Today, in campuses all over America, Zionism is readily associated with conservatism, imperialism, the Bush administration and a host of other right wing movements. Many progressive historians are fond of showing that Zionist history was imperialistic and even racist from its beginnings. And even right-wing Zionist movements like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) want to limit the de facto definition of Zionism as a movement that unconditionally supports Israel, even when the policies of its government are pro-occupation and militarist. Case in point: the ZOA attempted to expel the Union of Progressive Zionists, a liberal student group, from the Israel Campus Coalition, the umbrella organization which promotes pro-Israel campus programs.
This connection has left thousands of Jewish faculty and students, who are largely liberal, with an uneasy feeling that often leads to a disconnection from Israel oriented activities, and sometimes to outright rejection of Israel and Zionism. The current state of affairs is deeply ironic; it was not always this way. Over a century ago, Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, proposed the creation of a State for the Jews as the only way for the Jewish people to end its abnormal status as a stateless nation, loathed and rejected everywhere it settled. This political dream, however, could not come without a price, both human and political. As evidenced by his utopian novel Altneuland, Herzl understood this. He therefore believed that the only way to validate the Zionist enterprise was to build “a light unto the nations” that would be a progressive model of justice, democracy, equality and prosperity.
Most other Zionist leaders of the time, like Ber Borochov, Nahman Syrkin, or A.D. Gordon, also saw in the birth of the Jewish state the opportunity to create a utopia, and the justification for such an enterprise in the possibility of creating an egalitarian society based on human rights and dignity. The Revisionist Zionist right wing movement of Zeev Jabotinsky was the exception. Many critics of Israel today mistakenly portray Revisionism as proof of the imperialist basis of the Zionist movement. Publications from that era show that the Zionists of the time had very little awareness of the Arab population living in the area, believing that the “progress” they would bring would be welcomed by the indigenous inhabitants. Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, most Arabs living in Palestine had no quarrel with the small but growing Zionist colonies.
Within a few years, however, Zionists ran up against the reality that the Palestinians also had their own national aspirations, triggering a military conflict that would cost tens of thousands of lives, and corrupt their early idealism. Moreover, the Zionist visionaries would have never imagined that the Jewish national utopia would end up as an occupying power, mainly shaped by pragmatic factors emanating from violent conflict, criticized by much of the world, justifiably or not, as a major violator of human rights. Zionism, at its root, is not only a movement to establish a Jewish homeland, but a philosophical and ideological movement in which the establishment of a Jewish state was seen as a step to affirm humanistic values.
The liberal Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua contends that Zionism is not an ideology, but only a broad platform. In his view, as long as you support the existence of a state for the Jewish people in Israel, you are a Zionist. However, for the majority of the founders of the movement, a State of Israel that is militaristic, theocratic and corrupt would not be a Zionist state; it would only be a state that happens to be populated by Jews.
Where does that leave us today? I believe that it is pointless to argue over culpability for past abuses and atrocities during the course of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is no denying that both sides have been thrust into an ugly circle of retaliation, and that the solution lies not in re-examining the past to keep laying blame on each other. The discussion, therefore, must focus on the present and the future of Zionism, not on its past and in episodes of which many of us are not proud.
In my view, according to contemporary Progressive Zionism, a modern Zionist state can only be justified if it becomes what it was originally intended to be: a model of democracy, equality, and human rights. During the 50s and the early 60s, Zionism was typically associated in academia with left-wing liberalism. Yet, in our 21st century campus culture, Zionism has ironically been portrayed by both the Zionist right and the non-Zionist left as a mainly conservative, imperialistic movement.
I don’t know at what point academia shifted its view of Zionism, which was supported by the left as a social democratic movement whose progressive achievements included founding the socialist kibbutz. Perhaps it was after the 1967 war. I believe it is time for a paradigm shift. The peace camp must reclaim Zionism. Some groups, like the student Union of Progressive Zionists and the faculty Jewish Academic Network for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (JANIP) are already doing just that. But it is not enough. Liberal Jewish faculty and students need to speak out for the emergence of a renewed movement whose goal will be to realize the humanistic ideals of the original Zionism: an Israel that will be at the forefront of the fight for human rights and dignity; a prosperous and productive Israel that will rival the rest of the world intellectually and technologically, and use its knowledge for the betterment of humanity; an Israel in which education will be a priority and a major national enterprise, in which children will learn to think critically and creatively, multiculturally competent and open to diversity; an Israel in which the Jewish people will feel proud to be part of the renewed Zionist enterprise.