A version of this article appeared in Zeek Magazine.
Peter Beinart’s essay in the New York Review of Books about the demise of liberal Zionism has caused quite a stir. But I don’t really want to add to all the commentary surrounding it.
Instead, I found interesting one small piece of an exchange between Beinart and Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic. During their discussion, they touched briefly on Israel’s raison d’etre. Beinart was the one who, at least initially, stressed the need for a place for Jews to flee to in case of persecution (an under-appreciated aspect of the Holocaust was the fact that, after so many episodes of persecution and flight by Jews over the centuries, a great many of Europe’s Jews had nowhere to run tp from the Nazis). Goldberg emphasized Israel as a homeland and center of national
expression for Jews.
These two notions were both symbiotic and a source of tension for most of Zionist history before the creation of the State of Israel. There is obviously overlap between them, particularly when it comes to building a strong, independent, Jewish society, which was Zionism’s ultimate goal. But there is also tension.
Theodor Herzl, as is well known, was inspired by anti-Semitic events, notably the Dreyfus Affair, to develop his vision of Political Zionism. But Herzl didn’t envision a state whose pride and identity were wrapped up in its military might, but in its wisdom and enlightenment.
This question has largely disappeared from the landscape. In the pre-state years, Zionism, whatever else it may have been, was a liberation movement with a revolutionary discourse. It could be whatever it wanted to be, and as such was wide open to all sorts of ideological, even utopian, thinking. The establishment of the state changed Zionist discourse from a significantly theoretical one – “what kind of state shall we build?” – to a more practical one – “how does our government deal with the current and future situation?”
Israel held on to a liberal model of ideological thinking for a long time after that shift, but, in combination with a permanent state of conflict, the ethnic nature of that conflict, the occupation and a significant rightward drift over the past 35 years, Israel became a state of refuge for its Jewish supporters in the Diaspora and its citizens were cemented into a bunker mentality. (more…)