What Is Zionism? A Progressive Vision (Abridged)

Categories: Jewish Identity

“You shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.  Zion shall be redeemed with justice.”  Isaiah I: 26-27 

Zionism involves the belief that Israel has a right to exist as a democratic Jewish state. It is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Zionism, like any form of nationalism, has found expression on the left, right and center of the political spectrum. All Zionists share the common denominator of commitment to the existence and flourishing of a democratic Jewish state called Israel. 

Progressive Zionism is best expressed by three whose life and work reflect the balance of universal and particular, the love of Israel and the Jewish people, and the love of peace and justice, common to the Biblical prophets, representing authentic Jewish values: Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, and Israel’s former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak. Each embodies dimensions of progressive Zionism.  To be sure, each expresses progressive Zionism in different degrees and imperfectly.

Contemporary progressive Zionism draws on the enlightened outlook of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. It was Herzl who urged in Old-New Land (1902), “Hold fast to the things that have made us great:  to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion.” Herzl foresaw a Jewish state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed full equality as citizens.  Progressive Zionism entails both a love for the Jewish people, a passion for its well-being, and a commitment to justice, equality, human rights—cosmopolitan values with deep sources in Jewish tradition—and for their embodiment in a liberal democracy. “For Herzl the fortunes of Zionism and those of European liberalism were intertwined,” wrote Jacques Kornberg in the introduction to the English translation of Herzl’s novelistic vision of Jewish nationalism realized. “Old-New Land was a… blue-print for a liberal New Society in Palestine.”   

Progressive Zionists fight for Arab-Israeli peace and a more equalitarian society in Israel out of a recognition that a just and well-crafted political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the larger Arab-Israeli dispute, will enhance Israel’s security, fortifying it economically, politically and socially.  And we struggle to realize these ideals because they are at the core of our moral vision as Zionists.  In our Zionism there is no contradiction between our belief in the justice of a state which embodies Jewish culture and symbols in its public life, reflecting the heritage and needs of the Jewish people, and our embrace of universal moral values.   

Ahad Ha’am and the Zionism of Justice  

Ahad Ha’am (which means “one of the people”), the pen name of Asher Ginsburg, founded what is known as Cultural Zionism, the idea that Jews should come together in the historic Land of Israel so that they can cooperatively build what will become the common cultural center of the Jewish people throughout the world, forming a collective space that is Jewish. Herzl and Ahad Ha’am represented two contrasting approaches to Zionism in their day, the one focusing on state-building, the other on creating a Jewish cultural and spiritual center in the Land of Israel for all Jews everywhere, reviving Hebrew and the moral core of Judaism. But their ideas can be united, particularly now that political Zionism has achieved its primary goal of establishing a Jewish state.  Ahad Ha’am sought to establish not only “a state of the Jews,” which he saw as Herzl’s goal, but a “Jewish state” animated by Jewish spiritual and moral values. 

For Ahad Ha’am, Jewish national aspirations can only be realized “while maintaining respect for the feelings and rights of the region’s Arabs.”  Jews, cautioned Ahad Ha’am, “should not forget that for the Arabs too, Palestine was a national home.” Indeed, in a famous essay titled “Truth from the Land of Israel,” written from Jerusalem in 1891, “he was the first Zionist…to raise the question of the Arabs” of Palestine. He made the “call for a decent treatment of Palestine’s Arabs” essential not only to the resurrection of Zion and the Zionist enterprise, but to the future of Judaism itself, which was to become “the civic religion of a future Israel,” notes Jewish historian Stephen J. Zipperstein.   

Ahad Ha’am stresses that following the universal principle of love and respect for the other does not commit the Jew to self-abnegation—or what might be called today, self-hatred or self-denial. On the contrary, because it commands the Jew to love himself, and to love others no less, it obligates him to fulfill his individual and national identity to the fullest extent that is consistent with the demands of justice. The same idea is expressed in Rabbi Hillel’s maxim, from Pirke Avot, “If I am not for myself, what am I for; but if I am only for myself, what am I?” 

Ahad Ha’am also maintained that the most fundamental principle of Jewish ethics—”You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—does not teach us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, but as much:  “The true meaning of the verse is: ‘Self-love must not be allowed to incline the scale on the side of your own advantage; love your neighbor as yourself, and then justice will necessarily decide, and you will do nothing to your neighbor that you would consider a wrong if it were done to yourself’… Judaism cannot accept the altruistic principle; it cannot put ‘other’ in the center of the circle, because that place belongs to justice, which knows no distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other.'”  

