Amongst my many and multi-faceted identities, Zionism probably ranks highest on the list of misunderstood and/or misconstrued. For many, to be a Zionist is to be racist, colonialist, a Jewish supremacist and many similarly unpleasant things. Off course I am none of these and I go to great lengths to boycott anything that smacks of these ideas, to the point of refusing to recite certain liturgical prayers that have in them traces of traditional Jewish supremacy. Neither were any of the great Zionist idealogues and founders racist or anything of the like, an accusation of which would make them shudder.
Zionism is best understood as a historically contextual phenomenon, which was born as a response to the Jewish situation in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. As I am not a historian, the retrospective dissection of the complexity of historical stimulus for the development of Zionism is of minor importance to me. Rather, I am interested in the historical aspects that shape my identity today. (I allow myself to do this because I see Zionism as a narrative belonging to the realm of myth, rather than history and the significance of myth is in its meaning, not in its historical accuracy.)
The Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left most European Jews secular and yet seen as Jews in the eyes of their non Jewish neighbours. The question that these Jews asked themselves was what it means to be a Jew without the Jewish religion. Zionism was to provide an answer to this question. Judaism was no longer to be seen as a religion, but as a national identity, one going back to its sovereign days in its national homeland Judah (in the geographical location of modern day Israel/Palestine).
(Of course for the political Zionist, Zionism was much more about solving the “Jewish Question” and about providing Jews with a safe haven from anti-semitism, rather than coming to solve a Jewish identity crisis. Likewise, for the religious Zionist Zionism was all about bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Holy Land to His Chosen People and about heralding in the Messianic age. The Zionism that I am describing here though is the Cultural Zionism of Achad HaAm, a secular ex-Chassid like myself, which – probably due to our shared backgrounds – speaks to me the most.)
Zionism is thus Jewish Nationalism, but not nationalism to be compared to, say, American Nationalism, or German Nationalism, for unlike those nationalisms which are by nationals already living in their national country amongst their national people, the Jewish nationalism of the nineteenth century was for a people that needed to be reminded of their peoplehood and that needed that nationalism if they were ever to achieve land-based nationality, i.e. statehood.
The culmination of the zionist quest came on the fourteenth of May 1948 with Israel’s declaration of independence as a country for the Jewish people. More on this in my next and final post of the series: Jerusalemite Thoughts – Israel.
(Image is of Achad HaAm, father of Cultural Zionism)