Zionism Revisited

March 7, 2019 by Danny Hochberg
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There are so many events that could be said to be defining moments in Zionism’s short history.

Danny Hochberg

But in terms of political Zionism, I identify four key defining events: Zionism’s creation (Let’s define this as the First Zionist Congress in 1897, whilst admitting it was in incubation well prior); its actualisation (The creation of the State of Israel in 1948); Its high-point (The 1967 Six-Day War Triumph which re-energised political Zionism and confirmed Israel as the centre of the Jewish people); and for my mind, its transition to modernity in 1977 (When the Likud came to power and the early vision for the State, dominated by Labour Zionism, changed forever).

Each stage brought change for both the participants in the Zionist project, as well as for the wider Jewish people.

The latter two stages, for Political Zionism, have left a legacy that is still being digested.

The Six-Day War energised the previously compliant religious Zionists. They prioritised settling the newly conquered land. Movements such as Gush Emunim sought to re-establish Jewish hegemony over biblical lands despite Palestinian resistance and international opposition. The national religious become more radicalized, their voice becoming more central and powerful.

In tandem with the rise of the religious Zionists, we have the decline of the labour Zionists (Their erstwhile partners in the building of the State) and following the 1977 Likud victory, the rise of the Revisionist right, dedicated to dismantling the socialist state and a commitment to Greater Israel.

The combination of the two has to some degree been the primary driver of Israeli politics for the last 40 years, and become the driver of the Zionist agenda. Particularly with the decline of the Labour Zionists to a “bit” role, albeit as the counter to the settler movement through a redefined commitment to social justice; human rights and Palestinian Statehood.

The Revisionists in general, have tempered their nationalism, despite extremist minorities in their midst. Their maximalist approach to the territories is informed by the responsibility of years in power and a practical approach to the ideology of founder Jabotinsky. But the religious Zionists have struggled with the concept of Greater Israel. Whilst observance has flourished in Israel, religious politics is divided, often dominated by extremists, and struggles to engage with secular Israelis and other groups.  Often it is perceived as representing the negative face of Israeli values and strategic thought, and seen as obstinate, racist and immoral by secular Israelis, the international community and many Diaspora Jews.

All of this brings us to the decision by Israeli far-right party Habayit Hayehudi to accept an offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, a right-wing party led by followers of racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, in exchange for the education and housing ministries in addition to two seats in the security cabinet if the Likud is asked to form the next Government.

Habayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home, contains the remnants of the NRP (National Religious Party), the party which represented Religious Zionists for the first 60 years of the State of Israel. Over time it became more radicalized as it was hijacked by the ideology of the settlers. Led by the erudite Naphtali Bennett, a right-wing settler and proponent of annexing the territories, it achieved success. But Bennet felt constrained by the NRP legacy and has chosen to lead a new list. This left the party crippled and potentially looking at electoral irrelevance. Step in under-siege Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who needs a strong right if he is to form a new government. The result, the infamous agreement with Otzma Yehudit.

What does all of this have to do with Zionism? Well, partly it depends on how you view your Zionism.

The Zionism of Herzl was a dreamed future. Ben Gurion realized the dream, with a strong emphasis towards an “ideal society”. The highpoint, the euphoria around the Six-Day War, has turned into a slow slide of the role of Zionism in Israeli realpolitik. Often labelled by Israel’s detractors, internal and external, as anachronistic, colonialist, and evil. As this delegitimization campaign achieved momentum, Israel and its supporters became more defensive. This accelerated with the almost complete breakdown of the peace process.

With Zionism “on hold” it has meant that the conversation around destiny, values and morals has not been given a wide enough forum. This has led on the one hand, to uncertainty which has generated fear and led to the rise of sometimes extreme views which in the past achieved little legitimacy. On the other hand, Israel’s powerful military and economy have created a triumphalism, which has allowed it to avoid painful conversations. The contradictory schools have translated into a failure of purpose from some of our elected officials.

That is not to say that Israeli politics (pre-State and post) have been anything but tough, divisive and inevitably acrimonious. But there are lines. And if Zionism is to reappear into the National lexicon, it needs to do this as the upholder of the values upon which the State was formed.

Zionism should not tolerate the likes of Otzma Yehudit. Certainly, it should not allow them any legitimacy. David Ben Gurion said, “Without moral and intellectual independence, there is no anchor for national independence”. Just as Israeli soldiers go into battle armed not only with weapons, but with a pocket-sized card containing the IDF code of ethics, so must our politicians live up to the moral challenges of the Zionist State.

The indictment of Netanyahu and his decision to retain power whilst fighting the charges against him is a further challenge to Zionist values. The same Prime Minister who has done so much to keep Israel safe, and retained the trust of much of the Israeli electorate for the past decade, is now potentially a danger to the values upon which all Zionists hope that our country and our leaders represent.

The strong and negative response from Diaspora Jewish communities to the unholy alliance between Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit , unusual in that most of these organisations shy away from criticism of Israeli politics, is further confirmation that what is at stake here is Zionism and our aspiration for Israel as a “light unto nations”.

It may be old-fashioned, but the time is right to once again bring Zionism back into the conversation. Regardless of your “colour” of Zionism, surely we all agree that we want Israel to be a model to the world, as concisely said by author and diplomat Michael Oren, informed by a  “balance between the requirements of justice and morality, reconciled by our heritage and our sovereignty.”

Danny Hochberg is a NSW community activist involved in a number of communal organisations.


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