It was Ahad Ha’am who spoke of the relationship between Jewish nationalism and Jewish ethics, both of which comprise our Zionism, in an essay called “The Character of Judaism”:  

The Jewish law of justice is not confined within the narrow sphere of individual relations. In its Jewish sense the precept ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ can be carried out by a whole nation in its dealings with other nations. For this precept does not oblige a nation to sacrifice its life or its position for the benefit of other nations. It is, on the contrary, the duty of every nation, as of every individual human being, to live and to develop to the utmost limit of its powers; but at the same time it must recognize the right of other nations to fulfill the like duty without let or hindrance. Patriotism—that is, national egoism—must not induce it to disregard justice, and to seek self-fulfillment through the destruction of other nations. 

Zionism comes in many flavors. One approach stresses Jewish national self-aggrandizement at the expense of the Jewish commitment to equality, justice and liberal values. The other Zionism balances our duties to our selves and our own nation with our universal commitments, in the belief that one can love and give preference in special ways to one’s own people while also promoting equality, justice and respect for all, Jew and non-Jew alike, in Israel. One such preference is for Israel’s Jewish public culture, expressing the historical memory and national identity of its Jewish majority; another is the Law of Return which allows any Jew the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Our pursuit of peace and justice arises not only from our embrace of biblically-inspired moral imperatives, but from our own self-interest as a Jewish nation and people:  our well-being and security mandates that we strive to live with our Arab neighbors in peace and justice, helping Israel and our fellow Jews there to work towards just and peaceful relations with them.   

While Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, our liberation is impossible without the concomitant flourishing of Palestinian political and cultural life in a state living at peace next to Israel, whose people should be treated with full respect and equality when they are citizens of Israel.     

Israel as a Democratic Jewish State: Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak 

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, “anticipated and boldly confronted the possible tension between the Law of Return and the principle of equality,” between Israel’s pursuit of the Jewish national project and its commitment to equal citizenship for Jews and Arabs alike, embracing both in the same paragraph: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” “In other words, the nation’s founders saw no inherent contradiction between the exigencies of creating a Jewish state, the values of the prophets, and international principles of human rights,” the Jerusalem Post reminded its readers.   

Former Israel Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak explains that Israel’s “declaration of independence called to ‘the children of the Arab nation living in the Land of Israel to keep the peace and take part in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship.’ Zionism was not based on discrimination against non-Jews, but on their integration into the Jewish national home. Zionism was born as a response against discrimination and racism. Certainly the values of the State of Israel as a democratic state stand opposed to discrimination and demand equality. Indeed, the democratic state is obliged to honor the basic rights of every individual in the state to equality, and to protect them.  But equality is a complex right. Treating individuals in a different manner does not always imply treating them in a discriminatory manner, and nor does treating individuals in an identical manner automatically imply treating them in an equal manner.” 

“The claim is heard,” continues Barak, “that this application of the principle of equality between Jews and Arabs spells the end of Zionism, or that it embodies a post-Zionist attitude. Nothing could be further from the truth. Zionism is not based on discrimination between Jews and Arabs. That is not how the declaration of independence saw it when it called on ‘the children of the Arab nation who live in the State of Israel to keep the peace and assume their share in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship’; that is not how the founding fathers, Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion and others, saw it when they repeatedly emphasized that the Jewish state was a state in which full equality between Jews and Arabs would prevail; that is not how the Supreme Court saw it from its earliest days, when it repeatedly emphasized equality between citizens of the state on the basis of religion, race and gender. Of course, the principle of equality itself, by its essence, permits — in cases where circumstances require it — differing but non-discriminatory treatment among equals, such that it is permissible to infringe on equality under certain defined conditions.” 

“The values of Judaism and democracy have broad jurisprudential importance in Israel,” Barak writes.  “They have constitutional status, influencing both the determination of the extent of human rights and the protection accorded them in Israeli jurisprudence.  The phrase ‘the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’ entered into Israeli law in 1992 with the enactment of two Basic Laws governing, respectively, freedom of occupation and human dignity and freedom. The Basic Laws, 11 in total, serve as the de facto constitution of Israel. Israel’s Jewish and democratic values are accorded supralegal-constitutional status and serve as a legal yardstick by which to measure the applicability of the Basic Laws.” 

