Ira Chernus  


Israel is joyously celebrating its 50th anniversary. What would the founders of Zionism, those who first dreamed of a Jewish state, say about its achievements over this half-century? There were three distinct visions in those early days of what a Jewish state would and should accomplish.

Many early Zionists wanted Jews to be a "normal" nation, a nation like all other nations. They thought this would put an end to anti-Semitic oppression. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead Israel has become the most visible symbol of Jewish "otherness." Some observers even see it as a sort of "super-ghetto."

The problem was compounded because the Jewish state was set in the middle of the Arabic-speaking world. Jews had always been a stigmatized but tolerated minority in the Middle East and North Africa. Zionism raised anti-Jewish feeling there to new heights. Israel was seen (whether rightly or wrongly) as an outpost of hated Western imperialism.

The Jews might have responded by saying, "Hey, we are just a normal nation trying to get by, like any little nation." Instead they invoked their links to the oppressed Jews of the past, especially, of course, the victims of the Holocaust. By waving the banner of an oppressed and victimized people, Jews have accentuated their distinctiveness, undermining the founders’ dream of "normalization."

All too often, Israel has used the legacy of past oppression to legitimize actions that fed its neighbors’ fears of imperialism. The continuing occupation of Palestinian territory, despite the Oslo Agreements of 1993, is the latest example.

If the founders of Zionism were alive today, how surprised they would be. The Israeli government could implement the peace agreements and end the divisiveness that fuels Jewish insecurity. Instead the government plays upon that insecurity to justify its continuing obstacles to peace. So it helps to perpetuate the cycle of fear.

There was a second group among the early Zionists. They did not expect to end hatred and oppression of Jews. They wanted a Jewish state simply as a place for Jews to take refuge from oppression. For the European Holocaust victims the state came too late. But what about the Holocaust survivors? Who can say whether those who went to Israel feel more secure today than those who stayed in Holland or Poland or Germany? It varies from case to case.

Many Israeli Jews fled oppression in Arabic-speaking lands, but that oppression was, in significant degree, produced by the new state that claimed to save them. Many other Jews fled to Israel from the former Soviet Union. But they often found frustration and disappointment. (Many would have preferred to come to the U.S., but they were blocked by an Israeli-U.S. agreement to channel most of them to Israel.) Again, whether they feel better off or not varies from case to case. Emigration to Israel has brought Ethiopian Jews face to face with a kind of racism they never knew before, and their lot has been bitter.

Has Israel become a safe haven for individual Jews, reducing their sense of being oppressed? On the whole, the record is mixed. Certainly the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. have answered "No," simply by their decision to stay here.

Then there was a third early view of Zionism, a minority view that wanted to save not the Jewish people but the Jewish religion and culture. They did not want the Jews to be "normal." They wanted a state where Jews were free to develop their unique spiritual tradition. They wanted Israel to spark a creative renewal of Jewish identity around the world.

Ironically this view, always in the minority, may have been the most successful of all. If Israel has not made Jews feel less oppressed or more secure, it has made many feel more proud to be Jewish. Certainly that is true for U.S. Jews.

The tragedy is that Jewish identity has been buoyed so largely by pride in political and military power. That kind of pride needs victories over enemies. Therefore it needs continuing conflict, which only increases insecurity and feelings of oppression.

For too many Jews, Israel has intertwined oppression and pride, so that the sense of being an oppressed people has become something to celebrate, not regret. This new kind of Jewish pride has helped steer the Jewish state away from "normalization" and toward becoming a "super-ghetto." Many Jews celebrate that result. Many others are ambivalent about it. Few reject it outright.

"Normalization" may well have been a mistaken vision. If so, then Israel and its supporters face a great challenge for the next half-century: creating a state that builds Jewish pride not on conflict and fear, but on positive Jewish values; preserving a state to forge a more life-affirming Jewish identity for the next millennium.

That may be the surest way to make Jews, in Israel and around the world, feel more secure. Certainly it would be something truly to be proud of.

But it would require Jews to renounce their passion for political victories. The obvious place to start is to move toward a genuine peace and reconciliation with a fully independent Palestinian state.