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.