Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

A new Zionism?

I was obliged to write an essay on a major threat facing Israel, for an application to a well-funded workshop that I ultimately was not accepted for. In it I argue that a major threat facing Israel, perhaps the biggest threat, has to do with the ideological underpinnings of the state as a political community. That is, the threat relates to Zionism and its problems. I also outline what a new Zionism should look like, and how it deals with that threat.

Since it is no longer under any kind of evaluation, I post it here in case it catches anyone’s interest.

One significant challenge to Israeli security and identity: the changing meaning, and practice, of Zionism.


Zionism faces a crisis. While the long-standing conflict between left-wing and right-wing Zionisms needs little introduction, its dimensions have transformed. The State is built. The Jews will not be pushed into the sea by invading Arab armies. Even the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons seems to be diminishing. Israel is at the forefront of technological and scientific innovation. Israelis are still at risk, of course: qassams and katyushas may fall, fired from Gaza or Lebanon, and Palestinian terrorism may compromise the safety of residents. But Israel now probably faces only one existential security threat.

That threat is not of physical destruction but of a loss of self—a threat to what the sociologist Anthony Giddens referred to as ‘ontological security’. If Zionism becomes completely associated with racism, apartheid, and occupation, in the minds of the world and in the eyes of liberal Jews inside Israel and outside it, then the State I earlier expressed a desire to protect will have ceased to exist. A state is not just a set of institutions, but a community with a shared will and destiny. The community of Israel marches towards a precipice, as ‘BDS’ gathers steam on North American university campuses and as many young Israelis figure out ways to acquire Western passports.

The problem may be stated thus: how can Israel survive the occupation of Palestinian lands without ceasing to be a state worthy of Zionist aspirations? The short answer is that it cannot. As the pithy adage goes, Israel can only be two of the following three things: a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state that includes the West Bank. But while I hope for a two-state solution, I can offer no novel plan to arrive at that halcyon outcome. Before that happens, before the diplomats can work their magic and the ‘spoilers’ can be marginalised, Zionism needs to change.

The ‘New Zionism’ must evolve along three dimensions. First, it must embrace a more inclusive understanding of citizenship, of what it means to be a part of the political community, with a stake in its future and a voice in its present. Young Diaspora Jews need to be citizens, and engage not only in Hasbara but in shaping Israel as Israelis do. Moreover, Palestinians must be citizens too; they are not to be a ‘partner for peace’ in the sense of an allied community, but part of Israel and the Zionist ideal—‘ehad mishelanu’. This may take the form of separate Jewish and Palestinian states, but we must accept our shared destiny. As such, important Zionist conversations must involve more than just Israeli citizens and the odd Diaspora intellectual.

Second, it must be pragmatic. Zionism must be flexible, compromising, and reflective. This doesn’t mean giving up on core principles of Jewish self-governance, homeland, and safe haven. But it does mean recognising that not all of what we may want is attainable any time soon, and furthermore that we must bargain with people whom we may not like. Practically speaking, the main implication of this is that pro-settlement Zionism must give up the West Bank. But that is not the only implication. Left-wing Israelis must accept that Israel will not become a secular ‘Western’ space indistinguishable from Amsterdam or Berlin. Diaspora Jews must accept that they have responsibilities as citizens of Israel (in the aforementioned sense). And Jews of all kinds must continue to accept what we have accepted for countless generations: sometimes we have no friends to help us out.

Third, it must be humanistic. By this I mean, simply and forcefully, that we must not abuse the weak, the marginalised, or the defenceless in our Israel. When we are afraid, we must not become bigoted. When we are powerful, we must pay attention to who is affected by our power. When we are divided, we must remind ourselves that we’re all in this together, and this extends to everyone we touch with our actions. And when we are united, we must ask ourselves why.

The New Zionism I propose won’t tell us the best way to fight terrorism—though it may push us towards more discriminating uses of force like targeted killing. Nor will it say whether Israel should draft the Haredim or, perhaps, abolish the draft altogether. It’s not an ideology; it may not even be a form of nationalism anymore. But it will help us survive as a critical-thinking, robust, and ethical community of Jews and Israelis, regardless of what the world throws at us.


2 responses to “A new Zionism?

  1. Garth van der Kamp July 13, 2016 at 3:20 am

    Hi Simon. I was exchanging emails with your dad and that reminded me of your “said Simon” website, so I took a look. I’ve come to the conclusion that zionist Israel is essentially a settlers state that pushed aside the natives, not so dissimilar from Canada. Both countries had a late 19th century European superiority approach to the native population, which should and could be pushed aside with little concern. I believe Herzl stated as much. John A and his successors clearly thought and said so.

    So now what? As In Israel, we in Canada, generations later, have to deal with the consequences. But there is no use and little point in dwelling on historical grievances for actions that were not of our making or choice. I see the “Jewish state” Israel as in essence a race-based state and therefore almost inevitably racist in the ugly sense of the word.Here in Canada. Your vision of Israel as a state where all can be citizens seems to me as the only hope – in any other direction catastrophe looms, sooner or later. I notice that the pamphlets explaining Islam that I picked up at our neighbourhood Islamic Centre state that military jihad is only justified to fight illegal occupation. Sounds like a reference to Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

    Anyway, greetings to you. HOpe you are well. Your political and social science postings are an incomprehensible tangle of esoteric jargon to me. Can you translate into common English, as I challenge our science graduate students to do? If you can’t I would challenge you that you do not really understand your subject.


    • Said Simon July 13, 2016 at 3:51 pm

      Hi Garth,

      I’m well, thanks for asking! Nearly at the end of the gauntlet, if all goes well. I don’t really agree that Israel in general, as opposed to the project to settle the West Bank, is especially analogous to European colonial states. I won’t go into details on this here, but in short: much early settlement was on the basis of land purchases from deed-holders primarily in Jerusalem and Beirut, in a region that has a long history of settlement and imperial control. Most Palestinians displaced during these years were peasant farmers with long ties to the land, but whose control over that land was limited as a result of Ottoman-era laws concentrating ownership in the hands of a smaller number of urban elite (Arab) families. Even setting aside the historic links between Diaspora and Palestinian Jews, this means the settlement of Palestine by European Jews took place under political and social conditions different from the settlement of the Americas. I also do not agree that Israel is a race-based state, although this is complicated by the introduction of lineage-based laws recognising immigration rights (note that many European states grant citizenship in similar ways). Non-Jewish citizens enjoy full rights of access to government institutions, and their votes count the same as Jewish ones. I suggest viewing Israel as an ethno-nationalist state, at least for the time being—the country is not moving in an encouraging direction.

      Probably the pamphlets you picked up were also referring to ongoing or recent occupations in other parts of the Middle East, of which there have been many. Historically, the theological line has been that military jihad can also be waged for other reasons such as conquest, but only in cases of occupation is it an obligation on every member of the community. I would be interested to see the pamphlets, since they may represent a more liberal/progressive approach.

      Regarding your last comment, the only question I can ascertain here is that you do not like my use of jargon in other posts than this one. Can you be more specific about what you want ‘translated’? Or is this a general complaint? If so, bear in mind that most recent posts have been reflections on my research, and are aimed at an audience of colleagues rather than of people outside the social sciences. I don’t really see a problem with the use of specialised language within academic fields, so long as that language is translated into something more accessible upon request.

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