Who Are the True Heirs of Zionism?


Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM — ZIONISM was never the gentlest of ideologies. The return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty there have always carried within them the displacement of those already living on the land.

The Israeli general and politician Yigal Allon defined Zionism in 1975 as “the national liberation movement of a people exiled from its historic homeland and dispersed among the nations of the world.” Some years later, and more crudely, perhaps, another general and politician, Rehavam Ze’evi, a tough right-winger, said, “Zionism is in essence the Zionism of transfer,” adding, “If transfer is immoral, then all of Zionism is immoral.”

In that gap between idealism and pragmatism is the fierce battle now going on in Israel, some 65 years after the founding of the state, about the true inheritors of Zionism.

Are they those who hold to the secular and internationalist vision of the nation’s founders, or are they the nationalist religious settlers who create communities beyond the 1967 boundaries and seek to annex more of the biblical land of Israel?

The earliest version of Zionism based the creation of a Jewish nation on the revived language of Hebrew, to unify the huge variety of dispersed Jews. Beginning in the 1920s and especially with the Holocaust, suggests Bernard Avishai, the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism” and “The Hebrew Republic,” came the idea of “political Zionism,” which required a state and a military both to protect Jews against anti-Semitism and to transform them into a modern state, to defend themselves and, if necessary, to defy the world.

The largely secular founders of Israel, the generation of David Ben-Gurion, had a dual vision of Israel as both “a light among nations” and a state like others, part of the international community of nations, outward looking and socially just.

“When Israel has prostitutes and thieves,” Ben-Gurion said, “we’ll be a state just like any other.”

The “new” Zionists — religious Zionists — see the world, and Israel, differently. They are sure that they represent the future. “We are the real Zionists now,” a settler, Igal Canaan, told me, “and slowly, slowly we will be the majority of the country.” They argue that they are the pioneers of this generation, taking risks to expand the state in the face of dangers from the Palestinians, whom they largely regard, in Mr. Avishai’s words, “as a distraction on the landscape who will eventually be displaced,” as others were before by the left-wing secular Zionists who built the young state. The new Zionists see themselves as honoring God’s commandments and living in shared communities like the early heroes of Israel.

Defiant in the face of criticism, both domestic and foreign, they believe that they are building a religious Israel, not a European or cosmopolitan one.

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