Why Progressive Nationalism Is Still So Relevant: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

Categories: Letters from the Leadership
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This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.

Introduced to Jewish political discourse via a Zionist youth movement many years ago, my world view and personal identification are still defined by progressive Zionism. Since the establishment of modern Zionism, the self-determination movement of the Jewish people, “hyphenated Zionists” have debated what values should define the movement, and since 1948, the State. Cultural Zionists, Orthodox, Revisionists and socialists all laid out their vision of a national home of the Jewish people. To say the least, Israel, and by definition, Zionism, is still a work in process.

Here are examples of areas where we can both acknowledge achievements and identify a crying need for improvement.

I am proud of Israel for fulfilling the role of a safe haven for Jews from around the world; that is a core Zionist value, and that effort continues to this day through the aliyah (immigration) of the remaining Falash Mura from Ethiopia. At the same time, the country has struggled to provide equal opportunities for immigrants of different origins and rid itself of racism.

Israel’s founders understood that Israel cannot and should not treat its minorities the way that Jews were treated throughout history by other governments, and wrote in the state\’s Declaration of Independence that “The State of Israel … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants. … it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Do Israel’s Arab citizens have basic democratic rights? Yes. Are there Arabs elected as members of the Knesset, sitting on the High Court of Justice and in diplomatic postings around the world? Yes. However, there is a consensus in Israeli society that Arab citizens do not have equal access to life’s basic necessities, including education, housing and employment. Full equality and integration of Israel’s minority citizens is a test of Israel’s democracy.

Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, envisioned a religiously tolerant Jewish state. Due to political compromises made by Israel’s secular political leadership leading to the inclusion of religious parties in successive coalition governments, the country has instead become more intolerant and citizens suffer from religious coercion. Non-Orthodox denominations are not recognized by the State, depriving its citizens of avenues for religious expression enjoyed by their fellow Jews in the Diaspora.

And while the Israel Defense Forces provides the security necessary to defend its citizens from attacks by enemies, the government of Israel does not make the commensurate effort to reach an agreement on a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The demography of the region, with close to equal numbers of Jews and Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, leaves no room for other alternatives. ONLY through such a partition of this territory will we be assured of the existence of a Jewish, democratic state, which is the very basis of Zionism.

I lived in Israel for 14 years, mostly as a kibbutz member, when the intense settlement of the West Bank began. Kibbutz movement historian and leader Muki Tzur would say that in addition to the disastrous political implications of the settlements in the occupied territories, it was a tragedy that we let those settlers take the title of “pioneers” from us. It is in this spirit that we cannot let them take the word Zionism from us as well. The right wing Israeli organization “Im Tirtzu,” by borrowing their name from Herzl’s famous call “Im tirtzu, ein zu agadah” (If you will it, it is no dream) are trying to do just that.

The good news is that there are young grass roots activists in Israel today who proudly define themselves as Zionists. Declaring that Israeli society has lost its sense of communal responsibility, they lead the new social justice protest movement that exploded onto the scene in the summer of 2011. With central claims aimed at improving the average citizen’s standard of living, they also stress the importance of fostering social solidarity among the diverse (and often adversarial) sectors of Israel. What could be more Zionist than that?

There are also the new urban educator kibbutzim, formed by graduates of both Israeli and Diaspora Zionist youth movements to work in the field of education and community development. These young people are the modern version of the chalutzim, the pioneers, who 100 years ago sang, anu banu artza, livnot u’l’hibanot ba — we have come to the land to build and be rebuilt by it. Although they are not bending over in the hot sun, removing rocks from an agricultural field, they are indeed doing the heavy lifting required in Israeli society. They generally live in the smaller, periphery towns of Israel, live very modest lifestyles and try to improve the lives of the children and youth of their community.

Progressive Zionism, a world view of how the Jews can realize their national aspirations in a socially just manner, is as relevant today as when A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson, Ben Gurion and others brought these ideas from Russia to then Palestine. The 21st century version of this ideology links tikun olam, the world\’s mending, with Jewish values and with Zionism — and recognizes that secure and just peace with Israel\’s neighbors is an essential element of the mending. That commitment should and can be an important part of the Diaspora Jewish community’s connection with Israel.

About Kenneth Bob, National President

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu. He is a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors,  the treasurer of Board of Directors of J Street and a board member of the Forward Association. Ken is a past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation, the national alumni association of the Labor Zionist youth movement, providing financial support for their educational programming throughout North America. In his professional life, Ken is an experienced entrepreneur and currently provides management consulting for small and merging companies.
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