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It’s Time for Us to Move Past Zionism

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A man in the Jewish settlement Beit Yosef in 1937, captured by photographer Rudy Wiesenstein best known for his documentation of early Israel.
A man in the Jewish settlement Beit Yosef in 1937, captured by photographer Rudy Wiesenstein best known for his documentation of early Israel.Credit: Rudi Weinstein

Over the past month I’ve been asked more than once if I’m a Zionist. The reporter from the newspaper Makor Rishon asked, and then some time after the interview inquired in a text message if I could be called an anti-Zionist.

I immediately told him no. Call me a critical Zionist, I proposed, and for a moment there I was quite pleased with myself. Once again I’d managed to elude the oppressive label that still serves as the main entry to Israeliness and tars everyone who thinks differently with a depressing one-dimensional brush.

What is the basic argument of critical Zionism? It’s that Zionism is a national movement whose aim was the establishment of a Jewish national home. Hence, once the state was founded, Zionism’s role was finished. Now we are Israelis. Post-Zionists, in other words.

And that being the case, let’s find a different, more relevant vision – a vision of integrating into the region, for example, or of self-improvement that would make us a model multicultural society, a light unto the global migration. Let’s find a vision that will get us somewhere, a goal toward which to strive as a community.

Clinging to the building plan after the building has already been put up isn’t just foolish, it’s damaging. It’s survivalist behavior that lacks any horizon. Zionism is said to be the glue that connects the tribes of Israel, that this is its symbolic role, like the flag, the national anthem or the Bible.

It’s said that Zionism’s great advantage is its openness to individual interpretation, that this is the source of a marvelous capacity for renewal, the thing that makes it possible for rightists like Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich, Benjamin Netanyahu and Miri Regev and leftists like Avi Buskila and Zehava Galon to all ride in the same flimsy boat yet feel they’re different from one another, that one is a traitor while the other is a patriot. They all would define themselves as Zionists – without thinking twice. Like some primitive cry of loyalty. Like some pagan oath in the jungle – pardon me, in the villa in the jungle.

Even Dov Khenin of the Joint List, when I once interviewed him, had trouble calling himself an anti-Zionist, a post-Zionist or whatever. He, too, understood that such a declaration carries a political, social and personal price in a society. And that includes most of those who call themselves leftists, unable to hear even a word of criticism about Zionism, even if it means an ugly denial of Zionism’s crimes: abductions of children, occupying another people, oppressing and keeping down entire swaths of the population.

Zionism, born a century ago, was turned by its founders and their agents, from right and left, into the ruling religion, way above even faith in God, which is still perceived today as unmodern and harmful. Moreover, Zionism was transformed from a bold and just idea into an instrument that justified the most immoral actions imaginable. In the name of Zionism we fought, occupied, attacked, purged, killed and destroyed. But we called it “conquering the wilderness” or “a just war” or “a national revival.”

In the name of Zionism, we built prestigious universities, we built sleek cities and lush kibbutzim, and we wrote fine literature and poetry. But at the same time, for others we built remote development towns, white-owned factories paying workers minimum wage, schools for inferior vocational education, special tracks in the “people’s army” and glass ceilings nearly at ground level.

We didn’t do this in the name of Jewish heritage and a divine imperative. Nor did we do it in the name of Israeliness, whatever that may be. We did it in the name of Zionism.

That is, we soiled the beautiful and just core idea of building a national home for the Jewish people. So much so that now quite a number of countries, many of them just, think that maybe it was all a mistake, that the Jewish child shouldn’t have been allowed to build a home of his own.

And they’re not alone, these sweet countries. A good number of Israelis, like myself, think the same way – those for whom the word Zionism, in its current interpretation and actions, makes them feel ill.

And don’t get the wrong idea about these Jews – they feel responsibility. They don’t just dismiss everything and disappear, leaving you denuded of any connecting ideology. Some of them have some decent ideas about where to go from here, certainly in light of the dead end that Zionism has reached in nearly every area in recent decades.

Some will tell you that this is the time to work on a multicultural dream, some will tell you about the vision of an egalitarian binational state, and some will dream aloud about a gender revolution or religious/traditional revolution. All are more worthy than a Zionism that has lost its direction and morality to become a cruel idea devoid of compassion.

The time has come to say it out loud: Zionism was born in justice but long ago achieved the main objective for which it arose. Now the time has come for a new and more relevant dream.

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