Reining In Rampant Nationalism: The Way Toward a Realistic Mideast Peace

On the “About” page of The Third Way, I made the following statement: ““My approach begins with the idea that Zionism was an entirely justified national movement, and that Palestinians also are deserving of the same human, civil and national rights as anyone else. Reconciling these two things is not simple, as they clash in essential and inherent ways. But finding that reconciliation is the only way, in my view, to get us out of the murderous quagmire that has existed in the region for more than a century.”

Meanwhile, in a recent post on the Meretz USA blog, Sarah Strnad, Meretz USA’s Assistant Director, and a woman I recently got to meet and was very impressed with,

If this is where Zionism is going, it's not a Zionism most Israelis or Diaspora Jews will relate to

struggled with how to balance a Zionist identity and the universal values of human rights and democracy:

“I was raised a Zionist,” writes Ms. Strnad. “Growing up in a Zionist youth group I was accustomed to proudly defining as a Zionist. I often hesitate to self-define that way today. I still believe in the Jewish people’s right for self determination and the establishment and legitimacy of our own state, but the policies of that state and the rightward regressive actions of fringe settlers and their supporters have caused me to distance myself from the term Zionism. For those who believe in human rights and democracy the “z” word is now beyond the pale. It is whispered in hushed tones and understood only as what the right wing preaches and implements as policy. The Zionism that was once a broad nationalism has been distorted and replaced by racist and xenophobic fears that drive unjust and dehumanizing policies.”

One way I approach the issues Sarah grapples with is to differentiate in my own heart between being a “Zionist” and being pro-Israel. Zionism is, as Sarah correctly pointed out, far from a monolithic ideology. But one thing all the strains have in common is very basic: Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people.

I have never felt a kinship with nationalism of any kind, not American, not Zionist, not any. But I do respect other people’s choices, I recognize the validity of national identity and movements and even appreciate the very real uses nationalism has (chief among them, in my view, being the uniting of an oppressed people to collectively combat that oppression, a feature that was indisputably true of Zionism throughout its efforts to create a state or, in some strains, a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine). And that respect and appreciation extends equally to Palestinian nationalism as much as it does to that of my own, Jewish people.

So I’m not a Zionist. Neither am I an anti-Zionist. I suppose non-Zionist fits, though it seems a rather empty term. But none of these categories has any bearing on being pro-Israel.

It is in that context that I both understand and have a strong visceral reaction to what has happened to the term “Zionist.” On one hand, it has become a pejorative, used by some on the left as a synonym for “racist” and worse. On the other, it has been completely co-opted by the far right supporters of the settlement program and apologists for the worst breaches of law and human rights that Israel commits. [Note: I am not talking here about the well-worn practice of dedicated anti-Semitic groups, such as white supremacist groups, and other extremists, religious and otherwise, to use “Zionist” as a substitute for the word “Jew.” That’s a serious issue as well, but it’s only propagandistically linked to the Palestinian issue and has been a constant since well before Israel was created. It’s a serious issue, just not the one I’m discussing here] Thus, the most racist aspects of Zionism have increasingly and distressingly become its face, which feeds the demonization of Zionism, which strengthens the racists, on and on in and endless cycle.

Both those groups have one thing in common: whether they recognize and admit it or not, they are both working tirelessly for the destruction of Israel as it is understood by most mainstream Israelis, Jews and others who are sympathetic to the legitimate security and national expressions of the Jewish people. Whether by working to eliminate Israel as a home for the Jewish people (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily the goal of all those who advocate a single state solution) or to destroy the very heart of the Zionist dream with constant belligerence, expansion of settlements and hubristic defiance of international norms and human rights, both of these groups are working toward Israel’s demise. The so-called “Zionist” settlers are having a lot more impact toward that goal, in fact.

It is a mistake to equate “Zionism” and “pro-Israel”. The two terms are not interchangeable; in my case, I am comfortable and strongly identify with the latter label, but not the former. But I’ve also studied Zionism in all its forms for over a quarter century, in both academic and independent settings, and the distortion of the term in modern days annoys me endlessly.

One cannot say, with a straight face, that Zionism is not an integral part of Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians. A “Zionism of land” is precisely the reason for the settlement enterprise and all its concomitant evils. It is a key ingredient (as is, to be sure, Palestinian nationalism in its own extreme form) in the program of “putting the Palestinians on a diet” in Gaza, as well as other excesses there. Zionism, like all nationalisms, is susceptible to falling into bigotry, especially when the national movement is victorious and assumes power.

