Israel at 60: Zionism’s Fatal Flaw

How do you evaluate a whole nation when it turns 60? Even a nation as small as Israel is far too complicated for any simple evaluation.

Do you judge it by its vibrant democracy and independent judiciary, which tells even the highest officials and their families that they are not above the law? Or by its four decades as an occupying army, whose soldiers are now confessing that they routinely and brutally violate civilians’ human rights? Do you judge it by its world-class universities and world-class science and technology? Or by its growing gap between rich and poor, as the utopian socialism of the kibbutz experiment collapses before the juggernaut of neo-1liberal corporate capitalism? Do you judge it by its vibrant avant-garde cultural scene, or by the way it marginalizes its Arab citizens and its growing population of Asian “guest workers”?

Perhaps the only fair way to judge any nation is by its own ideals. Israel makes that task easier for us as it was built upon explicit and well-documented ideals. While many nations have grown up organically, or even accidentally, Israel was a conscious project, a product of half a century of very intentional thinking and planning. Israel’s elderly founding fathers had been Zionists since the movement’s beginning. They imbibed their ideals from the movement’s founders, whose ideals were set forth at great length; there is no mystery about what the Jewish state was meant to achieve and signify.

Zionist Ideals

In the first generation of Zionists, a large majority shared one overriding goal: They wanted to live as “normal” people in a “normal” nation. The Zionist project began when they asked why Jewish life in the centuries-long Diaspora had become so abnormal. Their answer was built into the question. As children of the mid-nineteenth century, the great age of European nationalism, they assumed that a normal nation has its own territory, is governed by its own people and institutions, speaks its own language, and thus shapes its own destiny. So the very fact of being in Diaspora was, by definition, an abnormal condition.

But their complaint was not merely that the Jews lacked a nation. The deeper problem, as they saw it, was that the Jews lacked nationalism. They had no movement, nor even any will, to become a nation. And the reason was plain enough to see: Centuries ago, under the pressures of Diaspora, the Jews had come to define themselves primarily by religion rather than national bonds. Torah (denoting in the broadest sense all of Jewish thought and practice) had come to take precedence over Israel, the national consciousness.

In fact for many of these first Zionists (most of them modernized, secular intellectuals), Jewish religion had become a burden. Seeing no other way to be Jewish except the religious, most might well have assimilated completely into their European environment. The first great leader of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl (himself a highly assimilated Jew), wrote in his classic pamphlet The Jewish State: “If only we were left in peace…” The ellipsis spoke more eloquently than words of the seemingly impossible dream of assimilation. Herzl immediately followed with the bitter premise of Zionism: “But we shall not be left in peace.” Anti-Semitism, he argued, was a permanent fact of life for the Diasporic Jew.

Herzl’s close associate, Max Nordau, summed up their assessment for the First Zionist Congress: “The emancipated Jew… has abandoned his specific Jewish character [i.e., rejected traditional Jewish religion], yet the nations do not accept him as part of their national communities.” Further, Nordau implied, the nations would never accept him. Craving a normal life with a normal modern national identity, he had no choice but to create a secular nation of his own.

Thus the mainstream of Zionism assumed from the start that their “normalization” demanded not only independence and self-governing institutions, but a transformation of Jewish identity from a religious to a secular nationalist basis. As the famed Zionist writer Micah Berdichevski proclaimed: “Israel must precede the Torah, the human being before the religion.” This view was enshrined in 1948, when Israel’s Independence Proclamation promised to safeguard freedom of religion, and from religion, for every citizen.

These were the ideas and ideals that brought most of the early Zionists to Zionism—but not all. There was always a dissenting minority who saw Zionism as a way to not merely save Jews but, more importantly, Judaism. They expected the Jewish homeland (not necessarily a political state, but necessarily in Palestine) to be a platform from which Jewish renewal would be launched.