“Only a national home built on foundations of equality and respect for the individual can endure over time,” concludes Israel’s former Chief Justice. “Only a state that relates in an equal manner to all its children can win acceptance in the society of freedom-loving nations. Only a society based on principles of equality can live in peace with itself.” 

“There is no contradiction between striving to grant the Arabs equality as required by law and decency and the fulfillment of Zionism,” remarked Israel’s Attorney General (and now Supreme Court Justice) Elyakim Rubinstein, an Orthodox Jew.  “Whoever wants to preserve Israel as a democratic and Jewish state must strive to grant equality to the Arabs.”  “Israel is the state of the Jewish people,” notes former Israeli Justice Minister Dan Meridor, “but because it is a Jewish state, it must not practice against its non-Jewish citizens the kind of discrimination to which Jews were subjected in the diaspora.” Our Israel is both a Jewish and a liberal democratic state, and liberal democracy requires equality among all citizens, Jewish or Palestinian, in the domestic public sphere where the government acts, when it provides education, allocates budget and land, regulates employment, assesses taxes, and imposes the duty on citizens to serve the state through national service. 

For progressive Zionism, realizing equality for all Israel’s citizens by no means compromises Israel’s unique character as a Jewish nation-state.  Israel can remain the guardian of the interests of the Jewish people and be a well-spring of its cultural and religious renewal, as Aharon Barak has continued to urge:   

In a speech entitled ‘The State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,’ Barak outlined the characteristics that make Israel a Jewish state.  ‘It is a state to which every Jew has a right to immigrate and in which the ingathering of exiles is a basic value,’ said Barak. ‘…a state whose history is intermixed and enmeshed with the history of the Jewish people, whose language is Hebrew, and whose holidays reflect the Jewish heritage. A Jewish state is a state where Jewish settlement in the countryside, cities and rural settlements is the prime concern…a state which preserves the memory of the Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust…A Jewish state is a state which encourages Jewish culture and education and love for the Jewish people.  

A Jewish state is the realization of the hope of generations for the redemption of Israel. A Jewish state is a state whose values are the freedom, justice, honesty and peace which are part of the Jewish heritage. A Jewish state is a state whose values include those which emanate from the religious tradition. The Bible is the most fundamental of its books, and the prophets are the foundation of its morality…a state in which Jewish law has an important function…where the values of the Bible, the values of Jewish heritage and the values of the Halacha make up part of the fundamental values.’  

False Dilemmas:  A Jewish Democratic State AND a State of All Citizens 

Aharon Barak’s is our Zionism.  For progressive Zionism, there is no contradiction between Israel as a democratic Jewish state and Israel as a state of its citizens.   Speaking of the Law of Return, Israel’s ties with the Jewish Diaspora, and the maintenance of a Jewish majority, political scientist Alan Dowty has noted that “None of these features is inherently inconsistent with liberal democracy, and none of them are in fact unique to Israel. There are at least two dozen ethnic democracies in the world (among several dozen ethnic states), and a large number of states grant citizenship on the basis of ethnic identity or descent.”   

Adds Israeli constitutional law scholar Ruth Gavison:  “The Jewishness of Israel is, first and foremost, the recognition of the fact that Israel is the state in which the Jewish people exercises its right to national self-determination.  Many of the world’s democracies, old and new, have a distinct culture analogous to Israel’s Jewish culture.  The constitutions of most European countries reveal that they are nation-states in this sense.  These states celebrate their distinct histories, languages, identities, and emblems.  Many of their citizens do not share this nationality.  But so long as the rights of these citizens are not denied, and so long as they can participate fully in the political and civil life of their societies, we do not deny the democratic nature of the state.” 

There is no clash between Israel’s remaining a haven for persecuted Jews, or inviting free Jewish immigration under the Law of Return, and its becoming fully a state of all its citizens.  Critics on the ultra-nationalist right, like their radical post-Zionist antipodes—purists who rail against the very fact of Jewish power rather than its unjust application—would impale Israel on one or the other horn of a false dilemma.  

Right-wing Zionists like Yoram Hazony, in his flawed volume The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, seem tone deaf to the imperative of fulfilling the promise of equal citizenship for the Arabs of Israel, as codified in its Declaration of Independence.  If Hazony is genuinely troubled by the Palestinization of Israel’s Arab community, and the prospect that Palestinian national identity will translate into a secessionist movement, why does he consistently fail to champion large-scale efforts to remove the stain of social and material privation from its Arab population?  Does he seriously expect a minority long discriminated against by the state in land allocation, housing, education, job opportunity, urban development, economic support, and basic social services will display undying fealty?    