And make no mistake; Zionism is one of the most successful nationalist programs in history. This is particularly true if one subscribes to the view that Zionism, from the first aliyah in 1882 until 1948 (or perhaps a bit later) was essentially a movement to secure a state or, in some versions, a national home for the Jewish people. In this, it cannot be doubted that Zionism succeeded, and any serious study of its founding fathers cannot but conclude that it was far more successful in a much shorter period of time than they had ever dreamed it could be.

One can look at what were, admittedly, always minority movements in Zionism, such as the cultural and humanistic Zionism of Ahad Ha’am or the bi-nationalism of Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. And, in those contexts, one must also acknowledge that the fact that those idealists found few if any partners among the Palestinians and other Arabs (at least who would so partner publicly) was one of the reasons their ideologies found little purchase among Jews.

But those strains were there, and that’s not all. The larger movements within Zionism, primarily Labor and Revisionist, were also possessed of far higher ideals, each in their own way, in the past. Sure, Labor had a rather colonialist attitude toward the native Arab population, very much in line with typical European liberalism of the early 20th century. And one can make whatever judgments one wishes, with the benefit of hindsight, about the Labor leadership, most notably Chaim Weizmann and David ben-Gurion. But the main thrust of Labor Zionists, the people who made up the constituency, really did believe they could find a way to build a Jewish state and minimize the impact on the Arabs. For more on this, I strongly recommend Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete as well as his 1949:The First Israelis which explores how that Laborite provincialism even affected Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants to the fledgling state.

The Revisionists, as I’ve often pointed out, were even more interesting. They were certainly more direct about taking the land from the Arabs, but they also envisioned sharing the land and, crucially, the government of that land with the Arabs, once the Jewish state was established.

Years of conflict certainly eroded the humanism in mainstream Zionism, and buried the more progressive strains (though they still exist). But so, I would argue, did the

Martin Buber (L) and Judah Magnes

inherent tension between a Jewish state and a democratic one, a tension that was heightened exponentially by the occupation, holding millions of Palestinians under Israeli control without any guaranteed rights for going on 44 years now.

I fear it may well be too late to save the term “Zionism” from being identified with the extremist right, and so from being reduced to a pejorative by anti-Zionists. Instead, what is necessary is to re-define and centralize the term “pro-Israel.”

A friend once asked me how I thought it was possible to have a Jewish state that was not inherently racist. Well, many people today who call themselves pro-Israel (but really aren’t) don’t believe such a thing is possible. And indeed, in their definition of “Jewish state” it isn’t.

But, to indulge in a bit of wordsmithing again, perhaps if we think more in terms of a Jewish homeland, or, perhaps borrow the Balfour Declaration terminology of a Jewish national home, we might get somewhere.

The Jews do, I firmly believe, need a place we can call our own. Not all Jews feel that need, but enough do to make it a necessity. We do need a place where we can express ourselves collectively as a nation. That does not require demographic controls, nor a set of laws that, whether de jure or de facto, favors Jews over non-Jews. What it requires is a constitution.

An Israeli constitution that formally, fully and specifically guarantees equal rights to all its citizens while expressly identifying Israel as the homeland of the Jews can resolve this tension. This would not satisfy those on the right who have co-opted the term Zionist, but it actually does fulfill the Zionist dream of many of the movement’s founders.

Such a constitution would, to be sure, only be realistic in an Israel that is no longer occupying millions of Palestinians, but rather is living side by side with them, and, crucially, enjoys an open border with them so that the remaining Palestinian citizens of Israel are not cut off from their extended families and the Palestinians of a nascent Palestine are still fully connected to their homelands, as are Israeli Jews who will always have a connection to various parts of the West Bank (most notably Hebron). Constitutional guarantees in both a new Israel and a newborn Palestine, probably backed by international guarantees and incentives for at least the early years of such an arrangement, could make this work.

Ultimately, the struggles of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism are about more than land; they’re about rights (human, political and civil), self-determination and national expression. And I do agree with the words of Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, words I’ve heard her utter many times, most recently at the J Street conference: “The one-state solution is not a solution.” I believe each people needs a state of its own, at least for the foreseeable future. But given the realities on the ground—not just settlements, but the growing divergence of politics between Israel and the Palestinians, the divisions among the Palestinians, as well as the growing demand for democracy in all of the Arab world, not least in Palestine—we need to start revising how we think about that two-state solution.

For Jews, and especially Israeli Jews, resolving the tension between the two parts of a “Jewish and democratic state” is the central component of that process. People of good intent have avoided that very tangled web until now. We can no longer afford to do so. We need to find a pro-Israelism that replaces outmoded Zionism and allows an ideology that many of us, so well typified by Sarah Strnad, can feel at home with.

3 thoughts on “Reining In Rampant Nationalism: The Way Toward a Realistic Mideast Peace

  1. The bottom line: dear far lefties, your obsession with Zionism puts you in the same camp as the settlers.

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