Proponents of a “spiritual Zionism,” like Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber, hoped for a new kind of Judaism, maintaining those aspects of the tradition that could best be fused with the highest modern values. At the other end of the spectrum, “religious (i.e., orthodox Jewish) Zionists” hoped for a state that would establish halakhah—traditional laws for eating, praying, working, etc.—as the law of the land.

Both of these dissident wings agreed on one proposition: the Jews were a chosen people. God had chosen them not for special privilege but for a special responsibility to live up to a higher moral and spiritual standard than the rest of humanity. A Jewish homeland would give Jews a better chance to attain that higher standard. So “normalization,” far from undergirding the Zionist project, would undermine it. Martin Buber said bluntly: “If we want to be nothing but normal, we shall soon cease to be at all.” The great orthodox Zionist thinker Rav Kook said much the same thing.

From the beginning the secularists were clearly the majority. They remain so today. Judged against the ideal of transforming Jewish identity from a religious to a national basis, the state of Israel has been a smashing success. Certainly not all Jews understand their identity in nationalistic terms, but the idea that the Jews are a nation, and that one can be a “good Jew” without being religious or spiritual in any way, has now taken deep root throughout most of the Jewish community. Many in the orthodox minority may demur, but most orthodox Jews now embrace some modern nationalist values, even if they are not comfortable admitting it.

Zionism’s Trap

The logic underlying Zionism, however, has failed to play out as expected. A Jewish nationalism strong enough to overshadow religious identity has not made Jews in their own state feel fully normal. If anything, Israel has become an institutionalized mechanism for perpetuating a sense of abnormality. Why? Because the early Zionists, and most of their followers to the present day, overlooked the fatal flaw in their reasoning.

Zionism was born from the premise that anti-Semitism is a permanent fact of life in the Diaspora—that in every land, sooner or later, gentiles will turn against the Jews living in their midst. Only in a country with a majority Jewish population could this fate be avoided. By this logic, the gentiles in the countries neighboring Israel had to be anti-Semitic too. The neighbors did not have to demonstrate anti-Semitic behavior to prove it, nor could they ever disprove it. Evidence was irrelevant. The neighbors’ anti-Semitism had to be an unquestionable axiom—without it the whole Zionist enterprise would be called into question.

When Palestinians and other Arabs resisted the emerging Jewish state, most Jews viewed the conflict through the lens of Zionist thinking. They could not see opposition to Israel as the predictable result of political, economic, social, and cultural friction; but only as irrational anti-Semitic hatred, which Jews had done nothing to stir up. So, the (sometimes unconscious) reasoning went, there was nothing Jews could do to remove or mitigate Arab antagonism.

All the Jews could do was to build up an invincible army and subordinate every other value to the overriding demands of Israel’s security. In the Jewish state all could be justified by the magic words bishvil bitachon (“for the sake of security”). Although it would take more than half a century for Israel to begin building a physical wall along its border (as determined by Israel itself), from the very start it had a psychological barrier separating it from its neighboring lands, a barrier symbolized by the ever-present military establishment.

If Israeli Jews truly believed that their military would keep them perfectly secure behind its barrier, perhaps they would have taken the risks and made the compromises necessary for peace. But, while they hoped for the best, most continued to fear the worst, just as their ancestors had in Diaspora. Six Israeli-Arab wars and two intifadas have proven that the state of Israel is secure against every plausible threat, yet the old myth of national insecurity still triumphs over present reality.

The early Zionists, filled with understandable fears of eternal anti-Semitism, could not imagine a Jewish state with such predominant power that its existence would be absolutely assured. Most Israeli Jews today, haunted by the same fear of powerlessness, still cannot believe in that assurance.

People who are so preoccupied with their security—constantly on the alert for attackers, always fearing they might be “pushed into the sea,” feeling that their country is and must remain a psychological fortress—can hardly live a really normal life. Therefore, when judged by its own standards, the Jewish state fails to achieve its ultimate raison d’etre because it lives without “normalization.” So Israeli life remains trapped in a frustrating sense of failure; a failure compounded by the inability for most of its citizens and champions to understand how its own nationalist ideology has been largely responsible for it.

