Reclaiming Zionism

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November 4, 2004
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Eli Lederhendler

Zionism is not for everyone. Zionism came into the world in the 1880s and 1890s like a whirlwind, upsetting the status quo. With the perspective of over a century, and judging by the enormous changes it has wrought in the lives of millions, Zionism may be called the single most powerful idea invented by Jews in the modern era. Indeed, it is the outstanding modern Jewish idea, to be ranked alongside such earlier epochal ideas as Lurianic mystical messianism, Beshtian Hasidism, and the Hebrew Enlightenment, the Haskalah . Like those movements, Zionism made revolutionary claims regarding the existential core of Jewish being, altered the Jewish map, and revitalized Jewish life.

As was true of the other movements, potency or the weight of historical influence are not to be confused with consensus. Taken seriously, and not merely as flag-waving pro-Israelism, Zionism is an argument, not an axiom, and it still divides opinion within Jewish ranks. From its inception, Zionism challenged the supernatural language of transcendental Judaism and the cosmopolitan language of Jewish universalism; today these remain the two discourses arrayed against the Zionist idea within the Jewish world.

Zionism is neither the self-indulgent junk food of Jewish pride nor a spectator sport. To reclaim Zionism in our lives, we need to admit its serious claims in three areas: as a culture of ideas, it requires specific articulation. As a mode of living in the world, it demands an active orientation. And as a kind of sentiment, it must be expressed with credibility, ardor, and fidelity. Let me elaborate.

First, to be a Zionist is to associate oneself with a pioneering body of discourse on the Jewish condition. One does not have to be a Zionist to seriously discuss, investigate, or deliberate upon the history or current state of the Jews; though it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage these issues without also engaging the intellectual and cultural legacy of Zionism. This legacy, over the years, has produced an estimable stream of debate, scholarship, artistic and literary representation that crucially extends the terms by which we understand ourselves. Such key issues as Jewish “assimilation,” “identity,” and “peoplehood,” have their discursive origin within Zionist forums, from which they percolated throughout contemporary Jewish thought. To identify oneself as a Jew via this intellectual enterprise is, in itself, a positive form of Jewishness.

Second, to be a Zionist is to reclaim an integral Jewish lifestyle (a goal that is especially pertinent to the non-Orthodox or non-believing modern majority). I am not referring here to the slogan that one cannot be a “full Jew” in the Diaspora. Nonsense: all Jews are “full Jews” (or otherwise) to the extent to which the Jewish dimension is a meaningful aspect of their lives — whether in Israel or abroad. I refer, rather, to the possibilities, within Zionist thought and in Israeli society, of viewing one’s Jewishness as a quality that is relevant to most of one’s human qualities, activities, encounters, desires, griefs, or ideals.

The deceptively simple imperative behind Zionism is to “be”: While others counseled the Jew to be more universalistic, more rationalistic, more pious, more German, more American, more progressive, more feminist — at the expense of Jewishness — Zionism counseled the Jew first of all to be him or herself while continuing to be socialist, secularist, or whatever, and thus to bring a panoply of humanistic, cultural, political, and philosophical affinities to bear upon the lives of Jews (and non-Jews) in a society founded by Jews. All of human discourse, in its richness and variety, is available to the Jew, but the Jew, as such, must be willing to commit existentially to the primacy of his/her own being.

Third, a Zionist must know the language of love and possess a lover’s gaze. Warts and all, language and land become objects of desire, fulfillment, and fierce attachment. Our politics of national desire and the unrelenting quarrel over the terms of national-cultural fidelity comprise the most fraught elements in Israeli/Zionist discourse. This language of intimacy is the least accessible to the outsider and the most vulnerable to kitsch. It is the eros of the Zionist sensibility that undergirds our territorial debate, our religious conflicts, and our relationship with the Palestinians; but it also animates the quests of nature lovers and eco-activists, and it enshrines a hallowed place in our culture for children and poets. Space and language are not objects of love for their own sake, as it were, but as a way for us to “be,” and love, in this world.

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Eli Lederhendler has lived in Jerusalem since 1981 and teaches Modern Jewish History at the Hebrew University. His most recent books include New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970 and Who Owns Judaism? Public Religion and Private Faith in America and Israel.

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