If there’s one word in Hebrew I’m totally fed up with, it’s Zionism. It’s a word full of meaning and empty of all meaning.
It’s a word you can stick in any sentence there’s a gap in. It’s good for politicians who have nothing to say. It can justify anything and disqualify anything. It’s good for every swindler and cheat. About 300 years ago the English thinker Samuel Johnson said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In our day and place we can say that about Zionism. So what’s the real meaning of the word?
Zionism, as is commonly known, was born as a term at the end of the 19th century and came to express a perfectly simple idea – to take the Jews out of the Diaspora and concentrate them in the Land of Israel. It was indeed a revolutionary idea – a geographic revolution that was inevitably an ideological revolution: turning the Jews from an ethno-religious community dispersed around the world into a modern “nation” concentrated in one country, in the spirit of nationalism that was intensifying in Europe. That was Zionism.
Over the years, many intellectuals have added accretions to Zionism as they saw fit. Each person had his own Zionism – right and left, conservative and socialist, religious and secular, Western and Eastern. But none of these accretions changed the simple idea conceived by Theodor Herzl, who believed that almost all the Jews would come to Israel. The rest, he thought, would simply become Germans, Russians, French and so on. Had Herzl known the Mizrahi Jews – Jews in the wider Middle East – he would have thought that they too, unless they came to Israel, would become Moroccans, Turks, Persians and so on. They would cease to be Jewish.
From Herzl’s point of view, the term “American Zionist” is an oxymoron, an absurd contradiction in terms. To him, a Jewish American could be a Zionist for a few months, but to stay one he had to board a ship heading for Ottoman Palestine. This Zionism, the real Zionism, of Herzl’s came to an end with Israel’s establishment as a state. The idea had been realized. Israel’s citizens are a nation, as he dreamed. Like every nation they want their state to thrive, while the Jews throughout the world remain an ethno-religious community, as they were before the birth of Zionism.
What’s the character of this community? In the modern world it’s a unique, extraordinary creature, but in the past it was perfectly normal. In the Byzantine Empire the entire population was made up of such communities. Each community had its own religion and administrative autonomy, ruled by clergymen subordinate to central rule.
The division among the communities wasn’t geographic but ethnic and religious. The Jews who were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon didn’t become Babylonians, they remained Jews. And when they were returned to Jerusalem by Cyrus the Great, they continued being Jews. After the Persian Empire came the Macedonian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and later the Muslims – Arabs, Mamluks and Turks – until the arrival of the British, whose laws we inherited.
To this day our marriage laws are founded on that ancient basis. A Jew from Tel Aviv can marry his Jewish beloved from New York with no difficulty, but cannot marry a Christian from Jerusalem or a Muslim from Haifa. One of the two must convert, or they must marry abroad. This is the community regime, a blatant anti-Zionist anachronism.
A Jewish American is American and doesn’t belong to the Israeli nation. He can send us donations (and bless him for it), or visit us in the summer at the expense of some “Zionist” organization, but he is American. Benjamin Netanyahu can declare himself the leader of all the Jews, but he’s only the prime minister of the Israeli nation in little Israel.
By the way, Israel’s Arab citizens could have been part of the Israeli nation, had they wanted to. I would welcome them. But they seem to prefer being a national minority in the Israeli state and remain part of the Palestinian nation.
In this day, in this reality, the Zionist brand is unnecessary and a hindrance. It’s confusing and serves as a tool for politicians who seek to extort money and political support from Jews around the world. It’s a false brand misused for fraud.
So how do I define myself? Like any modern person I consist of several layers. First I’m a human being, a brother to every man and woman on earth. Then I’m an Israeli. Then I’m of Jewish descent. (Once I had a stormy argument with Ariel Sharon about this. I told him I was first and foremost an Israeli and only then Jewish, and he passionately argued he was first Jewish and only then Israeli.)
In brief, we’ve built a national structure called Israel. For that we needed scaffolding. This scaffolding was called Zionism. Now, when the building is standing, the scaffolding has become redundant and is even in the way. But for all kinds of scoundrels it’s a useful refuge.