As Annexation Looms, What Kind of Zionism Will Survive?

Israel’s ‘emergency government’ intends to begin unilaterally annexing chunks of the West Bank. It may seal the historic victory of a menacing Zionism of Jewish power

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Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence, on the day when Netanyahu's corruption trial starts, in Jerusalem May 24, 2020.
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence, on the day when Netanyahu's corruption trial starts, in Jerusalem May 24, 2020. Credit: Reuters

The late Amos Oz regularly contended that Zionism is not a first name but a family name. Ask each member of this family what Zionism means to them and you’ll hear a plethora of visions of Jewish national self-determination in the historical Land of Israel.

The debate within the family has been raging for well over a century, albeit under one roof. After annexation, however, there might not be so many family members left at home. 

Each competing Zionist vision is both somewhat connected to the present reality as well as having an attachment to some abstract ideal, varying in the extent to which they are rooted in either. Over the decades, these visions have waxed and waned as the reality on the ground further approaches or strays from each of their ideals.

Some visions have gone extinct as their connection to reality vanished entirely. Bi-nationalist Zionism, which sought to create a Jewish-Arab state, died out with the establishment of the State of Israel, having spent its final years on life support after the Biltmore Program of 1942 made the pursuit of a Jewish state official Zionist policy. 

‘Zion,’ an illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien  (1874-1925), sometimes called the first Zionist artist, the 1903 book Lieder des Ghetto by Morris Rosenfeld
‘Zion,’ an illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), sometimes called the first Zionist artist, the 1903 book Lieder des Ghetto by Morris RosenfeldCredit: Wikimedia

Others are critically endangered. Socialist Zionism, predominant during the state’s early years, has been dealt a near-fatal blow by the dismantling of the welfare state under Likud since 1977 and the subsequent adoption of those same neoliberal policies by Labor in opposition and in government.

With a drastic economic shift highly unlikely in the near future but not a total impossibility, Socialist Zionists (who nowadays exist primarily in youth movements and a handful of kibbutzim) can perhaps still cling to an abstract ideal even as the reality on the ground continues to negate it.

Today, regardless of the variety of names they’ve chosen for themselves, those who do remain in the Zionist family can be seen as belonging to two competing ideological camps: universalism and particularism. At their core, both Zionisms are justified in terms of some combination of Jewish safety and Jewish cultural or spiritual vitality. But everything beyond this is the source of fierce – and sometimes violent – disagreement.

For the universalistic camp, the purpose of a Jewish state is to be a light unto the nations, a beacon of democracy and morality which fosters peace and internationalism. For the particularistic camp, Zionism is primarily a vehicle for Jewish liberation and power, the ultimate expression of which is a state that inspires fear in its enemies and relies on no other nation but itself.

In reality, the particularistic camp has always been a stronger force. First of all, Zionism is itself already a form of particularism, as are all nationalisms by definition (and especially those rooted in ethnicity). Early universalistic Zionist visions were undermined as relations deteriorated between Arabs and Jews in Mandatory Palestine, producing a consensus in the Yishuv by the early 1930s behind the particularistic principles of Jabotinsky’s "iron wall" philosophy. Soon after, the Holocaust became the ultimate proof of the need for Jewish power at all costs.

This particularistic consensus in the Zionist world was driven forward by successive Labor governments in Israel during the first decades after statehood. Cracks soon began to emerge, though, and especially in the diaspora. 

Being a Zionist in the diaspora perhaps already implies a certain level of universalism. But as Israel cemented its status as a regional superpower backed from Washington by the world’s strongest military, and as the Palestinian national movement increasingly asserted itself on the world stage through militant stunts and eventually the First Intifada, the modern universalistic camp began to crystallize around a new fundamental ideal: steadfast support for a negotiated two-state solution

(L-R) Egyptian President Mubarak, Palestinian President Arafat, U.S. President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein after signing the Oslo II agreements, 1995.
(L-R) Egyptian President Mubarak, Palestinian President Arafat, U.S. President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein after signing the Oslo II agreements, 1995. Credit: OHAYON AVI / GPO

The 1990s saw universalistic Zionism reach its zenith. With an Israeli-Palestinian peace process underway and an unprecedented expansion of Israel’s relations throughout the Arab world, including a formal peace treaty with Jordan, the universalistic vision was finally starting to reflect reality. (Even if, as many have argued subsequently, the Oslo framework could never have produced a just two-state solution).

And yet today we find universalistic Zionism at its nadir. Just as Arab resistance to Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s led to the marginalization of the universalists in the Yishuv, the Second Intifada and the failure to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict have, according to its adherents, vindicated the particularistic camp once again. 

Rightly or wrongly, universalistic Zionists have kept fighting for their ideal even as the reality on the ground shifts ever further away from it. Despite efforts to make Israel’s Arab/Palestinian population into second-class citizens, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to house 600,000 Jewish Israelis, and the entrenchment of a brutal occupation that continues to deny basic rights to the people whose lives it controls, the ideal has persisted.

Palestinians burn an Israeli flag during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, a day after a Palestinian was shot and killed by police. June 28, 2019
Palestinians burn an Israeli flag during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, a day after a Palestinian was shot and killed by police. June 28, 2019Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

The ideal is of a state that remains a safe haven for persecuted Jews everywhere, in which they can fully express their culture and religion, while simultaneously ensuring complete equality of all its citizens; a state that would negotiate a just peace agreement with its Palestinian neighbours and end the 53-year occupation; a state that would recognize its past sins and turn over a new leaf for the benefit of all who live in it – Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, Holocaust survivors, LGBTQ+ communities, and asylum seekers.

If today this ideal is still plausible, a few weeks from now it may not be.

The plan of Israel’s "emergency government" to advance legislation to begin unilaterally annexing chunks of the West Bank come July 1st could mean for universalistic Zionism what the establishment of a Jewish state meant for bi-nationalist Zionism: extinction.

The political act of annexation is of course not irreversible – and far less so than physical actions that decisively alter the reality on the ground. After all, the past two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (prior to the Trump Mideast plan) have assumed a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980.

What annexation does symbolize, however, is the most dramatic repudiation of the universalistic vision of Zionism since it re-emerged as a significant force. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting in Tel Aviv on May 6, 2012 in front of a portrait of revisionist Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting in Tel Aviv on May 6, 2012 in front of a portrait of revisionist Zionist leader Zeev JabotinskyCredit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

With its dire potential consequences for Palestinian human rights and the future possibility of peace as well as for Israel’s relations with Jordan and the wider Arab world (not to mention for Israel’s own security), and with its total disdain for international law, unilateral annexation represents the antithesis of universalistic Zionism’s most fundamental values. More than this, its realization could spell victory for particularistic Zionism once and for all.

It is unclear if the universalistic camp could recover from this; whether or not its adherents will be able to maintain a commitment to an ideal that is so disconnected from reality as to be almost redundant. Some of its most loyal devotees are already beginning to jump ship. 

But if it can’t recover, then Zionism and particularistic Zionism will have become one and the same. The debate will be over. The family name will represent only different variations of particularism. 

One wonders whether Amos Oz himself, for much of his life a figurehead of the universalistic camp, would still consider that family to be his own.

Ben Reiff is a student and activist, and a participant in the current cohort of Achvat Amim - Solidarity of Nations. Twitter: @ben_reiff

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