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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Workers of the World? II

November 23, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

From the beginning, there have been at least two conflicting visions competing for the heart of Zionism: normalization and utopianism:

Netanyahu's laissez faire Zionism is rooted in a long tradition that sees Zionism as a process of normalization: Israel will cease being a pariah nation, a people of rootless, unproductive, luftmenschen; the return to the land will be a return to history, to a normal economic structure. In our own state, in our own land, we will be landowners and peasants, tycoons and proletarians, cops and robbers; we will be a state like any other [modern western European] state. We will rejoin the family of nations, and will experience all the joys and frustrations, satisfactions and ills of any normal state. A return to a national life with all that that entails. After all, the meaning of the Zionist revolution, in this view, is the redefinition of Judaism as a nationality, not a religion. Thus, Israel should be a Jewish state the way France is a French state, with no "Jewish moral" content. In the words of an early proponent of this approach, Jacob Klatzkin (1914),

In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself -- the attaining of a free national life. The content of our life will be national when its forms become national. Indeed, let it not be said that the land is a precondition for a national life; living on the land is ipso facto the national life?. [Zionism's] basic intention, whether consciously or unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria.

The Histadrut (Israel Labor Federation), and what is left of the coalition of labor parties and party fragments are also the heirs of a century-old tradition that left its imprint on every are of life in Mandatory Palestine and later the Israeli state: Utopian Zionism found its most distinctive expression in the powerful linkage of two seemingly incompatible movements: Zionism and socialism. Socialism, after all was a cosmopolitan, universalistic philosophy, which saw ethnic, religious, and national identities as vestiges of the old order -- indeed, as tools of exploitation, perpetuating injustice. Orthodox socialists had nothing but contempt for Zionism, which was certainly a counterrevolutionary phenomenon. And yet, a whole generation of young, Eastern European Jewish idealists was swept away by the faith that a synthesis of the two movements was possible.

Nahman Syrkin, one of the formulators of this synthesis, wrote in 1898:

The Jewish state can come about only if it is socialist; only by fusing with socialism can Zionism become the ideal of the whole Jewish people -- of the proletariat, the middle class, and the intelligentsia. All Jews will be involved in the success of Zionism, and none will be indifferent. The messianic hope, which was always the greatest dream of exiled Jewry, will be transformed into political action. The Jewish people, presently living in misery, will gain lofty content?. From the humblest and most oppressed of all peoples it will be transformed to the proudest and greatest. The Jews will derive their moral stature from their travail, and out of the pain of their existence will come a pattern of noble living. The Jew is small, ugly, servile, and debased when he forgets and denies his great character. He becomes distinguished and beautiful in the moral and social realms when he returns to his true nature.

It is fascinating that after a century of Zionist thought and activity -- and over half a century of statehood -- we are as divided as ever over the fundamental nature of the whole enterprise!


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