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Quick Takes: ‘Zionism’ Has Won — Time to Move On

Ralph Seliger
November 14, 2017

by Ralph Seliger

LIEL LEIBOVITZ, the most frequent contributor to the high-toned online mag Tablet, is very talented as a writer but maddeningly superficial as a thinker. Emotionally seduced by rightwing Zionist arguments, he tends to see things in black and white.

In a recent piece, he claims that the left-Zionist Meretz party is no longer Zionist. While many in Meretz have long moved away from Zionism rhetorically due to the right’s success in wrapping itself around the Zionist “flag,” he himself reports on how party chair Zehava Galon and her would-be successor, MK Ilan Gilon, both insist that Meretz is Zionist.

The party’s platform (link in Hebrew), calls for “a democratic state, the state of the Jewish people, and a state of all its citizens.” It goes on to state as follows: “. . . The status of every citizen, male and female, without nationality-based distinctions, must be equal. Aside from the guarantee of complete equality to all citizens of the state, Israel will recognize the Arab minority as a national minority that has collective rights . . . The only answer to the rising wave of racism is full equal rights -- individual and collective.”

This discussion echoes the Israeli and Jewish discourse on “post-Zionism” a few years back. There are self-described post-Zionists who appreciate that Israel’s founding was a good thing for a profoundly threatened population that badly needed a state entity to protect it; at the same time, they see the need for Israel to progress as a modern democratic state that is fair and open to all law-abiding citizens who are not Jews. Then there are post-Zionists who are really anti-Zionists, regarding Israel’s creation as a mistake and an injustice. (Consider Tom Segev as a pro-Zionist post-Zionist, with Gideon Levy of the anti-Zionist variety.)

This debate is further complicated by the usual designation of Israel as the “Jewish state,” too easily confused with the problematic notion of a theocratic state, a Jewish analogue to Iran, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. This is why I prefer to call Israel a Jewish-majority state. A substantial minority of Zionists actually favored a bi-national state or a federation, solutions rejected by the Palestinian-Arab leadership even before their violent opposition to a two-state solution in 1947-48.

While its Jewishness (in the sense of a predominant cultural and ethnic heritage) is integral to its core, Israel must also be a state of “all of its citizens” to be fully democratic. This may require examining both symbolic and substantive matters, ranging from a national anthem that speaks of the “Jewish soul” to the Jewish National Fund that still controls and develops much, if not most, of Israel’s land and natural resources. “Jewish and democratic” becomes irreconcilable only if a sovereign Palestinian entity alongside Israel is rendered impossible.

PERSONALLY, I wish that Zionism as a term and a movement had honorably retired itself long ago. Theodor Herzl’s proud creation in 1897, the World Zionist Organization, has become an archaic and wasteful bureaucratic structure, little more than a source of patronage for most of Israel’s political parties and the major Jewish religious denominations.

The Zionist movement has succeeded in its most tangible goal of reestablishing the Jews as a sovereign actor on the world stage. Yet this achievement is jeopardized by rightwing nationalists who expropriate Zionism as a justification for deepening the occupation and resisting a two-state solution. At the same time, the Z-word is a rhetorical lightning rod for opponents of national rights for Jews, who reduce flesh-and-blood Israelis to “Zionists” who espouse some noxious ideology.

Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.