Yet the trap and the frustration run even deeper. Years ago, I heard one of the world’s most distinguished Jewish theologians say that, unfortunately, Israel had to maintain its huge military to fulfill the promise of “never again.” Someone in the audience was skeptical: Could Israelis really be sure that their soldiers would safeguard them against every threat? No, the famed speaker admitted.

But, he added, they could be sure of the most important thing: There would never be another Nazi-like holocaust, because the next time the Jews would go down fighting. The essential value was not security but nationalism and especially national pride, acted out in the willingness to die—and kill—for one’s nation. After all, in the modern world that’s what normal nations expect. So acts of military might would prove that Israel is indeed quite normal.

Surely not all Israeli Jews seek a sense of security and normality through the exercise of power. There is, in fact, a sizable peace movement in Israel which is deeply critical of its own militarism. But the majority of Israelis today, who do tilt toward power, block the path to peace. They see any genuinely conciliatory step by their government as a surrender, a return to political powerlessness, and thus a fatal blow to their sense of self-worth. So they want their government to continue on the path of confrontation as evidence of “normalization.”

Every exercise of Israeli power naturally evokes more Palestinian opposition and further enmity. Yet even when Palestinians offer clear evidence of change, like the recent announcement from Hamas that it is ready to accept a two-state solution, the Israelis reject it. Their axiom of eternal anti-Semitism tells them that the Palestinians are and must always be their implacable enemy. The insecurity and violence tragically spiral on, deepening the sense that Israel is not yet normal.

Indeed, large numbers of Israelis seem convinced that the original goal of “normalization” is permanently beyond reach, or else a distant eschatological goal at best. Decades of war and occupation have forced them to confront the moral compromises they make to defeat their enemies. To ease their consciences, most reaffirm their conviction that none of this is due to Israeli policy; it is all forced upon them by irrational hatred from the other side of the border(s). Therefore, this thinking goes, they can do nothing to alter the sad situation. Ain breirah, they tell each other over and over again. “There is no choice.” Thus they convince themselves that they can never do anything to bring their nation closer to “normalization.”

The Alternative

Perhaps Israel would have been better off had all its people listened to dissidents like Ahad Ha’am and Buber, who rejected the whole idea of “normalization” because they wanted Zionists to live up to a higher moral standard. As early as 1892, Ahad Ha’am saw Jews committing violence against Arabs and warned that there would be terrible repercussions. In 1920, Buber told the Zionist Congress that Jews were far from powerless. Arabs would respond to the choices Jews made. “It depends entirely on us,” he declared, whether Zionists are greeted by Palestinian Arabs as hated conquerors or beloved friends.

There have always been Jews in Israel who recognized the prophetic wisdom in such words. Now they are being joined by growing numbers of Jews in the United States and around the world, who are acting on the principle that it is never too late to change a nation’s goals, to put ethical striving above “normalization.”

Yet another wing of this Jewish peace movement argues that “normalization” is still a worthy goal. But 60 years of conflict shows that Israel has been pursuing the goal in self-defeating ways. Acknowledging Palestinian (including Hamas’) gestures of conciliation, and responding with conciliatory moves by Israel, is the only way to bring peace and security for Jews, and thus escape the trap of abnormality.

The one thing all sides do agree on is the uncertainty of the future. Israel at 60 is still a fledgling nation, a set of experiments, and a debating arena wherein many diverse voices insist that they know best how the next experiments should be carried out. Up until now, the majority’s experiments have led only to an abnormal situation marked by an endless round of violence and killing—the vast majority of it on the Palestinian side of the border.

The good news is that a growing awareness of futility is, slowly and painfully, pushing both sides to take more radical experimental steps toward peace. Only by traveling a new path of peace and reconciliation can Israel some day achieve its original goal: a homeland where Jews can feel like normal people leading normal lives.