Defining Zionism in the Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

The attacks on French Jews in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo have clear implications for the Zionist project, and they should spark a bigger, broader transnational conversation on what Zionism means and entails in the era of Jewish statehood, power, and normality (in the classic Zionist sense).

Some have pointed out such a conversation is already taking place in Israel, and indeed has been since 1948. To the extent that (some) Israelis have debated the laws and borders of the Israeli state, I agree, though I’m not sure the fundamentals have been addressed. It’s also true that other efforts to figure out how to define Zionism and diaspora-Israel relations have been taking place that do incorporate non-Israelis. The Jewish People Policy Institute is one good example. Another is the effort by several leftwing diaspora organizations to form a bloc at the World Zionist Congress in order to promote a more critical discussion and reinvigorate global Zionist organizations. (Specific moments when the diaspora has mobilized against a particular Israeli policy, for example regarding “who is a Jew” or a Jewish nation-state bill, are more like exceptions rather than the rule.)

Still, the calls by many on the political right for French Jews to return “home” to Israel indicates a lack of interest in recognizing that the conditions that led to the emergence of Zionism have changed.

The assumption that Jews as a people cannot live anywhere else contains an implicit (and worrying, because of its political implications) eschatological element. Not in the Christian dispensationalist sense but in the underlying notion that Jews—as a national community, an important but not exclusive element of which includes the religion of Judaism—must live only in the Land of Israel. The idea that a group of people can only exist in one place for both spiritual and material reasons—and those who call for diaspora Jews to come “home” do indeed see the two as indistinguishable—displays a religious-like imperative that means the social construction that is human history is irrelevant compared to larger forces beyond our control.

There is nothing inherently unique about the Jewish people’s attachment to a particular piece of territory. Many national communities maintain a similar connection. Their history, collective memories, narratives, and myths center on a particular land. Yet the movement of people around the world is also longstanding. Particularly in an age of advanced technology that allows people to travel and communicate quickly, easily, and cheaply, the idea that one must “return” to a live in a particular territory because that is their “home” is unrealistic.

Such an assumption also ignores the historical and contemporary fact that states are never “finished”—they are constantly in a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. There are the obvious cases: we once thought Czechoslovakia was a completed state project. But more common are the less stark changes: domestic shifts in population make-up, identity, and public policy. The discussion on internal borders and political autonomy taking place in many states (e.g., Canada, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Iraq, and Turkey) is a good example of this. These are the questions that deserve attention.

At its emergence, Zionism was perceived by its leaders and adherents as a movement of no or little choice. Anti-Semitic persecution required a safe haven. At the same time, the belief that the Jews could never be a normal people so long as they lived among host societies and didn’t have their own state meant that national redemption was a necessary process, not an optional one.

An effective conversation about Zionism can only begin if participants recognize that things have changed over time. While the events in France reinforce for some the notion that they haven’t, this is a misunderstanding of world, Jewish, and Israeli history.

The Zionist project has largely been completed—Israel as a Jewish state exists, is among the more prosperous and powerful in the world, and is a focal point of pride among Jews around the world. Obviously there are details to be worked out, and challenges to be faced; but the basic goal of Zionism has been met. This should be the starting point for the conversation, rather than an assumption that it hasn’t.

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One thought on “Defining Zionism in the Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

  1. You put your finger on the precise problem of the unwillingness of too many (including Israeli political leaders, it seems) to acknowledge the degree to which the world has changed since the late 19th century, indeed, since 1945. Too many cling to the tired narrative that the entire history of the world has been, and continues to be, hatred of the Jews. Bibi Netanyahu likes to act (when he is allowed) as the spokesperson for world Jewry, rather than the elected leader of a political entity. He does not speak to me, and I’m fairly certain he does not speak for all the Jews of France. The reality is that in the United States and elsewhere, the Jews have earned unprecedented historical emancipation and access to the halls of power. That does not mean they are not threatened, but the notion that settling in Israel is the only reasonable response to those threats is absurd. One might also point out the logical fallacy of these arguments as well — if, indeed, the world is hell bent on destroying the Jews, congregating them all in one small country hardly seems like a very good idea.

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