He who seeks the abiding loyalty of this community should praise the first steps at fuller inclusion which Israel has taken, including the elevation of an Arab judge to Israel’s Supreme Court, the participation of Arab Knesset Members in the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, rising government budget allocations for Arab municipalities under Labor during some of the Oslo years, Supreme Court rulings affirming equality for Arabs in the allocation of land, and encourage other far more dramatic steps.   

Because Hazony has failed to face this ineluctable problem, he cannot accomplish the task he has set himself:  refurbishing the idea of the Jewish state.  “There is no way of resolving the ongoing debate on the relationship between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israeli’ without first resolving the question of the relation between the Israeli Jew and the Israeli Arab, the question of ‘who is an Israeli,'” notes David Grossman sagely in Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel, a chronicle which remains required reading for anyone hoping to rededicate the Jewish state with lasting oil, without relying on miracles.    

By dismissing the Oslo peace process as the child of post-Zionist flight from the image of a Jewish nation-state—as if most of its supporters were not in fact Zionists seeking to fulfill the Zionist dream—Hazony displays a tin ear for equal citizenship, equal respect for all, as the true source of the struggle for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  If West Bank and Gaza Palestinians cannot enjoy such equal status as Israeli citizens, a result neither side wishes, they must be afforded the chance to secure it in their own polity in the territory where they reside.   

Jews form the majority in Israel’s national society, and so they represent the prevailing culture, just as in the peaceful Palestinian state which as Zionists we are committed to help realize, Palestinian Arabs will form the majority, and a Palestinian culture, infused by the Islamic values of the largely Muslim population, will reflect the dominant culture of Muslim Palestinians in that area.  The draft constitution of the future state of Palestine defines it as a Muslim Arab state, while guaranteeing relative freedom of religion, and equal civil and political rights to all Palestinian citizens.  And just as Israel gives preference to Jews wishing to emigrate to it, under the Law of Return, so the state of Palestine will have a Palestinian Law of Return, which gives preference to Palestinians, especially Palestinian refugees, to emigrate into the new state.  Both states, Israel and Palestine, will ultimately contain minorities, and in both the minorities must be treated with full equality before the law. The education systems and public cultures of both societies should promote equal respect in the public and private interaction of all people with one another. 

Our Zionism strives to forge a common civic post-national culture which both Jews and Palestinian Arabs can share equally in the Jewish state of Israel, and in relations between Israel and the state of Palestine.  With Herzl, Ahad Ha’am and Aharon Barak, it understands the moral limits of the national thread in Zionism, recognizing the imperative of a cooperative, common identity to complement—not replace—the national identity inherent in Zionism. And because, on our Zionism, both states should seek to develop such a common civic egalitarian public culture to complement the particularistic aspects of their national cultures, they will draw from their own cultures in the articulation of that common public culture to be shared by Jews and Arabs in Palestine-Israel. Our Zionism sees not only two states, living in peace side by side, it sees the Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoying full equality legally, economically and socially in a Jewish republic, as it does Jews, Christians and other minorities eventually living in full equality with Muslim Palestinians in a Palestinian Arab republic in the West Bank and Gaza.   

In the Jewish republic, Israel, Palestinian citizens should have equal civic responsibilities and enjoy equal civic benefits. Equal civic duties means national service for all citizens, including eventually, when conditions permit, service for all Israeli citizens in the Israel Defense Forces, which will, with the full realization of our Zionism, no longer face a neighboring Arab army with which it is likely to be at war. A number of prominent Knesset members have proposed even now instituting national service for all citizens of Israel, Jewish and Arab, under which all citizens would perform work benefiting the public. Non-Jewish citizens of Israel who cannot serve in the Israel Defense Forces due to current security conditions would perform non-military civic service instead.     

Progressive Zionism works assiduously to attenuate armed national conflict and to establish a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Our struggle for peace will also help remove the main obstacle to equal civic duties and benefits for Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians—the ongoing national conflict.  Indeed, we can and must work to reduce these obstacles to fuller equality between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society even now as part of our larger mission to seek peace and justice.    

(The above represents a substantially abridged version of a larger essay.)

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