Israel & the Diaspora

Zionism in Transition.
Edited by Moshe Davis.
Arno Press. 377 pp. $18.00.

Great revolutions, “by effecting the disappearance of the causes which brought them about, by their very success, become themselves incomprehensible.” Thus de Tocqueville, in words that apply with peculiar force to, among other revolutions, the Zionist one.

Since 1973, fundamental questions concerning the goals and purposes of the Zionist movement have come to the foreground, reflecting not only the international propaganda onslaught to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as a state, but also, and as importantly, deep and searching problems connected with Jewish identity in the modern world. In what sense can one speak of the Jewishness of Israel? Is classical Zionist theory still relevant to the new relationship that has developed between Israel and Diaspora Jewry? Can the old Zionist concept of “negating the Diaspora” make sense at a time when Israel’s own survival has become so closely intertwined with that of the once despised Galut? Is aliyah (immigration) the sole criterion and purpose of Zionism?

This volume, published under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has the great merit of confronting openly and frankly many of the painful dilemmas facing the Zionist movement today. The contributors to the book, participants at an international seminar held a couple of years ago, provide between them a wide-ranging and highly informative survey of the state of Zionism today—its achievements and problems—as well as a number of stimulating attempts at “reformulating” the meaning of Zionism in the contemporary era.

A clear difference of emphasis is discernible in the outlook of most of the Israeli participants who, in contrast to their opposite numbers in the Diaspora, tend to stress the personal duty of aliyah; the centrality of Israel, and the need for it to become, in the words of one of them, “the largest center of Jewish population”; and the ideological imperative of confronting the Diaspora as a place of exile. Still, even among Israelis there is a growing awareness that maintaining the quality of Jewish life in the dispersion is a paramount interest of Israel itself.

From the Israeli standpoint, coming to terms with the reality that 80 percent of the Jewish people still live outside Israel is part of the process of growing up—but it does have its problems. Once one drops the maximalist demand that every Zionist make his home in Israel, how is one to avoid legitimizing the Diaspora, or—worse—elevating it into an ideal? Yet Israeli Zionists are forced willy-nilly to acknowledge their dependence on wealthy Jews in the Diaspora who, though non-Zionist in the maximalist sense, have taken over and run the World Zionist Organization.

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The costs of interdependence should not obscure the positive change that has taken place in Zionist thinking since the 1973 Yom Kippur War first exposed the full extent of Israel’s moral and political isolation and heightened the realization on both sides that Israel is within the Jewish people and not something separate from it. The abandonment of the thesis which initially underpinned the Zionist revolution—the idea that Israel must become a nation like other nations—is another step in the right direction, even though one that raises many new questions. Similarly, as nearly all the contributors to this volume recognize, secular nationalism cannot in itself resolve what Daniel Elazar describes as “the crisis of Jewish vision.” Excessive politicization of Jewish life may serve to suffocate rather than renew the Zionist idea, a view argued by Isadore Twersky who | sees in the revitalizing of Judaism the most important key to Jewish survival in the modern era.

Other American contributors play down the centrality of the notion of political sovereignty and regard the ultimate goal of Zionism as the redemption of the Jewish people, rather than the state itself. The Diaspora standpoint, if one can call it that, rejects any idea of subordination to an elite minority in the Jewish state (Rabbi David Polish provocatively describes such a relationship as “colonialism”), warns against prophecies of doom concerning American Jewry, and is skeptical about the value of ideological constructions.

It is perhaps a sign of the dilution of hard-core Zionist ideology that few of the Israelis feel able to challenge head-on the assertion that the Diaspora is here to stay. Partly this may be due to a growing acknowledgment of the imperfections in Israeli society itself, as symbolized by the rate of emigration and the crisis of confidence in the national leadership. In this context, the worldly thrust of classical Zionism appears inadequate both to the specific needs of Israeli society and to the challenge of preserving Jewish culture and spiritual distinctiveness in the far-flung Diasporas. Eliezer Schweid of the Hebrew University and Avraham Schenker, a member of the World Zionist executive, see the crisis in Zionism as essentially a reflection of the decaying spiritual and social climate in Israel and its temporary loss of creative momentum. This introspective mood of soul-searching has led to a greater understanding of the limitations of the movement which nevertheless stops short of accepting the permanence of the Diaspora.

If Israel has lost some of its luster as an inspirational model for world Jewry, there can be no doubt that in the final analysis it is still perceived as the focus of the hopes and fortunes of the Jewish people, and its actions inevitably exercise the most far-reaching impact on Jewry everywhere. The pro-Israel feeling of the overwhelming majority of Jews in the West is one aspect of this interaction, a sense of solidarity that has been heightened by the protracted war with the Arab states, backed by the Soviet Union and the Third World—a struggle in which Israel fights not only for its own survival, but for that of the Jewish people and arguably for Western civilization itself. The fact that in this lonely struggle, both Israel and Western Jewry have found themselves at times in conflict with the governments of certain Western countries has if anything intensified the feeling of sharing a common destiny.

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One of the missing themes in this book concerns the degree to which Israel is today a geopolitical nodal point of the global struggle between the superpowers and the extent to which the crisis of Zionism is linked to the threatened decline of the West and its model of universalism. The cultural-political synthesis which may yet provide the basis for a renewed vision of Zion will have to use the materials of contemporary reality, in Moshe Davis’s words, “to recreate the idea,” but this can only be done by coming to grips with an epochal metamorphosis of Jewish existence which has yet to be adequately comprehended.

Zionism in Transition provides an important landmark in our self-understanding of this phenomenon, one which points to the emergence of an interdependent Jewish people with its geopolitical center in Zion. The book offers no easy answers. Its open-ended conception of the many different modes of the concept of “Diaspora,” and its varying assessments of the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people, preclude any monolithic reformulation. The hallmark of the age is diversity, not uniformity—varieties of Jewish identity within an underlying unity. By opening up the possibility for modern Jews to reenter history as a collectivity, Zionism liberated the Jewish people from outward servitude and completed the process of political emancipation. In that sense, it made possible multiple roads to Jewish self-affirmation and unintentionally provided the option and alibi for a new ideology of exile. The great challenge for the transitional Zionism of today is whether it can give birth to an authentic “return to Zion,” the inner liberation and the recovery of that uniqueness which has always accompanied the Jewish people in its long march through the centuries of exile and dispersion.

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