Friday, August 21, 2015

A few notes on Zionism and the Jewishness of Israel

Two separate questions really. The historic status of Zionism, and whether Israel should be ‘the state of the Jewish people’.

On the first one, the story is complicated. Zionism has/had some of the features of a classic (Eastern) European nationalist movement, but it also differed from it in some important ways. I can’t think of another nationalist movement that wasn’t about a people living in its territory, and wanting that people to have self-government on that territory. That in itself makes Zionism problematic. Progressives generally support ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ in the sense that they allow territories to secede. Support for Zionism entails rather more than this basic principle.

The Zionists were also unusually uninterested in the national culture of the people that they represented; they mainly wanted to replace it with another culture which they intended to create. Of course, other kinds of nationalism to some extent ‘invented’ the nation which it championed, but I think Zionism rather took this to an extreme.

Historically, Zionism was a minority movement within the various Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and even more so in the West. That doesn’t prove that its claim to represent that national movement of the Jews is necessarily wrong, but it is surely relevant. Zionism wasn’t even the only form of Jewish nationalism – there were others, including Territorialism and Sejmism, and the ‘distributed nationalism’ of the various Yiddishist nationalists. Without the sponsorship of the British Empire, and without the holocaust, it would have been an interesting, quirky footnote in Jewish history, like the Garveyites for Black America. There would have been some communities of ‘practical Zionists’ in Palestine, a bit like the Templar communities founded by German Protestants, and they might have survived depending on how an independent Palestine turned out.

And of course, up until the present time most Jews have not been nationalists, and many have argued that the Jews don’t have any national identity apart from citizenship of the countries in which they live. This view was particularly prevalent in Western Europe, where the idea of belong to an ethnos independent of citizenship was not well understood or widely believed in. Believing that ‘national self-determination’ didn’t apply to Jews didn’t make these people anti-semites. That Zionism has been successful in establishing a state doesn’t make them retrospective anti-semites, and therefore it surely doesn’t make anyone who holds this belief now an anti-semite either. It’s just a different view about the applicability of nationalism to the various Jewish communities around the world.

Has Zionism turned out to be a ‘good thing’, in some fair historical balance sheet? It’s possible that Zionism will turn out to have been a good thing for all Jews, or for some Jews. It’s plausible that it won’t, and taking that view doesn’t make someone an anti-semite either.

OK, now the other question. In what sense should Israel be a ‘Jewish State’? Most liberal democracies don’t privilege one ethnic group among their citizens. It’s unusual for the state to record or document individual citizen’s ethnicities. There are some exceptions, usually based on the idea of compensating for or redressing the effect of past discrimination – Australia does something like that as regards Aboriginal people, for example. But in France, and in Italy, the state at least regards everyone with citizenship as French or Italian. Why should Israel be different? Why can’t it accept an ‘Israeli’ national identity and status, irrespective of religion or ethnicity?

This is not an abstract question of tidiness. Ultimately the fate of the Israeli Jews will depend on their ability to make peace with the neighbours. That’s a very tall order, and the Israeli Jews would be foolish to disarm in the hope of this happening. They live in a very rough neighbourhood. It is managing to have plenty of nasty wars without them. The neighbours never wanted them to come, and don’t think they should be there – in the strong sense of ‘should’. Nevertheless, there is no long term future for Israeli Jews, and certainly no democratic future, without it.

I know that there are some Arab nationalists, and some others who are probably not nationalists, who would like all the trappings of Zionism stripped from the state, so that there would be no peculiar ethnic identity in its symbolic representation – changing the words of the Hatikvah, changing the flag, and so on. I can see the tidiness logic of this, but I don’t think it’s very important.

 I do think that legal and institutional discrimination, and segregation and economic disadvantage, for non-Jews in Israel should end. The historic relationship of Israel to the wider Jewish world, and the role of the Zionism movement in bring the state into being, is not sufficient justification for this to continue. Israel will remain a demographically and culturally Jewish country without them, and that’s Jewish enough for me.

1 comment:

John Lambshead said...

As migration to escape climate deterioration becomes the new normal the questions you pose will become more relivent rather than less. I fear much ethnic conflict.