The Privatization of Zionism

Zionism has fragmented, leaving young Israelis without a unifying national ideology that binds them to their state.

A public high-school teacher in Israel told me he recently asked his students whether they consider themselves Zionists and strive to serve meaningfully in the Israel Defense Forces. Almost all the students said yes.

How many of you would leave Israel if you had the chance? he asked. Most of the students in the class raised their hands a second time. They saw no contradiction between the two responses. 

This anecdote perhaps reflects the changing face of Zionism, or, if you will, its privatization.

From a historical perspective, it is common to point to two basic streams in Zionist thought. The pragmatic constructivist Zionism of the labor movement was the main path taken by Jews during the time of the Yishuv and the creation of the state. It emphasized three major principles: a Jewish majority even at the cost of territorial compromises, the normalization of Jewish existence and international legitimacy. In contrast, there was the "iron wall" of Jabotinsky and his successors on the Israeli right, which advocated establishing a powerful barrier to foil attempts to destroy the Jewish State. Both camps of Zionism shared a basic nationalistic view supporting Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel and the negation of   the Diaspora.

At the beginning of the 21st century, it appears that Zionism's ideological rainbow has become clouded and confused on right and left.

Israel has become less plainly nationalistic and more chauvinistic.  Many people take stands in the name of Zionism or rage against it, but very few understand its meaning.

There are several versions of contemporary right-wing Zionism. There is the fundamentalist neo-Zionism of Im Tirzu, the forceful and intolerant Zionism of Avigdor Lieberman and elite Russian-speaking Israelis, the messianic Zionism of the settlers and the Zionism of the Haredim. Once stridently opposed to political Zionism, the Haredim have de facto acquiesced to it in recent years, with their leader, Eli Yishai, even deporting the children of illegal migrants in its name. (Adherence to political Zionism doesn't weaken opposition by supporters of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and they see no contradiction in this.)

Benjamin Netanyahu represents the essence of this new brand of right-wing Zionism. In his speeches, he rarely mentions the real Israel, with its problems, achievements and hopes. Instead, he dwells on victim-aggressor rationales for our right to the Land of Israel, fears of annihilation in another Holocaust and general existential angst. When you add to the picture his initiative to permit Israeli émigrés to vote in Knesset elections, Netanyahu's Zionism looks like the American Jewish Zionism of the Diaspora, which casts its gaze at the Israeli project from afar.

The picture on the left is no simpler. The radical left views Zionism as the mother of all sins and is eager to prove the point. On the center-left, voices can also be heard saying Zionism was a fine movement for its time, but there is no longer is any reason for it. The Labor Party under the leadership of Shelly Yacimovich touts its identity as a Zionist party while displaying complete neutrality on two issues that for many years most characterized centrist Zionism: establishing state borders that ensure a Jewish demographic majority and creating a national ethos through universal national military service.

The social justice protest has also balked at incorporating nationalistic concepts, opting for a more all-encompassing social outlook. One of the protest leaders Stav Shaffir appeared at a demonstration wrapped in an Israeli flag. Yet when asked about her political persuasion at a panel discussion, she answered that social issues were more important to her than political ideology. Her answer reflects the prevailing mood among the protests groups.

This is Zionism in the Israel of 2012. The rate of military conscription is increasing along with the flow of young Israelis to New York and Brooklyn – without the traditional distinction between "Israelis" and "yordim" (Israelis who leave the country). Soon, these émigrés will even have the right to vote.

On the right, the voices calling for granting some partial form of citizenship to Palestinians are gaining strength. On the left, the liberal bon-ton is to talk about leaving the West Bank settlements in a Palestinian state when it is established and creating a Jewish Diaspora political party. David Ben-Gurion, possibly Menachem Begin and certainly Yitzhak Rabin must be turning in their graves.