The particularity and peculiarity of Zionism
Zionism may seek to resurrect a nation, but it is not nationalism, because the Jewish people and their destiny are unique.
It has always been more or less obvious what Zionism wants: it was articulated in the title of Theodor Herzl’s foundational pamphlet Der Judenstaat—The Jewish State. Ever since, Zionism has been seen as a movement to create a Jewish nation-state of some kind, and ensure its survival and well-being.
Everything else about Zionism, however, has been open to debate. Ehad Ha’am, for example, interpreted Zionism as the desire for a national home that would serve as the cultural capital of a renewed Jewish people and a culture based on the revived Hebrew language. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, on the other hand, wanted a sovereign state in the most absolute sense; which, moreover, encompassed the “two banks of the Jordan,” including what is now the Hashemite Kingdom. David Ben-Gurion wanted a socialist nation that would empower the Jewish people through the creation of a “new Jew” and embody the moral admonitions of the ancient Jewish prophets. The settlement movement wants Israeli sovereignty over the “complete Land of Israel” as a religious imperative. These are only the most influential strains of this disputatious movement.
All of these visions have, to some extent, been realized at one point or another in the modern State of Israel. Ehad Ha’am got his Hebrew cultural center, Jabotinsky got his sovereign nation, and Ben-Gurion got his empowered “new Jew.” There were, of course, visions that were left unrealized. Israel is no longer socialist, for example, nor is the east bank of the Jordan under Jewish rule. Despite the best efforts of the settlement movement, the West Bank remains majority Arab. Nonetheless, more often than not, these visionaries got what they wanted.
However, none of these variant strains help us define what Zionism is in its essence. The question is difficult to answer. An old professor of mine once said that today’s Israel adheres to a “Zionism of banality,” in which the titanic dreams of the founders have been replaced by quotidian Israeli patriotism. At the same time, a right-wing member of a Jerusalem think tank once told me that he rejected the term “Zionism” and preferred the moniker “Jewish nationalism.”
The latter has one thing on his side: it is more or less assumed that, from its origins, Zionism was a form of nationalism. The most extreme expression of this in recent years was made by the author Yoram Hazony in his book The Virtue of Nationalism, which has proven popular and influential in American conservative circles, in particular among supporters of Donald Trump. To Hazony, Jewish nationalism is not just synonymous with Zionism, it is the origin of nationalism itself.
“I have been a Jewish nationalist, a Zionist, all my life,” he writes.
I have lived most of my life in a country that was established by nationalists, and has been governed largely by nationalists to this day. ... The idea that the political order should be based on independent nations was an important feature of ancient Israelite thought as reflected in the Hebrew Bible. ... It is in the Bible that we find the first sustained presentation of … a political order based on the independence of a nation living within limited borders alongside other independent nations. ... Mosaic law offered the Israelites a constitution that would bring them together in what would today be called a national state.
Hazony, then, believes that Zionism is paradigmatic of nationalism, which itself has its roots in the ancient Jewish kingdoms and their sacred texts. Zionism is, therefore, not just like any other nationalism, but the model on which all other nationalisms have been constructed.
There are two distinct problems with this thesis, both of which point to a very different conclusion: Zionism is, in fact, sui generis. It is a unique ideology and a unique political movement, and one that must be judged on its own terms. It is unique because the people it sought to empower and redeem is unique. It cannot be separated from the fact that it is the only indigenous Jewish political movement, and as such expresses the historical, cultural, social, and political aspirations of a people quite unlike any other in the world.
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