Zionism: Let's Talk About It

Zionism is coming out of a deep coma, but for it to complete its rehabilitation, we need a new Zionist discourse.


One of the good things the Im Tirtzu movement did was to open up the question of who's a Zionist to the public. But that's merely part of a much wider phenomenon that can be called Zionism's comeback. Politicians, public figures and journalists are talking and writing a lot more about Zionism and the need to save it. Various sections of the population are fighting over the issue of who Zionism belongs to and trying to save it from the heavy-handed extreme right. That's a very positive phenomenon. The 1970s and '80s were characterized by the desire of the elites to smash the Zionist icon. Later the word Zionist was considered irrelevant to our lives. It no longer is.

In recent years, many of us have claimed that we are a country without territorial or moral borders and this is the source of many of our troubles. Maybe this is right. Maybe it's merely a poetic explanation. What's clear is that, with or without progress on the peace process, it's reasonable to assume that we will not have permanent borders for a long time to come. Now is the time for us to think what we want, even without permanent borders.

The truth is, a significant debate is being held over questions of Zionism, but it deals mainly with prevention or putting out fires. The debate over the constitution is meant to ensure democracy's well-being. The debate over the core curriculum and sending the ultra-Orthodox out to work is meant to prevent the collapse of the economy and national security. The debate over immigration policy tries to combine maintaining a Jewish majority, human rights and a humane approach to foreigners.

I recently wrote in my blog "Mashgiah Kashrut" ("Kashrut Supervisor" ) about the new phenomenon of young couples turning to me, as an expert on ultra-Orthodox affairs, and asking whether it would be responsible for them to set up a family in an Israel that is becoming increasingly ultra-Orthodox. The response to this challenge shouldn't have to be something like "that's the way for us to stop the ultra-Orthodox." It should be about what we want to build here, in cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox, or at least some of them.

One could say we should go from a discourse that puts the individual at the center back to one that sees the answer in a shared objective and joint vision. Maybe the answer is in a discourse that doesn't merely examine how our children will be happy (an approach that often causes them not to be ). We should also ask how to give purpose and significance to their lives. Five or 10 years ago, we were too cynical for this approach. It seems to me the time is ripe now.

Here are a few examples. Zionism was in principle a socialist vision. Israel has now become a capitalist country in which the weak are trampled on. Many people are struggling to soften the blows of capitalism. But what balance do we want to create between free enterprise and social justice? Israel has failed completely in populating the country's outskirts. Now it's sending its army camps and the ultra-Orthodox there. Is that really the solution?

Education in Israel faces a serious crisis. We need solutions to completely change the status of teachers, their quality, the education system's responsibility, the number of study hours and the content of the teaching. We need a comprehensive vision, no more experiments.

We tend to compare ourselves to the countries of the West. But do we really want to be a Western country, or is this supposed to be a Jewish Western country? And how does the Jewish part mend some of the built-in damage of being Western? Our Basic Laws have created a new term: a Jewish and democratic state. How do we impart significance to the Jewish part without coercion and a monopoly?

For this to happen, we need revolutionary and practical people who don't believe something is impossible. For that, we need public debate and ideological argumentation. We need vision documents that ignore the limits of politics and coalitions, and books of the "whither the Jewish state" type. We need a public debate in the media and on the Internet. The significant success of the new Israeli left attests to this great thirst. This discourse should be very ambitious. It should deal with the values Zionism must have and what we want to believe in.

Zionism is coming to life out of a deep coma. For it to complete its rehabilitation, we need a new Zionist discourse.


The writer is deputy director of Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.