By Zohar Raviv
In an ever-warming climate of polemics and partisanship (within and outside US campus life), the hyper-politicized arena has become the platform through which almost any debate seeks validity and any value system is measured. As seen, e.g, in the documentary America Inside Out with Katie Couric: The Age of Outrage, the principle informing this climate is the valid demand to “express outrage” at whatever issue of contention, against the equally valid demand to exercise the intellectual integrity, tolerance and patience needed to pursue any such issue in fuller context and from myriad viewpoints. Indeed, any attempt to engage complex, sensitive and emotionally charged issues cannot reach fruition without attending to both sides and orchestrating a platform that allows all parties involved not only the freedom to speak, but – and more importantly – the honor of being heard.
Anyone who has a stake in Judaism, Jewish education, Jewish public discourse and/or associations with the State of Israel recognizes that the term “Zionism” falls many a time within the above framework as a point of contention, with moral and political overtones. How is this term often presented within our public spheres and discourse? The Oxford dictionary, for example, offers a definition that arguably encapsulates the popular conception of the term: Zionism is “A movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel. It was established as a political organization in 1897 under Theodor Herzl […].” As many indeed perceive the birth of Zionism as a late 19th century political movement, for the Millennial and Post-Millennial generations in the western world (the latter also known as “Generation Z”), the “Z Word” (Zionism) is often entangled with ambiguity and ambivalence, and at times even met with discomfort or outright antagonism.
The debate over Zionism is an important debate to have with both our young Jewish generations and anyone who may have an interest, stake and/or opinion about it. However, in a world whose indifference to context far surpasses its accessibility to content, such a discussion requires a much broader baseline than the myopic, misleading and even manipulative lens that has been scanning its validity, existence or evolution our public, educational and oftentimes intellectual spheres. Such a broader baseline requires one to clearly distinguish between a) Zionism as an ancient idea and ideal, and b) Zionism as a modern political movement.
Theodor (Binyamin Ze’ev) Herzl, who is rightfully mentioned in the Oxford definition as the founder of the Zionist movement in 1897, rendered Zionism “An infinite ideal.” By doing so, Herzl charted the ancient subsoil upon which he wished to plant the seeds of his modern, 19th century political movement. As shown in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948), Zionism was, and remains, an ancient idea and ideal, without which the entire backbone of the 19th century political movement and the ensuing state of Israel can be neither fathomed nor imagined: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people […]; impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland […].”
The Zionist idea and ideal predate the Zionist movement by thousands of years, equally so regarding any modern political rhetoric and/or nation-state configuration in Europe or the Middle East. As an idea and an ideal “Zionism” has been fueled by the Jewish people’s perpetual yearning to re-establish their ancestral homeland, irrespective of the various lands which have become their home since their multiple banishments from that land. The Zionist idea and ideal therefore have no conceptual, ideological, historical or political correspondence (let alone dependency) with the rationale and rhetoric that brought about the emergence of nation-states in late Medieval Europe, nor with the European rhetoric that gave rise to their so-called “colonial aspirations and expansions.” The 19th century Zionist movement was this ancient ideal’s modern and necessary political arm, working within that period’s European zeit geist and towards the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in its ancient homeland: The State of Israel.
As once articulated by my longtime colleague and educator Joe Perlov, “Israel is not an ideal society, but rather a society of ideas and ideals.” We should seek and encourage any form of debate about Zionism in our midst – as should be regarding any topic of worth. Yet in order to move beyond the somewhat superficial desire for “free speech” and toward “the honor of being heard,” we should all strive to exercise the humility needed to afford broader context and different – even opposing – viewpoints a seat of honor around the table. Most importantly, however, such important and legitimate debates need not lead toward division and alienation, but rather perceived as opportunities to sharpen our own critical faculties and commit ourselves to a genuine path of inquiry. As is the case with most complex issues, the validity of one argument is not always contingent upon utterly debunking another’s view. Unpacking “Zionism” deserves the integrity, attention and depth that treat the fuller scope of its conceptual, ideological and historical evolution – both as an ancient ideal and as a modern political movement.
Dr. Zohar Raviv is the International Vice President of Education of Taglit-Birthright Israel.