Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Zionism, R.I.P. (Yom Hazikaron)

[UPDATE} Made some minor spelling and grammar corrections]

Today is Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day. Just as it is fitting for Israelis to memorialize their fellows who gave their life for the state, so it is fitting for us to memorialize the Zionist ideology that brought about the state and the deaths of its defenders. Theodore Herzl gave us a 19th century solution to a 20th century problem that looks less and less viable as the 21st century unfolds. I don't condemn those who gave us the Zionist idea, they were doing what they thought was for the best. As the old saying goes, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." But if we are to save some remnant of the Jewish state and, especially ensure the continued safety and prosperity of the Jews in the Land of Israel, we need to see where Zionism failed and what we can do to salvage some good from it.

If you read Herzl's manifesto, The Jewish State, you will see that he believed that the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century was a failure. He believed that the nations of the world would never accept Jews, that Jews were and indigestible mass in the body politic of the western world. In fact, he said things about the Jews that, if he were a gentile, he would have had the ADL all over him. Thus, in his mind, the only solution to what they quaintly called "The Jewish Question" was an independent Jewish State, "secured by public law," as the declaration of the the First Zionist Congress in Basel puts it.

I'm not going to criticize Herzl's judgment about the situation at the time. After all, he was at the Dreyfus trial, and I wasn't. And it seems that the Holocaust vindicated his view.

And yet.....

If the Jews were such a dispirited, deracinated mass of people incapable of contributing to the societies in which they lived, why should they be expected to do so just because they lived in a state ruled by other Jews? Furthermore Herzl believed that the mere existence of a Jewish State would end antisemitism. He also believed that the Jews who stayed behind and didn't join in the project would assimilate and disappear.

Obviously, the history of the past 60 years, in which Herzl's vision has been fulfilled beyond his wildest expectations, has shown that it didn't work. The Jews living in Israel are just as petty and corrupt with no better a sense of civic engagement than their brothers in the Diaspora. Their leaders are also just as petty and corrupt as any diaspora Jewish or gentile politician. The existence of the State has not transformed the Jewish people. They are no better or no worse than they were before the State was created.

The existence of the State has not ended antisemitism, and in fact, the one place in the world where the Jews are in the most danger is -- the State of Israel! (At least that's what I keep hearing from the right-wing Zionists when they're trying to justify their refusal to come to terms with the Palestinians.) And the Jews who didn't accept the Zionist proposal and settle in the Jewish State did not disappear. In fact, their political activity on behalf of Israel, especially with regards to the superpower United States, is crucial to the security and survival of Israel.

But Zionism had a broader component than merely ensuring the physical and political security of the Jews. One of the major issues when 19th century Jewish emancipation did work was how to keep Jews Jewish when nobody was forcing them to be Jewish. The scientific revolution of the 19th century caused many Jews to reject traditional Jewish religion as superstition, and nothing discovered by science since then has changed that situation. Thus, many Jews needed a new secular outlet to express their Jewish identity. The "Hebrew" culture promulgated by people like Eliezer Ben Yehudah and Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Ha'am) was one such attempt to do this. There were also attempts by the Non-Zionist Bundists to develop a Yiddish culture within the socialist movement. Obviously, the Bundists didn't have much attraction to bourgeois Jews, whereas it was possible to have both socialist and "bourgeois" Zionism. In any event, as socialism evolved into Bolshevism and Soviet Communism, the socialists weren't interested in letting Jews express their Jewish identities, so that alternative fizzed out. It would seem that Zionism was triumphant as the secular source of Jewish identity.

Alas, it was not to work out. For Jews in the Diaspora, use of Israeli culture as a crutch to sustain their Jewish identity is just too full of contradictions. ("Why aren't you making aliyah?") Even for secular Israeli Jews, merely speaking Hebrew and learning Tanakh in the place where the events happened isn't enough to maintain their Judaism. All to many secular Israelis either end up on a beach in Goa, or at an ashram, or they mock non-Orthodox Judaism without offering anything that might be better. They may not have anything, but whatever those galut nudnicks have, it can't be much. Thus they allow their country to become an Orthodox ghetto state, and one day they will wake up and be very disappointed. Yes, we non-Orthodox might be inconsistent in our practice, our commitment might be attenuated, and our theology might be so goofy as to not pass the laugh test, but we are able to maintain our Jewish identity without having to absorb the poison of pre-modern religious superstition.

And mark my words, a Jewish State as an Orthodox Ghetto State cannot be sustained. The secular Jews will leave it, as many have already done. Most of the world does not believe in Orthodox Judaism and does not have the patience to allow them to impose their will on minority non-Jews,especially when these minority non-Jews are related to the folks who sit on the largest remaining reserves of petroleum. Just as happened in the days of Bar Kokhba, a band of Jewish religious fanatics cannot hold out against the world. Yes, I know some will cite the example of the Hasmoneans. But look what happened to them in the end.

So I come to bury the dream of Herzl and Ahad Ha'am. May we remember it fondly as a good intention that had unanticipated consequences. May we accept it's passing without finding fault and being judgmental of the persons who had only the best of intentions for our people. Nineteenth century romantic nationalism, whether of the political or cultural variety, will not solve the Jewish question of the 21st century. And this question remains the same one brought to us by the Enlightenment -- "Why should Jews be Jewish when they don't have to be?" What will answer this question? What course will ensure the security and prosperity of the Jews in both the Diaspora and the Land of Israel? I hope to answer that in my Yom Ha'atzma'ut post tomorrow (or some time soon if I get to busy eating schwarma.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You need a little more faith in the Jews.

See you soon...

5:54 PM  
Blogger WingsofWax said...

It's tough to have faith in your leaders when they seem to be ignoring the obvious - it's equally hard to see things from the trenches when you're so far removed from the front line.
Perhaps there is a better alternative. Even myself - as far removed from Hebrew or Jew as I think is likely possible - hope for peace in Israel, for some kind of accord that has allowances made for both cultures to fully express themselves. But I agree; it's hard to be optimistic based solely on the source material of the last sixty years. I'm not sure it's so much a matter of faith in the Jews, as a matter of faith in the nature and more, in the motivation of those so vehemently involved.

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