A Missed Funeral and the True Meaning of Zionism

We must make Israel the moral state it was meant to be, rather than playing into the hands of those who seek to push us into the world’s dark corner.

The farce of Israel’s representation at Nelson Mandela’s funeral was no accident. For the last quarter-century, Mandela has been the outstanding symbol of the world to which we want to belong. For the last 25 years, he has been the global icon of equality, peace, freedom and nobility.

But over the last quarter-century, Israel has become ever more alienated from the world to which we want to belong. Over the last 25 years, Israel has beaten a worrying retreat from its commitment to equality, peace, freedom and nobility. Therefore, it’s not surprising that it has lost the sensibility needed to understand just how important Mandela’s funeral was.

After having allowed a settler minority and a nationalist minority and an ultra-Orthodox minority to paint in dark colors, Israel has grown obtuse. Instead of being at the forefront of the world’s progressive forces, it has chosen the world’s tea parties. It has lost the will and ability to be a match for Mandela.

That wasn’t true of historic Zionism, nor is that how historic Zionism behaved. At base, the Jewish national movement was the most just liberation movement on the face of the earth. It was meant not only to free a nation, but to save a nation. Consequently, Theodor Herzl was always careful to be identified with progress.

The same went for his successors. The Labor Movement did this by adopting the values of socialism, and the Revisionist Movement by adopting liberalism. The Zionist left and the Zionist right upheld Herzl’s legacy by ensuring that the movement he established would be committed to equality, peace, freedom and nobility. There’s no doubt that David Ben-Gurion would never have skipped Mandela’s funeral, nor would Ze’ev Jabotinsky. They would never have agreed to leave Israel unrepresented at the world’s moral summit.

This was a vital summit. Israel isn’t facing any conventional military threats; no one threatens its warplanes. The danger it faces is the loss of legitimacy. A change in the nature of the democratic Jewish state could result in it not being able to activate its warplanes at all. Therefore, the necessity of climbing back up to the commanding moral heights is not just moral, but strategic.

It is a strategic necessity of the highest order for Israel both to be an enlightened state, and to be perceived as one. Benightedness is dangerous. It threatens Israel’s ability to protect itself and maintain itself.

Therefore, this week’s embarrassing incident must serve as a warning sign. Israel must not be in the place it has arrived at. It must not let the settlers, the nationalists and the ultra-Orthodox blacken its face. To survive in a tough Middle East, we need the West’s support, and therefore, we must be an inseparable part of the West. In order to have a future, we must renew our partnership with progressive Diaspora Jews and uphold the values in which they believe.

We must make Israel the moral state it was meant to be, and that it needs to be. We must not play into the hands of those who seek, unjustly, to push us into the world’s dark corner.

If we are not progressive and just and liberal, we will not be at all. If we don’t take steps immediately to change our position in the world, we will endanger everything we have built here. Only a progressive Israel that is also seen as a progressive Israel can survive.

This necessary conclusion has some immediate practical consequences. We cannot be viewed by the world as peace rejectionists. We must put forward a peace initiative that will serve us as a moral shield. We must make it clear to the world that we aren’t a theocracy, we aren’t an occupation state, and our hearts aren’t closed.

To fulfill Herzl’s dream, Israel must once again assume a Herzlian face. It must find its place amid the front ranks of Mandela’s mourners, and of those who advance his values.