A proud, ethical Zionism for the 21st century

Today’s Jewish homeland requires a new, pluralist version of its founding philosophy

By Paul Gross, February 25, 2010

Back in the UK, I was a Zionist. Now that I'm an Israeli it seems I can't define myself that way any more without being thought of as either hopelessly anachronistic, or avowedly right-wing.

Sections of the Israeli right have made Zionism synonymous with support for the settlement movement, while sections of the left have acquiesced in this fiction by abdicating ownership of the term. (It is worth noting that Zionism was originally a progressive liberation movement with its roots in the enlightenment. Even Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of what became the Israeli right, was an avowed liberal who insisted on democratic rights for all the citizens of the putative Jewish state and who spoke resolutely against expelling Arabs from their homes.)

Early secular Zionists forecast that their proud, nationalism would replace religion as the core identity of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the religious Zionists who followed Rav Kook saw Zionism as a messianic force that would unify the Jewish world. Both have been proven wrong. Zionism has not replaced religion as the secularists predicted; neither can it be used to promote religion to the Jewish masses if it obsessively prioritises the mitzvah of settling the West Bank, hardly a unifying issue in Israel - or indeed if only a one-size-fits-all Orthodoxy is sanctioned by the state authorities. So what can Zionism mean for Israel in the 21st century?

I got a hint of an answer just after Rosh Hashanah, on the Fast of Gedalia. Gedalia was the Jewish governor of Judea after the destruction of the First Temple. He was assassinated by another Jew - a betrayal of the Jewish people regarded as so heinous by the rabbis that a fast day was instituted. I was surprised to see a close friend of mine, avowedly Zionist but not religious, observing the fast. "I've kept this fast since the Rabin assassination," she explained.

Now she was no supporter of the former Prime Minister. A fierce opponent of the Oslo Accords, she had been desperate to see Rabin removed from office. The way in which this eventually happened, however, shocked her to her Zionist core, and the Jewish tradition provided a precedent of how to respond to the murder of a Jewish leader by another Jew.

I was struck by her decision. She is not religious, but neither is she part of a secular community that has divorced itself from the Jewish world. She is a Zionist, proud of being an Israeli, devoted to the country and deeply connected to Jewish tradition. Her Judaism informs and strengthens her Zionism.

There are some excellent programmes in Israel today promoting a new Zionist agenda which embraces Jewish tradition in a spirit of pluralism; but Israel needs more of them, as well as government support and an entirely different relationship between the state and the Orthodox religious authorities, whose uncompromising monopoly on religious life has been one of the contributing factors to the alienation of most Israelis from religion.

Judaism need not be antithetical to the basic liberal democratic values of tolerance and freedom. In the words of Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and former Israeli government minister, "Only a reconnection to the hyphenation that links Jewish and democratic values, Zionism and religion, the teachings of Judaism and the teachings of ethics, will offer a chance for the continued existence of the state of Israel as a state that fulfils the dreams imbued in it when it came into being."

I reject the notion that Zionism is either dead or only meaningful to the settler movement and its supporters. It has long been a cornerstone of contemporary Jewish identity outside Israel; within Israel it can be something that transcends politics and religious observance while connecting Jews to both their state and their heritage.

Paul Gross made aliyah from the UK after working at the Israeli Embassy in London in public affairs and as a speechwriter for the Ambassador. He is part of the Emerging Leaders Forum of the Jewish Agency

Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010


You must be logged in to post a comment.