism today is a distraction from the very real challenges facing Israel and Jews around the world. To begin with, there were too many types of Zionism, when it was actually a thing – religious and secular, diplomatic and pragmatic, socialist and revisionist – to give us any clue as to how to run a country or build a Jewish society or community in 2020. The successful Zionism – which built a state through collectivist kibbutzim, a centralized economy dominated by trade unions affiliated with the ruling party and a strong militia dedicated to pushing out the Arabs – is hardly the one anyone would wish for today. For obvious reasons.
The other problem is that the main purpose of the organizations that call themselves Zionist today is to guarantee the pensions of the inept and often corrupt hacks and clock-watchers who run them. Some of them still fulfill a useful purpose, like forestry and land management or aiding immigration, and they direct donor funding to educational institutions and social services. All of these are important but would be better served if they were carried out by the Israeli government, whose actions are relatively transparent, monitored by the state comptroller and can easily be challenged in court if they are unreasonable, or by private charities, which are much more efficient.
Sticking the “Zionist” label on anything today means one of three things. At best, that it has no real need in a functioning modern state. Worse, that it is an unaccountable cesspit of corruption. And worst, that it provides services and resources (such as land for building) to Jews only, instead of ensuring equality for all Israelis. If anything, they are the opposite of Zionist, because Zionism was meant to build a proper state, not to keep funding the state-building apparatus in perpetuity.
Voting for a party in the World Zionist Congress, any party, is affirmation of a anachronistic and corrupt system, which only keeps in existence a long-outdated paradigm that the Diaspora needs to “support” Israel with its money and lobbying. In case you haven’t noticed, Israel’s gross domestic product and international clout make it quite self-sufficient nowadays. It also perpetuates the false idea that Israel is the epitome of Jewish existence and that the Diaspora is somehow inferior, and therefore must serve Israel.
Zionism is a miserable excuse that Israeli politicians use instead of doing the hard work of finally coming up with the constitution that Ben-Gurion promised in the Declaration of Independence. Instead of voting for that excuse, progressive-minded Diaspora Jews should spend their time and money supporting organizations working to make Israel, in the absence of a constitution ensuring civil rights, a better and more-just place.
I’ve heard all the arguments that through the World Zionist Congress the progressive American Jewish slates can, if they win enough votes, obtain more control over the billions the WZC allocates and even get seats on the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund executives. Wow. That will make them so influential. They would do better to learn from the kind of American Jews they abhor, the Sheldon Adelsons and the Jared Kushners of this world. If you want to have real influence, spend hundreds of millions on a free newspaper supporting your favorite politicians, or marry the president’s daughter. That’s the way to get a peace plan that fits your agenda. If you don’t have that kind of money or are already married, then find more effective groups to donate to or to volunteer for. Or set up your own.
But if you really care about Israel and a future for Jewish communities, don’t waste your time voting for a moribund organization that should have been shut down the day after Israel became a reality.
A previous version of this article incorrectly made reference to the World Jewish Congress and contained a photograph of WJC President Ronald S. Lauder.