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mine once said that today’s Israel adheres to a “Zionism of banality,” in which the titanic dreams of the founders have been replaced by quotidian Israeli patriotism.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.
This uniqueness has several origins. The first is the lived experience of the Jewish people. For at least half its history, the Jewish people lived as a nation without a nation. Not only did they lack sovereignty, they lacked even a territory on which they constituted a majority. As a result, they created a nation that was of the imagination alone. Of course, as the Marxist philosopher Benedict Anderson pointed out, all nationalisms originate as “imagined communities,” a concept he then attempted to use to discredit nationalism itself. But almost all those imagined nations were imagined by peoples who were a majority in a specific territorial space. A space they envisioned as the future site of the sovereign state they would establish.
The Jewish people, on the other hand, were not a majority anywhere. As a result, when they came to seek a state of their own, the ideology they formulated involved concepts that are, for the most part, foreign to other nationalisms: dispersion, exile, alienation and dislocation. While Zionists often sought to negate all these things, they could not escape them. The Labor movement had its vision of the sabra, the native-born Israeli who negated the pacifistic weakness of the galut (exile) mentality. Ben-Gurion was almost obsessive about the irrelevance of the exile and the need to dissolve it through mass Aliyah. Herzl before him was even more intense on the matter, with his proposal that all of the world’s Jews should liquidate their assets, uproot themselves, and move en masse and at once to Palestine. The most extreme expression of this rejection of exile was that of the Canaanite intellectuals of Israel’s formative years, who demanded that the Jews renounce all aspects of the exile, including Judaism itself, and embrace instead an identity based in ancient Canaanite paganism. All of this proves that while the Zionists may have hated the exile, the exile would not leave them alone.
What this created, in the end, was a certain sense of conscience, which often divides and paralyzes the modern State of Israel. This is most prominent in regard to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. On the one hand, Israel seeks to dominate and control the Palestinians in order to prevent them from destroying Israel itself. On the other hand, Israel has always been uncomfortable with the occupation, and none except the most extreme have seen it as a positive good. For example, a recent film, The Gatekeepers, featured interviews with former heads of the Shin Bet security service, all of whom had developed deep sympathies for the Palestinians they had fought for their entire lives. This ambivalent conscience has resulted in Israel’s numerous attempts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians—which by definition entails the end of the occupation—though they have been rebuffed and answered with violence each time.
At the risk of self-congratulation, and despite the horrors of any occupation, this sets Zionism apart. Many other modern nationalisms would have long since expelled or even exterminated the Palestinians without much compunction, as shown, for example, by the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. Zionism contains a certain legacy of previous suffering that has thus far prevented such a disaster.
The second unique aspect of Zionism is that it is a form of political messianism, and this messianism is of a Jewish variety. The Jewish messianic tradition, unlike many others, is a universal one. In other messianisms, non-members of the caste of the redeemed are either punished or destroyed. In contrast, Jewish messianism incorporates a redemption of the world that does not make such totalitarian demands. In it, the peoples of the redeemed world will accept the truth of the Jewish God as the sole God, but they will not be required to follow Jewish law. If they wish, they will come to Jerusalem to consult the Jews—who have become a “kingdom of priests”—on the truths of the Torah.
As a result of this, Zionism is not parochial, as almost all other nationalisms tend to be. While it looks inward, it also looks outward, in hopes that “the truth will go forth from Zion.” This is not per se a religious impulse, as Israel seeks quite often to contribute to the world through such things as advances in science and technology or the export of its cultural products. Zionism, at its best, keeps one eye on the Land of Israel and one eye on the world. It does not live in perpetual obsession with itself.
Zionism is also unique in its diversity. In most cases, nationalist movements have ensconced themselves in a single party, often in opposition to more universalist political movements—what today’s nationalists deride as “globalist.” Zionism, by contrast, encompasses movements from across the political spectrum, often with near-incommensurable values. The Zionist left embraces the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity typical of liberal movements, but also believes that the Jews can only enjoy true liberty, equality, and fraternity in a Jewish state. The right, on the other hand, holds that the nation, the state, is in itself the highest value, and must be defended and preserved at all costs. For religious-nationalists, Zionism is an essential step toward the messianic age and the redemption of the complete Land of Israel.
Moreover, pace Hazony, who is a formulator and adherent of “national conservativism,” with which he identifies Zionism, Zionism is not a conservative movement, as most nationalisms are. Zionism, in fact, challenges both liberalism and conservatism. It posts that liberalism, while perhaps a fine thing, is not enough, because it cannot provide for Jewish freedom, empowerment, and security in the long-term. However, Zionism also challenges conservatism—which in the West means Christianity. It is, in its own way, a revolutionary and radical movement, what Ben-Gurion called a “rebellion against history.” And to rebel against history is the ultimate rejection of conservatism. Zionism seeks to rise up and overthrow the destiny that the non-Jewish world imposed upon the Jews, and embark on a future in which the Jews create their own destiny.
This destiny, in fact, may be the one thing that unites and defines Zionism. All Zionists, of whatever party, believe that the Jewish people has a destiny, and this destiny is their supreme value, their absolute moral imperative. And it is this imperative that is Zionism’s particular and peculiar essence, which is not nationalist, but perhaps something without a name. Because the Jewish people is unique, this unnamable is also unique, and with it Zionism itself.