What Does Zionism Mean in This Day and Age?

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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A torched synagogue in Lod during the violence in May.
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

It is part of nationalist conflicts that years after their outbreak, debates arise over how it all began and who started the fire. In the case of the recent round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, there are those who from the very first are busy searing the collective conscious with the blaming of the victims – the Garin Torani (Torah cadre) residents of course, who according to the accusations, contributed to the brutal violence turned against them.

Thus, for example, calling the local Garin Torani “The Lod settlers” is far from innocent. It is designed to paint the religious residents of the city with the image of the Judea and Samaria settlers – a privileged, missionary-minded, budget-guzzling old geezer, insisting on poking his Arab neighbors in the eye.

But discussing Garin Torani's budget, their religiosity, or their privileges – real or imagined – is beside the point. What bothers those who accuse “the settlers of Lod” is that their very existence touches a deeper, slightly painful matter.

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These people, who talk about "Judaizing" Lod, about neighborhoods that have lost their Jewish residents, and about settling Jews in the Land of Israel – remind their opponents of their own grandfather: A pioneer, member of Mapai or perhaps another of the labor movements. The earliest Zionists in this country spoke the same language. Back then, they called it Zionism.

It wasn’t just the first generation, either. In the 1970s and ‘80s there was a flourishing project to “Judaize the Galilee.” It was driven – proudly, openly, with the explicit intent of changing the demographic balance against the Galilean Arabs – by the Labor Party. Then-journalist Yossi Beilin called the project “one of the most important national missions today.” To this day, support for withdrawal from Judea and Samaria is explained as necessary to maintain a solid Jewish majority in Israel.

But in 2021, it’s no longer sexy to talk like that. It’s considered anachronistic. Talking about a Jewish majority in the cities, and about migrating to areas with a scant Jewish presence, no longer sounds as good as it used to. What once was perceived as a “national mission” of any government in Israel is now the task of certain ideological groups.

If in August 1975, then-President Ephraim Katzir went on tour in support of Judaizing the Galilee, today lawmaker Simcha Rothman (National Union) moved his family to Lod. Who better represents the pioneers who built the state, the members of the Haganah and the kibbutz movements – Rothman or his detractors? The answer is a bit painful for the detractors. If a group whose goal it is to increase the number of Jews in Israeli municipalities is racist, why, then, did Chaim Herzog tear up the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism?

Those who understand this well, by the way, are the hooligans who rioted in the mixed cities. They didn’t chant slogans against the local Garin Torani movement. They attacked any vehicle they identified as Jewish-owned, and the hotels destroyed in Acre did not belong to any Garin Torani. The same goes for the highways of the Galilee and Negev. Say what you want about the rioters, but they didn’t pick and choose their victims. There is a creeping sense that the rage against the Garin Torani presence in Lod, Jaffa or Acre is a Jewish rage more than an Arab one.

We can and should have an internal discussion about the very concept of the Garin Torani. About the massive change they are causing in the character of cities and neighborhoods. The question of publicly financing them is also legitimate (I, for one, support cutting such budgets.)

But truth be told, that’s not the real discussion here. We’re not here to talk about gentrification, but about nationality, demographic struggle, defining Zionism in this day and age, and how far we’ve drifted from the original concept.

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