The Zionist in my closet

Few conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem restrained by reason; worse, someone inevitably tosses out the word “Zionism” in some form or another.  Things generally go to hell after that.  “Antisemitism” follows closely on the invocation of the dreaded Zionist, and from then on the “conversation” too often becomes a matter of person A proving that person B hates Jews and person B either defending themself or cloaking actual antisemitism in the guise of being anti-Zionist.  All sorts of proofs and arguments follow from both sides.  I like to call it the good Jew/bad Jew routine.

It was recently suggested that a glossary of terms should be developed.  Unfortunately, many of these terms are subjective and a true glossary would need to be provided by each user of the word.  But the call to duty was raised and i’ve supplemented what i already knew with some quality time at Mid-East Web, the Jewish Virtual Library, and E-Zion.  I purposefully did not visit “anti-Zionist” resources because i don’t really believe that there’s a Zionist in my closet or that a shadowy cabal of powerful, Jewish bankers is plotting the domination/destruction of the planet.  I don’t believe in Leprechuans either.

Originally, the request for a glossary covered all the various modifiers that might be put before the noun “Jew” (which may, in itself, be offensive to some…but i’ve failed to find a connotationless moniker for the situation).  A secular Jew might similar to a Christmas/Easter Christian.  He would be a believer, but would not define himself by his religious belief.  The same definition applies to a “cultural Jew”.  A secular Jew might also be a person of Jewish extraction.  There is debate within the Jewish community as to what it means to be a Jew; many of these labels come from within Judaism rather than without.  But i don’t have the time and you don’t have the patience for the kind of reading necessary to explain all that.

An “observant Jew” is just what it sounds like: someone who observes the calender, dietary restrictions, festivals, etc. of Judaism.  But being an observant Jew falls into a multitude of categories too.  Reform, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, etc.  And none of these variations on a Semitic theme have anything to do with politics.  A secular Jew might well be very conservative, politically, and there’s nothing that says an observant Jew cannot be a flaming liberal Defeatocrat…i know at least one of those.

All of the above exist in a spectrum, and the spectrum is more important than the label.  Just because one is Jewish does not mean that one must hold certain political beliefs.  Labels are useful until they trap us.  For example, most would probably think that the ultra-orthodox Jewish community is very ‘Zionist’; the labels fit together nicely.  But it’s wrong.  The ultra-orthodox community is often the most anti-Zionist section of the Jewish community.

Which brings us to today’s loaded word.  I’ve read a lot on this now, much of it overlapping and in basic agreement, and it’s as confusing as confusing gets.  We’ve reduced the word “Zionist” in a manner similar to our reduction of the word “Communist”  to mean Stalin’s USSR.  There are enough twists, turns, and schisms in the Zionist movement that it would be a good subject for a Russian novel.  You’d need that kind of page count to do it justice.

“Zionism” was coined in 1891 by Nathan Birnbaum, but Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in 1897.  There is no official Zionist ideology, sorry.  But basically Zionist ideology boils down to the belief that the Jews are a people or a nation like anyone else, and that they have the right, and should, gather together in a national homeland.

The idea of the Jews as distinct people is not entirely religious.  It is also a product of the 19th Century enlightenment, which also gave us the full flowering of nationalism.  European Jews gained their first measure of freedom; some left Judaism, some converted, but there was still a sense that they would be Jews no matter what they did. (Here i call philosophical bullshit.  Of course the first generation would always be Jews, just like first generation immigrants are more old country than new, while their grandchildren are old country in name only.) The idea of a Jewish nation fit nicely with the the ideas of German racists and gave them an excuse to persecute.  But if the Jews were a people, they lacked an actual nation.  Zionism is the ideology to achieve the nation.

The late 1800’s were not a good time to be Jewish in Russia.  Leon Pinsker was orignally an assimilationist, at least until the Odessa pogrom of 1871.  He changed his mind and penned Auto-Emancipation.  Pinsker thought that Argentina would make a nice homeland, but his fellow Russians liked the idea of Palestine much better.  The idea at this point was to organize and lobby the great powers to grant the Jews a homeland, a movement that became known as political Zionism.

Herzl was all for political Zionism and he had the power and connections to pursue it.  The first Zionist Congress was willing to settle for Uganda or Cyprus, but the Russian Zionists would have none of it and declined the offer.  Herzl, and other Europeans weren’t actually looking for new digs themselves…they were just trying to be helpful to their “brethern to the East”.  All this was happening at the same time as political philosophy in Russia was tending towards Marxism and revolution, and Zionism was pretty entangled with that process.  (Is this complicated enough for everyone?)

Herzl died about the same time that any hope for political Zionism ended.  At the time, Russian Zionists were mostly members of the SDLP (the party that would later split into Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.  Unfortunately, the antisemitism that would come to characterize Russian Communism  was already evident.  Ber Borochov left the SDLP and founded his own party, Poalei Tziyon, which rested on a synthesis of Marxism and Zionism.  Borochov theorized along Marxist lines but ran into the same problem as other Russians: how do you throw a prolaterian revolution without a proletariat?  Simple, you get a new country and build a proletariat…no revolution needed.

There ended up being multiple forms and groups of socialist Zionists.  Arthur Ruppin (an ethnic Pole born in German territory and trained as an economist) was sent to examine the Palestinian situation in 1907.  His ideas led to the kibbutz, which solved some practical problems involved with settlement and dovetailed nicely with the socialist ideals of the settlers.  Where the colonial model of the first aliya failed the kibbutz succeeded.  It also made a handy place to hide arms and organize defense forces.

Combining the remnants of political Zionism with the practical, settler approach became known as synthetic Zionism; it is generally credited with producing the Balfour Declaration.

Now begins the growth of serious conflict between the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine; WWI; and the British fiddling with their mandate in the post war years.  Mostly it wasn’t pretty and grew ever more violent and unyielding.  Yet another split developed between those who wanted to work with the British and those wanting to fight whoever got in the way.  Enter Ze’ev Vladomir Jabotinsky.  He formulated the idea of a Jewish defense force that would show Arab neighbors that the Jews could not be pushed into the sea.  When the British balked at overseeing such a force, Jabotinsky went ahead with it anyhow.  He also founded the revisionist Zionist movement in 1925 with fellow radicals who disagreed with the socialist Zionists and were bitter over the British subdivision of Palestine.  The main tenent of revisionist Zionism is a claim to both sides of the Jordan river.

The revisionist didn’t gain much power in the official Zionist council.  The labor Zionists under David Ben-Gurien held the real power.  The two groups cooperated at times and fought each other just as often.  Labor basically controlled the Israeli government until after the Six Days war, after which the revisionists were allowed to participate in the government.  The Yom Kippur war broke the hold of Labor over the Israeli government.  It soon found itself in the minority, replaced by militant, religious Zionists and the Likud party, which inherited revisionist Zionism.

At this point, Likud revisionist Zionism basically represents the ideology to the world.  It is through Likud policies – the settlements in particular – that Zionism has taken on its current connotations.  Obviously it is a form of Zionism; just as obviously it is not the only form of Zionism.  Unfortunately it portrays itself as true Zionism, similar to our own politicians making pronouncements about the “real” America.

I hope that i disappointed the black and white crowd, as you suck anyhow and i’m far less worried about Zionists in my closet than i am about you shouting your proclamations far and wide.  And one thing is abundantly clear after this headache inducing experience: the word Zionist is thrown around with far too much abandon by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.  I realize that some of those people will be here any minute to rant from one side or the other; most of them won’t even have read the above.

Fuck it, i’ll light the fuse.  3-2-1…


~ by Lex on January 13, 2009.

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