Posted by: Steve Coplan | May 23, 2006

Two Jews, Three Opinions

Is Zionism dead or reports of its demise greatly exaggerated? As a movement borne of late 19th century romantic nationalism, propelled by socialist notions like the purity of labor and a vibrantly secular Israeli popular culture, Zionism's religious component is almost an accident of birth. However, as the only national movement of the Jews, Zionism needed to absorb some of the Biblical narrative and ultimately co-opt the strands of Judaism related to the holiness (but not necessarily sovereignity) of the land. After all, in the centures preceeding the Zionist movement, devout Jews had come to cities like Jerusalem and Safed to study and live out the final days of their lives. This was based in part on the notion that when the resurrection of the dead took place, Jerusalem would be on top of the list.

The Israeli novelist AB Yehoshua has exposed some deep divisions over the answer to this question with an essay and a speech in which he via circuitious logic he comes to the conclusion that the only way to be Jewish is to live in Israel. I came across this thread because of Tony Karon's contribution, which from a philosphical point of view is the position I would most strongly agree with. The reason why his position (which incidentally was the position of many of the early Zionists) has provoked such controversy is not only that it's arrogant ("We Israelis have a monopoly on the question of who's the most Jewish") and guilt-inducing in the best Jewish tradition ("Oh, don't worry, keep on watching the baseball. We're just sending our sons and daughters to die for this country so that when the goyim go crazy again, you'll have a place to run to.") It's also because it relies on the fiction that physically being present in Israel makes you somehow more special and impervious to external standards of judgement. It's as if ordering a piece of cake or arguing with some petty bureaucrat in Hebrew somehow justifies indifference to occupation. More broadly speaking, conflating Judaism, Jewishness and Israeli identity is fundamentally misleading. Tony's point is that if you want to claim to be a Jewish state, rather than a state of Jews or citizens of the state of Israel in which Judaism is the state religion, then you need to act in a way that typefies Jewish values.

Yehoshua's carping is not entirely surprising. It comes at a time when there's never been a comparable level of disenchantment and disinterest in Israel across the spectrum. The Israelis of today do of course serve in the military and are involved in the ongoing experiment of a sovereign Jewish state in the 21st century, but aren't the noble pioneers of the past that inspired such admiration for Diaspora. For liberal Jews, occupation is morally untenable. For conservative and most Orthodox Jews, the Gaza settlement removals were the acts of a godless government bent on destroying the practice of Judaism. As Yehoshua doesn't make clear – although hints at it with his disparaging remarks about relying on texts – secular Zionists are pretty dismissive of the idea of religion in general, and Judaism in particular.

It also comes at a time when explorations of Jewish identity are flourishing, in part as a result of a concerted effort to stem assimililation. This in turn is loosening the hold that the Orthodox have on Judaism, and the ability to define the boundaries of Jewish identity. The more that these explorations manage to capture what makes meaning of our lives, the more difficult it is persuading someone that supporting a political entity which just hasn't managed to resolve things despite overwhelming military and economic might is the cornerstone of a Jewish identity. Zionism is on life support.

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